In my mind, every book cover has three stories.
There’s the story the image tells. There’s the story that it covers… i.e. the book itself. And last, but not least, there’s the story of its creation.
Today, I’m thrilled to to reveal the cover for my urban fantasy novel, Investigation, Mediation, Vindication. You’ll be able to judge for yourself what story it tells, if any. As for the story it covers… I’m afraid you’ll have to wait until May to read the book. But in the meantime, I want to tell the third story; the story of the cover’s creation.
The design process for Investigation, Mediation, Vindication was much, much shorter than what we went through for See These Bones, as painstakingly chronicled in See These Bones: Cover Reveal. All told, IMV’s cover only took ~20 days, start to finish.
But it was still a bit of a struggle.
An Urban Fantasy… only… not?
Investigation, Mediation, Vindication is very much an urban fantasy. It has vampires and other supernatural creatures, all living under the noses of an unsuspecting modern-day human population. But it’s also quite a bit different than your standard urban fantasy, and those differences are most immediately apparent in the main character himself. John Smith is not a badass. He’s not the secret heir to a fae kingdom, or a half-blood anything. He doesn’t know magic, or even that magic exists, and he would look awful in skintight leather. And the only suit he owns is one his dad bought him for a job interview… which he then bombed.
Because of all that, I didn’t want a standard urban fantasy cover. You know the ones I’m talking about… buff men and women wearing sexy outfits and making superhero poses in some sort of vague street scene, with a fair bit of smoke, neon, or magic going on1. I don’t have anything against those covers–and they’ve become synonymous with the genre–but the style is a poor fit for my book.
A cover like this… only… legal?
So what exactly did I want? This time around, and unlike with See These Bones, I actually had a cover concept ready before I hired the designers. Years ago, when a friend and I were fan-casting the John Smith series, I found two production stills from the now-defunct television show, Happy Endings, that pretty much perfectly captured my main character:
The show’s character was very different from John2, but these images were perfect. Take away the tie, and that is John… a bit overweight, more than a little disheveled, with a beer in his hand, and absolutely no idea what to do next. So when it came time to create the cover, I thought these stills would be the perfect starting point for a very different kind of urban fantasy book cover.
And on some other planet, maybe they would have been. But that’s not how things worked out here on Earth.
When it came to creating cover art in the same vein as those stills, our design company had substantial concerns. Like many cover designers, they use stock photos that they manipulate and modify to fit the cover as needed. But there are seven books3 in the John Smith series, and they were worried about finding sufficient instances of a given stock model (especially an atypical cover model) to accomodate a series that long4.
Eventually, we boiled things down to the aspects that seemed most important: a disheveled main character with a beer and an urban setting. They asked for some sort of fantasy design element and we settled on an artistic reinterpretation of a portal from the book. Then I sat back and waited.
I do like the rat…
A few days later, they sent me this concept:
I didn’t love it. At all. To be honest, the concept felt bland and generic. The bottle said ‘I’m an alcoholic’ more than anything, and the silhouette doesn’t tell me anything about the book or the character. Even the portal felt like something I’d seen on a dozen other urban fantasy covers.
The rat was my favorite part, which is ironic, both because the actual book doesn’t feature a rat and because I’m terrified of rats in the real world.
It’s not necessarily a bad cover. It’s just not super interesting… and it definitely didn’t fit my book.
Let’s just start over?
So we went back to the drawing board. And because we were having so much trouble coming up with a cover that fit the urban fantasy feel while also conveying our Not your normal urban fantasy! message, we decided to ignore the genre norms entirely.
Without going into spoilers, the book’s title comes from a yellow pages ad that John created for his one-man agency5. Maybe we could make that ad the focal point of the cover? A torn piece of yellow paper with the title and ad copy, on a table top with a beer bottle next to it?
There were a lot of reasons that idea wouldn’t work. Zooming the imaginary camera out far enough to see this piece of paper and the beer bottle, and whatever other paraphenalia might exist, would make the very wordy ad (and thus the title) illegible in thumbnail form. It would also look more like a crime novel than anything else.
Even so, I liked the basic thought of featuring the ad, which plays a small but pivotal role in the narrative. So my angel-wife and I scoured the internet, looking at actual yellow pages ads for inspiration. We grabbed a few images (including the poster for Better Call Saul), sent them on to the designers, and waited to see what they might come up with.
Now I miss the rat…
This was their first pass on the image and we liked some aspects of it: the title, the general nod to a yellow pages ad, even the full-length cartoon guy6. What we didn’t care for was the brick backdrop, the loose framing of the ad, the people at the bottom, the odd dark yellow/brown band at the top, and the fact that the text all kind of blended together7.
Also, while the cover literally had the words “urban fantasy” on it, there was nothing else that suggested fantasy or paranormal elements.
Still… it was a start!
The 3rd(ish) try is the charm! I hope!
We went through several iterations, soliciting feedback from my family and beta readers8, and finally ended up with this:
And you know what? I like it.
It’s pretty weird… but so is the book. It isn’t at all my original vision, but there’s no question that it’s different from standard urban fantasy covers. And it manages to evoke the idea of a yellow pages ad, while also conveying some useful information: there is a comedic element to the book, it takes place in San Diego, and there are vampires9.
Is it the sort of cover that will have potential readers compulsively clicking the buy button? I have no idea. But it’s different and it’s weird and it’s not boring and those all seem like good things.
So what do you think? Do you hate it? Do you love it? Are you entirely indifferent to it and/or slightly confused how you ended up on this site? Let me know!
Investigation, Mediation, Vindication is headed to NetGalley this week for advance reviews, and should be available to purchase on Amazon in e-book and paperback formats in mid-May.
- Bonus points if the cover includes all three!
- In a variety of ways.
- I know… it surprised me too!
- In the mythical future where I sell the movie rights to the series, maybe Adam Pally will still look young enough for the role, and we’ll be able to redo the covers using him as the model.
- He was drunk at the time.
- Which we hadn’t expected at all!
- Several of the real ads we had sent them used graphic elements to create more style and interest with the text.
- As well as debating endlessly on whether to call out that it’s comedic, and whether comedic was even the right word to use. Lighthearted might have been better, but it was too long to fit!
- If you look closely, the guy in the suit has fangs!