Beyond How a Cover “Looks”…

I’d been assuming that designing a book cover is purely visual–that what the reader sees is all there is to it.  There are numerous parts to that–the image(s) and font(s), of course, but also the layout and how well the background highlights the information in the foreground. But with the cover to Widow Boy, I learned that how a cover feels can be part of the reader experience in the paper version.

Side x Side was aware of a new option Amazon has started offering for covers–a matte finish.  It didn’t cost any more to do it that way and it seemed like a way to give this book a “different look”–at least until everyone starts to use it.  That turned out to be a really good idea.

People actually stroke this cover.  They tell me they like the feel of it, and that how it feels makes it seem like it belongs to the period in which it’s set.  (They also admit that they think they are crazy when they realize they like the feel of the cover…..)

That brings up another key point in getting that “perfect cover” for a book.  Sometimes, you just get lucky.

The Perfect Cover Image

In my last post, I gave you a taste of how I go after “the perfect cover.”  I promised another post about the cover for Widow Boy–my first novel to meet the public–because  there was a lot more to it:

The designer had used a stock photo of a contemporary young women wearing a cowboy hat and aiming an antique rifle as one of two images on the cover.  The other was a stock photo of the hills near Cripple Creek, where the story is set.  All but the image of the woman worked really well–her image had “issues.”

We added sleeves to her shirt via Photoshop and tried to make the hat look battered. I still wasn’t sure, so I’d asked my son who’d read the story what he thought.  The first thing he noticed was that we had the wrong gun.  She was holding a flintlock–older than what my protagonist would have in 1893.  I was actually pleased to hear that–it meant we couldn’t use the image that I knew didn’t work.

My son is a competent amateur photographer.  He has a beautiful wife.  Bless them both. He suggested we create the photo we needed and volunteered himself as the photographer  and his wife as the model.  Yes!

Then I realized that was only a start at the solution. To create the right image, we needed the right props.    The right gun, of course, but the right clothing.  Her hat is a big deal in the story but it’s not a spiffy new one.  Plus we needed men’s clothing that could have been worn then. I found a convincing shirt and jacket at Goodwill.   The hat took a lot more work.  I finally found something to start with at St. Vincent de Paul.

But although it was used, it was not used enough.  So my first step was to get rid of the shaping Dorfman Pacific had put into it. I was living in an area that had a lot of new construction with glacial till as native soil.  Till has a lot of good-sized stones.  I put three about the size of softballs inside the hat, spritzed it with tap water and  hung it in the garage using woodworking clamps for a week. Much better.

Widow Boy hat resize 2

 But it was still too clean.  Back to the dirt pile. To my surprise, dirt didn’t stick.  I ended up walking around the neighborhood, rubbing it in every patch of grit I saw in the street.  (The neighbors already knew I was a little different…)

That left the really big challenge–the gun.  I was hoping I could rent a realistic fake one from the local costume shop.  Nope.  (But they did want to know when the story came out since a set of grandparents had met and married in Cripple Creek.)

My next option was a friend who’s an avid hunter and a retired Army officer.  If I was going to have my loved ones working with a real gun, I wanted to be sure it was not loaded.  And Rich is that kind of guy.  He has plenty of guns, too, but not the antique one I needed.  He did, however, volunteer to ask his son, who inherited his maternal grandfather’s hunting rifle.  Bless them both, they let me use that gun.  (We won’t go into the details of doing the handoff in the parking lot of a local restaurant….)

Then came a little wrinkle.  My son and daughter-in-law have a rule–no guns in the house if they are not secured.  They didn’t have a way to secure it, and I sure didn’t.  But the shot needed to be outside, so we solved that by having them take it out of my car when they were ready to do the shoot and putting it right back there when they were done.

All systems go, I headed up to their house.  (Of note, the gun owner lives an hour drive south of me and my son’s house is an hour drive north of me.  All the driving was worth it to get the right cover image.  I really am fussy about my covers.)  

My son knew what kind of light he needed and urged his wife–who was an overworked VP at a mutual fund company at the time–to get home on time.  Of course that didn’t happen.  So they had about ten minutes to get the right shot.  That was plenty since I wasn’t on the sidelines pushing for unnecessary particulars.  (My job was to watch my preschool granddaughters inside.)

Turns out it was a good thing they only had a little time, too.  The gun was a lot heavier than we realized, and it was hard on my daughter-in-law to hold it up because of a shoulder injury I didn’t know about.

