Friday, June 7, 2019

A Web of Images

One of my guilty pleasures is cover design. Although that’s not my official responsibility at Five Directions Press—I handle copy-editing, book design, and typesetting, whereas our covers are in the capable hands of Courtney J. Hall, who knows her way around Photoshop better than I ever will—I’ve come up with ideas for the covers of all my own novels except for the current version of The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel. That last is Courtney’s, and the moment I saw it I fell in love with it. She also produced those beautiful fonts for the Songs of Steppe & Forest series, and she’s the person I tap for suggestions, critiques, and the final go-ahead, since no cover goes onto a Five Directions Press book without her approval.

That said, in my spare time I love to explore images and their potential as book covers. I have covers for books I may not write for years, the stories of which are limited to a main character, a love interest (maybe), and a vague goal. The cover, like the title and the cork boards filled with character images that sit next to my manuscripts on screen, are essential writing tools. They spark thoughts and symbols, emotions and descriptions, themes and personalities. My primary approach to the world is visual: change a character’s picture, and I develop a new sense of that character’s essential self.

So where do I find the images for my covers? For sure, Shutterstock loves me, because I spend far too much of my not so generous royalties there. Pixabay, with its ever-growing store of royalty-free photographs, is fantastic as well. But for Songs, as you can see from the Song of the Siren cover to the right, I decided to go with public domain art from nineteenth-century Eastern Europe and Russia.

Public domain art has one big advantage: unless owned by a museum or library that chooses to assert its rights, it can often be used without copyright issues and free of charge. But it also has one huge disadvantage: many of the files available online are too small and too fuzzy for a book cover. By the time you blow the image up to the minimum needed for a trade paperback, what you have left is a collection of visible dots. E-books, being computer-based, have a greater tolerance for poor image quality, but even an e-book cover can look unacceptable if the original picture is too small.

As it happens, I got lucky with most of the Songs covers. The one for Song of the Siren comes from a large file readily available on Wikimedia Commons and via the National Museum of Warsaw. Most of the others come from Wikimedia Commons as well. And in the process of tracking them down, I learned quite a bit about Russian realist art and the group known as the Wanderers and a good deal more besides. That in itself has become a great source of pleasure.

Song of the Shaman gave me fits, though, not least because nineteenth-century Russian artists didn’t paint a lot of shamans. After weeks of searching, I found one painting by a Polish artist resident in the Russian Empire, but no matter what I did, I couldn’t track down a version of the file that was usable for a book cover. I even purchased a personal license from a stock photo site for a high-resolution image of the painting, wanting to check it out before I decided whether it would be worth the higher charge for publishing use, only to discover that the high-resolution version looked worse than the doctored (but too small) Wikimedia Commons file. Missing paint, dull covers, too little contrast between the frame and the art, you name it: the problems added up to a series of flaws that either lay beyond the bounds of even Photoshop’s magic or would take so much time to fix that the end product wouldn’t be worth the effort expended.

So with a sigh of regret I gave up that idea. And I’m glad I did, because not long afterward I remembered another painting from circa 1905, perhaps not so obviously a shaman but still appropriate to the book’s theme (and, not coincidentally, a perfect depiction of its heroine, Grusha). And when I searched Wikimedia Commons, after a couple of tries I discovered a version large enough that I could compress it into a nice, sharp image without Photoshop doing what it typically does during compression: adding fake dots of its own. I had to tweak the colors and position the painting just right and even airbrush out a hand, but the results are exactly what I hoped for.

And soon you’ll get to see it. But I’m not quite ready for a cover reveal yet. First I have to ensure that the novel itself is ready for prime time. Then I need to work with the other authors in Five Directions Press to figure out the best publication schedule. By September, though, I hope to have a complete text and a plan. Stay tuned!

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