Saturday, June 20, 2015

Assignment: rejacket about half of Mel Keegan ... and do it in three days, thank you. Ouch!

Click on all images to see at large size!
Every so often an assignment comes along, right out of the blue, and you wonder how in the world you're going to pull this particular rabbit out of the hat. This one was a beauty. Produce something like fifteen book covers, and get them "good to go" in two or three days, max! Ouch.

You're asking yourself, why this should be necessary? It's a long story, and one that caught me unawares. I'm rather out of touch with the business end of publishing at this point, because --

As the more observant Mel Keegan fans can hardly fail to have noticed by this time ... DreamCraft has actually closed its doors. This has been a while coming, and the close-down process was underway for more than a year, but ...

Yes, we've gone. DreamCraft as we knew it has passed into history, while Dave and I have gone on to other things; and I know this has left Mel somewhat high and dry. It's always like this when publishers close, and alas they tend to close their doors quite often, leaving writers scrambling. (Sorry, guys. We reached a point where it was necessary: life, the universe and ... everything.)

Since DreamCraft has been spiraling down for a long, long time, I haven't been keeping up with the changing requirements of the vendors, such as Kindle and Smashwords. All this, I passed right along to Mel, who's been keeping his titles online, right where they've always been.

Everything was smooth sailing till he received a surprise email from Smashwords, informing him (along with several gajillion other writers and publishers) that Sony's cover art requirements had changed. Say, what?!

Out of the blue, Sony (as in, the iBook store), decided they wanted BIG images to illustrate their catalog. Heaven only knows why, because teeny little thumbnails are all they ever display -- but Kindle has this same requirement. Beats hell out of me: don't ask. Truth is, it also probably beats hell out of Mark Coker, the boss at Smashwords, which is the vector and portal by which folks get into the Sony store, right? For years, Mark Coker's requirements ran along the lines of small images, 400x600, that kind of thing: small and quick to up/download -- made sense.

Then, bam! Not only does Sony tell Smashwords, the distributor, that they'll be needing BIG cover images, but also, nobody's going to be grandfathered in ... so all you guys out there who have looong backlists at Sony, supplied via Smashwords, will have to upload new cover art. Oh, brilliant.

Now, this might not be a problem when a book is pretty new and the art's on hand -- but what about books that go back many years? Do you still have the art? What version? What size? You guessed...

Most of the art for the Mel Keegan covers goes back as much as ten YEARS ... some of it doesn't even exist anymore at large size. We had a hard drive crash and lost a tonne of data a long while ago. It was never an issue, as the old covers were just "there," sitting where they needed to be, in an acceptable format --

Until suddenly they were no longer acceptable. And there was no way ... none! ... to just open up an old file and whip up a big version. Soooo...

Leave it to Gmail to dump two out of three of the Smashwords notifications directly into the trash, so Mel didn't know anything about this till almost the eleventh hour. Then, leave it to Mel to not check emails for long enough that the covers on 15 of his titles had actually gone down at iBooks before he realized what was going on, and sent up the balloon! (Okay ... Mel's working hard and putting up with way too much strife in his personal life for me no apportion any blame here, in reality. Just kidding, kiddo.)

So: panic. "Help! I need about thirty BIG covers fast, what can we do?!

 "We?" What's all this "we" business?!

First thing I did was go through the old hard drives, searching for the ancient developmental files for the old covers. Found some that worked just fine. HELLGATE stuff -- no problem. Images like MORE THAN HUMAN, HOME FROM THE SEA and whatnot -- these are new enough for the art to be there when you look for it. So half the list was easy.

The problem was, I came up fifteen covers short. Fifteen book covers that are going to represent Mel, catch the eye and (duh) convince prospective readers to part with dosh, in the Sony store. Gak. What now?

Now, you're going to have to get creative; and whatever you're going to do, you better do it fast. So the job can't involve fifteen new paintings, each of which take a whole day ... nor can it involve fifteen new Lux renders, each taking up to 40 hours! The window of what was doable was fairly small. Hmm.

The first thing I looked at was using a powerful imaging engine to double the size of some of the old renders. Irfanview is the best I know for this: better than Photoshop. Sorry, guys. It just is. So I was able --

-- to get some pretty good base art to work with; and then a lot of painting began. For example, check out the cover for GROUND ZERO. That one was worked up from a small image enlarged by a 2:1 ratio. The result was good enough to pass muster, when a lot of digital painting was added over the top.

