Thursday, October 22, 2015

Evolution of a Book Cover

Another quality post brought to you by Steve!

Howdy, loyal blog readers!  Some exciting news this week.  My newest publisher Mirror Matter Press released the cover for my upcoming novel EVERY KINGDOM DIVIDED (and their flagship novel - ulp!) this week.  And we'll get to that in just a minute, but I thought it might be interesting to look at the covermaking process, which is something I believe we've never covered (ha!) here on Across the Board before.

So, first I should caveat this by saying that my experiences with EVERY KINGDOM DIVIDED are not "typical" for a number of reasons.  First of all, Mirror Matter (a new imprint of Sinister Grin) is a small press.  Now as we have discussed on ATB before, the small press experience is always going to differ from self-publishing or traditional publishing.  For me, pubbing with small presses has been a Goldilocks experience between the control the author must cede to a Big 5 house and the batshit amount of work that an author/publisher has to do.

Covermaking is, in my understanding, much the same.  There are horror stories of big houses totally ignoring the author's wishes in regards to covers, which has resulted in nightmare scenarios like characters being depicted as the wrong race, covers having nothing to do with the content, and so on.  Alternately, as a self-publisher, the cover is completely up to you, but you have to pay for it, and you have to have the eye for it, and that can just be its own nightmare if you don't.  

Now, I should point out that at a recent convention when fellow Boarder Mary Fan and I were outlining this basic breakdown, senior Tor editor Marco Palmieri chimed in to say that we were being a bit harsh on traditional publishing, and that he always tries to take the author's opinion into account and reach a happy level of parity.  Which leads to my second point: Your Mileage May Vary (YMMV.)  Not only is Mirror Matter/Sinister Grin a small press, it's also just one small press.  My covermaking experiences have differed from this one just in my dealings with Severed Press and Red Adept Publishing.

So, with all that as a caveat, let's take a look at how the EVERY KINGDOM DIVIDED cover came to be.  First, Matt at Mirror Matter asked me if I had any ideas for the cover.  The truth was I had anticipated this question based on my dealings with my other publishers, so I had, in fact, at some point drafted a rough idea for a cover.  And here it is: 

And this is why I don't trust myself to self-publish and be in charge of my own covers.

"Beautiful," right?  EVERY KINGDOM DIVIDED takes place in 2035, after the Culture Wars have turned hot and the Red States and Blue States have dissolved our glorious union.  By a quirk of fate a Blue and a Red end up travelling together from California to Maryland in an old-fashioned gas-powered car.  Most of the story is a road trip, then, across a dystopian, post-apocalyptic former United States, ravaged not by aliens, zombies, or plague but by politics.

I would forgive you for not getting all of that from my sketch above.

So the concept is basically they're on the road, obviously in the same car, but the scene is metaphorically split.  One half is blue and one is red, and the tear through the United States in the background is also metaphorical.  The stick figure with hair is our heroine (obviously - you can tell because she has hair.)

However, after discussing the matter with Matt and handing over this sketch, by some miracle their cover artist managed to return this:

Quite a leap forward, eh?  Now, first of all, I want to point out that this is original artwork.  None of my covers to date (with the exception of a few of the anthologies that I've contributed to) have featured original artwork.  For cost purposes, covers are usually composed of stock photos, which are purchased very inexpensively by the artist (who usually has an account at Shutterstock or the other various stock photo websites) and then is photomanipulated.  That's why I've seen the cover model for BRAINEATER JONES show up on other books.  Mary Fan and I have even been known to play a game called "Spot Jane" since the cover model for her Jane Colt series is extremely popular.

This cover, though, is original art.  Quite pricey.  Now, I don't discuss bookkeeping with Mirror Matter, as that's none of my business, so I don't know if they have an in-house artist, or if they hire a freelancer who gives them a discount because they order in bulk, or if they simply just splurged on EVERY KINGDOM DIVIDED since it'll be their flagship.  Judging by Sinister Grin's previous covers, I can tell they put a premium on original art, so whatever the case, I'm just delighted that it turned out in my favor.

