Wednesday, 1 May 2013

e-book covers: Throwing down a challenge!

A post on Indie Author News doing the rounds on Twitter claims that a bad book cover equals bad sales. I can’t vouch for the claim, especially since the indie book world is full of notions about what may or not sell a book. But while I fight for every sale using any dastardly tactic I can think of, I’ll concede that my e-book cover is an important part of my marketing arsenal.

A recent Guardian article pointed me in the direction of the delicious Lousy Book Covers site, where you can enjoy some of the, well, more florid examples of e-book covers. This prompted me to cast a critical eye over a random sample of  hard copy book covers on my bedside locker:  

A 1960 edition of Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark: Seems like nobody really bothered – just white block lettering on a black background, and nothing else, somewhat improved I think by the second hand bookseller's red $10 sticker.  Perhaps  Nabokov’s name was enough to sell the book; or is the black background symbolic of the latter part of the book, when the teenage schoolgirl and her grotesque manfriend cavort silently before the blind Albinus?

A 2010 Jonathan Cape paperback edition of Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth: A young woman in a gloomy  tiled corridor, half turning to look at a male silhouette behind her. Well, to interpret this design would entail a spoiler, so you’ll have to work out the symbolism once you’ve read this literary hall of mirrors.

My favourite: A precious 1976 David Winter & Son edition of William McGonagall’s Poetic Gems. The self-published writer of earnest doggerel verse  in 19th century Edinburgh peers out of a half-tone portrait with an expression of guilelessness and hope, unaware that his destiny is to be a figure of affectionate fun throughout the English-speaking world. The words “poet and tragedian” appear below his name.

Now here's a challenge: If you think we did a good job with the cover of The Play’s the Thing, send me a comment. If not, send my cover to Lousy Book Covers! Here’s how my cover came about:

STEP 1: I approached my designer Rachel Ainge, who agreed to do the job. Rachel is a highly professional Sydney-based designer whose work ranges from billboards to thumbnails, and across print, web and video.

STEP 2: I went looking in the big bookshops for ideas. Here’s where I ran into the first hurdle: This isn’t a genre book, so it falls into the messy section of the shop where nothing seems to fit with anything else, rather than the neat ranks of paranormal, crime, etc. where the cover designs are largely formulaic. Oh, to be a rural romance writer -  expensively tousled blonde hair, Akubra hats, tractors! The best single word I use to describe my novel is ‘quirky’, so I went hunting for quirk, and came up with four books that I'd be honoured to sit next to: I’ve included the URLs rather than risk a copyright breach by pasting the cover images:
Michael Frayn – Skios
Joe Dunthorne – Wild Abandon
Jim Keeble – The Happy Numbers of Julius Miles
Randa Abdel-Fattah – No Sex in the City,%20Randa

STEP 3: I reflected on the covers I liked and drew up a set of design principles, which I sent to my designer. Here’s what I emailed her:
  • Title and author: The Play’s the Thing by S.J. Campbell
  • I want to make the cover ambiguous as to the readership, i.e. equally appealing to male and female readers (which is why I want to use initials instead of my first name).
  • I am torn between the zany style (e.g. Joe Dunthorne below) or a cool blocky style like Jim Keeble below.
  • I want to avoid any explicit religious imagery.
  • Symbolism: I have in mind something like a view of mountains seen through a stage curtain, but with some kind of threatening/mysterious symbolism (a shadow figure maybe, some bloodrops, a gun) somewhere in the image – maybe standing out against a cool pastel background.
  • I’ve attached a rough sketch where I’ve put a crescent moon (vaguely but not specifically Islamic imagery) in an evening sky. It is truly horrible and will make a professional designer vomit but it is a possible starting point.

My rough sketch appears at the top of this post.

STEP 4: I discussed the zany vs. blocky options with the designer. Her advice – go blocky!

STEP 5: I received the first draft and was quite stunned at how my sad sketch had been transformed. The colours were deeper and more saturated than I had envisaged. The green foreground was textured so that the eye is drawn to the hills, which are lit by a menacing red dusk. The standout feature was the white and red block lettering, which provides a contrast to the brooding hills,  and also shows up well in a thumbnail. I loved the  addition of the hand holding the curtain aside. The crescent moon was there, but moved to the centre so that it unites the curtain and the title

STEP 6: I asked where’s the drop of blood gone? Well, it’s there nestled in the crook of the N, rather than drooping from the title. In fact I was in two minds about the drop of blood, which was originally there to point to a shooting. The problem was that while the design was being developed, I rewrote the shooting chapter and reduced the gunshot to the mere threat of a gunshot. There is in fact a bit of real bleeding somewhere else in the book, so on balance I was happy to have a discrete drop of blood on the cover.

STEP 7: I negotiated some small adjustments with the designer, for example heightening the row of hills slightly.  I paid for the stock images, reconfirmed the Kindle technical specification, and received the final design.

I'd love your feedback!

Buy Stuart's e-book novel 'The Play's the Thing' for US$1.25 with one click at

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