Ebook Covers – Hold On There, Bubba!

I don’t know if this is the story of my life, but it isn’t far removed: spend hours (in this case days) trying to do something myself, and for which I am ill-prepared because I know little to nothing about it, and finally end up getting it done only to discover there are far easier ways, or it was a bad idea to begin with, or as in the case of ebook covers, The Big Oops lies waiting.

My wife’s son-in-law is a professional photographer and writer. When he viewed the result of all my effort, I’m pleased to say he liked it, but then he said, “Did you get a model release?”

A what?

The concept for my cover image is to engage potential readers with what author Barry Eisler refers to as resonance: figurative — the ability to evoke or suggest images, memories, and emotions. To accomplish that, I’ve layered the cropped image of an instrument panel and windscreen of an airplane on top of the image of rugged mountain terrain partially obscured by clouds. This puts the reader’s perspective as if looking into the cockpit from the cabin.

With the title and author’s name added, the concept is that the reader’s eyes will find the title first: Pilot Error (Omigosh! I don’t like thinking about a pilot making a mistake.); then to the partial view of the pilot, instrument panel and windscreen (That’s my pilot.); then out the windscreen to what pilots refer to as “cumulo-granite,” or “mountainous terrain obscured by clouds” (Are we gonna hit that?)

Fellow writers who have seen this version of the cover really like it. With the exception of suggestions for tweaking the color, size, and positioning of the text, they think I’m done. I agreed. Until now.

The problem is that the pilot effectively serves as a “model.” And while it’s far more of an issue in advertising, in which a model has every right to expect compensation, it also applies here because the partial image of the pilot is enough that he would be recognizable to himself. He would undoubtedly remember that specific flight, since the photographer would have been in the cockpit to get the shot.

And while the chance that he or anyone who knows him would ever see the cover is so remote as to almost not be worth considering, the tiny bit of remaining likelihood cannot be ignored. He could claim that the image of him in the cockpit of an airplane combined with the title imply that he is the pilot making the error. I can speak from personal experience when I say that pilots tend to react strongly to such accusations.

In an attempt to resolve the potential problems with using the image absent a model release, I traced it backwards from where I found it on a website that supposedly offers royalty-free photos. The source indicated for the image took me to a website of a person who has written a book and lectures on the topic of leadership. The image had been inserted within the text of a post in which the author used the example of what pilots refer to as cockpit resource management, the fancy term for how the pilot-in-command of an airplane requiring more than one crew member creates with his leadership the safest environment possible for operation of the airplane.

With no information on the website as to the original source of the image, I investigated further and found it on a website dedicated to aviation photographs. The terms-of-use page clearly indicate a requirement for permission from the photographers to utilize any image on the site for any purpose. With a link provided, I sent an email to the holder of the image copyright and have yet to receive a reply.

In the meantime, I’ve been looking for other options. Yesterday I tried a different approach by layering the image of an airplane, not just the view from the cockpit, on top of the background. And although I like it, I have to agree with the members of a writing group, who last evening in no uncertain terms indicated their preference for the earlier cover.

Under the assumption that I may never hear from the photographer of the original image, I’ll be looking for a replacement view-from-the-cockpit photo, and one that includes a pilot. If I crop the image to ensure that the identity of the pilot is effectively hidden, I avoid the issue of model release and only need license from the copyright holder to use the image.

Underlying this task, of course, is the possibility that I’m wasting my time. Not from the perspective of trying to find the best cockpit view, but that even with the ideal one I won’t end up with a cover that will do its job. Putting aside Barry Eisler’s abstract concept of resonance, the only measure of success is if, based on the cover alone, a potential reader takes a closer look.

In a brick-and-mortar book store, that means reaching out, taking the book off the shelf, and for most readers, turning the book over to read the jacket “blurb” on the back cover. If that description does its job, the reader will typically open the book and read a portion. (I prefer the opening page, then maybe a page or two from deeper within the story.) Given continued interest, readers will likely buy it. Even if they don’t, the cover at least did what it’s designed to do.

The electronic equivalent of that decision to purchase begins at an online bookstore, accessed either on a computer or ereader, and two significant differences between buying print books and ebooks immediately come into play. Ebook covers are shown in thumbnail, and have to do their job in either color or black-and-white. Shoppers at an online store can view a larger cover image by clicking on it. The jacket blurb is available as a description of the book, and shoppers can also read a limited sample if the publisher allows a preview.

That begs the question of how good a cover has to be to get the job done. It goes without saying that professional design offers an advantage, or there wouldn’t be any professional designers. But for any writer looking to minimize up-front expenses associated with publishing an ebook, hiring a designer comes with the potential for spending money unnecessarily if a self-designed cover can attract potential readers well enough to take that first step.

I’d love to turn the task over to someone else, and I may end up doing that. In the meantime, I owe it to my pocketbook to make the effort. Time is money, and I have more of the spare former available than the discretionary latter. This is especially true prior to abandoning the possibility of getting an agent and a publishing contract.

With my luck, I’d finally be looking at the professionally designed cover of my dreams when an acceptable offer arrives. Okay, I paid for it rather than the publisher, but it’s mine and it’s going on my novel. The problem is that approval authority for covers is never given to writers because it’s a marketing decision rather than a creative one. “Thanks for your ideas, Tosh, but we have a different cover in mind.”

The advance might ease the financial sting of that rejection, but I’d always look at the publisher’s cover and think, “If I’d only chosen to indie-publish my novel, I’d have the cover I wanted.”

