A Cover Story: Chapter 2

I SAID IN THE PREVIOUS chapter that I would challenge some accepted conventional wisdom on this topic. Let me start out by attacking two seemingly contradictory shibboleths all at one fell swoop.

One: you can do this. It’s not rocket science. You don’t have to be a professional to do it. But: B, professionalism does count. It doesn’t take any special talent (although talent helps), but it does take discipline.

People will either tell you that you can’t do it — hire a pro — or they’ll tell you that you can, and the concerns that pros voice on the subject don’t matter. They’re just silly gatekeeper notions that can be swept away because the person speaking said so.

Juxtaposed like that, you should be able to see the risible idiocy in both contentions. So, I’m not going to tell you that you can’t do this, but I am going to tell you that you need to trim your expectations as to the potential results. And, in aid of that, here’s a dirty little secret about professional, commercial artists:

We don’t all draw.

Oh, we can. It’s kind of like what Heinlein’s Johnny Rico learned about K9 dog handlers in Starship Troopers: if you’re not enough of a dog-lover to sneak one past your mom, you’re probably not cut out to be a K9 handler. That applies here: if you’re not an art geek — drawing pictures and doodles, making images, shooting photos, working WAY outside your comfort zone every waking minute of the day, you’re probably not going to find the field comfortable. While you may find it frustrating that you don’t get to use your skill with a pen or pencil (or, in this day and age, a stylus) every day, you do keep your chops up.

But you don’t get to use them all the time, simply because, unless you’re a cartooning savant, it simply takes too long. And time is money. My time is worth up to $300 an hour. I don’t get to waste it noodling around with a pencil. So I learned — a long, long time ago — how to cheat. Yes, you do trace. Yes, you do use Photoshop. Yes, you do steal images. And you learn how to both file the serial numbers off, but also how to take those stolen images and make them your own. (The two not being utterly unrelated.)

One of my artistic heroes, Michelangelo, famously asserted that one cannot call himself an artist if he cannot draw. That is, if he cannot accurately reproduce what he sees before him, or in his mind’s eye, in — at minimum — the basic level of a marking medium on a loose sheet substrate. BUT… that is not to say that one cannot use mechanical aids. Yes, a steady hand is an asset. But it is not a sine qua non. In fact, it is one of the grand gifts to the world of art from the explosion of personal computing technology that computers provide mechanical aids to drawing which permit someone with less-than-brilliant eye-hand coordination to nonetheless produce nearly-perfect drawings with remarkably little skill, talent, or training.

(But not, it should be added with haste, none.)

So, imagine what you can do WITH those things. And a computer. And a set of software tools at a high level of quality and ease of use.

Back when I was in junior high school (what they call middle school these days), I played in the marching band. One day, our instructor went up in front of the class with a beautiful horn in his hand. It was a Getzen trumpet — worlds away better than the Bundy horns we were playing. It looked like that snowy dove, trooping with crows, that Shakespeare talked about. It sounded like the voice of angels. And it was easy to play. It practically blew itself. It also cost. Even back then, Getzen trumpets sold new in four figures. By the Candy Bar Rule, that means that a $2,500 trumpet in 1967 would be worth $25,000 today. Or more. Herb Alpert played one. And a whole raft of others did, too. For me, it was the first name-brand instrument I learned to recognize not only on sight, but by sound.

Yes. With years of practice, one might be able to approximate the beauty of the music that came out of that thing with a cheap-assed hunk of brass and tin. And, in the hands of a virtuoso pro, our dented rentals could sing like those angels. But the tool was and remains ineffably superior, and there was and is a very good reason why top pros choose it.

Back in the days of the 486 computer, when Photoshop was in version 2 and Illustrator was in 4 or 5 and CorelDRAW! somewhere between versions 2 and 5, I used to say that the best that’s out there was barely adequate to our task. That’s changed in the years since, but, even so, pros are always pushing the outside of the envelope. And it takes a long time for the results of those pushes to trickle down to the open source level. And you’re beginning to see where I’ve been headed. Tools. While it’s a poor workman who blames his tools for bad work or failure, the quality of your tools will be reflected in your work — at the very least in how easily you can get it done.

