• John Clarkson

The Cover Story (Part 2)

Updated: Jun 10


What a designer needs to know in order to design your book cover.


The designer you select will probably have a questionnaire created to elicit your input. It will ask you about genre, settings, characters, theme -- all useful and necessary input. But I've found that until you answer one essential question, you are going to have trouble coming up with the right cover. It's the question that you’ve been asked, or will be asked, many times -- What’s your book about?


Answer that question well, and you'll have an anchor that will guide your efforts. Answer that question and you'll know whether or not a design is right for your book.


Don't be surprised if you can't immediately come up with a satisfactory answer to that question. Authors will often write an entire novel and go through many revisions before they figure out what their book is about. The same can be said for playwrights, screenwriters, painters, copywriters, any creative person.


Mark Twain said this about the process: “The writing begins when you’ve finished. Only then do you know what you’re trying to say.”


He’s right. Anybody writing anything has to figure out what they are trying to say before they are able to say it effectively. They need to know what the book is about.


For authors trying to sell books, the question—what is your book about? — morphs into: What are you selling?

If you know what your book is about, you’ll know what you are selling. The cover is your most powerful selling tool. So how do you go about answering the question?


In my advertising days, I asked the “What are you selling?” question hundreds of times to copywriters, art directors, product managers, creative directors, Chief Marketing Officers, heads of advertising agencies, strategic development execs, etc. Very, very rarely did I get a useful answer. Most of the time, I heard a list of product features. This is similar to authors who answer the question with a series of plot points: “It’s about a guy who…and then he…and then he meets this woman…and then the bad guys…”


Neither product features nor plot points are the answer to – “what are you selling?” There’s something underneath all that, something you are really selling, something your story is really about.


Let me give two examples. A well-known company. And the book I’m self-publishing.

What if we asked Apple – “What are you selling?”


Is it hardware? iPhones, iMacs, iPads, iPods. Or, software? iOS, iTunes, iCloud. Both? Is it both? Yes, but if you take a deeper look, you’ll see that Apple is really selling something beyond the combination of hardware and software and all the things their hardware and software can do. They are selling an ecosystem. A family of hardware, software, apps, music, books, TV, all interconnected and walled off in a way that does what???? I say that Apple is (really) selling a system of privilege, power, and access that makes people feel special.


However, if you really want to get into the grist of what a company is selling, or what your novel is about – also ask WHY did they make that product or service? Why did you write that? Your customer, or book cover designer, doesn’t necessarily need to know this, but you should.


In the case of Apple, I think Steve Jobs built that company because he was deeply discontent with the way technology worked, so much so that he started at the bottom and connected all the dots right to the top. And then he put a wall around his technology system to keep the idiots out of his kingdom. That’s how you get an integrated ecosystem that makes the people inside system feel “special”.


As for the book I’m self-publishing, AND JUSTICE FOR ONE, here’s how I approached answering the “What is the book about?”

In my genre, crime thrillers, the theme connected to ​“crime” is always about justice. The theme connected to “thrillers” is about surviving in a situation that is unsafe.


Knowing the theme can put you on the path to figuring out what your book is about.

Often, a theme can be extracted from a book’s title. (Quick tip – creating a great title will help immensely with creating a great book cover.)


By the way, you might be saying to yourself: “Why doesn’t the designer just read the book to find out what it’s all about?”

Because most readers don't want to define what a book is about. More important, a designer doesn't have the time to read your novel. Nor should you want him or her to spend hours reading the book. You want him or her to spend their time designing, not reading.


When I wrote AND JUSTICE FOR ONE over 25 years ago, I wasn’t very aware of theme, or genre, or even much about marketing. Interestingly, I somehow managed to get the core theme of crime thrillers into the title: AND JUSTICE FOR ONE.


The title itself helps communicate what the book is about: Getting justice for one person in a society that is professes it provides liberty and justice for all – but doesn’t. 


The title uses a bit of irony to convey the story content.  It’s the opposite of the ideal stated in the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag.  It should be… justice for all.  Here we have … justice for one.  I believe if you can somehow inject your title with irony you might get a reader to stop and think for a moment. That extra moment of attention can be valuable.


From the title AND JUSTICE FOR ONE, we can say the book is about fighting injustice. When America doesn't live up to its ideals, we’re at risk of the whole social fabric falling into chaos and tyranny. A hero can’t let that happen.


I rephrased all this for my designer in several ways: Standing up to powerful forces. Avenging a crime committed against a loved one. Retaliating for a harm done. This segued into the topic of revenge. I pointed out the tagline for the book: A Novel of Revenge. I cited the Frances Bacon quote included in the first edition: “The most tolerable sort of revenge is for those wrongs which there is no law to remedy.”


I explained the story from the protagonist’s point of view: “You hurt my brother. Now I’m going to do whatever it takes to make you pay.”


I talked about the feelings of impotence of most of us have in such a situation. We are not strong enough, or capable enough to go up against criminals protected by the police. But the hero of the story, Jack Devlin, is able and willing to go up against criminals protected by the police. In fact, he’s driven to go after them – no matter what the cost or consequence.


I pointed out the premise presented in the cover copy of the first edition: “If someone you loved was the victim of a violent crime, how far would you go to find justice?”


But I was still floating up around 30,000 feet. I had to boil it down to the essence. In this book, what is it all about?  If you want justice in America, you have to be willing to die for it.


Asking myself why I wrote the book helped me get to the essence. Deep down I felt that getting justice in this society is not really obtainable for all. Not even close. The deck is stacked. In some cases terribly stacked if you don't have money and connections. So, I wrote a book about a guy whose brother was nearly beaten to death for no good reason. The possibility of avenging that wrong were almost non-existent. American society had no intention of providing justice for all. But not this time. This time, one guy was willing to do whatever it took to get justice for one person -- even if it meant dying.