We got away with a few covers using this technique. Another two that were workable-with on this model were SHADOW AND FLAME and TIGER, TIGER. But...

-- for a number of the others, it just wasn't going to work. In some cases, the only artwork surviving was way too small, and in a couple of cases there was nothing for it: it was a fresh render, or bust! And in two cases even this was impossible, and the problem was cured with public domain artwork over which a tonne of digital painting was performed.

The covers using the public domain art are FORUNES OF WAR and WHITE ROSE OF NIGHT. And the two for which the new renders were done are BREAKHEART and CALLISTO SWITCH. (Also, the work for AN EAST WIND BLOWING was interesting, since it was compiled from an old render of mine from years ago and a public domain photo of the Sutton Hoo Saxon-era helmet, plus a lot of Photoshop work.)

And in one case, I got to do a "flash" painting at high speed: STORM TIDE. This one actually turned out to be a damned good painting, even though it was whipped together in under an hour. It's a photo of a storm sky from years ago, and a photo of the ocean from last December, joined at the horizon line and then color-matched in Photoshop ... and then a lot of overpainting using Photoshop brushes. I have to admit, I was surprised and pleased by the results. I'm quite proud of this one!

Finding the original art for the TIGER, TIGER cover was an adventure ... a trip through history in the form of hard drives that haven't been accessed in a looong time. But there it was, albeit too small to be useful today. Irfanview did a terrific job of resizing it, and then a lot of Photoshop work was done on top of the art, to bring it up to scratch for today's usages...

And in the course of hunting this one down, I stumbled over rafts of digital art going back to something like 2005-2007 ... many PCs ago, and long before my association with 3D and Photoshop. Dang, but there's some gorgeous art there! Am going to dig it out, and post it on the blog here because ... well, it ain't 3D as such, but it's gorgeous art that I haven't seen in years. The truth is, I'd forgotten all about it.  So watch out for a post or two resurrecting all this stuff.

This is the first project where I've ever used public domain -- mashable -- images. The images for this one, above, and for FORTUNES OF WAR, were sourced from Wikimedia ( where the provenance of the images is supplied, and licensing details provided, so that you, as an artist, can be sure you're allowed to do what you're doing. They have about a zillion images, but you'd be surprised how few are available on any given topic. You're not choosing from 200 images of Cruades era subjects, for example; so getting a picture to fit is something of a crapshoot. With these two, we were lucky.

So, with the artwork more or less sorted, the next job was figuring out a format to hold it -- a template. Mel is wrangling his backlist himself right now; and this will likely continue to be the case. It made sense to draw the old titles together as "The Mel Keegan Collection," and this made it easy to design a quick, eye-catching template ... which you see here. Nice!

So, the whole assignment took a smidgen under three days, and the uploads were done by the end of that third day. Whew! And when I'd actually sunk my teeth into it, it was actually a lot of fun. Gave me the chance to do some work in Bryce 7 Pro that would otherwise never have occurred to me -- such as the new render for CALLISTO SWITCH, which you see on the left here.

Packed among the materials in Bryce 7 Pro is a fantastic set of photographic textures of the planets ... Jupiter, Mars, Io, what have you. This was a marvelous chance to load up a spaceship model, make some spheres, slap on the textures, set the lights, and click Render!

The interesting this about this one is that by the time I came to do this render the template had been designed, and I was able to have Bryce render this picture at the exact dimensons I wanted it. It's so odd, watching Bryce render something that looks like ... a bookmark. Then it went into Photoshop for some overpainting which reminds you somewhat of MORE THAN HUMAN, and ... done.

The question a great many readers will be asking right now is, what's next for Mel Keegan, since DreamCraft has pulled up stumps and vanished into the night...

Last I heard, MK was talking to a couple of publishers, though I have no idea which ones they are, or what the outcome of talks might have been. What I can tell you is that, for the time being, Mel Keegan is actually in control of the old DreamCraft domain and brand. Yep -- he owns the domain. His existing books will remain online at Amazon, Kindle, iBooks, Nook, Kobo and what have you.

What about new books? Well, publishing is nowhere near as easy as many writers assume! If Mel goes that route, he's about to find himself wrangling the zillion-and-one details that make your life ... interesting. Tell me about it. And yes, he'll probably do that. And yes, I'll tell you about it when something comes along, because I've put up my hand to do cover art ... this was fun!
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