Distinctive Cover Art for Indie-Pubbed Titles

I thought we’d talk a bit more today on Wild West Thursday this week about cover art. I’m fascinated with cover art myself, so the control that authors have over their own cover art in the indie-publishing world is very exciting to me.

Let’s talk about traditional publishers and cover art first, just to get our bearings. One of the tasks done by a traditional publisher is the “packaging” of an acquired book, which means creating the cover. The cover is called a package because it wraps all the way around the printed book, and also because it is a marketing tool. The package is in fact the one item that appears on the marketing budget for every single book acquired by a traditional publishing house – and for many books, it consumes the entire marketing budget. The package includes the title, the cover image, the series title, the tagline, the quotes, and the cover copy. Rolled into this task is the branding for the author’s work overall, and the inclusion of graphic elements that communicate to readers what to expect from the book.

Most traditional publishing houses acquire a unique cover image for each book. There are those that don’t, and in author circles, one hears talk of “recycled cover art”. There are some digital-first houses, too, who use the same cover image for all books in a series. (This tells me that they’re branding by series, not by author, but that’s another issue altogether.)

(As an aside, when I wrote for Harlequin, they acquired the right from the artist to re-use an image on other books, typically in foreign editions. So, I’d get a book of mine in a French edition, with the art from another author’s US edition. My favorite was the Italian edition of UNICORN BRIDE, which is set in southern France, with had the image from one of Margaret Moore’s Viking books on the cover, complete with Viking ship. That was goofy, and I have to wonder whether any Italian readers said “hey, wait a minute…” when they started reading and discovered there were no Vikings in the story – or maybe the translator changed the setting to Sweden. You never know.)

The main image on the book cover is traditionally a commissioned piece of artwork – once upon a time, these were paintings, commissioned from artists by the publishing house. In the 90′s, the shift to digital began – my book HONEYED LIES had the first cover at Harlequin Historicals that was a digitally manipulated photographic image. Now they are almost all digitally manipulated photographs. Part of the agreement with the artist stipulates that the image can’t be sold for another book cover – although some artists retain the rights to sell prints of their work. In the traditional model, the artists provide only the image – the type is added to the cover by the publishing house.

So, each cover image was used once on one book, the vast majority of the time. As you might imagine, commissioning a cover image in this way is fairly expensive. In recent years, there have been some changes as a result of this cost: even from traditional publishing houses, the use of stock photographs has become more common, although they are usually manipulated before use to make them distinct.

Stock photographs are available from websites like Fotolia, Shutterstock, Dreamscape and others. There are also photographers who offer their images for sale and licensing from their own websites. Since the explosion in digital publishing – and the number of authors needing images for their book covers – the quantity of stock images available has grown exponentially. There are photographers and designers and models – like Kim Killion and Jimmy Thomas – who shoot images specifically for romance covers. These images are far less expensive than the custom ones commissioned by publishing houses – it’s typical to pay a licensing fee of $10 to $50 for the use of the image. Publishing houses, in contrast, spend several thousand dollars on each commissioned image. So, while it’s comparatively cheap to get a nice cover for an indie-published book, the drawback is that the image can be sold over and over again. That’s how the photographer is able to sell the image for such a low price – he or she will sell it repeatedly. We’ve all seen the indie-pubbed books with very similar covers.

The problem is that we remember images better than words. Having six books, for example, with the same cover image increases the likelihood that a potential reader will get them mixed up. When you add costuming, etc., it’s also very likely that the six books with the same cover image will also be of the same genre or sub-genre, which just makes confusion worse. Some photographers remove images from sale/license after they’ve been sold a number of times, but how many sales they consider to be “enough” will vary from artist to artist.

There is a solution to this – if the author is the first person to acquire the rights to an image from the photographer, he or she can buy exclusive rights to the image. That means it won’t be sold again and that the cover image will be unique to the author’s book. This can cost $250 to $500, depending upon the photographer.

So, I am old-guard, and I believe that a unique and distinctive cover is key to establishing audience and brand. I ended up with a unique cover for THE RENEGADE’S HEART because Eithne combined four images with her Photoshop wizardry. If you remember, the knight was one image, his head was another, the castle was the third image and the forest was the fourth. Here’s that cover:

For the second book in the series, THE HIGHLANDER’S CURSE, I wanted the composition of the cover image to be similar – to brand the series graphically – but the guy to be bare-chested in a kilt. I spent ages looking at stock photographs, but couldn’t find anything that was suitable. (There are hundreds of thousands of images out there.) So, my writer-self had a talk with my publisher-self about the marketing value of an exclusive image. All selves agreed that it would be a good investment.

The thing is that I actually had to order the shot, because my idea for the pose was so specific. The shot didn’t exist. Kim Killion had a model scheduled for a shoot who I thought would be perfect – then he cancelled and they rescheduled. Then he cancelled again, so Kim took the shot, knowing that I needed the cover sooner than his rescheduled date. She knows I like Mitchell, so he was the model she used. And you won’t see this image of him on another cover, because it’s all mine.

So, there’s the saga of two unique indie-cover images. Even given the complications, I’d do this again – in fact, I may do it with all the covers in this series.

What about you? Does it trouble you when two books have the same cover image? Do you get them mixed up?

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