As I said, you will be asked questions about style, genre, setting, and so on. All necessary for your designer to know. But again, the most important thing your cover designer and you need to know is -- What Is Your Book is About? 


Okay, so how did we do? Although we made mistakes along the way, I think we did a lot better than the traditional publisher did with the original cover. 

Here’s the original cover:


Honestly, I thought the original cover was just okay. Big title. Interesting type treatment. My name prominent. Urban street scene. No real visual concept. An decent job of placing the book in the crime thriller genre. That’s about it. 


What the hell did I know?


Now I had my chance to do better.

My designer started with creating four concepts. Two I quickly rejected. One of the other two appealed to me in terms of impact. The other had a great visual concept.  Let’s call them concepts #1 and #2.


We worked on refining both concepts. #1 evolved into something I still liked, but the designer didn’t. We turned our attention to #2.


I thought #2 had a solid visual idea that communicated that America’s ethic of equality and justice for all is an illusion. We worked on perfecting the idea, getting all the elements laid out on the cover in a compelling way: my name, quotes, the title. Here’s where we came out:

I called this the Grim Reaper concept.  It felt surprising, compelling, and connected with the irony of the title. It felt consistent with what the book is about -- if you want justice in America, you have to be willing to die for it. America's preposition of justice for all, in fact, leads to death for many.


All good, but we made a fatal error. Luckily, I ran the cover by one of my colleagues in the book and film business whose opinion I trust.  He sent me an email in about thirty seconds, pointing out my error.


“I fear it reads a bit too horror, which is not your brand.”


Shit!  I had forgotten about that all-important criterion: GENRE. My friend called it “brand”, but I think that’s connected to genre. This cover put my novel in the wrong genre – horror. I also had lingering problems with the angled type layout, which I’d ignored because I loved the Grim Reaper idea so much.


This kind of thing happens all the time to creative people. They fall in love with something that just isn’t working and needs an objective eye to point out their error.


The pros know the truth when they hear it. The amateur fights the truth.  Be a pro. Run it by people you think know what they’re talking about. (BTW, if you’re writing a horror novel and you want this idea, don’t steal it. Contact me and I'll hook you up with the person who designed it.)


Back to the drawing board.  We persevered and went back to Concept #1.  The designer improved it greatly.  But now I had a problem with it.  It simply illustrated one of the blurbs about the book.  


More discussion (all via email BTW).  We kept going back and forth.  The “American” aspects kept coming to the fore. The justice theme. The price of justice. The danger of seeking justice. We talked about the scales of justice.  Maybe a gun on the scale. But the designer dug in, having made the genre mistake, he was wary of using any visuals that might connote a courtroom drama or legal thriller.


Nothing seemed to be working. I talked more about the protagonist.  How implacable he was. I sent him a scene from the book when Devlin realizes at a crucial moment that he simply won’t back down and that he gets a rush out of sticking it to the bad guys.


And then, as often happens, everything we had been fumbling with and trying to figure out started to come together.  Here’s the first rendition of what evolved into the final cover:


  • Placement of name, quote, title, tagline were the best of any version the designer had done.

  • This nailed the genre. We had an innovative use of urban scenes – subtle, but there. Using the tough guy protagonist on the cover seemed right. Present, but understated. The face in the shadows projected strength without being obvious. 

  • I liked the red, white, and blue motif as a visual concept echoing the Pledge of Allegiance/Flag gestalt.  

  • And I thought the riff on the “blind justice” visual concept using the American flag (referring back to the Pledge of Allegiance) was interesting. And the blindfold looked lush and beautiful.


But I wasn’t sure about using the American flag as the blindfold.  Something felt wrong. Once again, I asked someone whose taste I trust.  He came back with one word that blew this concept out of the water: “Hostage. The guy looks like a hostage. Reminds me of the American Iranian hostages.”

Damn it.  I was seeing “blind justice”, but I had to admit that many readers would probably think “hostage”. Not what the book was about. And once that busted the visual concept, I had to admit the metaphor wasn’t really working.  The justice being rendered in the story wasn’t blind, wasn’t impartial. It was absolutely eyes wide open and pointed. And the blindfold didn't say anything about being willing to die to get justice.

But there was so much else right with the cover, that I once again asked the designer to think about it. And while he was at it, could he change that cracked I in justice? It looked like a lowercase i amidst all the capital letters. (You might have missed that, but every little thing counts.)


Once again, my designer came through. Here’s the final front cover. He kept in all the good stuff, lightened the tone to make the hero and background more visible, made the background crisper, and kept the American flag idea, but very deftly.


This one felt right.  


That suggestion of the American flag reflected in the sunglasses of the protagonist felt like just enough of a visual concept to tie everything together. (Note: I’m going to ask the designer if he can give me a less round glass lens. Looks too much like goggles rather than sunglasses.) It felt like it portrayed the hero in just the right way: implacable, out for justice, ready to uphold the righteous version of the American promise of liberty and justice -- even if it cost him his life.


I believe if you compare our new cover to the old cover, you’ll agree the new cover is better.


For reference, we easily burned through the ten revisions the designer provided in his price. There were many large and small touches I haven’t bothered to describe. At every turn, when questions arose, referring back to the essential question and answer -- What's the book about? If you want justice in America, you have to be willing to die for it. -- helped us stay on track.


Good luck in your efforts. Hope this was helpful. If so, please spread the word.


JOHN CLARKSON
BOOKS
Author of seven novels, including AMONG THIEVES and BRONX REQUIEM, the first two novels in his new James Beck series.
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