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Creating a Book Cover, Seriously This Time

The not-so-jolly fat man here again, peeps. Apparently Mary Anne had wanted a serious post, even though she knows I hate serious. I think everything should be fun and funny, especially for an audience. I'm not so different from my wife in that aspect; she's trying to provide her readers an escape from their humdrum everyday lives through fantastic love stories, where I try to lighten everyone's mood via humor.

But she wants serious, so now I'll take you there.

My humor piece last week had some kernels of truth buried in it. I do ask Mary Anne to provide me with a (very short) plot summary and who the main two or three characters are. If I give her any leeway on that she'll ramble on for many minutes on plot tangents and minor (and sometimes even expendable) characters.

So when she tries to give me ideas on what to put on the cover, she basically wants me to put something from every single scene and event in the book. A book cover cannot and should not have a picture of every scene in the book. Reasons:

  • Space - There's simply not enough room on a blank 8" x 5.25" area to put a dozen or so scenes.
  • Confusion - If you want to make your cover as unattractive as possible, you can start out by making it an undecipherable crazy-quilt.
  • Spoilers - Should the potential reader somehow be intrigued by the aforementioned crazy-quilt and succeed in deciphering it, they will have figured out the entire book and thus have no need to read it.

I don't blame Mary Anne really. The thought process that enables her to write these books is the very thing that prevents her from making an attractive book cover: she is inside the book looking out, not outside the book looking in.

However, it's the latter viewpoint that must be taken into account when designing the cover, because that's obviously the only way a potential reader can approach a book she hasn't read yet. And nobody, especially a busy woman who needs romance novels to escape her hectic day, wants to devote a huge chunk of time just looking at a book cover to decide whether it's worth buying or not.

So my job in designing the cover is to convey the "feel" of Mary Anne's book without bogging it down in detail and to make it enticing to the potential reader.

There are two main things I do to accomplish these goals. I use archetypal elements and avoid facial depictions.

Archetypal elements catch the viewer's eye immediately and allow her to get a feel for the book's content at a glance. Color can be considered an element here as well; for example, I used different colors of butterflies to convey a symbolic struggle of good versus evil and white to symbolize innocent neutrality on the cover of A Sixth Sense of Forever.

Avoiding the depiction of faces not only allows the viewer to imagine a more beautiful heroine or a more handsome hero than you could find in time-consuming model search, but also allows her to put herself into the heroine's place, thereby investing herself emotionally in the story both on the cover and in the book once she picks it up.

Let me further explain these techniques using the front cover I recently made for Mary Anne's soon-to-be-published Griffin's Law.

I gathered from her plot description and how it related to her title that it was about a law professor falling for one of his students, after some sort of reluctance to do so. Something of a seduction story. So when I think of archetypes of classroom seduction, what do I think of? Hotties in naughty schoolgirl outfits, of course! A search of stock photos brought up a nearly perfect depiction of what I wanted:

Nearly perfect, but not perfect. The setting is right, the model's body is great, her face is definitely pretty... but I don't want to show her face. Why? Because her face prevents the viewer from being the naughty schoolgirl. It limits the imagination, and that's bad.

Avoiding the model's face presented some technical problems. The right side of the picture was not big enough to simply crop the face (and the rest of the body near it) and be done with it. So what I had to do was to isolate the model from the background and move her to the left, cropping out her face in the process:

So now I had her ready to put into place, tramp stamp and all. Except... I didn't have anything in the picture to let the viewer know the classroom was in a law school. I could have tried to integrate another entire archetype, like scales or a gavel or a Lady Liberty statuette, but that would have meant another laborious search and cluttering up the cover with more elements.

I asked myself, "How do I fix this problem?" A short analytical glance at the current element gave me my answer. The tramp stamp! It was distracting because while it served the purpose of showing the girl to be naughty, the stamp itself had no meaning.

I would simply replace it with a more relevant tramp stamp. An iconic one:

I "erased" the original stamp on the girl and did some cosmetic work on her lower back:

Then I worked some perspective, opacity, and color magic on the clipart scales and VOILA! a new tramp stamp:

Work on the naughty schoolgirl completed, I then put the chalkboard in place and added all the necessary shadows:

All of the pictoral elements were done, now for the textual elements - the title, the author, and a slogan.

Fonts are tough. Most romance novels, particularly the historical types, would have a flowery script as the typeface. Griffin's Law, though, is a contemporary romance, so a flowing script font was not really appropriate. I needed something "lawyerly". I chose Palatino Linotype, since it has serifs and looks professional, but it's not the dreaded Microsoft Word default Times New Roman (ugh).

Text color is important too. I was going to go with a yellowish-golden color that matched the tramp stamp, but then I remembered that the classroom setting of Mary Anne's book was at the University of South Carolina. Say what you want about the Gamecock mascot; the school colors of burgundy and white are terrific.

This is where I felt I needed a woman's touch. I had a difficult time choosing between the two text color sets, golden-yellow and burgundy. I asked Mary Anne to choose, she had a hard time with it as well. So she called in the big guns - our youngest son, 12-year-old Sam. Sam asked, in his infinite pre-teen wisdom, why not use both sets? That's when I remembered that a golden-yellow is also part of the USC mascot colors - the chicken's feet. So I made the upper text the same color as the chicken's body and the lower text the same color as the chicken's feet:

And that's how it's done.