I’ve spent the last day making cover designs for our new small range of play text guides for Blackboard Fiction. I wrote the guides originally for home learners for Wolsey Hall Oxford, and they’ve given me the go-ahead to republish them myself.
One of the things that Blackboard Fiction does, aside from write educational books for students, is to help other people self-publish. After some small success with my own volume of short stories, ‘Death and Stationery’ (sneaky plug: download Kindle or iBook) I was contacted by the grandmother of a friend. Having self-published her autobiography in paperback, and, although not having many expectations, she was keen to find out how to take the text to the new opportunities electronic publishing could offer.
Our school play (musical) is ‘Guys and Dolls’, which is a darling of a show with incredibly upbeat numbers and period styling as it’s set in the 50s, and is one I produced back at University … unfortunately in the days just before social media and digital cameras.
One of the two pairs of romantic leads is Adelaide, the ‘comedy’ female lead. She has a brilliant number called, rather unimaginitively, ‘Adelaide’s Lament’, where she is reading a pop psychology book that explains that her constant cold is actually a psychosomatic response to having been engaged for fourteen years but not actually getting anywhere near the altar. This is clearly a sore point for her, despite her comically chirpy outlook, as she’s already written to her mother about her five kids and her husband’s promotion. The lyrics are a delight: here’s a version of it (at 6.18) with the scene leading up to it beforehand…
Pfft. Sometimes self-publishing is annoying, like when, after a week’s wait, your .epub is rejected because there’s something you forgot to do. (Actually, this doesn’t happen very often, but happening once is bad enough.) Using Lulu.com’s ‘publish free books’ ability, I rushed out a free excerpt from ‘Death and Stationery’ without checking that the title matched the text (I left ‘Death and Stationery’ in the title, before ‘FREE story: Time is Money’, which is wrong because it is, in fact, a different book.)
The original cover was a quickie that made it clear that the download was only an excerpt from the collection, and that it was FREE – over a fade-out of the original cover, the title proclaimed this, rather loudly:
Going back to make a new revision, I thought, ‘why not?’, and took the chance to create a new cover for it.
I’m lucky in that I have quite a decent stock of images ready to make covers from, all of which I’ve taken myself – if something interests me, I’ll snap it either on my camera or my phone, forget about it, and then delight in it when trawling through old files. For the cover of ‘Time is Money’, I wanted something fresh and airy, and originally thought of a predominantly white background, a close up of a man’s chin, blur around the edges to focus on his stubble. It’s the beginning image from the story. However, I don’t have a picture like that, and I didn’t have time to accost someone and make one. Instead, I found a beautiful and unusual picture I’d taken at a tube station near me a few months ago.
I meant to capture the owl at the top, used to scare away pigeons, and the nice repeated shapes and brick tones of the stairwell, and managed to also capture a shadowy figure coming up the stairs. There’s a tube and a shadowy figure in the text. Perfect.
I still wanted to have white space, and the window at the tops allows for that amply. The font this time should be Baskerville, the same as the original cover, in order to keep some sort of link between the texts, rather than advertising that on the front. I played with the layout of the text slightly, overlapping the dots of the ‘i’s. The author, rather than being at the bottom where it would take away from the image, is tight with the title. The black ‘frame’ outline of the original photo was something I wanted to keep. Here’s the first version:
Once uploaded, however, I found that the bottom image just didn’t come across when the cover was miniaturised/thumbnailed. I tried a re-cropped version that looks far better, and which has the added bonus of highlighting the first word of the title.
Now the shadowy figure is more prominent – not my original plan, but being central does go easily on the eye. The figure is even more alone.
Read the story to find out what on earth I’m talking about.
One-Hour-Cover: ‘Farenheit 451’ by Ray Bradbury.
For obvious reasons, once you’ve read it, fire is a rather important theme in this book. The 1953 edition was even published with an asbestos binding (again with the humour).
To show the importance of the text itself, as well as the horrifying nature of the themes and actions within it, I wanted to portray it as a hallowed tome that had been snatched from the flames, just before it was engulfed by that particular temperature. An old book cover texture comes from my favourites Lost and Taken. A quotation from the text adds a kind of mystery, while a made-up publisher’s logo is a jokey aside.
In case you’re wondering, I wouldn’t have the edges laser-cut – that rather removes the point of the cover protecting the pages. I think I’d use a white background – cleanliness setting off the ash. Anything else would look dowdy.
In my role as proofreader/editor/formatter, I also design covers for books. One of my favourite things is good design, and, while trying to emulate this, I enjoy the process of nit-picking over tiny details in pursuit of an audaciously beautiful whole.
I don’t like to stick to any one style, although that’s likely to be because I haven’t quite produced a series as of yet (although ‘Writing Essays’#2 is in the pipeline), but I do like to hunt through a text and pull out features to make a design focus, and use it to create something that will suit the tone, style and genre. That’s just good sense. I might sometimes take a metaphor a little further too, because I like the idea that a cover warrants a second look, and I like to reward the reader for their analytical ability. It makes everyone feel a bit cleverer.
