• John Clarkson

The Cover Story (Part 2b of a 4-Part Series on Self-Publishing)

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. When I worked in advertising, this input would be the basis of a “creative brief”. Rather than a long dissertation on how to prepare a creative brief, I’ll cut right to the essence of it.

In order for a designer to create a cover for your book, you’re going to have to answer the question that you’ve been asked, or will be asked, zillion times: What’s your book about?

Do NOT be surprised if you don’t have a quick, easy answer to that question. Often, authors will 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. In fact, it can be said for any person trying to write about anything. This is not just a problem for authors.

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.

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 the single most powerful selling tool. Figure out what your book is about / what you’re selling, and you’ll be able to guide your cover designer.

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. It’s very much like the answers you get from authors when you ask, “What is your book about?” You get a bunch of plot points: “It’s about a guy who…and then he…and then she…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—computers, tablets, music players? (iPhones, iMacs, iPads, iPods). Or, software? (iOS, iTunes, iCloud.) Both? Yes. But that’s not a very, satisfying answer. 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 whole 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. We could quibble about that word special, but you get the point.

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 computer 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 it to keep the idiots out of his kingdom. That’s how you get an integrated ecosystem that makes people inside that 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?” question for Anton Khodakovsky, my cover designer.

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 isn’t safe.

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?”

For the same reason, a reader wants to know “what it’s about” before they invest eight hours reading it!

It’s not fair to expect a designer to take all that time reading your novel. You should be able to give him the bottom line much faster so he or she can spend his 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 supposed to provide 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 attention can be valuable.

From the title AND JUSTICE FOR ONE, we can say the book is about fighting injustice. And since that arises from a situation where a few people have corrupted society, 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 Anton 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?”

So, boiling down all of the above to its essence – what is my book about?  If you want justice in America, you have to be willing to die for it.

But let’s drop down to a deeper level?  Why did I write the book?  Short answer, I was pissed off at the unfairness that exists in our society. Still am. Maybe, just between us, AND JUSTICE FOR ONE is about a guy who got pissed off enough about his brother getting nearly beaten to death for no good reason that he went out and kicked the shit out of everyone responsible for that happening.

The point is… the most important thing your cover designer, and your readers need to know is-- What Your Book is About. 

Okay, that’s the 4-step process. So…how did Anton and I 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:

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?”  

For the same reason, a reader wants to know “what it’s about” before they invest eight hours reading it!

It’s not fair to expect a designer to take all that time reading your novel.  You should be able to give him the bottom line much faster so he or she can spend his time designing, not reading.​

Honestly, I was just okay. Big title. Interesting type treatment. My name prominent. Urban street scene. No real visual concept. An okay 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.

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

We worked on refining both #1 evolved into something I still liked, but Anton 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 thought we really had something here.  I loved the idea of turning the Statue of Liberty, the symbol of America’s promise of protection and safety for even the downtrodden, into a symbol of death.

I called this the Grim Reaper concept.  It felt surprising, compelling, and connected with the irony of the title.  But when you’re in the middle of a creative process, you sometimes miss the obvious.  I was making an obvious mistake.  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 that’s synonymous with the genre.  This cover puts my novel in the wrong genre – horror. I also had lingering problems with the 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.  Pay Anton for it.)

Back to the drawing board.  We persevered and went back to idea #1.  Anton improved it greatly.  But now I had a problem with it.  My problem…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.  We talked about the scales of justice.  Maybe a gun on the scale. But Anton 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 Anton 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, frankly, 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”.  Wrong message.  Not spot on in terms of genre.  Again!  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.

But there was so much else right with the cover, that I once again asked Anton 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.  Anton 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 Anton 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.

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 that Anton provides in his price for designing a cover. There were many large and small touches I haven’t bothered to describe. And just for a complete look, here’s the almost final front and back cover (this one has a stand-in ISBN number and price).

So ends the lengthy Part 2 a & b of my 4-Part series. I hope you found it valuable. Please feel free to let me know what you think.

Part 3 will be on Distribution.

Lots to learn. Wish me luck.

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