A Cover Story: Chapter 3 – Elements

Base Lips ImageANY DESIGN IS MADE UP OF ELEMENTS. What are elements? Well, there are Elements of Design and then there are the elements of a design. The first set refers to the overarching principles that inform good design — line, color, texture, space, and form. The second refers to the collection of — for lack of a better term — objects which make up a particular image. For our purposes, a book cover will have a source image or images, type copy, type faces, color, and composition. Except for the creation of a source image or of type, we will make little direct use of line. Color will be a big part of the tools we manipulate for our purposes, as will texture and form. And we will attempt to create space and form as we go.

But first, we must gather our elements and decide on a design.

My exemplar cover is a live project intended for the first novel in the Baby Troll Chronicles, Dolly Apocrypha, current working title Report from New Xenaland. That’s going to change, and will have to be pretty well settled before we proceed too much farther on the cover design, but it’s open at the moment.

And thereby may hang a tale. Because the direction take for the final sale title for the book will — should, must, ought to — influence the look of the cover package. Are the reasons for that clear? If they are not, post your questions in comments and we’ll discuss it. But for now, I’ll take them as both obvious and given.

As the story is a part of a larger series — indeed also as the anchor story for the first of three or four distinct series or story arcs featuring these same characters and this same built world — the covers for the entire series will have a unified look. I have a great deal of experience in this, as I use the concept daily — albeit in the service of a wholly other end — and I will be able to pass along some of the tricks and techniques I and my teammates use to this end. More on this later.

I will have to emplace three marketing tags in addition to the book title and my name on the cover, which implies that I’ll have to be most clever with the arrangement of the type to get all that in and still keep it readable, both close up and life-sized an reduced and down-rezzed to thumbnail for Amazon et al.

Also, as I do not have the time (or, to be honest, the skill set) to produce figurative illustrations of people or scenes, the tack we’ll be taking will involve abstracts, symbols, and found objects to denote (and connote) our themes. This implies that we must consider how to tie the look of all the series’ covers together and still differentiate them from one another. As I say: more, later. So. The elements:

  • Source illustration
  • Background texture
  • Colophon (publisher’s logo)
  • Volume indicator
  • Title
  • Marketing tag One: “The Baby Troll Chronicles”
  • Marketing tag Two: “Book One of the Dolly Apocrypha”
  • Marketing tag Three: “Something clever and enigmatic Dolly says in dialog.”
  • Front cover blurb:”Something nice somebody you’d know says about the book or me or Dolly.”
  • Back cover blurb: “In 1996, the Goddess Aphrodite cast the soul of her servant, Gabrielle Francesca East, into a 12-inch plastic Xena: Warrior Princess action figure. A dolly. On Valentine’s Day in 1998, Aphrodite arranged for the soul to be transfered into a human body. These are the adventures of that dolly. For fifteen years, the world has eagerly awaited the arrival of the final versions of Dolly’s stories. This is the first volume. The wait is over.”

I’m not holding my copy up as an example of The Way, The Truth, and The Light. Along my way, I will be running these by real pros in the field and listening to what they have to say about them, adjusting accordingly. But I know those elements need to be there for my cover to look — to be — professional. So I’m putting in placeholders to be altered as required down the road. This will complicate the production of the cover art, but it’s necessary they be there, so we accept the complications as part of the process.

There will also be a set of elements which the printer will require. At least one will be the bar code, which will probably subsume an ISBN. (What? You’re not buying an ISBN? Are you serious? Or are you just playing around? Go. Buy at least one, ten if you can afford them.)

Here’s why. First, if you don’t buy ISBNs for your titles, your books don’t exist. Don’t complain to me; I didn’t design the system. Yes, there are myriad other identifiers. Yes, “they” (that ever-present and amorphous “they”) say that the ISBN is going away. All that may be true. But, now, here, in the real world, the ISBN is the number that everybody uses to identify a book. Even Amazon does, though it’s not their preferred identifier. Bowker charges $125 for the first one, but will sell you the next nine for $13.89 each (rounded up). If you find it hard to turn loose of that as an investment in your business, fine. Cut your own throat. You can get “free” ISBNs issued by some channels — CreateSpace and Smashwords both offer free or discounted ISBNs. Read the fine print carefully to see whether these services suit you. But DO NOT attempt to publish a book without an ISBN altogether.

And the point for the purposes of this discussion is that you need to make provisions for the ISBN and bar code in your design. The Create Space template includes requirements for it. They will place it on the cover, and I recommend you go with the flow on this. They’ll encode the number, and decide whether to print the human-readable alpha imprint in black over your art, or knock it out to white. Just leave room for it and be aware it will be there.

Now, let’s start looking at the elements in more detail.

1. Source Illustration: The illustration needs to tease the story without giving anything away. No spoilers. It does not need to be a literal portrayal of persons, places, or events in the story. But readers may refer to the cover illustration while they’re reading, and if there is a dissonance, you’ll hear about it. I don’t have a completed illustration — don’t even have a rough sketch, yet — so we’ll be hand-waving for a little bit. Possibly by Chapter 5, we’ll be working with the actual image(s). For now, let’s talk about the overall concept.

