Book Covers (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace My Inner Graphic Designer)

So you’ve spent a year or whatever writing a novel and it’s fucking brilliant and then some asshole expects you to put a cover on it. The gall! It’s not about the artwork, surely? It’s about your brilliant masterpiece and how the story, the plight of your characters and the prose will connect with the reader. It’s about the words, man.

 

I guess in a perfect world, no books would have covers. We would choose to read novels based on their blurb, a small sample or maybe word of mouth. I don’t know if you’ve been watching the news recently, but Donald Trump has become a serious contender for the White House. We do not live in a perfect world and covers are a necessary evil.

 

I look on Amazon at some of these things. Christ, there are some turkeys out there. And I totally get it. Your prose will shine through, right? Who wants to spend money on a graphic designer when you’ve already paid for an editor and proof reader?

 

I’ve been blinded by this sort of artistic arrogance before. I once sent a demo CD to a record company with a handwritten track list scrawled on the front. And my writing ain’t pretty. I’m left handed, you see. I was born to be many things, but a calligrapher is not one of them. Did I hear back? Fuck no.

 

A few months later, I sent another demo CD off with a well-designed cover (I had a friend who was studying graphic design and he helped me out). A month later, on the back of the demo, I was playing to a record company in East London. They signed us. Things deteriorated thereon in, but that was nothing to do with artwork (lets blame ego and vodka for all that).

I digress.

A bad cover is like turning up to a job interview in shorts and a singlet. You might get a hiring manager who does not give a fuck, but I don’t imagine it happens too often. It’s a statement of intent, you see. It says, “I mean business, motherfucker.”

 

You know I’ve bought books and records purely because of their covers. Take Paul Neilan’s Apathy and Other Small Victories.

apathy

 

What a wonderful cover. I actually enjoyed the cover a whole lot more than the novel itself, but the point is that it piqued my interest and I paid for the thing. Would I have done that if it was Times New Roman on some Adobe stock photo that he’d cobbled together himself? Of course I wouldn’t.

 

So I’ve looked at options. There are so many websites that sell templates for reasonable prices, or will knock you up something bespoke if you want to pay a little extra. The templates seem to me like cop-outs. They look like they were taken from a template, which then reduces the appearance of professionalism. I’m not saying they’re terrible, but I just felt I wanted something better.

 

An inevitable by-product of living in East London for ten years is that I know a bunch of graphic designers. Another experience from my music days was using one of these guys. She was sleeping with the bass player and he wanted to use her on account of her being Austrian (he really liked Kraftwerk, and that was close enough to Germany for him), her hair was angular (artistic, innit?) and she was “quite good at drawing.”

It didn’t turn out so well. She completely missed the point and, because we couldn’t offend the bassist’s girlfriend, we were stuck with a CD cover we had to use.

Having been denied it before, I’m a big fan of creative control. That’s why self-publishing is an absolute no brainer for me. While the demo CD design turned out well, the idea of having some Palace hoodie clad skateboarder I once met over a mirror at a house party in 2008 design a cover for me doesn’t feel right. And I’m not quite as diplomatic as I once was about things I don’t like. I foresee trouble taking that route.

So I’m going on my own.

Photoshop is pretty cheap – you can rent it for £18 a month. Should only need it for a finite period of time and with these subscription services (which I love), I can dip in and out.

And I thought that if I see it as an extension of the writing experience rather than an irritating obligation at the end of it, it could actually be quite fun. From Scrivener to Logic, I enjoy learning creative programs. So this weekend, I’ll sit in front of load of YouTube tutorials, I’ll swear a lot and I’ll start seeing if making my own is really a viable option. I cannot wait.

So far, it feels right. Which probably means that I’ll be writing a long post on how I hate Photoshop early next week and hitting you up for design contacts.

 

 

 

 

20 comments

    1. It’s not bad, it’s just that nothing much happens in it. Reads like a sort of diet Bukowski. I’ll show you my photoshop efforts in the not-too-distant if you promise not to laugh.

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  1. I have Photoshop because I regularly fiddle with photography when I’m bored, and absolutely love diving into it to create my own graphics for my website. They’re not as good as they could be, but they are mine. I took the idea of Cthulhu and went from there, so I guess credit goes to HP Lovecraft, but my Coolthulhu is a whole different entity. Photoshop is fun, and there are BUNCH of wonderful tutorials out there.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I get you. I must admit to being intrigued by a book’s cover, but the real selling points for me are 1) the synopsis on the inside flap and, at the age of 56 and in the throes of full on presbyopia, the print. I still prefer a printed book and love the stark white pages with glossy photo art work. Do I still read the others? Yes, but only if I am really intrigued by the story line. After all, any idiot knows you can’t judge a book by its cover. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, printed vs electronic. I do love a printed book, but I moved flat about once every two years and I started to resent lugging them from one place to the next about two years ago.

