A picture is worth a thousand words. A cover is worth way more than that.
The irony of being a first-time author is that some of the most important keys to a successful launch have nothing to do with your writing at all. It’s not enough to write a good book… you have to convince people to actually read that book too.
Worse, you have to convince them to pay for it.
Strong reviews and positive word-of-mouth certainly help. A good marketing plan does too. But study after study suggests that one of the best ways to attract the random bookstore customer is with an eye-catching cover.
That’s right; we humans are no different than most animals. All it takes to catch our eye is something shiny. Look at this pretty picture! Clearly, whatever’s inside is worth my time…
Which brings us to the subject of today’s blog post.
I finally have a cover for See These Bones.
Every journey starts with a thousand emails…
I wasn’t sure this day would ever come. In all, this one cover has taken took two companies, nine weeks, almost a dozen mockups (one of which I unhelpfully created), and roughly 17,000 revisions1.
From the start, I knew that I didn’t want a typical urban fantasy cover, with the protagonist front and center, looking smoking hot, and wearing something black and tight, as neon smoke wafts in the background. I don’t have anything against covers like that… some of my favorite series helped popularize the whole aesthetic. But See These Bones isn’t an urban fantasy. Nor is its protagonist, Damian, particularly hot, and if we’re being brutally honest, nobody wants to see him in skintight leather, least of all me.
So that’s what I didn’t want. As for what I did want? Well, there it got a bit iffy. I wanted a cover that made it clear this was science fiction/fantasy with superheroes. I wanted a design and layout that could be tweaked and reused for the other two books in the series. It needed to be artistic and stylized rather than photorealistic, and I wanted verticality, depth and motion. I attached a bunch of (very different but all fairly interesting) covers that showed some of these elements to that initial email, and called it a day.
These are not the covers you’re looking for…
The first few cover mockups we got seemed to focus on the paranormal aspect. To me, the first one looked a bit like an advertisement for that one new hiking trail every Instagram influencer should visit. The second looked like a horror movie poster (although I do appreciate the wildly optimistic “#1 bestselling title” addition). Of the two, I definitely preferred the Instagrammable Hiking Guide, but I still asked the company to make some significant tweaks.
The second iteration of that cover swapped out the forest backdrop for desert, got rid of the bird, and changed to a color palette that seemed more appropriate for the series.
My wife took one look at it and said ‘That’s boring.’ And even though they had made exactly the changes I asked for, she was right. What a bummer.
Also problematic; the new cover didn’t tell me what the book was about. See These Bones is a post-apocalyptic, superhero, coming-of-age ghost story… with expletives. But how do you convey all of that in an image?
Well, as the well-known (and suspiciously talented) author Mark Henwick told me, you don’t. Instead, you pick the biggest genre niche that your book fits into and go for that. Which is fantastic advice. Unfortunately, unless my genre was ‘stylized desert photography’, the latest cover wasn’t going to get it done.
(Plus, it was boring.)
If at first you don’t succeed, just quit. You’re clearly cursed.
So we started over. The company sent us several more rough mockups. If nothing else, I appreciated that the first one was different. All that white space was definitely eye-catching. The problem is, it still didn’t say say anything about my book, other than that there was fire and maybe a skull2. The second mockup was exactly the horror approach we’d said we didn’t want, and the third… I don’t really know what the third cover was about, or why the figure in question appears to have a pompadour. Maybe there’s an entirely different book there, waiting to be written.
The bottom line was that none of the mockups resonated with us, even as starting points. By this point, we were almost two months into the process and I was getting frustrated. My naive hope had been that the company would blow my mind with a design I could never have even imagined, and that the whole process would all be over and done with by summer. Instead, we were spinning our wheels and going nowhere.
I finally made the decision to go with another cover company.
Oh, I get by with a little help from my friends…
While all of this was going on, my friends and family pitched in as best they could in their own inimitable ways. My brother offered to lend his award winning stick-figure art to the design, while my friend Shawn sent me a few completely (and intentionally) terrible cover concepts, carefully crafted using MS Paint. I thought the cover below was his best:
Sadly, this otherwise flawless piece of art was better suited as a cover for an omnibus of the whole series, seeing as he’d scribbled the series name (kind of) rather than the title of the book.3
Meanwhile, my brother never ended up submitting a design with his stick-figure art, but it was comforting to know that I always had that option waiting if I really needed it. I’m sure it would have been amazing.
That light at the end of the tunnel is actually a train…
…being carried by a man in a cape. This place is weird.
Instead, we turned to our new cover design company. I gave them the same guidelines I’d sent the first company, but I also stressed that the elements I wanted them to focus on were the book’s post-apocalypic setting and the presense of superheroes. I even sent them a (terrible) sample image I had made, so they had a better idea of what I was talking about and/or looking for. Within a week, they’d sent back two mockups:
I liked them both, particularly the way the superhero’s flight vector cut through the S and the O in the title. On the other hand, I wasn’t in love with the reversed N’s. I also found the hero soaring upwards to be a little bit too inspirational/peaceful for See These Bones. Still, it was a good start.
From there, we went through a half-dozen iterations over the span of several weeks. Eventually, we wound up with an image that both my wife and I liked. I’m hoping you’ll like it too4!
So here it is, the cover for See These Bones:
To me, the ruined cityscape suggests that something has gone horribly awry5, while the flying figure firing a beam of energy down at the city says there are superpowered people in this world and they may not all be nice6. It’s also a design that I can easily play with and reuse for the other books in the trilogy. The title font and placement will stay the same, but the color scheme and depicted scene will be distinct for each book. I already have concepts ready for Red Right Hand and One Tin Soldier.
So there you have it! Two months, two companies, a ton of mockups, and more than a few gray hairs, but it’s over. Hopefully, I’ve ended up with a book cover that will catch people’s eyes and interest.
Maybe some of those people will then decide to look at the many, many words inside.
- Trust me… I counted!
- Technically, both details do exist in the book, but neither is so pivotal that they need to be on the cover.
- Legal disclosure: nobody associated with this site in any way advocates murdering one or more members of the Counting Crows, whether you happen to be in Omaha, somewhere in the middle of America, or someplace else.
- But if you don’t, that’s okay… it’s quite possible I’ll repeat the entire process and re-design the covers when it’s time to release the series internationally.
- Spoiler: it has.
- Spoiler: there are and they aren’t