DIY Book Covers: Recycling Old Covers

Caveat: I’m NOT a cover designer. I’m more of a determined monkey turned art department through the process of being too dumb to know better. What helps is having great tools: Adobe Creative Cloud, a Mac computer with a huge screen, and unlimited access to YouTube where you can learn everything about anything when it comes to Photoshop.)

Anyhoo…

Blog-old covers6When LB handed me the project of restoring his extensive mid-century pulp paperback novels for digital and print we had a minor problem. Covers. Now, while I am in love with the gorgeous retro covers Hard Case Crime is putting on some of LB’s books, I don’t have the ability to create that type of art. So with time and budget concerns (we had a LOT of books to do) we had to get creative. For the Classic Crime Library (most originally published in the 1960s) we came up with what I believe is an elegant solution. I made them look like old-school classics with leather covers and gold leaf. This was surprisingly easy to do–and inexpensive. The only out-of-pocket expense was font licensing. For the rest: I scanned the back of a leather-bound book from my personal library; used a clipart border I had on hand (copyright-free from Dover books); and used my iPhone to take a picture of “gold” leaf from my arts and crafts supplies. Ta da!

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When it came time to do the Classic Erotica collection, I’m not sure which of us came up with the idea of recycling the original covers. Might have been me. (When I was a wee child, my mother had a fondness for cheesy potboilers and science fiction novels. I knew all her hiding places. I loved the covers as much as the stories — I wanted to be Frank Frazetta when I grew up.)

First step is cleaning up the images.

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Remember, these covers are over 50 years old, and the original cover stock wasn’t the best paper in the world to begin with (which, by the way, scanning in these old books was…interesting. Some of the paper was so brittle it disintegrated if I looked at it too hard. By the time I finished scanning my desk looked as if I’d held a ticker-tape parade.). I used Photoshop to restore the covers as close to the original as I could. I used clipping layers to work on one portion at a time. The repair tool and the clone stamp helped me get rid of the crackling and scuffs.

After cleaning up the image, I made a template. For the background I went with suede. I took a photo of a piece of suede (from my ridiculously eclectic arts and crafts supply). I colored it in Photoshop. Then I tipped in the image and gave it a gold border. Because it’s the ebook cover, we decided to get rid of all text except for the title.

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For the print cover, we went with the full cover, as close to the original as I could get it. I know there are people out there who love those old pulp fiction covers as much as I do. I think they’ll enjoy having a classy (classier, anyway) rendition on their bookshelves.

Adobe Photoshop PDF

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On a side note, there was one cover we couldn’t bring ourselves to use. It’s the “I’m ready for my enema now,” cover. (You can see it here if you’re so inclined.) Besides, LB wanted to use another title. So… LB found a suitably sinister looking image on Shutterstock and I “retro-d” it. The result isn’t anywhere close to the glory of a Hard Case Crime cover, but I’m happy with it and it fits nicely in the series. And it was budget friendly.

A few tips for recycling old covers:

#1: Make sure you CAN use the images. Find out if you’re legally allowed. You might need to get permission or purchase a license.

#2: Use a scanner instead of photographing the cover. You’ll get a clearer image with better color resolution.

#3: Be patient. The cover might be torn, foxed, scuffed, bent or otherwise damaged. 100% restoration might not be possible (unless you’re a pro or willing to take it to a pro). Work in layers, one small area at a time.

#4: Be creative in “displaying” the image. Picture frames, color blocks, borders, backgrounds. In the collaborative books LB did with Hal Dresner and Don Westlake, I used color blocks to make them stand out.

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So for nostalgia’s sake, budgetary concerns or just for fun, don’t be afraid to recycle those wonderful old book covers if you can.

Buh-Bye, 2013–Howdy to the New Year

2013 was a helluva year. Lots of personal drama. Evacuated because of a fire, followed by months of malaise from the smoke because the entire state of Colorado was on fire. Massive rains and subsequent flooding that destroyed my basement. Far too many days spent at the hospital with my children and grandbaby. One thing after another and wondering, oh god, what’s next?

QuinnSeatBut 2013 was an amazing year, too. The Amazing Poop Machine is happy, healthy and growing fast. Everyone is healthy now. I got a promotion–Larry Block has dubbed me The Production Goddess. (I’m practicing how to work that into casual conversation.) I worked with some incredible writers this year: Thomas Pluck, Randall Wood, Jerrold Mundis, Julia R. Barrett, Robert Silverberg, Katherine O’Neal, William Arnold, Sharon Reamer, Carole Nomarhas, Chuck Dixon, Steven Ramirez, Penny Watson, Marina Bridges, and far too many others to list. (Heh. I always wanted a job where I am paid to read, and now I have it and it’s the best job ever!)

Burglar_Limited-XmasI took part in a project that tops my Best Of list for all time. Lawrence Block’s new novel, The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons, which he decided to self publish. From the first read of the manuscript to receiving the gorgeous hardcover limited edition in the mail, it was The Dream Job. I ended up producing four editions, including a print-on-demand Large Print edition. (You can find the ebook and trade paperback here and the special limited edition here.)

