Cover art is sometimes (very often) maligned in our genre. (We even discussed the many naked chests at GRNW 2013, which led to one of our favorite lines spoken at the conference–Lou Harper’s “In defense of the headless torso…”)
The truth is that the genre boasts a lot of fantastic cover artists, who have a tough role of capturing the reader’s eye and capturing the story’s essence, all in one small space.
One of the features for the GRNW blog will be to go out and talk with those amazing artists and find out more about the magic behind their process.
For our first Cover Art Expose, we talk with the wonderful Jordan Castillo Price, who not only self-publishes her work through JCP Books, but does all her own cover art!
At the end of this interview, we’ll also be doing a giveaway for JCP’s sci-fi novel Mnevermind 1: The Persistence of Memory.
1- What was the first book cover that you worked on?
At the time, I didn’t realize how rare this was, but I made a request and Torquere Press allowed me to design the cover to PsyCop: Partners, the print compilation of the first two PsyCop novels. In 2006 m/m was pretty new and I imagine a lot of the standard practices in place now were not established yet. Nowadays it would be quite rare to be allowed to design your own cover. Many publishers don’t even give their authors the right of veto, citing “house style” over the preferences of the author.
2- How long does a cover normally take? Which cover of yours took the longest (and why?)
I’d say I work on each cover about half a week to a week. Initially it’s getting all the elements in place. If they don’t work correctly, this is the point I go back to the drawing board. Sometimes things look fantastic in my head but they’re too busy or confusing on the page. The last few sessions I’ll spend cleaning up and tweaking, putting on finishing touches. Then I sleep on it and end up tweaking a few hours more.
My covers for the Petit Morts series took the longest because they’re vector art. Instead of colored pixels, they’re composed of mathematical points and curves. Theoretically you could zoom in infinitely and all the lines would still be crisp, unlike regular pixel-based artwork where it turns into little squares when you zoom or enlarge. It’s a more labor-intensive process but I wanted the bold graphic look that’s unique to vector art…well, I imagine you could mimic it with a pixel-based program but I was comfortable enough working in vectors. I’m a heck of a lot rustier nowadays. The last vector element I designed was the Spook Squad logo and FPMP seal on the back cover of the paperback.
3- For the art nerds out there, what are your preferred tools and programs?
For paperback and PDF typesetting I use InDesign. For cover art, mainly Photoshop, though for vector work I prefer Illustrator. Photoshop has vector tools now, which is new-ish these past few years. I’m just more accustomed to Illustrator, which I used quite a lot in my day job for flyers and big signage (like the type of banner you’d see hanging from an overpass, for instance.) I was a graphic designer at a public library for many years, so I got to learn how to do things from postcards to bookmarks to those big ol’ overpass signs.
For any major art nerds who might wonder, I’m running CS6, though undoubtedly some new feature will come along and tempt me into upgrading to Creative Cloud. I try to train at least an hour a week through something like Photoshop User TV, or Lynda.com, or Kelby Training, or my local Adobe User Group, and inevitably I’m going to see something that’ll make me want to upgrade since these trainings tend to focus on the latest version. New Camera RAW integration looks really nice, for example.
4- You’ve done a lot of series covers, with your Psycop books, Channeling Morpheus, Petit Morts, and the different chapters in the Turbulence serial.
What is it like when you’re tackling covers in a series? And how did your style differ between these series?
It seems like I must have realized a series should have a cohesive look—it’s just a matter of common sense—but PsyCop evolved over so many years in such a piecemeal way that it really didn’t have a particular “look” beyond the PsyCop logo. Certainly my skills improved a lot since 2006 as well. Since I’m now the publisher, I’m opting to redesign PsyCop so that it looks like an actual series. That project began last year. I’m working on Camp Hell (book 5) now.
Sometimes a cover “look” will be dictated by choices the stock photographer made. Because the photographer added B&W high-contrast effects to the shot of Michael on the cover of Payback (Channeling Morpheus 1), if I wanted to use that shot, I needed to make all the subsequent cover art match it. (And I was really married to that shot.) For that series, I think it worked really well, but in general it irks me when stock photographers make artistic choices like B&W effects, or really close cropping. A lot of shots are unusable because half of someone’s head is cropped away, for instance, so I can’t position them where I need to in my composition. And if I want B&W, I can make my own B&W since I have filters too…and maybe I would have chosen a different sort of contrast than the photographer picked. /rant
5- You have a knack for finding excellent cover models for your books. (GRNW hearts Wild Bill!) How hard is that search process?
Thank you! I heart Wild Bill too…wow, that mouth. Searching through stock models is actually kind of nauseating for me, I’m not really sure why. I must be looking too hard at the monitor for too many hours.
I will hoard good photos for years and years. I’ve been holding onto the cover model for Elijah from Mnevermind forever. I had nicknamed him Major Tom because he had a late 80’s New Wave look to him and he reminded me of the Peter Schilling song.
