Even Book Covers Need Facelifts


As I have been trumpeting (excuse the noise), I released a new novel, Aftershock, this week. The book’s cover is the result of a deliberate and sustained back and forth between me and Alicia Neal, the illustrator, on all aspects of image, design, color and typography. You can read all about that process in this post on the dandy writer’s site, WriterUnboxed. The final cover took a lot of work and time, but it was worth it.

Choosing Aftershock’s cover—and finally publishing the dang thing: it only took eight years—made me revisit the cover of my first novel, All Roads Are Circles. That too was a process of give and take with the illustrator, who did approach the vision I initially had for the book’s cover, but didn’t quite get there. I take responsibility for that.

I didn’t work with her in the same way I worked with Alicia, which was to initially give her a number of model covers that exemplified aspects of design and emotional impact that intrigued me and move from there. Nor did we go over the iterations of the cover with the same amount of fine deliberation that went on between Alicia and me.

Not Quite Capturing the Fall

What I wanted in the cover was some metaphorical sense of fall and possible redemption. The novel’s final chapters are set in an apple orchard, where the protagonist has besmirched himself morally. There’s a close-to-final scene where he offers up an apple to a woman in the orchard. I wanted some resonance with Adam and Eve’s moment in the Garden, where as you recall an apple played a meaningful part.

But the imagery of what I accepted as the final cover above didn’t quite hold that feeling. However, I was impatient to get book out there (never a good idea, my writer friends) and I settled for a cover that was adequate, but not inspiring. To repeat: my fault, not that of the illustrator, whom I sure could have moved the piece forward.

Will Using Stock Images Put You in the Stocks?

Feeling good about Aftershock’s cover made me want to work again with Circles. This time, I wanted a photographic image and not an illustration. Hitchhiking is a major theme in the book, and I thought I’d have a strong image of my own from somewhere on the road. Nope. So I spent a day or so on free and paid image sites, and finally settled on the one that’s the lead image for this post.

That’s an inexpensive iStock image that allows royalty-free commercial use. The photo worked perfectly for the feeling of a forlorn hitchhiker on a lonely road. It was also large enough to wrap around for both a spine and a back cover. My galpal Alice, who has good experience with graphic design, worked it up into the cover you see. I searched for it using Google’s reverse image search to see if it appeared on any book covers, but couldn’t find evidence for that or from other searches.

On the other hand, there’s ample evidence that using a stock photo on a cover might not be a good idea. Though the image I used is free of the licensing dangers expressed here, it might indeed be on a book cover somewhere that I couldn’t find, making my book a clone of sorts. (Here’s another piece on the appropriateness of stock images that’s softer on the perils.)

Anyway, I think I’m covered. (And don’t get any ideas about using that image for your hitchhiking novel, because I will turn off the electricity at your house and you won’t be able to get any of Justin Bieber’s tweets any longer.)

6 thoughts on “Even Book Covers Need Facelifts

  1. Having been on both sides of the conversation, your article on the process of creating the cover for Aftershock is an interesting read. Amusing to me that, as designer, comments like “make more prettier, less garnish” can be frustrating, but it’s exactly the kind of feedback I gave on early cover designs.

    I do all my own covers now but I knew my children’s book needed a different hand. Working with Viv Kinney on Ginger’s illustrations was a joy. For me, I mean. I think I gave her an ulcer.

  2. I note, though, a predeliction (or is it a propensity?) for the denigration of Brussels sprouts. Perhaps my thoughts on such are best left for later. Bacon grease may be involved.

  3. Joel, yeah, I had a number of inane comments on the Aftershock cover that were too broad to be of concrete use. I guess we expect the designers to be psychologists too, eh? Not sure if I produced ulcers, but I think I heard an echo of a profanity or two. (Actually, working with both the cover designers was easy because of their apparently sunny dispositions. At least when dealing directly with me.)

    As for Brussels sprouts, you are right: every one of my posts has a hidden or overt denunciation of Brussels sprouts—they are evil.

  4. Brussels sprouts must be seared, on a light film of coconut oil and sprinkled with counter-intuitive spices, like cumarin or sage or ginger.

    And yes, a cover artist like Alicia Neal can transport a novel to another plane. Intuiting an author’s deepest meanings in an image is a rare gift, and one that every author should seek.

  5. Rick, Alicia does find the expression essentials in a cover; I admire how she works with the writers to really dig into what the book is, and what the writer wants out of its wrapping.

    As for those sprouts of horror you two have been hypnotized into believing are food, I agree with all your points of view. In a parallel universe. Not the one I’m in, shudder.

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