In part one, I showed you examples of covers I liked. In this part, I’m going to show you how my ideas about the cover for The Forty-seven Words of the Broken Girl evolved over time.
The first cover
I designed this to celebrate the completion of my first draft. Because it uses two paintings I don’t have rights to, I’ve blurred them beyond usability. The girl is Lavinia, Countess Spenser by Sir Joshua Reynolds (with some significant color adjustments, especially to the hair). I would cry if I discovered you didn’t recognize the image of the firing squad, so please don’t post a comment that your art history education was so negligent that you don’t can’t tell when you’re looking at Francisco Goya’s The Third of May, 1808. Please, this is Goya.
When thinking about the cover to my novel, I wanted to capture my protagonist’s interest in math and science, show an image of what she might look like, suggest the violence that plagues her country and use some elements I had developed for the book, especially the seventeen-pointed star, which is the religious symbol for the major faith in the novel. Wheh! That’s a lot of elements. Combining them was going to be hard.
The math was taken care of by a pages scanned from a very early edition of Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica. While Isaac Newton doesn’t exist in Jinxx’s world, she reads the Folosufa Naturalush Prinustupía Medumatuca when she’s thirteen. I combined the Newton with a paisley pattern, reducing their transparency until I was satisfied that they formed a pattern instead of a foreground element. Texture matters, as you’ll see in the next iteration.
The portrait of Countess Spencer, recolored to get the hair right gave me a central focus and suggested the timeframe of the book. The Third of May, 1808 shows the execution of Spanish freedom fighters under Napoleonic French rule. While my novel is fictitious, its setting is similar to France and Spain just before the French Revolution, so it provides a sense of period violence. i screened it back to keep the focus on the Countess/Jinxx proxy.
The title type is Civilite Manual, a recreation of a 17th century handwriting used in French and Dutch legal documents. The star element was brought in on the spine and on the back cover.
What went wrong
In some ways, this remains my darling, and it’s hard to criticize. It’s quite lovely in the hand, where the background elements are more subdued (so subtle that I didn’t notice that I accidentally pushed the Newton layer down when I was working on it in Photoshop—its much more obvious in this RGB version). However, this cover has too many elements for a contemporary cover, with the need to be made into a 96-pixel tall thumbnail. Remember what I learned from The Hunger Games: minimalism.
It also suffers from genre-confusion: it looks like a historical fiction cover much more than a literary fantasy cover. The type feels right for fantasy, but the upper-case G is illegible to modern readers. If I was going to use this face, I’d have to draw my own G.
Apologies to Lavinia, Countess Spenser and Sir Joshua Reynolds, but the Countess’s portraits is missing a detail that I felt needed to be present: crutches. Jinxx is the Broken Girl because she can’t stand without them.
Finally, were this to sit on a shelf, the spine doesn’t work: the text is too hard to read reduced to the inch or so it has, plus the image I used (from one of my own photos) has too much contrast, further distracting from the text.
London’s Grade: B-
This is an attractive cover in many ways (at least when the images aren’t blurred out), but it doesn’t speak to the right audience, doesn’t stand up as a thumbnail and uses a title face that has severe readability issues. Bonus points for the Newton and the seventeen-pointed Star is important enough in the book that it works well as a back cover highlight.
Trying again and failing
When I realized my cover wasn’t what it should be, I decided to radically change it. Out when the baroque maximumist approach and in came minimalism.
Creating the design
Inspired by a conversation on The Book Designer’s blog, I wanted to find a critical moment like the designer of Scott Heim’s Mysterious Skin did (see part one for a discussion). I decided on the first massacre, an event that happens fairly early and echoes throughout the entire book. I drew the art in Adobe Illustrator, working for a simple illustrative style that drew the focus to the blood and the crutch.
I tried multiple type treatments for the title and author text, but I’m showing you this one because it most exemplifies the problem with the cover.
What went wrong
It’s tempting to say everything, but that’s not helpful. The primary problem is this cover looks nothing like a fantasy, YA or literary cover. It’s a dead-ringer for a murder mystery.. A bad one, alas, or at least an old one. If you found this in a used bookstore with a crumpled cover and yellowed pages, it would feel right. Heck, you might think ¢99 was the perfect price for it. But for my novel, the only thing going for it is the cute crutch.
Another problem: There’s blood, but no grit. Somebody’s dead and there’s no grime, nothing but clean lines. There have been times when this cover might have worked (or at least a better executed version of it). Before color photography reproduced well, line art was more common. Also troubling is the quality of the illustration. Clearly, this style isn’t my forte and I should have come up with a concept that didn’t play to a weakness.
Finally, while I have other typography treatments for this, this is a great example of why you have to use the right typeface on your cover. The type is a lovely face, Kabel, but not appropriate here. Kabel says sixties (or fifties), not contemporary, not fantasy. This is a cover to a novel with a Dunhill-smoking protagonist.
London’s grade: D
This is an example of minimalism misunderstood. The thing that makes The Hunger Games or any similar minimalist cover work is reducing the image to a single focal point. By illustrating the entire scene, I didn’t create a minimalist design. Instead, I was using a illustration style that’s largely gone out of fashion. That can work, but only when used intentionally, with a strong understanding of why one is doing so.
The Pointilist Pegasus
￼After sitting with the disappointment of the bad mystery cover, I watched Takeshi Kitano’s Hana-Bi. The psuedo-pointilist painting created with Japanese words instead of dots inspired me. Jinxx is obsessed with numbers: why not make a number-pointalist cover?