When my son showed me the photo he liked best later that night, I was ecstatic. That woman looks the part and seemed more than willing to shoot.  (A bad day in corporate America can be pretty convincing.)

Creating the Perfect Cover

You know that saying “You can’t judge a book by it’s cover”?  Baloney.  we do it all the time.  It’s an essential part of how we process information.  If the cover catches your eye, you look inside. If the cover is blah, you move on.  That sorting is part of our brain’s strategy for effectively managing the massive amount of information that comes at us nonstop.

So I have been pretty fussy about my book covers.

I have also been blessed to work with some fantastic cover designers. To do that work, you must have talent, but also the patience, wisdom, and willingness to try yet another thing when a client like me says “No, that doesn’t capture what’s inside.”

39BitesOfWisdomCover - Copy (Custom)

I wish I’d kept all the iterations of the  covers I have eventually used.  It’s always an amazing progression and a long process.  There has been only one exception to that.  Cathy Campbell with Gorham Printing nailed it on the first try on a little e-book I did as an experiment with over three years of articles I wrote for  Barbara Morris’s online newsletter Put Old on Hold.  Cathy did such a nice job, I hope to eventually go back and improve the book itself.  (The good thing about e-books is you can go back and make them better whenever you decide there’s a need.)


The other books I’ve brought out involved  far more back and forth with the designer.

Supercharged_Retirem_Cover_for_Kindle (Custom)When Greenleaf Book Group took distribution of a retirement book I already had inprint, they recommended redoing the cover and changing the name to give the book new life in terms of the copyright date (which  is a particularly big deal with nonfiction books).  What had been Bold Retirement (with a convincing cover Cathy  had designed) turned into Supercharged Retirement .   We ended up combining two photos to get that same “adventure when you’re older” message to resonate.  It worked–during one of the first radio interviews I did, the host–who was not yet retirement age–said “I want to be that guy on the cover.”

That experience gave me a much greater appreciation for what you can do with the help of a good cover designer and stock photos.

WidowBoyCover500px - Copy (Custom)Next up, was my first novel, Widow Boy, which I just published.  In fiction, the need for a good cover is even more critical.  I was again blessed with a good designer–this time Mary Holste of Side X Side Creative.  The original plan was to use an artist they’d worked with before to create original cover art.  When she showed up a half-hour late for the initial meeting, I sensed it wasn’t the answer.  When she offered a cartoonish example as what she would do–for a helfty price, I suggested we forget the original art idea.

Mary came up with three different cover designs.  One of those seemed like it  could work with a little “Photoshopping.” We needed to make the image of the woman look like she was from the 1890’s instead of the 21st century.  She was holding an antique gun so roughing up the hat and adding sleeved to cover her arms seemed like all we needed.  But I wasn’t keep on how she looked even then, so I showed the cover to one of my sons, who’d read a draft of the story. His first reaction was that the gun was all wrong.  Then he volunteered to help me create the right image.

So we circled around  from original art to original photography.  What we ended up doing to get it is a long story.  I will tackle it in another post.

This is my first published  fiction and I have learned a lot about how to go about getting a book to market.  Since I didn’t want to print a lot of copies, I couldn’t use Cathy (who is the printer’s designer).  Side x Side Creative, a Tacoma firm, stepped up to the challenge.

Since the book is fiction, art–rather than a photo seemed like it would work better.  They recommended and artist and we met.  I knew it wasn’t going to work when she showed up a half hour late.  So Mary and Erik (of Side x Side) came up with text only and stock photo designs.   More than one would have worked, but I really liked one that showed a woman in a western hat aiming a rifle  combined with the hills of the Cripple Creek area where the story is set.

We needed to photo shop the image of the woman though…she looked entirely to modern, thought she was aiming an antique gun.  Mary added sleeves and tired to “rough up” the hat via PhotoShop.  It was looking pretty good.

Then I asked my younger son–who had read the story–what he thought.  His reaction stunned me.  “Mom, that gun is all wrong.  It’s a flintlock; she would never have used that.”  It was chilling to realize how close I had come to making a really big mistake.  It was also disconcerting that he knew that much about guns, since I made a point of not having them in our house when he was growing up.

What happened next was a delight of help from diverse sources and needs its own post.  I’ll deal with that next time.