Cover Art Basics: How to Talk to an Artist

At the recent (fabulous) 20 Books to 50K Conference in Las Vegas last weekend, one of the speakers challenged the 450-odd authors there to think of something they could contribute to benefit their peers. It occurred to me that there is something, as an artist, that I am eminently qualified to speak about – cover design, and how to get the absolute best out of the artist you’re working with so you both end up happy with the finished product.

How not to commission

There are two things all freelance artists dread.

The first one is the “I want a cover that has sparkles and unicorns and bevelled typography and looks like [insert bestseller name here]. Can you do that for $50?” client. Don’t ever be that client. You will not get what you’re looking for, and your artist will be sad.

If you have $50 for a cover, you can expect a $50 cover. That’s the first thing to know: approach artists within your price range. It not worth anyone’s time: yours, or the artist’s. Find someone who probably works for the amount of money you have. Email them, give them a description of what you’re looking for (genre, examples of other covers, the pitch of your book) and ask them for an approximate quote. Most artists will happily reply with a quote, or an hourly rate and the expected number of hours your cover will take.

This leads on to the second thing artists talk about around campfires late at night: the client who has the money, but has no idea what they want or how to describe it. This is actually worse than the cheapskate, because the erstwhile freelancer can tell the cheapskate to get lost. If they have a paying and otherwise awesome client, their heart sinks as a conversation like this gets going:

Artist: “So, what kind of cover are you looking for?”

Client: “I don’t know. Something like… uhh… something with magic in it.”

Artist: “Okay. What kind of magic? Do you want characters? A dragon?”

Client: “I don’t know. It’s fantasy with a female MC. There’s demons and dragons later on in the series.”

Artist: “Dragons. Okay… I can work with dragons.” *creates thumbnail sketches* “Like this?”

Client: “Sure.”

Artist: “You sure you’ve approved this thumbnail sketch? The one with dragon?”

Client: “Sure.”

*Three weeks and 20 hours of painting later, artist returns with a cover.* “Here you go!”

Client: “Why is there a dragon there? I wanted a demon. I write urban fantasy with a demon hunter.”


While slightly exaggerated, this kind of exchange is more common than you’d think. There’s also variation of the same string of communication errors where an artist provides exactly what an author thinks they want, but they don’t get the result they were seeking. The author can’t fault the artist, because they delivered exactly what they asked for… but what they asked for just doesn’t work for some reason. They go away feeling disappointed, unsure of why their cover isn’t as great as their fellow’s, even though they both had the same designer.

Here’s why.

How to speak Artist

An artist is capable of delivering within the constraints of two things: their skill and ability to fulfill a creative vision, and the author’s ability to describe their own vision and their needs. So as with all things in Indie publishing, the initial responsibility to form that creative vision of your cover starts with you.

To start with, go to Amazon or Kobo or whatever and pull up books in your genre. Make note of the following things:

  • Even though the characters are interacting, the scene is very ‘still’.

    Are the cover images static or dynamic? These qualities describe movement. Romance covers tend to be static, with half-naked people in various states of artful passion or, conversely, very well-dressed Victorian ladies (for Regency). But static. The people are standing around, sitting or posing, like portraits. By comparison, Action, Thriller, and Urban Fantasy tend to have dynamic covers, with action poses or interactive scenes. So do children’s books. Why do you think that is?

  • Are the cover images desaturated or saturated? Saturation describes the intensity of color in an image. The more saturated an image, the brighter and cheerier it looks. Horror and Memoirs tend to have desaturated, subdued palettes. Urban fantasy and PNR often have highly saturated colors against dark backgrounds, sometimes almost garish. The more desaturated something is, the more ‘dark’ (in terms of emotion’) and the more serious it seems. Very high saturation can make images look psychedelic. Find some desaturated covers and some highly saturated covers within your genre and see how they seem to be selling. Does bright and cheerful work better?


  • Look at the way the covers use light. Light is the foundation of all art, and the skill of an artist can be measured in the way they use light to manipulate mood, emotion (yes, they are different – mood is the overall tone conveyed by setting, emotion is something you read in specific parts of an image, such as a facial expression or the placement of objects). The darker the content of the book, the less light there tends to be. What light there is will be seen in ‘slices’, such as flashlight beams or small focused sources (like the helmet above). BDSM Romance will have light used in focused, almost spotlight-like ways. In sweet, uplifting, or Christian Romance, you’re going to see a lot of sunlight, and diffuse, dreamy, yellow and blue light tones.