Now at this point the artist asked everybody's opinion, that is, mine and the owners and editors.  As I pointed out, I have precisely zero eye for this sort of thing so I asked a few friends.  And basically the consensus was that the U.S. in the background needed to pop more.  Matt also pointed out that in the context of the story the convertible was a rustbucket, so that needed to be more obvious.  And the artist came back with these two updates:

So, here you see the U.S. pops more, and the car is obviously a rustbucket.  I like how it didn't really take much for him to change the whole aesthetic.  Adding some dents and some wires holding the hood down are enough to get the whole point across.

You'll also note that in this version, the blue and red split at the top of the page gradually shifts to a more realistic appearance at the bottom of the page.  The car and the road are basically "real."  And as for our heroes, we opted, at Matt's suggestion, to keep them "gray" both in keeping with the color theme and their morally gray behavior in the book.

In fact, the only difference between these two is that the crack is black in one and white in the other.  I think we were all more partial to the white crack due to the color scheme.  (It's not like the U.S. colors are red, black, and blue.)  We briefly toyed with the idea of having something in the white crack, writing perhaps, as though the book were literally split in two.  I briefly wondered if having that be the text of the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence or something might be interesting, but ultimately I think we all agreed the cover was busy enough as is.  So all that was left was to add the title and byline:

Ain't that a beaut?  Quite a change from my original MS Paint design, too, isn't it?  The title coloring re-emphasizes the political themes and also gives it a cohesive look.  Throughout the course of making this cover I've been showing it to people and asking what they think the book's about.  Tonight I showed the final image to someone and they guessed just about on the nose.  And I think at a minimum it's intriguing.

So, how about you, dear readers?  What's been your experience with the covermaking process?  If this topic doesn't get a robust debate going in the comments I'll be very surprised.


Carrie Beckort said...

First things first - congrats on the upcoming novel!

Second - thanks for sharing your cover process. I love seeing how it developed from concept to final. And you are so lucky to have people willing to work with you!

I'm like you in that I know a good cover when I see one, but don't ask me to design one! When I started my self-publishing journey I knew how important the cover was, and I knew my limitations. So I started researching and found a designer that I thought met the things I was looking for. It's been great working with Scarlett Rugers. Our process is that I tell her what I'm looking for - dark, hopeful, clean, people/no people, etc. and as much about th novel as I can, including key elements. Sometimes she will read the entire novel if she feels she needs more info. I might even name a few covers that I think have the general tone/feel I'd like for the cover. Then I let go of control and see what she comes back with. I hired her for a reason, and I know she would be able to give me so much more if I let her think of the concepts herself. For 2 out of my 3 covers, I didn't ask her to change much of anything. They are very close to her original concepts.

It really needs to be a partnership between the author and the designer. I've had nothing but success so far with Scarlett Rugers.

Kimberly G. Giarratano said...

I love the final result. I'm one of those writers who can see the cover in her head but has no idea on how to execute. I don't know how to use Photoshop so I hire designer who take my ideas and make them a thousand times better.

My cover artist for Dead and Breakfast, the wonderful Rachel Lawston, did a secret pinterest board with me. She pinned covers and I commented on what I liked and didn't like about them. From that, she knew exactly what kind of aesthetic I was looking for. I knew I liked detailed design and silhouettes and that I wanted a conch shell on the cover to represent the Key West setting. I love my cover and she hit it out of the park.

Having a good relationship with a cover designer is key for indie authors.

Stephen Kozeniewski said...

Very cool. :) Can you share her contact links, Carrie? I would think our readers would appreciate being able to check her out after that ringing endorsement.

Stephen Kozeniewski said...

Oh, wow, that Pinterest idea is inspired. Once in a blue moon I'll put novel ideas on an IRL whiteboard because it helps to visualize it.

Also, same question as Carrie: can you share some of Rachel's contact info? Maybe this post will end up being a good resource for folks looking to find a good cover designer.

Carrie Beckort said...

Great idea - here's the link to her website:

Jonathan Schramm said...

What a before and after! I haven't gotten to that point yet, but this was quite the education. Thanks for sharing! Now I'm going to see if I can spot Jane...

Stephen Kozeniewski said...

Spotting Jane is fun. We'll have to remember to ask Mary some of the places we've spotted her.

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