Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Great Cover Hunt

People who hang around with me recognize that I’m obsessive. I can see the eyes rolling now, especially among those who have endured my editorial blue pencil. Hear the snarky comments—“No, really, who knew?”

Too true. Although a historian by trade, I edit for a living, and what spare time I have when neither working nor writing goes to the study of classical ballet, an art that aims for perfection (a special challenge given my age—which is, ahem, well past that of most ballerina wannabes). In the last few months I have also become the main editor and typesetter for Five Directions Press, so I have lots to obsess about.

Setting type is an obsessive’s dream job. No matter how many mistakes you correct, some always remain to be discovered. But I have typeset long enough that I feel pretty confident about page composition, something I cannot say about constructing covers. For starters, I am not an artist. I can move things around on a page, but draw? Forget it. Making a star in Illustrator stretches my skills to the limit. And Photoshop, until I encountered Robin Williams and John Tollett’s gift to the hapless, The Non-Designer’s Photoshop Book, headed the list of what I considered necessary evils—a program I suffered through on those occasions when someone sent me a photo or two to accompany an article and got out of as soon as I had checked the resolution and converted the photo to grayscale. But Five Directions Press is a small, indie writers’ cooperative. One member owns a graphic design business, but when it comes to book covers, each of us has to develop her own idea before we can work on it as a group. As a result, my Photoshop skills have improved a good deal in the last three months.

Of course, I could use CreateSpace’s Cover Creator or Folium Book Studio’s cover creation tool. And I do. But although many of the prefab templates and stock images are lovely, my obsessive self wants more control over placement, font, pictures, background, and the like. So I tend to create my covers in InDesign—using files massaged in Photoshop—then port the finished covers into the cover creation tools. 

But even the best cover, tweaked to a fare-thee-well, requires at least one good image. Which brings up the question of copyright. There has been a bit of a fluff in the blogosphere since Roni Loren courageously posted her experience with accusations of copyright infringement regarding her blog (you can find that post here). Natalie Collins, among others, followed up with a copyright violation tutorial on her blog. Kristen Lamb has set up a free-use site on Flickr for her WANA (We Are Not Alone) authors. The whole discussion is proving highly educational.

Unlike some of the people who commented on these posts, I knew that most of the images pulled up through a Google image search cannot be used on a cover, blog, or anywhere else without violating copyright. One of my own images, created for my Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel and used as a symbol on my website, is now floating around the Web and even appears on a cover on (I tried to complain, but the “report images” button didn’t include an option for “report copyright infringement”—are you listening, And although I had created a lovely cover for my forthcoming Golden Lynx, I felt uneasy about using it because I had included a film screenshot to represent my heroine. Film screenshots are considered fair use, so the cover might be okay. Still, I didn’t want to discover somewhere down the road that it was not.

So, out of fellow-feeling and a desire to do the right thing, I went out of my way to find images that were either public domain or Creative Commons and to observe the terms of the CC license. Following a link in Natalie’s blog post, I purchased a five-image package from Shutterstock and downloaded three shots of girls who resembled my mental image of my heroine, then settled on the one I liked most.

Yet despite all this care and effort, I almost blew it. Why? Because I had forgotten that the absolutely gorgeous shot of a Eurasian lynx that I would have sworn came from Wikimedia Commons actually did not—or if it did (I have it stashed in a folder labeled Public Domain Pics), the photographer has since removed it. Only a last-minute obsessive check revealed the mistake I had made. A Google search turned up the name of the original photographer—on a site I had never visited before—and another round of Photoshop editing produced a viable, if not quite so gorgeous, substitute.

All’s well that ends well, as they say. The Golden Lynx will go to press in late summer/early fall with properly credited, acceptable-use images. Yet there is a cautionary tale here: even photographs you feel certain are public domain or Creative Commons may not be. If you want to stay out of trouble, check before you download and keep a record of anything you intend to use, especially for commercial purposes. I certainly plan to do that from now on. Even if no one sues you, peace of mind is well worth $10 to Shutterstock or the equivalent. And you can bet I'll be monitoring the pictures I pin to Pinterest, too.

Because I wouldn’t want someone stealing my work. Would you?

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