  • What kinds of colors are used in the covers in your genre? Make a list of five or six (or two or three, if you write Horror. Hint: They’re Red, Dark Red, and Gray).
  • Make note of composition in your example covers. For example, in the Nicolas Sparks covers above, we have a series of very similar images that convey the very specific thing this author writes: emotional, love-focused, uplifting romance. We see that in the way the composition focuses on the people’s faces, closed eyes (a sign of trust), and their hands touching their lovers’ cheeks or necks. Note in all but one it is the man doing the clutching. That’s important – it tells us something about the expectations the readers have of the relationship dynamic between the characters. If you’re trying to indicate intense possession with body language, how would you go about that? What about ‘magic’?
  • Think about the emotion or ‘feeling’ you want to see in your book. If your book is dark, you can communicate this with low saturation, focused light sources, moody composition. If you’re writing contemporary women’s fiction, you probably want a lot of white, light breezy colors.
  • Speaking of colors: Colors by themselves communicate a lot of different emotions and can be used to express personality. Goths wear stark black and red for a reason. So do vampires, for similar reasons. Red, violet, gold, silver… they’re colors that communicate opulence, passion and royalty. Good colors to use if you’re writing vampire regency romance (I assume this exists).


When you talk to your cover artist, these are the kinds of things you will want to know. Your artist doesn’t know your audience – not unless they’re a specialist in a certain sort of cover, and even then. Someone like Tom Edwards, who is very well known in the space opera market, produces images he thinks will work as covers. You, as the author, are going to know whether or not your audience prefers battling dynamic spaceships with drop marines dropping from drop ships or majestic whale-like battlecruisers with no people or dynamism at all. Look up Dead Space and Battlestar Galactica, and make note of the similarities and differences. Same basic genre – space opera – but one is horror and one is drama. Note differences in saturation, dynamism, palette, light, and composition.

When you go to an artist, you can use these as frames of reference. Let’s redo our dragon conversation from earlier:

Artist: “So, what kind of cover are you looking for?”

Client: “My book is Urban Fantasy with a female main character who is a demon hunter, and I’m competing with the likes of [this cover] and [this cover]. I’m looking for art with a central character figure, really high contrast and saturation in black plus reds and oranges – ‘Hell’ colors, and some high contrast ‘flash’ somewhere in the piece to indicate that she can use magic.”

Artist: *spontaneously orgasms* “Why yes, I can do that for you. Let me draw up some thumbnail sketches…

That’s the basics of image composition. Next post, I’ll discuss where typography fits in, and how you can correctly identify your perfect font.

Master List of Software for Writers and Editors

With NaNoWriMo on the horizon, many bright-eyed, bushy-tailed young things are planning to write their books – as well as wondering how they’re going to write them.

So, what is the best software to write a novel on? What writing software do published authors use? I’ve seen these questions asked by many of my peers over the years. In my own opinion, there is no One Magic Program To Rule Them All. Individual preference is the biggest factor when it comes to drafting, refining, formatting and publishing a book. George R.R Martin famously uses the ancient DOS program WordStar. Other writers, like Stephen King, often draft parts of their novels by hand.

You probably don’t have a DOS machine from the 80’s, but fortunately, there are heaps of software programs for writers. The following is a list of my favorite writing software and software programs that come recommended by my writer mates from around the web.


My opinion is that good old fashioned pen and paper is hard to beat for notes, sketching, and ideas. However, there’s definitely contenders for those who don’t like handwriting.

Focuswriter (all platforms, including Linux)

Focuswriter is my personal favorite digital drafting tool. I do my first drafts by hand, and ‘type in’ with this program. It is an easy-to-use, reliable and attractive program which offers a full-screen/distraction-free writing environment. You can easily customize font, background, formatting and text area width, as well as set word count or duration goals. It’s also free, or you can donate to the program author.

Download FocusWriter here:

WriteRoom (Mac) and Byword (Mac)

These are Mac-specific ‘distraction-free’ writing tools. WriteRoom is very similar to FocusWriter. It is fairly basic full-screen/distraction-free writing software that allows for quicker and more focused drafting. Byword is a bit more fancy and supports Markdown. It features Mac keyboard shortcuts, word counters with live updates, and syncing across devices. I’m a PC boy, so I’ve never used them. I’ve heard they’re good.

Download WriteRoom here:

Download Byword here:

Write or Die

Most programs rely on your innate sense of self-discipline to be effective. Write or Die bribes, punishes or rewards you to write. It offers a ‘punishment’ mode that will play horrible sounds and images, a ‘stimulus’ mode to woo you into writing for longer, and a ‘kamikaze’ mode that will actually start unwriting your words if you take a break or stop. Pretty intense, but a lot of NaNos swear by it.

Write or Die is a bit like a steampunk writer’s tomato timer, except that instead of getting a neutral ring every 20 minutes, you get kittens and purring as your reward, or alarms and spiders as punishment. As writing programs go, this one looks and feels a bit like a slot machine. As I said, some people love it. If you find discipline to be a problem and also enjoy a bit of competition, it might be right up your alley. You can try it for free, but the full version costs $20 USD.