Some stock photos are pricier than others. I’m willing to pay for really expensive photos if need be because I’m self-publishing now and I can make that decision to invest, whereas authors working with publishers are usually limited to a smaller pool of more affordable art. Wild Bill was expensive, but oh so worth it.
I live in fear of putting a model on my cover and realizing he’s prominent on someone else’s book. It’s deplorable how few stock photos of men are available as opposed to women.
6- What cover was most challenging for you and why?
I was going to put Captain Kaye on one of the Turbulence covers, but older women are even more underrepresented than men. After hours of searching I found one model I liked…but the photographer had cropped her so close that I couldn’t position her anywhere on the page, and eventually I gave up.
7- Is there a cover that you wish you could go back and redo?
Absolutely, I’d do Body Art in a second. I think I was so excited to see that tattooed arm reaching to adjust a tie (it represents a theme in the book so well) that I didn’t consider the overall tone of the cover. In a re-do, I’d forget about presenting a visual narrative a certain scene and make it look more like a thriller. And I’d have lots of dark tree silhouettes. I also have a theory that the eyes are the most important part of the model (which is why I despise those naked manchest floating over cityscape covers in m/m) so I might dig around and find a good headshot to represent my main character.
8- Are there things that you hadn’t thought about before you started doing your own book covers?
Ebooks are changing fast. To give you some perspective, when I started making ebook cover art in 2007, the Kindle wouldn’t be on the horizon for over two more years. I guess I would have thought there’d be a standard electronic art size, but there really isn’t. Various devices have different resolutions as well as different ratios, kind of like all the different computer monitor sizes. I just go with a ratio of 2:3 now and it seems about as “standard” as you’ll get.
This is a bit of a non-sequitur, or maybe it’s related, but one thing I used Photoshop for as a graphic designer at a public library was to take nonstandard audiobook packaging, scan it, manipulate it into a standard ratio, and make it work with a package we could circulate. So I went to pick up a CD-set on hold today and wondered why it looked so familiar—had I listened to it? Then I saw it was from my old library and realized that I’d re-done the packaging myself a few years ago. Ha!
9- Do you have any recommendations you can share for those who are thinking about doing their own book covers?
Get really good at Photoshop and don’t waste your time with freeware programs. Buy an older version of Photoshop if money is an issue, just check the system requirements to make sure you can run it. It makes me crazy in certain publishing forums where new publishers are trying to figure out how to publish a paperback using freeware or Microsoft Word. I’m probably an Adobe snob, but it bugs me when people attempt to force consumer tools to do professional jobs and then wonder why it doesn’t work. Adobe software is a monetary and time investment, but it’s the industry standard.
If you’re totally new to Photoshop, grab a free one-week trial membership at Lynda.com and watch some intro courses for a solid week. I personally think the annual subscription there is worth much more than they charge. Photoshop is a very in-depth program, you’re not going to learn it in an afternoon. I’ve been learning since 1999, and as I said, I try to do an hour of continuing ed each week. If online learning isn’t your thing, invest in a class through your community college.
Once you have the hang of Photoshop, look at images you really like and try to reproduce them. I don’t care for most book covers so I look at movie posters instead. There are often multiple ways to get the same effect in Photoshop so tinkering will usually get you somewhere.
If you’re an author and the art is for your own books, be aware that publishers generally don’t let you do your own cover art.
10- Any future covers on the horizon you can tell us about?
I mentioned the star of my latest cover earlier: Elijah from Mnevermind (otherwise known as Major Tom, who I’ve been hoarding for at least five years). Book 2 of the trilogy, Forget Me Not, will be out later this month. I really enjoyed working on the covers for this series, both the photographic effects and the logo with the crows and the state capitol behind it. Their dreamy, intense and stylized tone really reflects the nature of the stories, a very gritty and realistic speculative fiction about false memories. The interiors of the paperbacks were also fun to lay out, where I used some subtle crow graphics on the pages.
Thanks so much for the interest in my cover art! Hopefully I didn’t send anyone into a design-geek coma!
Thanks, JCP! And for anyone interested, you can download a free PDF of JCP’s cover art gallery!
To celebrate Mnevermind 2: Forget Me Not coming out later this month, we’re doing a ebook giveaway of Mnevermind 1: The Persistence of Memory to one commenter below. We’ll pick a winner on Sunday. Good luck!! 😀
Thanks for the giveaway! I love your books and cover art.
The cover art on the Turbulance chapters was the first thing that turned me on to JCP’s books. I also really like seeing a face instead of floating naked torsos. Great interview!
I just wanted to say I am in awe of your talents, not only do you write amazing stories, your cover art is also always beautifully made
GAH! I loved this post so much!!!! I new Psy Cop covers are SO FREAKING AMAZING!
