Is using Image AI the future of creating innovative book covers?
Somtow (S.P. Somtow) is not only one of my favorite authors, but is a good friend. Though I live in Canada and he lives in Thailand, we chat regularly.
In one of our conversations Somtow asked me if I liked the cover he had just created for one of his newer books. I had seen the original cover and just LOVED the new one … it had a level of creepiness that was perfect.
Imagine my surprise when he told me that he had created the cover using an AI image program. Over the next few weeks Somtow created new covers for over a dozen of his books, including his classic Inquestor Series which he started writing over 40 years ago.
I was simply stunned by what he produced, so I asked him to answer a few questions for my readers. I’ve written a few articles about creating effective book covers, from not falling in love with your own cover to the detriment of sales, to my favorite hate — generic covers. I’m hoping that the following “interview” will give you some insight into another way of designing book covers that work.
BUT before we get started … for those of you who are not familiar with Somtow … I’ll try to not rave about him too much. He not only is a book author, and now a top faved Vella author, but he writes and conducts operas around the world. In the 80’s he wrote a best selling Sci Fi series The Inquestor Series and then switched gears and penned a horror book that is acknowledged as one of the most important classics of twentieth-century gothic literature. In fact, 40 years later Vampire Junction is still on the “suggested” reading list of many high schools, colleges and universities.
One of the things I love about Somtow’s writing is he has no boundaries. His mind and pen goes places many authors would never dare … all the while keeping his audience not only entranced but educated. I learned more about the Catholic church in his book Nirana Express, Somtow’s journey to becoming a Buddhist Monk than I had learned in previous decades!
Check out Somtow’s BIO for more information about this amazing writer, musician and now AI illustrator.
MELANIE: Questions in Italics
SOMTOW: Answers in Regular Font
Somtow, I’d love to know what inspired you to use an AI program for book cover design?
I had been entertaining myself by playing with AI art programs for some time, but this year, there was a quantum leap in AI’s ability to produce viable images. It was creating artwork that was actually useful for me, since I am publishing my own books nowadays and I have to come up with my own cover artwork.
To tell you the truth, my head has been totally buried in the sand about AI for the past few years. I didn’t even realize there were “image” AI programs. Can you briefly explain how these programs work?
The image creation works by taking text that you type in as a springboard. You can set the amount that it’s allowed to deviate from your “prompt.” You can also input an image of your own, like a photograph, as a starting point.
My prompts include the subject of the image in as much detail as I can think of, descriptions of style, light, color, medium, names of classical artists as reference material for stylistic issues, often several different artists so the software can draw from different styles.
You can also add negative prompts to indicate what the software should NOT produce.
Oftentimes, images are produced that I couldn’t have thought would derive from my prompts. These often lead to wilder and wilder images. So yes, there is a lot of trial and error. In the “negative” prompts you tell it not to add weird limbs or too many fingers, but it still does so a lot of the time.
If you are not happy with your first version, do you have to start again or can you make adjustments until you are happy?
Usually I ask it to produce nine or twelve versions from one prompt. I look at all of them and if one looks right, I can use it as a starter to come up with more versions.
I often do hundreds of versions. Luckily, it’s pretty inexpensive. In the old days the software was bad with faces but now faces are often brilliant. Hands and feet, though, can be very weird. People often have extra limbs or odd anatomy.
I would say that at least 75% of the results can’t be used, for one reason or another. One problem I have is not enough white space (not actually white, but space that is relatively free of imagery) making it hard to integrate with the necessary text for a cover. Some of the best images I have to reject for this reason, or else I have to crop them and use swaths of plain color to put the text on.
What is the role of human input in the design process ? What did you specify to get your starting cover?
Well, it’s really all about how you word the prompt, in the end. It has a vast amount of stuff in its database, but you have to access it, and it’s almost like collaborating with an idiot savant … you have to ask the right question before the results come tumbling out.
How does the AI program take into account the genre and target audience of a book when creating the cover?
AI doesn’t take anything into account unless you specify it in your prompt. I often mention genres, I haven’t tried target audience as prompt keywords yet.
I remember when you fist showed me one of your covers–The Lost Valentines. The next day I was on your Facebook page and you had posted the cover there. One reader mentioned that AI had not got the fingers right. I actually thought that the weird fingers “made” the cover by inserting a element of creepiness which was perfect for the subject. Many people looking at the cover might not identify what was wrong … but they would feel the “weird vibe.”
Which are your top two favorite covers so far?
Hard to say. Some of the ones I didn’t end up using are actually my favorite pictures. But they didn’t work as book covers for one reason or another.
LOL Since YOU are not going to commit, I will. One of my absolute favorite books is Delicatus not only for the amazing story but for the cover and the extra artwork you have created for inside the book. Stunning and beautiful!
Is the program you are using free or are there costs involved?
I’m using NightCafe which is not free, but cheap enough to spend a lot of time on trial and error. I have a monthly account that gives me 500 credits a month. I rarely have to go over. Nine attempts on a single prompt at the resolution I need comes to about 13.5 credits.
How do you envision the AI program evolving in the future and its impact on the book cover design industry?
It’s still a long way from being able to have a real creative conversation with an artist, but that may come sooner than we think. The art of illustration requires not only technical ability but also understanding, which these programs, so far, don’t quite have. For me the program works best when I prompt and one or two of its creations are nothing like what I visualized … yet happen to be something I never knew I wanted. Real artists don’t work with this level of “random”.
What advice do you have for authors or publishers considering using an AI program for their book covers?
In the end, it’s just one option. If you love the process of trial and error and refining your needs down from prompt to prompt, it can be fun to work with AI. But in the end it’s not a panacea. AI is literal minded. In the end your imagination has to steer the algorithm.
I can see from your description of having to go through 200+ revisions that you definitely have to be patient and willing to keep on “playing.”
I suspect that if one doesn’t already have a sense of what makes a good book design, they will end up going back to traditional methods of creating (please NO generics), purchasing or hiring designers. This would be especially true of anyone who is in a hurry for their cover.
Somtow, thanks so very much for showing us all what is possible, and for answering my questions.
When I started creating the banner for the top of this page, I asked myself if I was BRAVE enough to try using image AI?
Absolutely NOT … but if YOU want to play with creating a banner for this blog post … send me your results I “might” end up posting them.