Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Covered Up

Don't judge a book by it's cover, they say.  Unless it's actually a real book and not a metaphorical one, in which case the cover is actually quite important.

My debut novel, Best Friends With a Naked Girl, has a brand new cover, courtesy of a wonderful illustrator (Danielle aka CYNVII) whom I commissioned to draw it.

The process of working with someone else to create a book cover was a new one to me.  My writing has always been a solo venture: from the days when I first joined Literotica, to putting my book up for sale, I never talked about my work with anyone else. 

Funnily enough, as I was contemplating this post, I read about fantasy author Terry Goodkind, his dissatisfaction with the cover of his latest book as arranged by his publisher, and the fallout over his very public and pointed criticism of the cover, which unsurprisingly came across a lot like a mean-spirited attack on the illustrator, who was only following the brief given to them by the publisher.

Luckily, as a self-published author, I never had a publisher; my communication was direct with the illustrator.  They were not someone from the world of erotic fiction and, as far as I know (I've never asked, but one assumes...) had no interest in the specific themes of my writing which are, let's face it, pretty niche even in erotica.  But, they did illustration for money, were fine with doing somewhat NSFW art, and most importantly to me, had a style that I really liked.

That was the reason that, when I published Best Friends... back in January, it had a quite different cover.  I'd always wanted the book to have an illustrated cover. I'm a huge fan of Terry Moore's Strangers in Paradise comic series, (which definitely inspired me to write stories about women with complicated, non-heteronormative love lives despite being a straight Cis male).  I was in love with Moore's art style and the simple character-showcasing covers of the collected editions I own, and wanted something similar for my own work.

I also wanted something that would mark my book out as something a little different in the world of erotica.  A lot of erotic novels have covers that are quite similar (not quite this bad but definitely following a theme), using photographs of ladies in sexy lingerie or shirtless, handsome hunks, for a generic "this book has sex in it" message.  There's nothing wrong with those sorts of covers, they are kind of a classic, and many self-published authors have only limited options to create their book covers - not everyone wants to pay a graphic designer, after all, especially for a book that might only sell 100-200 copies across its entire lifetime.

But the sexy lingerie girl didn't, in my head, fit with what I wanted to suggest my book was about.  Sure, there is a buttload of nudity, masturbation, and sex both straight and lesbian.  But it's also supposed to be a cute, funny and ultimately romantic story about two chalk-and-cheese girls who find common ground and, maybe love.  I wanted my characters, having a good time, front and centre and the only way I could imagine achieving that was to draw them.

Only problem was, as an author who had never self-published a book before, I didn't have the first clue about creating a cover.  I tried my hand at doing my own (I'm not a terrible artist, I did a few album covers and t-shirts for bands back in the day) but I didn't have the necessary skill or software.  I tried approaching artists I admired who already drew work with erotic or nudist themes: all of these had their own projects which they were passionately committed to, and did not want to take on commission work.

I was very keen to publish, though, so I ended up knocking up a cover using Amazon's own app that it offers as part of the Kindle Direct Publishing service.  It did the job - fortunately I'd been able to find a photo that conveyed some of the spirit of fun I saw in my work - but it wasn't what I really wanted. 

Plus, it was a little too NSFW for the e-book retailers.  A downside to writing erotica is that if you make everything sound or look too sexy, the people who sell it will get cold feet - but if you make it completely sexless, nobody will take an interest.

Now, admittedly my image choice (a clothed blonde grabbing a naked brunette's breasts from behind) was a little across the line, but I hoped that, because there weren't any visible nipples or genitals, I'd be able to get away with it.

Of course, I didn't.  Smashwords rejected me for premier status (meaning my book would only be sold through their website, it wouldn't be put out to other retailers like Barnes & Noble) and over on Amazon, while you could still buy my book, it wasn't going to turn up in most searches unless the person doing the searching had disabled the site's ever-present adult filter. Some (clumsy) editing later, Smashwords were happy, but I was left wondering why I was insisting on having such a risque cover, when it wasn't even the cover I really wanted in the first place.

So I went back to looking for illustrators, and through the art community DeviantArt I found Danielle.  They had done a commission a couple of years back that was very Strangers in Paradise and their more recent work had a really awesome mix of stylised cartooning and physical realism which I felt was perfect.

Fortunately, unlike Terry Goodkind I was in full control of what was being commissioned, I gave Danielle a very detailed description of what I wanted, including how I had pictured the characters - I even included a photo I had seen that showed the sort of pose I had in mind. Danielle sent me drafts for approval and I made any changes I asked for (which weren't many, mostly it was just Becky's skin tone) and the overall experience was very positive. 

And the result speaks for itself.  I'm really happy with it and while I know it won't be everybody's cup of tea (I'm sure there are some readers who preferred the old cover) it's definitely different to what's on the front of most of the erotic and nudist fiction I see on the book retail sites.

If there's anything I would take away from this process, it's that things run smoothly when you show respect to the artist that you are asking to do the work.  Danielle, contacted by a random chap who wanted them to illustrate a self-published erotic novel, could have told me to get stuffed (or, more likely, just deleted my email) - instead, they were happy to work with me; and I like to think that part of that was because I didn't come across like a terrible pervert in my contact with them (in spite of the fact that I am actually a terrible pervert).

Secondly, show respect but also, pay them.  Unless a person offers to work for free, don't expect them to.  I was clear from the start with my illustrator that I knew I was to be a paying customer, that I was interested in their work but also needed to know the cost of that work and, once it was confirmed this was something that was affordable to me, I was in agreement that I would pay, and pay on their schedule and terms.  If you enter into an agreement that an artist is going to produce work for you for money, give them the money you agreed (unless they don't deliver the work, of course).  There is an element of trust involved, and I'm sure some artists have let clients down, but far more what I hear is artists explaining how they have been told that they should work for free because they can get "experience" and "boost their profile", which should be better than any financial reward.

It's true some artists may choose to work gratis in return for the experience, in order to improve their skills or make a name for themselves with prospective future clients - but that is down to the artist to choose to do that, you can't act as though you have a right, as the person commissioning them, to expect they will give their time and energy for you and expect nothing in return except that some people might see their work and think of hiring them.  Once again, if they don't offer to work for free, don't ask them to.

I'm hoping Danielle will be able to illustrate the cover of future novels I will publish, but if they aren't able to, I will look for another illustrator and whoever I work with, I will remember those two things - treat them with respect, and pay them what you owe.

Best Friends With a Naked Girl can be bought as an e-book from Amazon, Smashwords or Barnes & Noble.

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