The best part of the year was learning new skills. I’ve learned tons and tons about ebook covers. (And bless you brave folks who have allowed me to do my on-the-job-training with your books!)

Cover montageI’ve learned to format fiction for CreateSpace print-on-demand editions. It’s way different than ebooks and a lot trickier, but it’s well worth the effort. (Pay no heed to the bald spots where I ripped out my hair in frustration. Heh.) At the risk of annoying the Hubris Gods, my book designs are pretty darned good.

pod montageIn the coming year, I’ll be stretching way beyond ebooks. I want to do concierge publishing for writers who’ve reclaimed their back lists and need to bring them back to life. I’d like to offer troubleshooting and production consulting for do-it-yourselfers. I can even do graphics for ebooks–wouldn’t your ebook look delicious with something fun like this for your chapter heads and title page?

titleSo buh-bye and sweet dreams to you, 2013. 2014 is here and it’s going to be a good one. I can feel it! And as a very special treat for all you writers out there, here it is, hot off the production line, available at CreateSpace, and soon available at Amazon and LB’s Book Store, the brand new print edition of Write For Your Life: The Home Seminar for Writers.

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Cover Fun: A Series/Brand Look

I just finished up a fun little project. The ever irrepressible Larry Block decided to put up eight more of his short stories as singles on Amazon. Cool. Doing the interiors was a snap. The real fun came from doing the ebook covers.

blockmontageI don’t know about the rest of you, but I love how they turned out. My intent from the beginning was to make a distinctive series look, for the author name to be prominent, and for the tone to say ‘retro but fresh.’

Mondrian_CompRYBMy inspiration came from Mondrian, a Dutch painter. Not only is his style distinctive and appealing, Mondrian is also featured in a Block novel, The Burglar Who Painted Like Mondrian, which I real several years ago and loved, and is also mentioned in LB’s latest, The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons. So Mondrian was on my mind and when it came time to come up with a concept for the covers, off to Google I did go and spent about an hour pondering why lines and blocks of primary colors are so compelling.

Now, I’m not an artist and I’m not trained in the graphic arts. But I do love playing with my favorite graphics program–Paint.net–and I have learned over time to:

  • Keep it simple
  • Find a focus and stick to it
  • Identity

By identity I mean that the most effective ebook covers identify either the author or the genre, and sometimes both. LB is well known, so his name has clout, which basically means that his name is going to have far more effect on a shopper’s decision making than would any image. If he were not so well known, I would have put the emphasis on genre. Seriously, that is the biggest flaw I see in ebook covers–there is no clue as to what kind of book it is. Or the clues are too subtle or misleading. Online shoppers are swift beasties. You have only seconds to convince them you’re selling what they are looking for.

For really good advice on designing ebook covers, hop over to Joel Friedlander’s blog–the bookdesigner.com–and especially pay attention to the monthly cover awards. Merely looking at the cover awards will imbue you with tons of information.

The best advice of all, though, came not from a cover designer or a graphic artist, but from one of my favorite TV shows, What Not To Wear. It’s on Netflix if you want to catch it. Stacy and Clinton tell this to people who are baffled by style and putting outfits together. They say, find one element you absolutely love and build around it. Can’t go wrong with that.

What’s Inside DOES Matter.

Poking my head out of the gopher hole…

You know what really bugs me about some retail establishments and service providers? It’s that attitude of, “We’ve got your money, so screw ya.” Suddenly your problems are no longer their problems and they really couldn’t care less what you think of their product or their service. If you’ve ever dealt with a nightmare disguised as “customer service” then you know exactly what I mean. Had any problems with your cable provider, lately? Hmn? What makes it doubly frustrating is that many of the worst offenders (I’m not naming names, now am I, Directv?) go above and beyond to lure in new customers. Huge advertising campaigns, promises to the moon and back, special promotions, the whole deal. But you know what? It’s gotten to the point where I am super suspicious of those massive campaigns. I’m finally getting a clue that companies that care so much about the people who aren’t buying are the same companies that really don’t care about their current customers. Companies and products with positive word-of-mouth and solid reputations don’t need massive campaigns.

Which brings us to ebooks. Of course. If you’re a regular reader you know I am ambivalent about promotional efforts. I’m also not all that impressed with the time, effort and energy indie writers put into covers. Yeah, yeah, I know books require some promotion (I just have no idea what actually works or why it works when it does–too many factors) and I also know covers are important. To some people. They aren’t to me. Not with ebooks. The reason why is that after I buy an ebook, there is only about a 2% chance I’ll ever see the cover again. Usually the only reason is because I really like the book and want to check the title and author name. While I have purchased a few print books because of their covers–not very many, but a few–that is not the case at all with ebooks. I have zero interest in those thumbnails on Amazon. Except for a very few samples, I couldn’t tell you what the covers look like for any of the hundreds of ebooks currently on my Kindle.

