We’ve all heard the adage: Don’t judge a book by its cover.
But most (all?) of us have been attracted to a book solely because of its cover. A book’s cover is its strongest advertisement, ideally conveying all the pertinent information in one handy little graphic: Title, Author, and Genre (plus, sometimes other details, like reviews, cost, awards won, etc.)
Books in series raise even greater challenges to cover designers. Those books need to convey all the basics, plus they need to have a commonality of tone and design that clearly signals there’s more where they came from.
I recently worked with the amazing Rebecca Poole from Dreams2Media to create a cover design for High Stakes Trial, the third book in my Washington Vampires series. Rebecca has kindly agreed to let me describe our journey toward the final Trial cover, complete with selections of our communication along the way.
Our initial goal was to build a cover that matched the other books in the series, Fright Court and Law and Murder.
Fright Court had been created by a cover designer; let’s call her Artist 1. When Artist 1 and I stopped working together, I hired Artist 2 to create the cover for Law and Murder. Artist 2 was unable to find the same cartoon file for my main character Sarah Anderson, so Artist 2 went with a new cartoon. I decided to work with Dreams2Media instead of Artist 2 because I’d been impressed with Rebecca’s work ethic and her timely delivery of another cover I’d needed for a group project.
Obviously, High Stakes Trial would include our (new) cupcake-carrying heroine, a stylized building, and a yellow crescent moon. I told Rebecca that the building in question should be a cathedral, to match the climactic scene in the book.
Rebecca works in a manner unique among the cover designers I’ve worked with. She schedules a specific day to create the cover, notifying me of that day well in advance. I do my best to keep that day clear of other major work, and we engage in a series of emails about the developing design. At the end of the day, I have a new cover, and Rebecca can cross off a major “to-do” item on her list.
Our High Stakes Trial design day began with Rebecca sending me her first draft in the early afternoon:
I thought we had a good beginning, but I had a lot of changes to suggest. At the time we worked on this cover, I had almost no Photoshop skills (and none with vector designs — the cartoon-like drawings used here.) I did have a link to a great color chart, which Rebecca had sent me at one point in the past: https://www.computerhope.com/htmcolor.htm
So, here’s the email I sent in response:
Yay, yay, yay! I’m so excited to be working with you on this!
So, right off the bat (no pun intended) — I love the bats, and the suggestion that they’r flying out of the cathedral tower! My very favorite part of this cover, though, is the cupcake 🙂 Maybe that’s because I’ve sworn off them for a few weeks, but I adore how ornate it is 🙂 I also really like the outline of the cathedral — it’s broody and somewhat menacing, which is what it needs to be. Your central figure has the perfect eyes and hair, and I love her neck!
Of course, me being me, I have a ton of things I want to tweak. Almost all of them are intended to provide greater depth to the cover and a more complicated balance, instead of the even centering you have now. As always, I don’t know what’s do-able and what isn’t — don’t be afraid to tell me I’m asking for the impossible! I think I gave you a link to the PSD file for FRIGHT COURT; if I forgot, let me know, and I’ll let you in there…
1. Background color: This color is too close to the LAW AND MURDER color — I’m afraid that casual viewers will think it’s the same cover. Could we base it on a different “murky” purple? Looking at the wonderful web link you gave me a while back, I’m thinking maybe Firebrick (#800517) or Rosy Finch (#7F4E52) or Dull Purple (#7F525D) or Eggplant (#614051) Those are all dull, ugly colors on their own, but I think you’ll make them *pop* when you add the yellows and other colors…
2. Title: The letters are too thin, loosing the “bulk” they have on both the FC and the LAM cover. Can you thicken them to match up with the others, even if that makes the title take up two lines — HIGH STAKES and TRIAL, probably, but maybe HIGH and STAKES TRIAL… Also, if you look at the FC and LAM covers, you’ll see a glow around the title. I think that really helps to add “depth” to the cover, so I’d love to see if you can emulate it.
3. Book 3: The Series line is the perfect size. It’s missing something, though, that’s on the other covers; it feels flat. I *think* the letters need to be outlined very narrowly in black, and there might be a black “glow” around them.
4. Magical Washington Logo: This looks too large; I think the image on the other covers is 3/4”, but I’m not sure.
5. Moon: The moon is one of the unifying emblems for these covers. I’d love to see it flipped left to right, narrowed a little, and turned a little more on its side, so that it echoes the other covers. Also, it’s color should be more gold than yellow — maybe Saffron (#FBB917) or even Beer (#FBB117). It should also be opaque to the background.
6. Cathedral: As I said, I love the image of the cathedral! Right now, though, it’s very static. Can it be tilted on its plane and turned to one side, the way the courthouse is done on FC or the Jefferson Memorial is done on LAM? Also, I love the gradient shadow layer on LAM that increases the depth of the cover, shading the bottom of the Memorial but leaving the top unchanged. Is that possible?
7. Stars: I love using the stars to highlight the magical nature of the story! Can we focus them, instead of blurring them, using hte same sort of stars as on the cover of LAM?
8. Sarah’s figure: First — placement — putting her dead center makes the cover more static. I’d love to see her placed to one side, complementing the angle of the cathedral, once that’s tilted. She doesn’t quite match up with the Sarah on LAM — part of it is that her face seems too wide. I think that can be modified with a few fixes, although I don’t know how doable they are. Here’s what I’d like to see — you tell me what you can do:
A. Change her skin tone to the more sallow tone on the other covers — maybe Peach (#FFE5B4) or BlanchedAlmond (#FFEBCD). The shadows will then change to a browner tone, maybe Brown Sugar (#E2A76F)?