People will tell you (I’m looking at YOU, Dean Wesley Smith) that you can do acceptable cover art in PowerPoint. I’m here to tell you that he’s full of it. He got away with it, but if you saw some of his early efforts — before he and Kris hired a real artist to do their covers — you’d shudder like I did. I will tell you this: here where I work, we WILL NOT accept as ready for production ANY image prepared in ANY application in the Microsoft Office suite — and that includes MS Publisher. And, if work is submitted in one of the formats, we’ll charge at our confiscatory hourly rates to translate it into a format that actually — you know — provides salable output. This is not an unreasoning prejudice (like I used to joke I had against Aldus apps). It is a hard-earned wisdom gained over years of struggling to get those applications to cooperate with professional level output devices and the tool sets associated with them. Things have, as I say, improved since, but there still is a long-established work flow to getting marks on paper, and Microsoft seems to think they know better than a global industry which goes back to Gutenberg and knows a thing or two about the art and science of it. And you learn — the hard way — that using the wrong tool for the job is a waste of time and money. And, at these hourly rates, that’s a real big waste.

A lot of people — usually salesmen — will hand-wave all that away, saying in essence, “If I can’t see the difference, I’m going with the low-cost way, no matter what.” And this is where I started this column: you don’t have to be a pro, but you do have to exhibit the pro wisdom, or pros will come along and eat your lunch. Because, you see, you have to remember that you are not a stand-alone phenomenon. Your cover does not exist in splendid isolation. It has to elbow its way to a potential reader’s center of attention throw a virtual Rodney King riot of competing covers. It has approximately a tenth of a nanosecond to do it in. And it has to NOT send any subtle, nearly subliminal, negative cues to observers during its instant in the spotlight.

What does this mean to you — the non-pro, who doesn’t have the time or inclination to become a pro, just to make a few book covers? Simple: be aware that there are pros — and non-pros willing to put forth the effort — against whose your cover will be competing. If you’re not willing to put forth the effort to learn these basic principles, which I am attempting in my own, poor way to exposit here, do not come crying to me about how tough the competitions is. Talk to the hand.

And here’s a final bit of wisdom for you to think about, and to tease you until next time: details matter.

With regard to tools… You can get away with using a vastly underpowered tool set for a while. However, if you’re going to be doing this for a living (by which I mean design your own book covers for publication and sale) (and if you’re not, hire a pro), you will eventually have to invest in doing-it-for-a-living level tools.

So, yes. Investigate and learn how to use GIMP, Inkscape, Xara, and the rest of the free and cheap applications. For one, the greater variety of tools you can use, the wider your perspective becomes, and the greater your facility with all of them. BUT… plan to invest. My recommendation, if you’re not able to turn loose of the admittedly significant bolus of cash for Adobe Creative Suite, is that you look into CorelDRAW!. Yes, it’s PC-only. But the Corel Graphics Suite includes both the (in my opinion) best vector drawing tool out there, and a powerful, top-end bitmap editor, and the ONLY bitmap-to-vector tracing tool still on the market. Plus, as I have noted elsewhere, Corel’s PostScript output is far superior to Adobe’s own. However, you will eventually have to invest at least in Photoshop, even if you don’t get the rest of CS. So start planning for it now. Save your pocket change, if you have to. But don’t put it off too long.

There’s a rule in business. In broad general it goes like this: if you spend more by farming work out than you would obtaining the ability in-house, bring it in house. We bought our first imagesetter (a 6-figure investment) when we were spending more every month with a service bureau than the cost of the machine lease payment and the consumables. Since we were charging back the rates the service bureau was charging us, those fees went straight to our bottom line. The same will apply to you. When you are spending more per cover on outside art than the tools and training would cost you, and you have the ability to do the work (and the time, but that’s a different discussion), then it’s time to take the plunge.

But, possibly, not before.

One response to “A Cover Story: Chapter 2

  1. Thank you for this! I will have to re-read it all when I get home and can digest it better. I am one who cannot draw, save for the simplest stick figures… But, I do have a good feel for what looks good and what I think works well. But, i could be delusional. lol