Iconic Cover Art
Bella Andre and I were sitting together at a book convention once, gabbing about shoes and handbags, when an author came up and asked what we thought about their book cover. Funny they should ask the two of us, because Bella is one of the absolute best authors in the multi-verse at putting together her own cover art. (Just take a gander if you don’t believe me.) And I’m the absolute worst.
But I love doing my own covers just as much as Bella has to do her own covers. For her, it’s because she knows no one can do a better job. And she’s right. For me, it’s because I love every aspect of book creation and presentation, no matter how much I suck at it.
On this day, at the con, Bella and I both looked at this author’s cover, and we looked at each other. And I was thinking, “You should handle this, because you’re the talented one.” And Bella was thinking, “This looks as bad as one of your covers, so maybe you should go for it.” What we did instead was demonstrate to the author, so they could see for themself.
I took the book and began walking away from the table. I asked Bella to stop me when the book became “Amazon size.” That’s the size the book will appear to anyone scrolling through an online retailer. Bella kept waving me back. Fifty feet. A hundred feet. “Stop,” she said.
“What do you think of the cover?” she asked the author.
The author nodded. “I see what I need to do,” they said. They took their book, thanked us, and went off with the sort of determination that causes me not to worry about people.
Bella looked at me like, “You do know that people think they can get away with covers like that because of you, right?”
I looked at her like, “Bella Andre, you’re so dreamy!”
It used to be said that great cover art becomes iconic over time. I can think of a dozen or so covers that I can still pick out from a thousand paces. When I first saw the red cover for WOOL that Random House came up with, I had that sort of feeling about it. There had never been a cover quite like that. It would stand out. Be instantly recognizable. I loved it.
It’s the grabbiness at a distance that works. But more importantly these days, it’s the grabbiness at a tiny size. More than half of print books are now purchased online, which means what you put on the back of the jacket, or the inside flap, or how detailed your artwork is, has all become less relevant. These days, cover art needs to be not so much iconic as icon. We need to think about them as little clickable buttons. For design ideas, it’s time to start looking at our desktops rather than bookstore shelves.
My last two covers are, I think, good examples. And even if they are bad covers, they show the direction I’m thinking cover art should go. I put both covers together in just a few hours. I know it looks like they took a few minutes, but you aren’t seeing all the iterations I didn’t go with. First, THE BOX:
What’s unusual about this cover is that it intentionally uses whitespace to blend in with the background on Amazon product pages. The effect is what looks like a small square cover rather than a rectangular cover. You can’t pull this off in a bookstore. You have to think about the work and approach it from an online-retailer perspective.
Another point that I’ll go into detail about in a bit: Where else can you get away with not putting the author’s name on the cover? When you know the product page will feature the name, this is unnecessary. Again, not something you can pull off with a brick and mortar store in mind. This is cover art design tailored for the retailer you have in mind.
Another simple cover that works at a very small size. What I loved about this one was using nothing but typography for the graphics. It’s all done with font. Messages in the story are text-based and costly to send, so there’s a bit of subtle meaning there. Even the stars are just periods, and there’s meaning there as well.
Okay, neither cover is as pretty as Bella’s books, but hey, I’m not as pretty as Bella! But they’re covers that come from me, that relate to my story, that I put together myself, and that I’m happy with. They are meant to work as icons, not be iconic. But who says icons can’t? Maybe these won’t, but yours might.
(Another aspect of cover art creation that I’ve encountered is the ability for readers and other writers to join in. After sharing my design for BEACON 23, author Andrzej Tucholski shared his version. After riffing on his design, I came up with what is currently the cover being used for the short story. This is cover art like jazz.)
I know we are used to high-res graphics on covers, and that photography is the base for most cover art, and that’s been true for me as well. But all we really need is a cover that gives us the title and a taste for what to expect. We might think romance novels, for instance, need a shirtless hunk or a sexy vixen on the cover, but the bestselling erotica of all-time had a cufflink. And it could’ve been a render of a cufflink.
Would indie cover art look better or worse if we stopped trying to make them look like print books on a store shelf and more like a little bitmapped image you might click on to launch an application? I argue they would look better. The biggest mistake I see with cover art is that authors pay so much or work so hard on the art, that they shove the title way up at the top and their name way down at the bottom to not cover up what they’re proud of.
I think this is a huge mistake. Look at portfolios from professional cover artists. They cover up their background art with the title and the author’s name. They make the font big, bold, and legible. We should be doing the same thing. I would argue that graphics and art aren’t needed at all. Or better yet: Think of each letter in the title as a separate art element. That’s what M.S. Corley did with his cover for my short story SECOND SUICIDE, and it has become one of my all-time favorite covers:
Or go the other route and leave off the title and author’s name completely. Insanity, right? This is something you simply can’t do with book jackets. But when you know all the metadata will be on the Amazon product page, you don’t have to put the metadata on the cover. That’s exactly what I did with my print flipbook, the TwinPack Vol. 2. Here’s what the product page looks like for this collection of two short stories, which are printed in reverse, with cover art on either side:
The title of the work and the author’s name are right there. Which allows me to leave Galen Dara’s fantastic cover art all alone to shine and be admired. Here, the idea of icon as iconic is taken to the extreme. The cover art is a striking image that works at thumbnail size, and it only advertises itself with its blend of colors and shapes, not with a label telling us what it is.
All different concepts, but the connecting theme is that our covers are going to be small, but they still have to stand out. We shouldn’t be designing covers to sit on store shelves, and we shouldn’t be afraid to take risks, to let the typography be more important than the artwork, or to go to the other extreme and let the product page handle the metadata, and let the art stand alone.
If you’re playing with your own covers, try taking that background image and fading it away. Try breaking up your title font so that each letter is on a separate layer, and then blow those letters up, shift them around, play with the kerning, stretch and warp them a little, so that the reader can tell that the word wasn’t simply typed out. Use large and bold text that’s easy to read at any size, and don’t be afraid to keep it simple. Don’t be afraid to break the rules. Build iconic cover art. The kind you want to click on.