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  3. As a graphic designer, for me, one of the most exciting periods for bookcover design began in the 1960s. Penguin covers had always been innovative, but when Alan Aldridge became art director in 1965 the company was to completely transform the way we looked at books. Literally, to make a pathetic pun. Though many of his designs and illustrations look extremely hippyish or psychedelic – judged in retrospect – it has to be remembered the style didn’t really exist before the 60s..

    But Aldridge wasn’t the only graphic designer employed by Penguin. As art director he commissioned other graphic designers. The variety of styles employed by Penguin over the period is stunning in its range. Bookcover design for paperbacks changed drastically, as did dust cover design for hardbacks. The influence the period had can still be seen today both in contemporary and retro designs.

    But there is a problem with people thinking Photoshop makes graphic design easy. It may make things look pretty, but a lot of the work produced doesn’t make any sense in strict design terms.

    In the 1960s a graphic design student would be expected to obtain a working knowledge of a wide variety of disciplines essential to the profession. A graduate would have to be familiar with typography and layout, hand lettering, illustration, calligraphy, photography & photographic printing, life drawing and animation to mention the basics. Knowledge of various print techniques was also essential, including letterpress, lino cut, lithography and silk screen. It wasn’t just to be able to use the technology but to be able to converse with technicians in each field, as they would be charged with producing the final product.

    Photoshop is just a method of mimicking those disciplines. It could not have been achieved without the skills of the graphic designers, who studied all the old techniques in the first place. Many of the tricks used by Photoshop today evolved out of skills perfected over millennia. The study of graphic design and its various disciplines helps designers understand that in a way Photoshop will never be able.

    It may seem boring to study typography, nevertheless, nearly of the typefaces used by Photoshop were designed by typographers, who spend years studying the art. The same applies to calligraphy and woodcut letters, which are also used by Photoshop. Roman fonts, such as Times Roman, are literally based on the style of lettering evolved by Roman and Greek carvers well over two thousand years ago.

    In the most formal examples, there are strict rules to be followed regarding the ellipses of rounded letters and serifs. In the best Roman forms aesthetics and technique are combined in perfect harmony. In Roman times special tools were used by stonecarvers. Calligraphy is dictated by the width of a pen nib held at the same correct angle throughout. This how our letters grew to be more legible.

    The down strokes of letters aren’t thicker than the horizontal strokes by accident but by design. They make it easier to read. Most of the lettering you see on road signs today was specially designed by typographers through experimentation on how to make letters easier to read from a distance. The lower case ‘l’ has a small tail at the bottom; to disinguish it clearly from a capital ‘I’.

    I could go into the illegibility of many designs produced by amateurs and their lack of design sense, but then I begin to sound elitist. That some very gifted amateurs have a natural talent for producing great designs without any training at all goes without saying, and I am often impressed by their results. Added to that, there is little doubt Photoshop can help a lot of people understand graphic design far better. But the discipline isn’t all flash and show, a lot of the best graphic design is hardly noticed; that’s how it’s supposed to be. A good book cover isn’t going to make a bad novel any better, in the same way a nice picture frame doesn’t transform Aunty Dot’s flower picture into a masterpiece. It just might shift more copies that’s all.

    Does that sound like a moan from a failed graphic designer? I thought so.

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    1. I hear ya. Logic (ubiquitous Apple recording program) is a similar kettle of cod. It will replicate a real drummer for you now, based on a load of algorithms and samples. Of course, it lacks the soul of an *actual* drummer, but it makes a pretty good copy. And that’s what Photoshop does with the disciplines you’ve mentioned. I guess it’s simply technology simply slowly replacing human skill. Of course, Logic Drummer has its plus points – it doesn’t get smashed before a session and it won’t sleep with your girlfriend. But I feel (quite passionately) that interesting art is about mistakes and rough edges. Buzzcocks are better than Justin Timberlake. And so on. Obviously, any of us who’ve learnt a trade feel hard done by now and it somewhat devalues the skill. I still plan to make the most of dicking around with Photoshop, though. I need a crap cover to go with my crap book!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Despite my comment, Photoshop is a great tool and toy. It’s just a damn pity it doesn’t pay fitting tribute to all the graphic designers, typographers and photographers, throughout the ages, without whom it would never have been possible. Having said that, it gets a hell of a lot of things plain wrong.

        And Microsoft’s pirating of typefaces, by getting Chinese designers to alter them slightly so they don’t have to pay royalties, is nothing short of scandalous. Don’t get me started, I tell you, just don’t. I throw a very mean tantrum.

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