Once I decided to take a Seurat-by-numbers approach to my cover, I had to think about what to illustrate. Was there a single item or image that represented something important in the novel? There were a few contenders, but the Pegasus won out. It represents both Jinxx’s first introduction to magic and the turning point of the novel, without directly referring to those events. (See my discussion of the cover of Mysterious Skin for my enthusiasm for that approach.)
So what are those numbers? They aren’t random: they are the all the single-, double-, and triple-digit prime numbers.
Technical stuff again
I pulled the numbers from my list of the first 1,000 primes after randomizing them and pasted them into Illustrator, where I made a big block of numbers. (I also outlined them, for Illustrator users). Then I created three layers: one for each of the three pantone colors I used. This is a neat thing if this is printed on a conventional press: this is a three color print job, meaning that instead of using CMYK (where each color is represented by small dots of Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black). CMKY produces wonderful results, but can’t doesn’t necessarily reproduce colors precisely. Likewise, unless you’re using a well-calibrated, high-quality monitor, what you see on screen is unlikely to match what comes off the press (conventional or digital). By using pantone colors, I know exactly what the 100% tint of my three colors will look like should this go to press.
Faked CMYK under the magnifying glass
This is a fake version of what you might see if you magnified the cover of a CMYK print job. The effect is exaggerated, but shows how each color is made up of dots, even within solid color fields. Run as pantone spot colors, you’d only see printing artifacts at the edges of color fields, since the solid colors would be either pure ink or a stochastic scattering of dots to create a lesser density of ink.
“Painting” the image
I found an image of a pegasus I liked and pasted it into a layer in Illustrator and dragged down numbers to fill the space. Don’t do this if you lack patience. It took me about six hours. I’d estimate there are around 2,000 individual numbers on the image. I hadn’t planned on using the red numbers. They aren’t “pointillist,” but this was one of these artistic decisions that felt right once I’d experimented with it.
I used Egyptienne, an Egyptian or Clarendon style typeface. This style of type first became popular when Napoleon conquered Egypt and as prominent in ads at that time. Egyptienne is both “historically correct” and highly legible used in this odd way. My only regret is I didn’t kern the eleven, so there’s too much space between the ones, which makes them look less like an 11 than two 1s.
I haven’t settled on a title treatment. I’ve tried versions with Davinci Forward (left) and Adobe Jenson Pro (right). Both have merits. The Davinci is more playful and easier to read in this treatment. The Jenson is classical and dignified. Ultimately, the final type design will come down to my targeted audience. If I pitch this towards YA readers, I’ll use Davinci or another more casual face to make the cover more inviting and friendly. If I target literary fiction/cross-over readers, I may stick with the Jenson, possibly moving “the” down with “Broken Girl” to equalize the top and bottom lines. On the shelf, either treatment would work well, but in a thumbnail, I’m concerned with the Jenson treatment’s readability.
The author text
The final element is the author band. This is an important design element. It both creates a space for the author name to stand outside of the number texture (for readability) and clearly marks it off as a second element. The band also provides a sense of grounding to the page. Without it, the image felt like it was floating. The type is Jenson Pro Light Display, which has very fine elements. For a physical book, I’d keep this treatment, but for a thumbnail, I’d create a version with a heavier version of Jenson (Jenson is blessed with 32 weights, including italics—I loveit!). I use Jenson for my layout, so it ties to the interior design.
I’m too close to this design to grade it. Later on, I may spot things I hate and ditch the whole thing. (I have a back-up concept, although it would be much harder—and expensive—to execute.) I’m extremely pleased with this version of the cover. The background has enough texture to be interesting and the (as far as I know) unique numerical Seurat Pegagus is visually compelling. Like The Hunger Games the art is abstract enough to appeal to a reasonably wide range of potential buyers, but suggests something magical. By changing title treatments, this cover can target any of the audiences my novel might appeal to.
What lessons should other writers take away?
The primary lesson is that if you create your own cover, give yourself plenty of time to live with it before using it on a commercial work. I fell in love with my initial design and might well have gone to press with it had I finished my manuscript sooner and was self-publishing. I’ve seen too many self-published novels with bad covers to overstate this. Your cover is a big deal and if you aren’t a designer or artist who understands the basic principles of design, tread cautiously. Don’t just throw up a pretty typeface without thinking about how the letters work together—please! I recently saw an author website that used a decorative face for body copy. Decorative and title faces rarely work as body copy.
If you aren’t creating your own cover, keep in mind there are three elements to design: concept, art and typography. All three should be targeted to your audience. If you’re self-publishing, its your responsibility to know your target audience and what competing titles are doing cover-wise. Make sure your designer understands your novel well-enough that the design reflects your manuscript. That doesn’t necessarily mean your designer should read your entire novel—arguably, reading only the synapsis may give the art director critical distance to see possibilities that you wouldn’t. However, if you feel uncomfortable with the concept, make sure the designer can explain the choice to go in that direction.
Execution matters as much as concept. If you’re commissioning artwork, make sure it feels right for your audience. Ideally, a designer will steer you towards illustrators who understand the formats you’re going to be selling your book in. Press run, print-on demand and digital ePub art all have different requirements. Press run, in particular, requires that art is technically correct. Technical errors can be costly to fix if you’re paying for a press run, so make sure you see proofs before you print and if there are errors, insist your artist fix them (and make that part of the contract).