Book Cover Design 101: Unleashing the Monster

Authors are capricious gods. We’re always interfering in the lives of our characters. We hate it when life’s too easy for them. We crave conflict and struggle and whenever the momentum sags, we think: what can I do to really inconvenience my characters? Some authors send for the ex-boyfriend that the heroine never really got over, or give the main suspect an unbreakable alibi or instigate a betrayal by a close ally. Very few think of interfering in the hero’s trousers.

Until now.

Warning: If you’re easily offended or a time traveller from 1950s Eastbourne, step away from this screen now! But if you’d like to know more and help me choose a book cover then keep reading.

For years I’ve been trying to write a funny CSI with magic story. I’ve written several outlines and attempted several stories … but they all lacked that spark that turns a passable story into something memorable.

Cue the two-foot long penis. Why not have my detective wake up one morning and find he’s suddenly over-endowed in the trouser department? Naturally this would be a penis used purely for the purposes God intended – humour and crimefighting – not for lustful titillation.

But…

I’m a person whose characters rarely discuss matters below the waist. Could I really write something like this – even in a fun way? Would anyone read it?

I started plotting and the more I plotted the funnier the story became. I had mystery, I had magic and … I had a detective with an enormous complication.

A quick note before anyone thinks I’ve written a thirteen thousand word long penis joke. I haven’t. Like Jeffrey Deaver’s paraplegic detective, Lincoln Rhyme, my detective’s condition, though central to the plot, isn’t the plot. He has a locked room mystery to solve.

Okay, I’d written the story, now, I had to sell it. But there are only one or two traditional outlets for a 13k urban fantasy with or without a floor-length penis. How about selling it myself direct? As an ebook. After all, eReaders were on the verge of making the crossover from niche gadget to mainstream product. And I’d just joined the Book View Cafe author co-op so I could pick their brains about the best way to proceed.

So I found out all about ebook formats and ebook creator software like Calibre and MobiCreator and … the fact that I’d need a book cover.

This proved to be my biggest problem. My first idea was to spoof the archetypal urban fantasy cover – rear view of hot woman in tight jeans cut low enough to show the obligatory tramp stamp. I’d do the male equivalent with something large coiling around his left leg – inside his jeans, of course. I was going for bulge not porn.

Not having a budget or Fabio’s home number I decided I’d have to model for the picture myself. I wriggled into my tightest, most elastic pair of jeans. I stuffed a vacuum hosepipe down my trouser leg…

Too weird. I tried rolled up towels, stuffed socks. I had several pictures taken.

None were ideal but I mailed the best I had to Lori, one of my BVC author colleagues who had PhotoShop. Now mailing a picture of yourself with several large socks stuffed down your jeans is not the usual way to become acquainted with a fellow author. Neither is beginning your email with, ‘I am not a perv.’

But what choice did I have? I didn’t have PhotoShop and I needed a dark urban background for my cover and cool fonts for the book title.

The title? Well, see if you can guess. My psychic profiler had a twenty-four inch penis and his partner was called Tulsa. Gene Pitney would not have approved.

Lori added a background and title text to the cover and sent it back. That’s when I began to have second thoughts. The cover was turning out nothing like I’d pictured it in my head. It wasn’t Lori’s fault. Neither of us were artists and we were having to cobble together a cover from our own photos and public domain work.

I sent the cover to a handful of writer friends for a second opinion. Remember what I said about sending out pictures of yourself with socks stuffed down your trousers? Add the title ‘Twenty-Four Inches from Tulsa,’ a liberal spattering of the word penis in the text and you’re on the road to spam block hell.

But Jim Hines and Jennifer Stevenson were gracious enough to respond and confirmed my fears. I had a cover that neither said spoof, nor fantasy, nor fun nor magic. If it did say anything it said porn. Self-pubbed porn.

But their comments make me think … and analyse what I’d written. I was writing a funny CSI with magic tale with a hint of 1950s seaside postcard humour – risqué in places but essentially innocent. I could magine an embarrassed Colin Firth playing the lead in the movie version.

