Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Pre-made covers - good or bad?

With the rise of self-publishing we've also seen the rise of pre-made ebook cover suppliers.

I'll be honest – these pre-made cover sites make me cringe. And they're putting hardworking artists and designers out of work. A quick search will bring you up with an overwhelming number of cheap ebook cover sites to choose from.

But if I were writing a book, I would want a cover made with my story in mind. 

Just browsing these sites, it soon becomes clear just how samey many of the covers are; dreamy montages of stock images and typography which looks like anything from the current list of Amazon bestsellers. And you can often spot them a mile off.

Granted, some of these suppliers use their own illustrators or 3D renderings for the covers, and in that case you do at least have a unique piece of work in one sense. But the majority of these sites sell book covers made up of stock image montages, because stock or Royalty Free (RF) images are high quality, cheap to purchase and also quick and easy to work with. You do see some excellent covers, but an equal number of awful ones, and its nearly always down to the execution than the actual image. 

The use of RF imagery on covers can be a tricky one – that's exactly the sort of thing these images are intended for, and it is a perfect solution to many covers, particularly when used creatively. But this does mean that anybody else could use the same image on their cover (albeit in another context), and there's nothing you can do about it. With that in mind, it all comes down to the designer's execution and any treatments used on the images – and it is those things which make it stand out.

There are many big-name authors, whose covers are often very well put together stock image affairs (with the suppliers usually credited on the back). The obvious difference here is that a designer has clearly spent a lot of time working up designs for the publisher and marketing teams and striving to get the right cover. It's also highly likely that they've actually read the book, too.

So my concern is not at all with the use of stock imagery, but the one-size-fits-all approach many of these pre-made cover sites take, and the astounding assumption that an author, who has slaved tirelessly on their book for years, will be quite content with a £30 off-the-shelf style cover. This is simply discrediting to the author. 

Put two creative people together and you get a synergy, and there's nothing more rewarding than the fruits of a brainstorm between an author or publisher and a cover artist. Why cut that out of the process?

The perfect cover will come out of those discussions. You want your cover artist or designer to care about your book as much as you do, and it is through that process (which also includes visuals, different options and revisions), that your book gets the cover it deserves. 

The bottom line is, you get what you pay for. 
And your cover should be as unique and individual as your book.

The Great Digital Art Debate

Nobody can deny that digital art has become an accepted art form, certainly over the last decade. It plays a vital part in the entertainment industry, from concept art for films and games, through to book cover design and illustration.

Any artist working digitally will have come from a traditional medium background of painting or illustration. For me, working digitally gave me the best of both worlds and has allowed me to explore a colour palette that I could never satisfactorily achieve with traditional paints, and it also came without the mess. I'll be the first to admit that paint was never my preferred medium – give me ink or pencil and I'm happy.

So as far as the design and creative industries go, digital art is a crucial commercial skill and one in high demand, with fierce competition. As a medium, it has certainly found its home on the commercial industry side of things.

But is it art?

Of course it is. Just a browse through some of the thousands of artists showcasing their stunning digital works on the Deviantart website demonstrates its versatility. For many artists it is their preferred medium of expression.

Then I hear you cry, "But there's no original!" 

And this sparks an interesting discussion. On numerous occasions when I have been exhibiting my digital art (signed, mounted one-off prints), people have said "I'd buy it if it were an original" and that sort of thing.

I thoroughly understand and accept the "no original" argument from a collector's point of view – there are the obvious facts like the value of a piece and it being the only one of its kind. I have no problem with that and the truth is, it doesn't really apply to digital art.

Of course there is an original - and it's a digital file on a hard disk. But there is no physical original as such. A print is perhaps as original as a piece of digital artwork can get. Some artists may produce one print and that's it. Others may go to the extent of supplying a buyer with their hard disk, or at least the original file on a CD or USB stick, having erased the original – but then you don't hang a USB stick on your wall.

Digital art is a medium in its own right by today's standards, and one in which it is accepted that there is no physical original. However, the amount of time, creativity and effort which go into a making a digital piece is often no different to that of a painted canvas. You can achieve the same nuances, minute details and unique touches of the artist's hand – and all that simply depends on the artist. The major difference is one is made of paint, one is made of pixels.

Funnily enough, at this year's Novacon art auction, I sold several prints of digital art. The one original in my display (a black & white ink drawing) didn't sell.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Another Nova Over...

As I arrived at Nottingham's Park Inn Hotel on Friday afternoon, it really didn't feel like a year had elapsed since last year's Novacon. Here I was already about to do it all over again. And here are my personal highlights...

Novacon 45 saw the usual mix of socialising, book launches and talk panels, which included a superb mix of science, science fiction and publishing. This year's Guests of Honour were writers Stan and Anne Nicholls – lovely people, whose books I've come home with and look forward to reading.

As usual my involvement was exhibiting at the art show, which this year saw a really good variety of artists and styles, including resident artists David A. Hardy and Sue Jones, and first-time displays from Anne Nicholls, with a selection of delightfully eerie fantasy paintings, and Mike Gould, whose display of disturbed surrealism and abstracts really gave the art show a different edge.