B. Change her “arrow” nose to a brown-oval nose.
C. Remove her “cheekbones” and shadows of cheekbones.
D. Change her lip color to something dark — maybe Burgundy (#8C001A)
E. Can you thicken her bracelet, and maybe add a sparkle, like on the cover of LAM?
9. Sarah’s Clothes: I sort of like putting her in pants (she *is* sort of an action figure!), but outfit has always been cranberry and black. Can we try that: Cranberry (#9F000F) for the top (accent colors as you deem best!) and Black for her pants?
10. USA Today Bestselling Author: As with the Book 3 — this is the right font in the right size, but it’s missing depth. The FC and LAM covers have a black glow — can we try that? And can we right-justify it, to remove the static feel?
11. (Finally!) Mindy Klasky: That’s the right font, but the size isn’t quite right. The letters look large, and they’re missing the black glow that will give them more depth. Also, the byline isn’t centered; it’s right justified to line up with the far right edge of the title.
These are a ton of changes, I know, and some are likely not possible. Let me know what makes sense and what doesn’t, and we can move forward from there!
While some artists might have despaired over working with such a picky author, Rebecca dove right in to making the changes. In a flurry of emails, we discussed a number of fonts for the title, eventually settling on D-DIN Condensed. Almost exactly one hour later, she sent me her second draft:
Obviously, we’d taken huge steps forward toward a perfect cover. Here’s the email I sent back to Rebecca:
Wow! You’re not only a fast worker, you’re a thorough one! I *adore* the way this is shaping up — it’s got the dynamism and depth I was missing before! I didn’t think half of this would be possible — you are really a genius with this stuff!
I have just a few more tweaks…
1. Book 3: This line should left justify with the title; it’s almost but not quite there.
2. Magical Washington Logo: The emblem is just a little too large, maybe take it down by 1/4”?
3. Title: I think that font works. Let’s try outlining the letters with a thin black outline (to make them pop) and turning the glow from black to a transparent white (to make it match the other covers).
4. Moon: We’re not quite there on placement yet — can it be bigger, and higher on the dover, so that the upper horn goes through the “Book 3” line? now I see that there’s a color wash on it — is it possible to do a gradient so that the upper half is light and the bottom is the great saturated color you have now?
5. Stars and bats and cupcake and bracelet and dress and face — love, love, love!
6. Earring — the Burgundy earrings gets lost in her hair. Can we make it white?
6. Cathedral — I think it’s tilted a bit too much, maybe bring it 5 degrees straighter? And — this may be too hard a fix — can we break up the facade of the cathedral somehow (the way the columns break up the Memorial on LAM — but not with columns), maybe a pointed arch representing a doorway on each of the two towers?
7. Byline — It’s still a little too heavy — I think you’ve got it in bold, but on the other covers, it’s plain?
8. USA Today — Can we try putting the letters in a black glow to make them pop (the way they are on the other covers?
9. Background color — I’m going back and forth… Now that I see this one, it feels like it’s too similar to her dress. What do you think? Should we try something purple-y-er, maybe Purple Haze (#4E387E) or the more muddy Plum Purple (#583759)?
I managed to confuse Rebecca with my explanation of what I wanted for the cathedral. I sent her a screenshot of a line drawing I found at a stock photo site (note the watermark, because we weren’t using the file for an actual design):
I tried to clarify what worked for me in that line drawing:
Re the cathedral: Right now, there’s a big block of light-mauve, divided into two towers. What I’m hoping for is that same block, but with two darker sections “cut out”, colored the same as the background color, to divide up the space and to look like doors.
I’m attaching a graphic — it’s *way* too complicated, but if you added the doorway parts that are in royal blue to your graphic of the cathedral…
I also gave a few more notes:
Can you rotate the moon a little more, turn it maybe 5 or 10 degrees counter-clockwise, so that it echoes the moon in the other covers?
And our title letters feel a little crowded. Is there a way to sneak a little more space between the individual letters? Or are we just out of room? [Also,] we do need more black; compared to the other titles it’s almost invisible here. Let’s thicken the black a bit and hope that the smidge of space is enough to make the title work.
And then, one last thing — Sarah looks low in the frame, compared to the other figures, which come up closer to the title. I suspect you don’t have room with the graphic at the bottom, to move her up. Can we cheat by making her a little bigger? (Part of this will also be solved by changing the angle and shape of the crescent moon, making it swoop lower, as in LAM. And some of it can’t be resolved because the title is higher because the letters are smaller because the title is longer.)
There. That’s it. I’m through making your life miserable.
We discussed the moon a little more, and then Rebecca responded with her usual speed, providing the final cover for High Stakes Trial:
I was thrilled. In one day, we’d gone from a draft that felt stiff and mechanical to one that expressed the dynamism of my story, while still matching the overall series design.
Shortly thereafter, Rebecca rebuilt the cover for Fright Court, bringing it into alignment with the other books in the series. Here is the new and improved Fright Court:
I’m extremely pleased with all of Rebecca’s hard work. She was creating her High Stakes Trial before the “back of the book” blurb was written, but her cover is a perfect reflection of the book:
Vampires, sphinxes, a love triangle, and cupcakes—where else but Magical Washington, DC?
Sarah Anderson’s dream job at the vampire night court is turning into a nightmare. Working as the court clerk used to soothe her wild compulsions. But now she’s under indictment for murdering a vampire judge, and both her job and her freedom are on the line.
Things aren’t any better on the romance front. With her vampire ex-boyfriend on the lam and her current beau siding with sphinxes against her, Sarah wonders if she’ll ever find her Happy Ever After.
Most of all, Sarah longs to find her supernatural father. Only then will her paranormal life truly make sense. Her quest becomes infinitely more complicated, though, when she’s caught between an ancient Egyptian goddess and DC’s most notorious vampire villain.
What does Sarah’s future hold—a jail cell, a lover, or an entirely new type of magic?