December 30th 2009
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.
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.
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.
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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