Even if overall attendance appeared to be slightly less than usual (this was at least my perception), the art room had a pretty constant influx of visitors, which was nice.

My own art display

Having recently produced my first cover for independent publisher Elsewhen Press, it was great to meet up with the team again at Novacon, and also meet many of their other authors. Most significantly, I was instantly welcomed into what has become known as the 'Elsewhen Family', and treated to dinner at a nearby Indian restaurant. Great company, great food and great conversation – who could ask for more?

This year also saw the Initiative for Interstellar Studies (I4IS) make their Novacon debut. While I4IS' mission is centred around creating a sustainable future in the stars and the technology and engineering required, much of its foundation really stems from science fiction – so Novacon being a heavily literary and science-oriented event, this was certainly the perfect audience for I4IS.

Director Kelvin F. Long with the I4IS display in the dealer's room

Sadly, the tragic events in Paris did affect the mood of the event come the Saturday morning – I don't intend to dwell on this, as I simply cannot find sufficient words. But needless to say, knowing what devastating acts stupidity were going on just across the Channel, did make our little event feel futile and irrelevant. But in the same sense it also highlighted the community feel at the heart of Novacon, and brought the crowd together. It was a topic on everyone's lips.

I attended various discussion panels over the weekend, including a fascinating genre discussion, touching on the vibrant YA scene and the ups and downs of self-publishing and the ongoing struggle to be fond or seen in a heavily saturated market. This had actually evolved out of an initial discussion about what makes decent SF, and if anything I found these subjects very insightful and posed questions that the publishing and self-publishing industries will need to find answers and solutions to in the very near future. Writers on the panel included Bryony Pearce and Janet Edwards.

Floodtide author Helen Claire Gould (wife of the aforementioned Mike) was present for the whole weekend, and presented an original panel on geology, which involved an interesting examination of various stones and rocks, where the audience got to participate and look at them under magnifiers, which in no time were being compared to strange alien landscapes!

The audience rocked up to the stage (literally) to examine Helen's geology collection.

Sunday saw the launch of Katrina Mountfort's Forbidden Alliance (out now from Elsewhen Press). This is a cover I'm extremely proud of, particularly because because Mountfort's Blueprint series is exactly my kind of dystopian SF. I had really enjoyed the first book, Future Perfect, so it was great to see Forbidden Alliance have its official launch – complete with mugs and t-shirts!

Katrina Mountfort and Elsewhen Press' Peter Buck

Author, book, artist and t-shirt!

The Sunday afternoon saw the traditional art auction, where work from the show went under the hammer – a pleasing time for us artists, as a chance to make a bit of cash!

Closing the panel of events was the Initiative for Interstellar Studies, with Kelvin F. Long's enthralling and passionate talk on The Physics of Starships in Science Fiction.

But, in no time at all, it was all over. Again! It's always a slightly sad moment on the last day to be disassembling the art show, which we'd lovingly installed on the Friday afternoon – the art show organisers Serena and John work tirelessly every year to put on a great show and they really know how to look after their artists.

A great event, as always and a pleasure to meet so many nice and likeminded people. Here's to Novacon 46!

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

New album: TIMESHIFT

Time flows around us.  It swirls and eddies through our lives, changing our view of what is happening around us every moment, of our memories of the past, and of our hopes for the future.  Nothing stays the same – there is perpetual movement and we may feel helpless in the midst of its flow.

This is an excerpt from the wonderful introduction written by Richard Hayes, for my new instrumental album, Timeshift.

When making an album I nearly always begin with a concept and a title, and work backwards from that. With Timeshift, this was not the case. I had started off composing some new music for the simple pleasure of making music, and from that, other tracks emerged. Soon I was on a roll. But there was no theme, at least back then. And there certainly wasn't an album title.

Themes gradually began to emerge as I produced more music, and one recurring mood was that of night. The images of rainy city streets, illuminated architecture and the way familiar scenes are transformed by the setting of the sun and the onset of night.

This is also the time when we dream, and our minds take us on unanticipated adventures as we visit worlds that we can only see through the medium of sleep. I've always found it fascinating how you can have a dream which lasts for hours or even days – complete with nights in between – yet you've actually had that dream in a matter of minutes.

In my mind, the moods and atmospheres of the music I was making reflected this, but also as the basis for a very Earth-based album, which looks at the passing of time and the general uncertainties you face in life. I've spent a lot of time making music with a space or science fiction concept, so at least for me, it was refreshing to make music that in my ears, felt at home when you're simply walking around town.

At the same time, instrumental music is not unlike an abstract painting, in that the music is open to interpretation, and you can make of it what you want.

As a synesthete, the colour of the music is ever at the forefront of my imagination, and this is often reflected in the album artwork. When making the album, I was seeing a lot of blacks and greens, with occasional shimmering gold. The album artwork came together very quickly – sometimes this is a lengthy process, and hard to get right. Other times, you get it right first time, which was the case here! Once the artwork was in place, I knew it would decide what it wanted to be called soon after. Within the last couple of weeks of mixing the album, the title Timeshift came about.

Now, it's over to you...

Timeshift is available via Bandcamp, priced £7. 
The full album download comes with a PDF booklet.