And I still might . . .

Note: The following image has a model release:


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6 Responses to Ebook Covers – Hold On There, Bubba!

  1. David Mignery says:

    Here are some ideas for what they are worth. Don’t try to tell the whole story on the cover. It is better to stir the potential reader’s sense of danger by implying it rather than showing it. My suggestion is an aerial view of rugged mountains without any other elements. The title on the cover says the rest: “Pilot” says just that and also says airplane. There’s no need to literally show either one. “Error” combined with the mountains says this is no trivial mistake and the consequences are likely to be fatal. This should be enough to cover everything you were trying to convey the first time. As a famous architect (not me) once said, “less is more.”

  2. Tosh McIntosh says:

    I appreciate the comment, David. Thanks for your interest and taking the time to offer ideas.

    As you might expect from our long-standing mutual experience with writing, and most recently the topic of ebooks and indie publishing, on first blush I question your description of my cover as trying to “tell the whole story.” And while I don’t think you meant that literally, I appreciate the “less is more” concept by equating it to the value of using subtext in a novel to more fully engage readers.

    A cover uses both the written word and visual imagery to serve its purpose. I’ve been “trying out” covers on writers we both know, and the consensus has generally been positive when it comes to the overall concept of using design to direct the viewer’s eyes in a sequence. This is the same tactic used in advertising, and it applies to a cover for the same reason.

    That’s not to say I won’t consider implementing your idea, just that I’ll have to think about it before abandoning the current approach. Thanks again.

    On a different topic, you’ve predicted on multiple occasions over the past year or so that Big 6 publishers in the future will rely less on agents to bring them new writers and use proven success in self-publishing to identify writers “worthy” of their attention.

    I’ve reacted to your prophecy with skepticism, mostly because of the belief that once writers have succeeded in the world of indie publishing, they no longer need what the Big 6 have to offer. Konrath, Eisler, and Smith, to name a few, have emphatically made this point in multiple blog posts.

    That said, one of my little group members follows Publisher’s Lunch (or Dinner, or maybe Snack, I can’t remember), and told us last Tuesday that two more self-published authors had recently gotten Big 6 contracts. Who’d a thunk it?

    Somebody did . . .

  3. David Mignery says:

    Just to set the record straight, my prophecy did not preclude successful indie writers from refusing contracts with the big publishers. My official opinion is that some writers will and some won’t. I remain eager to find out which way you go.

  4. Tosh McIntosh says:

    I didn’t make myself clear, I guess, because I didn’t mean to imply that preclusion on your part.

    I’m paraphrasing with an imperfect memory, but I thought you predicted that legacy publishing’s reliance on the unsolicited query-letter-to-agent-to-publisher method of identifying manuscripts worthy of making it into print would be eroded by the increasing number of writers who self-publish their novels.

    I wholeheartedly agree that it simply makes sense. If a writer can demonstrate through sales that a book has a large enough market to attract the attention of a Big Six publisher, it removes some of the guesswork and might actually improve legacy publishing’s abysmal record of only 20% of the books they print earning out their initial advance. It’s a given that they don’t do well at predicting what readers want.

    My original point addressed only this aspect of what I thought you were implying. I suggested that the “self-published writer makes it to legacy pipeline” of new authors might be less than effective for the Big Six because once a writer has “made it” alone, there are many very good reasons to keep on keeping on. At that point, legacy publishing’s usefulness to the self-published writer is far less than it used to be.

    And like you, I too am eager to find out which way I will go.

  5. ray fuentez says:

    I am two-thirds through NOVEL AND SHORT STORY WRITERS MARKET 2015 and I am impressed by how prescient you were in predicting the success of indie writers who eschew the trappings of the big 6. One thing they point out — with great emphasis — is the impact of social media. The editors point out how vital it is for an aspiring author to have a viable, active online/social media presence, beginning, but not limited to an active BLOG. It makes me regret not having taken advantage of the wealth of knowledge and experience of NIP and especially of Little Group when I first created a home page. I am faced with going back to square one to see if, at this late date, I can create an online presence worthy of the name.

    I continue to try to write even though my recent efforts have concentrated on the short story. I hope to collect a sufficient number of stories to collate into a book that can serve as my debut into self publishing.

    I found a complete hard copy of SUPERMAN’S COUSIN and I am experimenting with my HP printer-scanner to see if I can recover a digital (editable) version.

    My two cents on the question of model’s rights vis-à-vis your excellent book cover graphic is to assess the worst case scenario versus the likelihood that it will happen. Isn’t it like trying to un-ring the bell?

    • Tosh McIntosh says:

      Thanks for the input, Ray, and welcome back into the world of collaborative wordsmithing with an eye open to the advantages of indie publishing.

      As for short-story collections, they have seldom been received well by agents and the Big 5 (used to be 6). One of the advantages of indie, of course, is the absence of gatekeepers telling you what you can and can’t do if you want to pass through the golden portals of legacy publishing. That said, the absence of any quality-control function allows authors to publish books too quickly, and that haven’t had the care and feeding necessary to develop stories with solid structure, careful revision, and professional production. As Brad Whittington says when asked about how to get published, the number-one criteria is, “Write a good book.” I’m a bot more wordy in my answer, which is, “Write the best book you can at this moment in your writer’s journey, but never be satisfied that it’s the best you can ultimately write.”

      As for the book cover, I never rang that bell because the copyright holder never replied to my emails, and I was unwilling to use the image without his permission, which as I understand it would have included the model release.


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