And with that epiphany came a name – not Colin Firth but Donald McGill. Donald McGill was the seaside postcard artist. He sold over 6 million and was a national institution. So, I Googled his images and couldn’t believe my luck. There it was. The ideal cover. It was eye-catching. It said fun, it said tongue-in-cheek, it said … ‘giant penis.’

So, I licensed the copyright and here it is. One of the most famous postcards in British history. A postcard that, coupled with the caption ‘Stick of rock, cock,’ caused such apoplexy in 1950s Britain that the artist was charged with obscenity, fined £75 and ordered to burn every postcard. The borough of Eastbourne even banned him from ever setting foot in their town.

With the artwork purchased, it was time to look at the title. The cover said monster penis, so the title didn’t have to. It had to say something about magic and crime. I toyed with CSI: New Magic but then settled for Magical Crimes. It described the tale and it was the name of the unit my psychic profiler and forensic magician worked for.

Now all I need is to settle on the look of the title. I used the colour of the sea for my name and thought I’d use the red of the rock for the title but an all red title was difficult to read against the darker blue in the top right. So I experimented with fading it. What do you think? Do you prefer the even fade from red to light pink or the redder version? Or is the red-orange-yellow version the best? Or plain black?

*Update* I’ve added a dark blue and a contoured yellow sand  

I can’t decide and would like to throw this open for comments.

Magical Crimes will be coming to an online bookstore near you in early January. Price $0.99. Free download available for reviewers.

 Plain BlackRedder VersionRed Fade

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  1. 1. Marie Brennan

    I think I vote for the black version, or else edging a solid red with white (not sure if that would work, but it might be worth a try). The black is the only one that stands out really distinctly, but it’s a bit too dark for the bright-and-humourous feeling you’re aiming for here.

    Hilarious story, btw — reminds me of a friend who went to the phone store asking for help getting the pic she wanted as her background image to display as it should. The tech guy looked at the file name — crotchofdarkness.jpg — and asked if he should perhaps not be opening the file in public . . . .

    (It was a shot of a video game character wearing the most ridiculous black leather pants the world has ever seen. Think of the most ridiculous pants you can imagine, and then go the extra distance. There’s really only one thing that could possibly have been holding those things up, and even then the physics boggle the mind.)

  2. 2. Chris Dolley

    Crotch of Darkness is a *brilliant* title for a book. Hmm, maybe a sequel…

  3. 3. Sofie Bird

    I vote for the black, but it’s not ideal. As Marie points out, it’s not really in keeping with your (hilarious) premise and tone, nor does it grab me, as it’s against a medium-tone background.

    The red’s not great for readability, and too close to the, erm, protuberance, and the fade-to-yellow fights too much with the rest of the image. The yellow portion is most readable, though. Perhaps add a slightly-less-violent yellow to the black, as an emboss or shadow?

  4. 4. Mindy Klasky

    Another vote for the black title (or, perhaps a shade that is blue, between ocean and black?) The fade makes all of the others look as if there was a printing mistake (at least to my eyes!)

    And thanks for the early morning laugh on the rest of your post!

  5. 5. Jaws

    I think you’re making a more fundamental design error with the title placement: Put the title in the margin, as you did with the author name. Then you’ve got complete freedom to select color and typeface.

    If you take a look at “professional” covers, you’ll discover that titles of good covers tend to be placed against a very uniform color block; in your design, it goes from white to a fairly dark blue. Many fantasy cover designers go so far as to place a semiheraldic “shield” on the cover and put the text there — EOS is notorious for it.

    The key point here is balance. In one sense, by adding a marginal text element for the name, you’ve unbalanced the cover… and by throwing the remainder of the text into the body, not the margin, you’re just perpetuating that imbalance and giving yourself the design problem of selecting text font and coloring.

    The only alternative that I can see is some more photoshop alteration of the image to even out the sky backdrop — either more clouds or more dark sky would work, and would then simplify the imbalance problem your design creates.