Cool article! I love getting a peek behind the curtain. Thanks for sharing your insights and process. As a total PsyCop fangirl, I gotta say I love the new covers too. 🙂
I don’t need the book (I’ve got it and learned it by heart as I was waiting for the sequel ;-)), but I wanted to thank both Tracy and Jordan for the great interview. The funny thing is that I had asked Jordan a question about the covers a couple of hours before the post was out and she had told me about this interview.
Just to say it once more: obviously I love Jordan’s books because of the outstanding stories in them, but the covers keep getting better and better… It’s nice to have a look behind the scenes, I remember another great post about the making of ”Turbulence” paperback cover.
I love, love, love the Manikin cover. It’s HOT. And I totally appreciate the Turbulence covers with the guy wearing glasses. Glasses!! Keep up the good work, Jordan.
I love reading all of your “technical” articles/blogs. Keep it up. 🙂 Oh yeah, I love, love, love your writing. Your books are definitely unique. Can’t wait for more Jacob & Victor.
Fabulous! I’m really loving the cover art.
Also, as I am that person who will test limits, I’ve zoomed in to the Petit Morts covers to 6400% and they absolutely do retain their crispness at that level of scrutiny. I can’t got further or I would but I’m satisfied that they’d retain it as far as I could push.
great post and beautiful cover.
definitely agree that Photoshop is worth the investment for any indie author looking to make their own covers. also it’s worth noting that Adobe made CS2 available as a free download (they stopped supporting it I think) which you can find here: http://adobe.ly/1ebUz6n. it’s dated but if youre on a tight budget and you want to play around with photoshop it’s a place to start.
I have a question. How do you make sure you will have the right shot of a character for books you haven’t written yet? Do you buy a bunch of shots of the model and hope you’ll have the right one? Can you commission shots?
Thanks everyone for all the kind words!
Charming, that’s a great question. I think sometimes picking out your model before the piece is written can be helpful if you really fall for that model, because it gives you a solid mental image to work from. What I tend to look for is a model who has a lot of photos instead of someone who only appears in one or two shots. That way you have more flexibility if you end up with a series on your hands, or possibly a collection. Luckily my Vic-model posed for lots of photos when he was modeling, which I don’t think he is anymore since I don’t see any new shots of him.
A way to find additional shots of your model is to look at the photo details and find the photographer, and then filter your search results to that photographer’s portfolio. If they shoot their friends a lot you might luck into a nice body of choices.
Sometimes photographers make really great models. The model on Persistence of Memory is the photographer and he’s got lots and lots of pics. The center model on The Starving Years is the photographer as well. I find photographers don’t take themselves too seriously when they model and they tend to have more interesting facial expressions. I suspect they’re modeling with composition in mind, either that or they just take tons of selfies and hone them down to the very best shots.
In defense of headless torsos… 😛 One of my favorite covers is the one for Josephine Myles’ “Tailor Made,” and it’s as naked, headless torsos as it gets. Everything is possible.
Imo, the biggest advice to authors wanting to make their own covers: learn basic design principles first! Because it doesn’t matter how expertly one wields Photoshop if they don’t know diddly about composition or colors.
I always appreciate your headless torso defense, Lou! While trying to think of my favorite headless torso cover, I went and found the headless torso listopia list. (So many torsos….) There are a lot of great books on it though, so it’s a good reminder that there is gold buried in those naked chest hills. https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/19522.M_M_Romance_Covers_Featuring_Decapitated_Naked_Torsos
I think one of my favorite covers on that list is Catt Ford’s a Strong Hand. Maybe it’s the “mood lighting”….
Related to JCP’s comment, I had no idea that the Starving Years cover was based on photos. That’s so cool!
So true, Lou, you know I adore the cover for Taylor Made! In my mind, though, it’s not quite in the true spirit of the decapitated male m/m torso, in that the body actually has something to do with the concept of the cover and isn’t just slapped on there to indicate it’s a story about dudes getting it on.
Your covers have always been so interesting. I think that’s what drew me to the Psycop books in the first place!
Congrats on another release!
i love that jcp makes her covers and makes them so lovingly. I think if you have multiple talents and can combine them, it is a wonderful thing. to both write and draw/illustrate well, it is a rare gift. her covers reflect her oww brand of creativity, uniqueness, and humor that carries into her wriitng. I appreciate the care taken and look forward to all future writings and designs.
I always loved your covers, they were always so interesting to look at as opposed to other more generic covers!
I got into JCP with the Channeling Morpheus series and I’ve never looked back.
Interesting interview! I’m excited for another JCP release!
Thank you for sharing your hard-earned knowledge. I’ve been dabbling in cover design and frustration is my middle name! Love your covers. Much more intriguing than the standard.
And the winner is….NL Gassert! Congratulations! I will contact you about the preferred format you want for Mnevermind 1. 😀