If you’re new to purchasing covers, you may not realize just how many different ways there are to make a book cover. Far too many to even try to list. For example, some designers draw and paint a cover from scratch (illustration). Some designers take stock photos and use digital software like Photoshop to combine and manipulate them into a cover (photomanipulation). Still others manipulate 3d modeled assets in 3d software to create 2d images which they then manipulate, adjust, and paint in software like Photoshop (3d art).
There are a lot of other methods as well (trust me this is an oversimplification), but these are roughly-speaking the three most commonly used techniques in the genres I specialize in. Each of these approaches to cover design has its own advantages and disadvantages depending on your genre, budget, and needs, so if this is your first time purchasing cover art, it helps to know the advantages and limitations of each before you choose which type of cover art to purchase.
Illustration is completely customizable (depending on the illustrator's skill), but it often takes the most time of the three approaches discussed here and cannot be as easily or as quickly adjusted at later stages in the process once much of the detail work has been done. It also tends to be the most expensive of the three methods and it may not be affordable or even be possible to purchase the rights to sell commercial merchandise beyond books (e.g. t-shirts, notebooks, mugs) with the artwork.
And of course, your genre may not lend itself to a more illustrated look (e.g. historical romance), in which case having your cover illustrated could harm your sales in the same way that using a photorealistic cover in a genre that often uses more painted covers could harm your sales (e.g. middle grade fantasy).
Lastly, unlike photomanipulation and 3d art, where the basic quality of a character is dependent on the stock photo or the 3d asset (with the designer being responsible for how well they take advantage of and incorporate the photo/asset), the quality of the character itself in illustration is entirely dependent on the illustrator’s skill level, and well… anatomy is hard. As is digital painting in general. There’s a reason illustration costs the most, and it’s because illustrators have spent a lot of time learning a lot of difficult skills, all of which are required to create an illustration that works well. If you want a good illustration, you'll be paying for those skills.
And you'll want to be certain before you begin that the illustrator you choose has a lot of examples in their portfolio which match the exact style you want. While some illustrators can mimic other styles, I never recommend purchasing a style from an illustrator that you don't see in their portfolio already. Many illustrators do not have the skill, and if the style doesn't turn out the way you wanted, you'll be out of a lot of money.
In the end, this may be the right path for you depending on what you need, but you'll need to be sure you have the budget. While you may get lucky and find a brilliantly-talented illustrator just starting out who's happy to do your cover for a much smaller price than you expect, be aware that if they really are that talented, you may want to get all your series covers done at once. Don't expect talented illustrators to remain at a cheap price point for long.
Photomanipulation is usually less expensive than illustration and can give you great photorealistic faces which are important for some genres, but you’re restricted by the quality and availability of stock photos. For instance, it can be harder to find specialized stock photos (e.g. particular poses/hairstyles/clothing/character details like skin or hairstyle) or stock photos with the needed angles or lighting for the other stock photos you’re combining them with. You just can't turn the face on a stock photo to look more at the viewer for example.
For this reason, the best quality stock photos may appear in other book covers, and the uniqueness of your cover will depend greatly on the skill of the designer to manipulate stock well enough to avoid this similarity or on a designer purchasing more expensive stock which isn’t used as often (which then increases the overall cost of the cover).
Additionally, stock photos come with specific restrictions that require the purchase of extended licenses for any stock photos used in a cover to sell commercial merchandise beyond books (e.g. t-shirts, mugs, notebooks). These extended licenses often cost $50-$150 USD per photo and some photomanipulated covers can involve 5-10 stock photos. For many authors, this cost (in addition to any cost the designer may charge) will remove the possibility of selling commercial merchandise (and therefore introducing additional income streams) from the table.
And of course, if you’re doing a series of covers, you may not always be able to find additional images of the model used for the first cover unless you choose from a smaller subset of photos which have enough poses of the same model. And these are of course, the most used stock photos.