    Don’t get the idea that “I hate this cover unreasonably” — it’s certainly more creative and appropriate than, say, any cover on any military SF novel published since the early 1990s by a publisher that moved to the Carolinas… it’s just that I sat in on too many cover meetings when I worked on the Dark Side of the Editorial Desk to believe that one can fix a cover that isn’t “working” with just one simple element!

  6. 6. Sam

    Hilarious story, you should consider including the “story behind the story” as an afterword.

    If you’re going to keep the title embedded in the image I’d go with the top-left image, the blue-green, that looks most natural with the rest of the image, the others look too much like they’re trying to fit in with the image but not managing, and the graduated ones just look cheap to me (sorry!)

    You could place the title in a plain-background box to make it more visually distinct and that would open up the range of colours you could use for it.

    I’d also keep the title and author name at the top, it does make a stronger impression IMO.

    Something like the box on the UK cover of The Hall of Whispers by Mike Jefferies: http://www.librarything.com/work/935160/covers/

    Or you could just do a full frame like Tad William’s Otherland: http://www.powells.com/biblio/17-9780886777630-0

    In the absence of design skills (like me!), careful boxing/framing can make things look a lot more professional.

  7. 7. Clare K. R. Miller

    I like the “sand” one best, followed by the dark blue. The others scream “cheaply self-published” to me. Sorry, but I’m sure you don’t want that! The idea of putting all the text around the image also sounds good to me.

  8. 8. Tom Gallier

    I cannot offer lengthy reasons why, but I like the top left best. Just seems to work best for me.

  9. 9. Kameron

    My vote is for the sand one (top right), but there’s a part of me that wants to see the title run down the length of the stick. That would give you the solid background and place the title front and center.

  10. 10. Chris Dolley

    Jaws, thank you for your comments, I hadn’t considered putting the title in the margin as well. So … off to experiment. Okay, my first thought is it’s made the cover too long. My second thought is ‘maybe if I alter the fonts…’ My third thought is it’s growing on me. And, fourth, I could spend all day creating hundreds of covers and come up with a dozen or more I liked.

    Hmmm, this is an ebook. Why can’t it have more than one cover? I could post a selection and let the reader download the version they wanted.

  11. 11. Chris Dolley

    Mindy, Sofie, Sam

    Thanks for the suggestions. I’ve given them a go. And I’ve now found out how to emboss text.

  12. 12. Chris Dolley

    Kameron, it’s tempting isn’t it?

  13. 13. Elias McClellan

    @9, That is true magic. I’m already day-dreaming of what demented-deviltry I would like to try sliding past the censors; that is my wife and priest. But then I guess I should actually finish the book first.

  14. 14. jan

    wow, i actually appreciate finding this, as trying to find the perfect cover is something i might have to deal with later. i can draw, but am new at all this, so it may be better to go with something else anyway.
    ok, so, your covers.
    -don’t like the red to pinks-they scream the wrong message ;)
    -everyone keeps saying sand, but on my screen it looks more like lt. yellow, which just reminds me of urine! so, no on that one too, even though it is my favourite of all the choices. maybe a brighter yellow outlined in black? that would remove the urine image!
    -the red/orange blend…well, blends.
    so, after all that? of the choices you gave, i’d pick the bold black. it catches the eye, is sharp, and suits your subject matter (no, the other one!) better.
    good luck deciding!

  15. 15. Will Entrekin

    From a design sense, either of the first two are most aesthetically pleasing. The texts takes cues from the picture, which ties it all together.

    The others are a little too jarring or don’t come together well enough.

  16. 16. Olivia

    I vote for the yellow one. This story sounds very amusing.

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Author Information

Chris Dolley

Chris Dolley is an English author of SF mysteries and fun urban fantasies, a pioneer computer games designer, and the man who convinced the UK media that Cornwall had risen up and declared independence. His novel Resonance (2005, Baen) was the first book to be plucked from Baen’s electronic slush pile. He now lives in France with his wife, a dolmen, and a frightening collection of animals. His memoir French Fried (2010, BVC) has just been released. Visit site.

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