My first ever book cover design was a line drawing in 5B pencil on a folded sheet of A4 when I was about 8, having been given a typewriter for my seventh birthday and used it to type out my own version of ‘Hansel and Gretel’. It was of Hansel and Gretel walking through the woods, with bits of bread behind them. (I’ll scan it in at some point). Pretty straight-forward and representative. The next was another line drawing cover for my next 8-year-old picture-book Opus, ‘My Brother Wants To Be A…’, which put my youngrer brother in a series of
compromising interesting positions in future career choices (“My brother wants to be a football. But footballs get kicked up, not picked up!”) On the cover, my brother is, I think, that football.
I got bored of writing books then, and moved onto just drawing lettering, then making popups, then making miniature furniture for matchbox houses, and then I got a Commodore 64 and spent the next few years learning how to code in Basic, and then we got a 386 and I went back to writing until School took over.
My next cover was the one for my first proper book, the modestly-titled ‘Writing Essays: what you need to know’. I made this in Photoshop, having forked out a couple of quid for the main image of the face and did the rest from free stock or my own photographs. The title font, mostly altered typewriter keys, is rather my signature. I like fonts. I like typewriters.
So, from a rocky terrain a deepening blue sky, stars appearing, and that all-consuming focus, the MOON, being eyed up by a savvy young thing whom has bought the book. Her healthy glow says it all (or rather, the imagery does). She’s going to do well, and you could too. The font adds what I like to think is a whimsical touch. A turned-over corner demonstrates that I was pleased with my Photoshop abilities that day, and allows visibility for the Key Stages for whom the book is suggested.
During my design process, I allowed myself to take criticism from my friends (Should there be mountains? It looks empty without them, I’ll leave them in. Should I leave them in? Does this corner fold look realistic?), which made the process easier to finalise – something I occasionally find hard to do since the whole process is so enjoyable – once I had their blessing. I tell you, it looks marvellous in full-size, glossy colour.
The back cover also had the full treatment. Having had another delightful friend whom is rather a better salesperson than myself write the blurb, and collected nice quotations from the students and parents I’d used and previewed the book with, the main need was to create a large section to fit it in whilst retaining the tone of the front cover. I settled for a mirror-image, overlaid with a semi-transparent lighter text section, centre-aligned text in the interior’s main font (altogether nice cohesion), and, at the bottom, a plain back section to accommodate the barcode and ISBN on the right. A thumbnail of my educational website’s front page (my ‘shop’ of education, Blackboard Fiction) and the URL itself finished it off – I’m hoping to one day be in the position to have created a ‘brand image’ for myself. More on that another time. Here’s the back:
So. An educational manual/textbook, designed to inspire confidence in classrooms and in independent learners alike.
Next, rather a different fish-kettle. A collection of my own, rather dark, short stories.
The name, ‘Death and Stationery’ had been knocking around in my head for almost as long as the stories themselves had. Almost-tragic tales of magic realism and personal fears, I felt a ragged, symbol-based cover was necessary, in a palette of blacks and greys. In the end, a little colour in the lightning bolts, raindrops, and, on the back cover, a little heart to remind the reader the stories were human, brightened up the darkness.
The shapes on the front were created with a nice set of free Photoshop brushes (stupidly I have lost the link. If anyone recognises them, please email me so I can give them credit) in popular symbols done with a grunge texture fill. I made the heart on the back myself. The font is Baskerville; I wanted a bit of an old-school contrast with the modern shapes – the stories themselves are all about contrasts – although I messed with the spacing to allow for it not to appear too traditional. Here’s the result:
This design was almost fully-formed in my head so didn’t really take long, and to be honest I’d have applied some gradient or grunge to the background if I’d chosen to spend more time on it. As it was, it took about half an hour. I like it for its simplicity. The cloud on the front has movement from the placing of the lightning bolt and raindrops, and from the slightly different tones of grey used for the cloud and lower title. The back simply replicates the front central image, resized to fit the blurb text. The heart makes the whole thing feel better. Overall, there’s a kind of humour about it. It also reminds me of some of the font-focussed covers of the 70s, such as my Dad’s Vonnegut collection, and the covers of Puzo’s The Godfather and Capote’s In Cold Blood by S. Neil Fujita:
(I hear Capote and Fujita argued over the colour of the ‘hatpin’, and finally decided not to match it to the colour of the author text, the purple being a more subtle indicator of dried blood, perhaps the realisation of the cold-blooded ‘act’.)
I have set myself the task of redesigning my favourite covers, just for fun and to learn a few new Photoshop skills. I find inspiration among my own shelves, in my brain, in the texts themselves and here at The Book Cover Archive , a truly marvellous resource that I could (and do) spend far too long a time browsing.