Let’s get this straight. I can’t draw for nuts. Ask me to draw a picture of someone and you’re going to get Mr Blob.
That doesn’t stop me from enjoying art. Perhaps it even increases my enjoyment because I see creativity which is way beyond my skills. And it doesn’t stop me from attempting to create my own book designs, because with the tools now available, even the complete bumbler, like me, can create something that looks pretty good.
In the next two posts I’m going to explain how I created two covers this week, as well as taking a close look at the work of a professional.
At the top left, there’s a thumbnail of the cover for my forthcoming novel, The Lebanese Troubles. If you click on the thumbnail, you’ll be taken to a full-size version, the way the cover would appear on the front of a paperback. Try clicking now, and take a look in detail.
Now in fact I’ve broken a few basic rules with this cover design. Take a look at the Book Design Review’s Favorite Book Covers of 2008 and you’ll notice that many of the designs are very simple, minimalist – a single object dominates the cover, asks a question, and tries to draw the reader straight in. Colors and fonts are bold. Font orientation appears to be important too – sideways, downward, tilted, anything to capture the potential reader’s attention.
My cover couldn’t be more different. The central image (seen much more clearly in the full-size version) is tiny, overshadowed by buildings. It’s an oil painting with a great deal of subtlety in the coloring, and the fonts are all straight on.
So why did I make such an unusual choice? Well, the starting-point was to find a design that captured the essence of the novel. The Lebanese Troubles is set in the Lebanese Civil War … but this is no action-hero shoot-em-up. Instead, it’s the story of the steady disintegration of human relationships mirroring the collapse of civilized society. The protagonist gradually becomes isolated, an outsider, uncertain where he belongs, confused about moral values.
I trawled through Google looking for appropriate images, and found nothing that really suited. Plenty of pictures of shattered buildings and bombed out neighborhoods – but where was the humanity? And then suddenly, I found exactly what I was looking for. I came across a portfolio of work by a British painter called Tom Young, who, as it happened, went to live in Lebanon 4 years ago – and when I saw his picture, ‘20 Years‘, my jaw just dropped. He’d captured exactly the feeling that I’d tried to convey in my novel.
Earlier this week I had the pleasure of meeting Tom, when he was back in the UK for a few days, and it was no surprise to find that we shared a love of Camus’s novel, L’Étranger. I guess I hadn’t realized until then how much that book has influenced The Lebanese Troubles.
So I had a picture that I loved. But would it work as a cover design, when it was so different from most others? I remembered one of the comments on the BDR’s selection of favorite designs.
I picked one of the three covers that inspired me to click through to find out a bit more about the book itself (and to me, all three are equally intriguing, perhaps because of some amalgamation of my own interests and the cover design)
My mind was made up. Marrying the reader’s interests with the cover design. The Lebanese Troubles is unashamedly literary. So the type of reader who might enjoy it is likely to enjoy literature as art. Choosing a painting for the cover rather than a formula book design would be sending all the right signals. OK, perhaps the subtlety of the painting might escape the casual browser. Perhaps I could draw in more readers with the weapons of war featured somewhere on the cover. But I’d be making false promises, raising false expectations, and possibly leaving the reader disappointed.
Having reached my decision, designing the cover was fairly straightforward. First I saved a copy of Tom’s painting (with his permission of course). The next step was to decide which part of the picture to use. As you’ll see as you look at the original, it’s in landscape format, and I needed to convert it to portrait. The tool I used was something I’ve used for several years for cutting an image, resizing it, and then saving it in an appropriate format (.jpg, .gif, or .png) for printing or screen display – IrfanView.
Next I needed to think about the title, and it was at this point that important marketing decisions were needed. I’m preparing my novel for two possible editions, a print edition at some point, but firstly as an ebook, in order to minimize the risks and maximize the income. But as I explained in an earlier post, the cover design is just as important – perhaps more so – when we’re e-publishing. And when we’re promoting an ebook, the details, including the title, need to be perfectly clear, even when the cover is reduced to a thumbnail.
These were my next steps. I copied the selection of the painting I wanted and pasted it into Microsoft Powerpoint. I thought about where I wanted the title to appear. Not within the design, I thought. I didn’t want words floating in the sky, or hatched out on the road at the bottom of the picture. Let the painting stand and speak for itself. So I was going to need a border. What color? Well, The Lebanese Troubles is a tragedy, so let it be black. Black would offset the painting well too. So I created a black background in Powerpoint, and laid it under 20 Years.
Then which font for the title? I liked the look of ‘Papyrus’, one of the standard Microsoft fonts I had available. It had a distinctly oriental feel, and I liked the way the capital letters descended below the line. So the next decision was font size. After a little experimentation I found that a 36-point font, using bold, meant that the title was still readable even with a small thumbnail. But that gave me a new problem.
At that point-size the title would need to be set over two lines. Then of course, there was the author’s name to think about. This meant that I would need to further reduce the height of the painting … or shrink it, so that the tiny figure became completely invisible.
For a while I played with the idea of using a different title. Suppose I just called the book ‘The Troubles‘? But that would hit my marketing campaign. I need the word ‘Lebanese’ to appear to appeal to Middle East expats. And it would hit the Search Engine campaign I’ve been carefully building. If you do a Google search for ‘Lebanese Troubles’, you’ll see that of nearly 7.3 million matches, my novel is already in positions 3 and 5. That’s going to be extremely important later. Drop ‘Troubles’ then? No, for the same reason. And because I really like the double entendre – political troubles and my protagonist’s family,relationship and moral troubles. So the title had to stay. And it would have to be over two lines – centered, I thought, looked best.
If I’d added my name at the top as well, the whole cover would have looked top heavy, so I decided to add it at the bottom. Another decision. If the book was called The Lebanese Troubles and there was a picture of devastation in Beirut, some readers would think it’s non-fiction – an account of the War. I needed to make it clear it wasn’t, so the cover needed ‘A novel by Alain Miles‘. I’d decided to use a more straightforward font. (I read somewhere that every book should have two fonts, no more, no less – I have no idea why, but too many fonts certainly gets messy.) But a 36-point size would mean two lines again. I really couldn’t afford to take more space from the painting, so I reduced the point-size until I could fit it onto one line. It’s a compromise. The name isn’t so clear in a thumbnail, but as an unknown anyway, I think I can afford to live with that. People won’t be buying because it’s me. (Except my Mum.)
One last decision. What color was the text to be? I was tempted to go for red. The war, red-hot emotions etc … but, on a black background this just got lost in the thumbnail. I needed something much lighter. In the end it was a pale gold, classy I think … and there is after all a reference to Lebanese Gold in the novel!
And that was it. I copied the complete cover back to IrfanView and created two .png versions, one in paperback size and the other in thumbnail size. My book cover was ready for publication.
Nothing I’ve described here requires any great technical skill. The difficulty was only finding the right material in the first place, and then making the right decisions. The beauty of e-publishing the book first is that if my cover doesn’t make the impact I expect, I’ll be able to spot the problem almost immediately, try something different if necessary – and then implement the changes in just a few hours. But I hope I’m not wrong. Now that you’ve read this long description, you’ll no longer see the cover in the same way that a newcomer to my work would, but I’ll be interested to hear your comments anyway.
The process of designing your cover isn’t always quite as straightforward as my description here. Take a look at a professional designer at work by playing the outstanding video from Orbit Books below. Think it looks hard? Well, join me next time and I’ll show you how you can do most of this yourself. Using free software.
Posted Previously: What Scribd taught me about book design
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