This may be the right option for you if your genre requires photorealistic covers (e.g. contemporary romance). Try to go with a designer whose portfolio you like and who manipulates more than a single image. That can help cut down on the most obvious similarities with other covers. Even still, don't be surprised when you see other covers using the same stock photo. It's just part of getting a photomanipulated cover. If you don't pay a rather hefty chunk of cash to get an exclusive stock photo, other people can use it in on their covers. While most readers in certain genres won't notice it (especially if your designer avoids the most overused photos), this may be more of an issue if you're in a genre with underserved stock photo needs. This is not an uncommon issue if you have very specific stock photo needs or if you're looking for minorities unfortunately.
3D art falls somewhere between photomanipulation and illustration. Because 3d models are used, there is a greater amount of available customization (e.g. poses, clothing, hairstyles, face/body shapes, relevant props) compared to photomanipulation. Since the models are not created from scratch each time, but are instead simply customized to look different than the base models and more like your characters, it usually takes less time than pure illustration (which means it can cost less, especially for repeat characters), and it’s possible for authors to see a more fully-realized main character much earlier in the process at a point where they can still easily make major changes to clothing, pose, face shape, or hairstyle without necessarily delaying the final cover’s completion significantly.
And since no stock photos must be used, it is possible (depending on what assets the designer uses and if the designer is willing) to let authors purchase a license to sell commercial merchandise beyond just books for a fee that benefits both the author (who gets the opportunity for several new income streams from merchandise) and the designer (who can earn a bit more for their own work without additional effort).
The biggest limitation to 3d art currently is the designer’s skill level at utilizing the models to their best ability and the quality of the model faces in their library (or the content of their library in general). If you’ve ever noticed characters on book covers that look “plastic” or have “dead eyes”, these are examples of either a designer that isn’t quite skilled enough yet in lighting, skin textures, or digital painting to avoid this or is using lower-quality 3d models.
If you decide to have your cover done with 3d art, your best bet is to look through a designer’s portfolio of work and judge the quality of the characters you see on the cover. (Assume that the quality you see in the majority of the covers is the quality you will get. Ignore outliers.). This can help put your mind at ease before booking a designer to create your cover with 3d art.
Furthermore, if your designer is using 3d models and you’re unhappy with the quality of the model’s face, you can always request the designer make additional adjustments or simply use a stock photo face. This may raise the price of the cover slightly for some designers (though not all), and/or it may require you pay for an extended license to use the created art for commercial merchandise, but as long as you’re comfortable with these adjustments, face swaps are always an option.
This may be the right option for you if you have very specific needs that are hard to find in photos (dragons, anyone?), you want more customization, and your genre permits a more painted or illustrated look. Because 3d art isn't dependent on a stock photo, you have much more immediate control over the clothing, the pose, the hairstyle, the skin color, the lighting, the angle, and all of these things that may simply not be possible if you have to use a stock photo. You can also often get the rights to sell commercial merchandise more easily/cheaply than with photomanipulation and it costs less than illustration.
All in all, each of the approaches has its own strengths and weaknesses, and in the hands of a great designer, the weaknesses of each approach are minimized while the strengths are highlighted. Some designers have more than one of these skills and may draw from each basket depending on what the cover needs, so it really depends on what your goals for your cover are.
I actually do mostly 3d art (3d model manipulation+Photoshop) with a nice dose of digital overpainting/illustration. Basically, I have a library of 3d models and assets that I can manipulate in an endless number of ways to create the exact character, pose, outfit, props, and look we want for a book cover.
For example, I can adjust extremely specific details of the face and body, and apply different types of skin textures, hair styles/colors, articles of clothing, clothing textures, and props. I can create a variety of backgrounds and then pose any of the models I’ve customized in a limitless variety of poses (from any angle) before applying different lighting effects to make the whole image really pop. And that’s just the initial render! (Renders are still images created by the 3d software based on the camera angle used to capture the image of a customized scene/character pose.)
Once the renders are created, I use Photoshop to do a fair bit of digital overpainting/illustration to create whatever the specific look is that we’re going for (e.g. a more photorealistic look, a more airbrushed look, a more painted look). At this stage, I can then add in a variety of magical and color effects, composite several different rendered images together so that they blend into a single cohesive image, and create a stunning title treatment complete with text effects to add that extra oomph to the final cover. And that’s my general process. If you look at the J. L. Wilson Designs Shop, you can see examples of my work, or you can join my facebook group to see more of the "behind the scenes".
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