But I will tell you this. There are many ebooks on my Kindle where the writer or publisher had put a hell of a lot of effort into the cover and the promo, and barely any effort at all into my reading experience. I’m not talking about bad stories or even bad editing. I’m talking about the production values. I’m talking about ebooks that offer the reading equivalent of typewritten script on newsprint. Just words with no thought given to the aesthetics of the “page” or the organization or even to reminding me what I’m reading. This lack of concern over my comfort doesn’t make them bad books–it’s make them forgettable. It makes what I’m reading seem cheap and unimportant.

Think about that.

I’ve discussed in previous posts how readers are reading differently on ereaders. They’re reading more closely and they’re more sensitive to errors and goofs. The best I can account for it is that an ereader, such as the Kindle, offers no distractions–not even the faint rustle of a turning page. This can work for or against the writer. Without distractions, readers can read faster, so they buy more books. That’s good. Without something memorable to make your book stand out, it could be forgotten–just another story–when it comes time for the reader to buy something else. That’s bad.

I bring this up (again, and no, not just because I’m the Obsessanator) but because I’m working on an interesting project. I had some problems with Scrivener (by the way, it’s a simple problem to fix, so anybody who is using Scrivener to create ebooks, carry on) and figured I should break down and learn HTML. For those of you comfortable with computers and programming, you’re thinking no big deal. Well, for me, it is a big deal because I do not like machines and the whole idea of them having a “language” kind of creeps me out. In my quest to create beautiful ebooks, however, I buckled down to it. I reformatted some of my short stories, then did a few others, then did an ebook for Julia Barrett, which turned out very nicely. It was actually too easy and I wanted to learn more. (I’m hands on–doesn’t do any good to tell me how to do something. You have to dump a pile of material in my lap and point at a finished product and say, ‘Make it look like that.’) So I sez to my friend, Larry, “I need a challenge. Got anything?”

He sent me a scanned document for a book that contains a screenplay, an interview, and narrative text. Well, I asked for a challenge, and he came through with flying colors. Not only was the scan a big old mess that had to be cleaned up, but I had to figure out how to create the illusion of a screenplay. I wanted to learn some HTML and I learned. A lot. Then to sweeten the pot Larry handed me a bunch more scanned files. These aren’t fiction where the biggest concerns are graphics and pretty touches. These are non-fiction (sort of) filled with case studies and interviews and numbered lists. Challenges. Through it all, the biggest question I’m asking myself is: How to make it look good to the reader and make for a pleasing reading experience? How do I organize the text with visual clues to help the reader keep his/her place and not get lost in the transitions? Print books have certain advantages that ebooks do not. Print can make good use of white space, for example. Large blocks of italics, depending on the font, can look good. With a printed page, the designer controls the right margin and justification (or should). Too much ‘white’ space on a Kindle can look like a mistake. Big blocks of italics are difficult to read. The device controls the right margin and justification, not the designer. What I do have at my disposal are block quotes, hanging first lines, line breaks and a few other tricky tricks. I’ve been spending a lot of time over on w3schools.com to find character codes and figure out how to execute certain commands. Then I try things out, make an ebook, and see how it looks. Sometimes it looks fine, other times it looks like crap, so back to the drawing board. (Notepad++, actually, which is a lot of fun even though I have barely a clue as to what it’s talking about half the time–okay, three-quarters of the time–but fearlessly (or stupidly)I go clicking through anyway.)

It’s a lot of work and I’m still in the relatively slow stage (although, being the queen of Find/Replace does hasten the process quite a bit) but it’s worth it. Yes. It is worth every minute at the computer, every cuss word and crossed eye and “Oh no!” It’s worth it not just because the words matter, but because the readers–our customers–matter. Their comfort, their pleasure, their experience. I want readers to see that I care about them. Not just their dollars, but them. In return, I want them to know that I care very deeply about the books I produce. I want it to show on the screen. I want the ebooks to look important and worthy of respect. Respect=Respect, folks, gotta give it to get it.

I would love to see more ebook producers–indie and traditional–expend at least as much effort in making the actual ebooks look good as they do in producing covers. Honestly, if you’re willing to drop $300 on the perfect cover, but then do a crap layout in Word and publishing the ebook consists of clicking a button and hoping for the best, I have to question where your priorities lie. Don’t be one of those entities that devotes all your time and energy to luring new suckers, er, buyers, then forgets about them as soon as you have their money in your hands.

If you’re interested in seeing what I came up with with the screenplay, interview and narrative, be warned–ADULTS ONLY. The book is about the making of a porn movie. It’s funny and touching and wise, but also pretty dirty. So don’t say I didn’t warn you.

For those who are delving into HTML for their ebooks, a nifty little trick I learned for putting paragraph returns into the Word document before transferring it into Notepad++.

FIND box type ^p
REPLACE box type </p>^p<p>
Do a REPLACE ALL.

Voila! The only command you have to put in manually is at the very beginning of the document. (if you already knew this, meaning I am the very last person to figure it out, pfft, it’s still a nifty trick)