Download Write or Die here:


WikidpadWikidPad is a free desktop wiki program that lets you build indexes of ‘pages’ that interlink. It is my absolute favorite program for building series bibles and reference documents for worldbuilding. It’s free, small, fast, and very easy to set up, though there is a bit of a learning curve to figure out how to properly link pages and make the most out of WikidPad’s features. I adore it, because it wholesale gratifies my inner nerd.

Download WikidPad here:

Compiling, revising, and structuring


Scrivener is THE writer’s software, in many ways. It is honestly suitable for any stage of the writing process, but I find that it excels at sorting out messy first drafts. This is the program to get your book into shape.
Scrivener has so many features that it is hard to list them all. A corkboard with index cards, individual chapters, dual windows (so you can look at an old draft and revise a new draft in another panel), chapter management, editing tools, story generation tools, formatting and draft compiling, backup and draft management… this baby has everything. Because of this, it also has quite a learning curve – but if you want to run with the pros, Scrivener is probably your best bet.

Scrivener only costs $40 USD, and there is often a discount on this for NaNoWriMo winners every year. There’s a 30-day free trial period and lots of testimonials from published authors who wrote their books (in whole or in part) in Scrivener.

If you’re on the fence about Scrivener, my advice is to go for it. It’s better and cheaper than Office, and you can use it for more than just novel writing. I use it for essays, research compilation, freelance work… the lot. If you want a free alternative, LibreOffice or OpenOffice are your best bets.

Buy Scrivener here: Scrivener for Windows (Amazon Affiliate link) or Mac (also an affiliate link).

LibreOffice Writer

LibreOffice (and OpenOffice) are both very similar programs. They work somewhat like older Windows XP-style versions of Microsoft Office, before Microsoft got carried away with ribbon navigation and fancy-schmancy XML. It’s free, comprehensive, and doesn’t have many bells and whistles. Its files are also highly compatible with Microsoft Office programs. Given that Microsoft Office is standard in the publishing industry, it’s good to have some assurance that your manuscript will look the same on the Penguin Acquisitions Editor’s screen as it does on yours.

Download LibreOffice here:

Save the Cat! Story Structure Software

The late Blake Snyder’s ‘Save the Cat!’ series is to screenwriting what Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ is for novelists: an absolute treasure trove of information, hacks and advice on how to write a screenplay or movie script. Much of the advice in Save the Cat! is also applicable to authors writing books, especially if you’re just starting out and wondering how to write a novel.

The company that Blake started now publishes writing software based on Save the Cat!, which retails for $99.95 on their website. I have never tried it, but if you’re a fan of the books and want to pump out commercial novels or screenplays, it could be everything you ever wanted.

Buy Save the Cat! here:

Snowflake Pro

Another reasonably pricey bit of software, Snowflake Pro is based on Randy Ingermanson’s ‘Snowflake Method’ of novel planning and writing. It is probably most suited to die-hard plotters – not so much for pantsing.

Buy Snowflake Pro here:


There’s not really any good comprehensive editing software out there, I’m afraid. The grammar checkers in Word and LibreOffice are about the best you’re going to find for copy editing.

I tried Grammarly and was not impressed. It is barely better than Microsoft’s grammar tool in Word. One program that does deserve a mention is the Hemmingway App ( Hemingway is an automated grammar checker which looks for a few specific problems: run-on sentences, passive voice, complex or obscure words, and adverbs.

However, Hemingway has some serious limitations. It cannot recognize rhetorical devices, for example. It will mark up good sentences that sound beautiful to the ear as being ‘too complex’, and it will falsely identify passive voice. It will point out every adverb you use, but it can’t recognize ‘weak’ words like ‘might’, ‘could’ and ‘should’. For example, the sentences below are from some terrible roleplaying I saw, but they pass Hemingway’s ‘tests’:

Hemingway app: grammar checker and writing tool

Hemingway has no ability to distinguish good writing from poor writing.

If you recognize the limitations of this app and use it carefully, Hemingway can be useful at the copy editing stage of writing. It’s possibly even more useful for non-fiction, where short sentences and clarity are both desirable.Fix Your Damn book! How to quickly and easily edit anything you write.

I hope this helps you navigate the world of writing software, and if you know of any other good programs, email me and I can add them to the list. If you found this post useful, please share it around.

Also, if you happen to be writing a novel, stay tuned for Fix Your Damn Book! A  guide on self-editing for authors which I hope to release for Christmas 2015. Fix Your Damn Book! is a quick and dirty guide to all parts of the editing process, from getting in the right psychological frame of mind to assessing your work, through to the management of beta-readers and how to get the best out of your own author voice. To keep up to date with production and sign up as a beta-reader, join the mailing list by clicking here.

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