The story takes place in Auckland, New Zealand and its northern suburbs — in particular the Rodney District and Snell’s Beach area. The setting does not serve as much but a ground for action to take place. Auckland does have significance to the overall saga, but never figures as a character in the story in the way that New York does in the Nero Wolfe stories or London in Sherlock Holmes. However, there are themes and tropes in the novel that ground the story and we will use some of them visually. These elements will also help down the line to identify this particular book among its litter mates, when there are more of them on shelves actual and virtual. Among those will be the silhouette of a certain species of palm, not native to the city, but nevertheless a familiar in its public spaces.

Finally, a good deal of the character development hangs on events sexual in nature, and I will be looking for a way to portray certain — erm — climactic scenes in the abstract, using symbols and objects to hint at what is a good deal more explicit in the text. The ideal I’ll be striving for is represented by the image at the top. (You can click on any of the images in this article to see it full-size.) However, that particular pic is not suitable for several reasons:

  • First, it’s not mine. I don’t own the copyright on it. And court cases on the subject have made it clear that derivatives of images must be unrecognizable as such to not infringe.
  • Second, it’s from the wrong angle. It’s a full profile, whereas I want something that’s turned toward the viewer at least a quarter.
  • Finally, it’s — subtly — the wrong expression. I want something more like the images shown in the screen grab of my image directory below.

There are several other factors mitigating against direct use of this image, but others that make me want to use it as a base, not least being I want to use it as a reference for the texture, detail, and gloss on the lips. All three may go away, depending on what I do about the style of the illustration, but they start out in the mix for the moment.

But back to the cover source image. Right now, the only element in-hand or very far along at all is the lips. The rest will come along as I go. And, for future discussions, I will consider the background texture as a part of the source illustration, although I will be breaking it apart from this particular cover and re-using it on others in the series.

3. Colophon Really? Why? Well… Same as with the ISBN. You are going to turn potential buyers away if you make your book inaccessible. Many distributors and retailers will not carry self-published books. That prejudice is slowly going away, but it does still exist. There’s no point in poking it with a stick. There is also the possibility that, without at least the appearance of a discrete publisher — as separate from the author — you’re going to scare off some readers. You face enough friction slowing down potential sales. There’s NO point in adding to it if you can easily eliminate it. Publishing under your own imprint is one way to do that. And a solid anchor for taking advantage of the practice is to include a publisher’s logo in your cover design. My imprint is Dreamflower Works. I have the domain name and everything (although the web site is embryonic at the moment). The logo image is a morning glory blossom in a frame with the imprint slug under the flower.

scr adobe bridge 130318The image to the right (and the similar one below) are screen grabs from Adobe Bridge. I have arranged and configured the display in each case for my illustrative purposes in making the grabs. There is a great deal more possible with the application than meets the eye here.

The creation process in making the logo can be divined from these grabs. I wanted originally to make a Mucha-esque corner spray of three blossoms, some leaves, and vines. But, short on time, I decided to simplify the thing, (always a good approach to improving a design). So I drew as my text, the tattoo flash of a single morning glory blossom (second row, second from left in the screen grab), and used as my guide for drawing the blossom the photo of the white flower, (fourth row, farthest right). I did the drawing in CorelDRAW!. It took, perhaps, an hour. Then I threw together the logo badge. I have always liked the typeface. It’s called Arnold Boecklein, or, in some font kits, Arabia. Boomer fans of the band Yes might recognize it from heavy use by the album cover artist, Roger Dean. The rest of the design stems from a desire to make something tough looking that will read well small. I intend to make a line version of the flower for use in print versions of the book as a scene and chapter break “dingbat”.

And I observe from my previews, that we’re running a bit long. Plus: I promised this post much earlier today, though I doubt there are more than a handful of you out there waiting with ‘bated breath for my words of wisdom. And, it’s past time for dinner, so I have to go. Chapter 4 is already in the queue and will appear tomorrow morning.


scr_adobe_bridge_2_130323A side note, here. I love Adobe Bridge. And if you need a reason to buy Creative Suite, this app is one. I understand that some of the features I really like in it are not available in earlier versions, so keep in mind I’m describing the version with CS6 (or later). I’m finding it a bonzer production tool. It has just enough cross-platform and inter-application heterogeneousness to make it useful to someone who uses apps by other publishers, but is powerful and flexible enough if you just use CS. (Or the other apps, but you wouldn’t have it if you weren’t using CS.) There have been many attempts to provide this kind of function before, but they have all failed in trying to control too much of the user’s experience, instead of simply sitting there and let the USER decide how to use it. What it provides is a combination of search, archiving, production process control, app- and task-switching, and visual access to all of the collateral an artist will use in regular production. I find I can tunnel across the network to other machines and snatch up content from alien drives and archives as easily as though it were on my desktop. Claims have been made of this before, but, in my experience, most have fallen short of the ideal. Adobe seems to have hit a home run, here.

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