Book Cover Design: People

Of plots, and characters, and book cover design. That’s what I’m thinking about. Dorothy Grant and I were working on the cover for her latest, and she suggested I use our conversation as a springboard for a MGC post. I’m always excited when Dorothy comes to me for a cover – this is the third I have done for her, and every time I work with her on this level (or, really, on any other) I learn things. She may proclaim she is not an artist, but she has a superb sense of design and aesthetic that she meshes well with the marketing expertise you need for a book cover.

I’m going to hop up on my soap box here. Your book cover is not a portrait of a scene in your book. Your book cover is a cohesive marketing tool that must convey the entire body of work in a single image. Depending on the length of your novel, that’s not a thousand words in a picture, that’s 100K words in a single image. Furthermore, readers have expectations, even if they could not express them in so many words. Which is why my first words to anyone I am trying to coach through creating their own cover are: go look at the top 100 best sellers in your sub genre on Amazon. Get a feel for what readers are associating with your sub genre. Then blend those elements into your cover design. *steps off soap box*

One of the iterations Dorothy and I discussed for her cover was a ‘deep space’ classic SF cover. One where the perspective is pulled so far back from scene all you can see are stars, planets, and the odd exploding space ship. This is excellent for, say, space opera or milSF. However, Dorothy’s book is a much more intimate POV. You, the reader, are with her pilot, in the same room, largely, from fly-on-the-wall perspective. When you are writing and reading a character-driven book rather than one which is pulled back more and focuses on politics, battles, and leaps from ship’s bridge to planets through warp holes to other pocket universes… that’s the kind of book that needs the impersonal grandiose scale of the planets and explosions. Dorothy’s book needed a face on the cover.

The initial draft I did for her cover was far too dark. I knew this, but I was looking at the overall composition of the woman, the ballistic arc that is so important to the story, and the stars above and behind her. Joking with Dorothy, I suggested a more colorful schema, which made both of us laugh and go ‘dear lord no!’ Which led to me thinking about the action sprinkled liberally through the book – it is by no means a slow character drama. This is action adventure SF with a pilot on the run… how about some fire on the cover? Things that go BOOM! Are always appreciated by the SF crowd, and we both knew that, but in this version much of the SFnal signalling was lost. We would have to rely on font for that, and that’s not ideal. Also at this point, we tinkered with a…

Ever wanted to see what a photocomposite rough sketch looks like? This is one.

Nope, that didn’t work either. No plane in the picture, so our pilot (and digression here: finding a stock model that worked for this cover was a process, as it is for any cover I am working on. I rarely come up with precisely what I want, but neither my skills nor the author’s budget was going to stretch to painting one from scratch. So using a model is the best way to do this, short of resorting to plastic render dollies, and I don’t do those).

Finally, we talked through the things that were really going to work on the cover, and came up with the ‘almost there!’ version. Planets and nebula to signal SF. A person on the cover to signal character drama rather than a broader plot. The ballistic swoosh to go with the title. The plane made much more visible to help signal pilot.

And then, well, I’ll show you the interchange after I put text on the cover and sent it to her. What’s with the author font, she asked?

Nope, Author name is always bigger! Like this? I suggested, and shot her another cover…

We can make you a queen among authors! LOL. Author name can always be bigger.

And in the end, this is what we wound up with. Along with having a lot of fun and enjoying the process along the way. Sometimes I know things, but can’t put them into words. Like why some books must have a person on the cover. And why other books are better with the distant clash of titanic space ships. It’s the perspective on the plot.

One of the other things we discussed with this cover was the lighting. My initial drafts were dark, in part because they were still sketched in and lacking some of the elements and layers that would lighten it up. But it sparked a conversation within the larger conversation about the plot arc of the entire book – a progress from darkness into the light, as the protagonist hits rock bottom and has to claw her way back into hope and a future. Which is why, on the final, I lit it to appear like she is standing in a spotlight, or a sunbeam, piercing the clouds and falling on her upturned face.

It’s highly doubtful readers will notice or appreciate this subtlety. But Dorothy and I both agreed it was an important subconscious message to send. This is not a book about dark depressed inertia. It’s going places.


You can read Dorothy’s latest here, and I highly recommend you do so. It is excellent! I’m so chuffed she picked me to help her with the cover again.



  1. > Author name is always bigger!

    I wrote a book for Wiley back in the late ’80s, and one for Que in the early ’90s. They had “publisher”, “house” and “imprint” logos, some larger than the title. My name was about 3/16″ high, front cover only on the Wiley book, a hair bigger on the Que. If it was on the spine of either I don’t remember…

    Kinda got the idea that the author wasn’t a factor in their marketing…

    1. Textbooks are a whole ‘bother bag of biscuits as my daughter would say. Genre conventions dictate how large the author name is. Literary, as Dorothy and I alluded to, is small. Texts tend to be small. Non-fiction varies.

  2. — Your book cover is not a portrait of a scene in your book. Your book cover is a cohesive marketing tool that must convey the entire body of work in a single image. —

    Forgive me, Cedar, but that doesn’t seem possible.

    The consensus I’ve detected about cover art for genre works is that it “should” (my favorite word) suggest genre and sub-genre strongly, but that attempts to detail what lies beyond the cover are misguided. Your statement quoted above diverges strongly from that, unless I’m misinterpreting.

    To provide an example for discussion, what would you say about the cover for Amanda Green’s “Risen from Ashes?” While it does strongly suggest genre and sub-genre (military SF), it has no other connection to the story. If you knew only the genre and sub-genre and nothing else about the book, would you regard it as a suitable cover for such a novel?

    1. “Conveying the body of work” isn’t meant as conveying the story. It’s conveying the feeling of reading the book, or the feeling of “this is the kind of coolness in the book.” In this case, it’s “this is the kind of cool character there is, and also splodey and space sky and ballistic plane, and also aspiration hooray.”

      1. That’s more along the lines of the consensus I mentioned — yet it does a certain violence to the concept of the cover as artwork, and also as an entry point to the story. It leaves me of two minds: one oriented toward the art, the other oriented toward the purpose of the art.

        These past few years I’ve been working with Cat Leonard, a professional artist who does a unique drawing for each cover. Her work is quite beautiful and has earned many compliments…but it might not be compatible with the purpose of a cover illustration, which is to entice prospective purchasers into buying the book. Now, my sensibilities are more like Cat’s than unlike them. I appreciate her artist’s vision and craftsmanship, and wouldn’t want to redirect her. But that orientation might be costing me sales.

        It’s a tough kind of tension to resolve, especially if one values not just his artist’s compositions but his relationship with the artist.

        1. Yes, and it’s difficult for an artist to redirect their composition to design. When I am working on a book cover I am very aware of the composition: leaving space for the title and author name. Directing the reader’s eye to the opening on a book (even on an ebook cover). Dorothy’s cover is oriented toward the right deliberately. It draws the reader to open the cover (or read the blurb). A huge consideration is ‘how will this look at thumbnail size?’ And ‘how will it look on screen?’ Too much detail makes an ebook thumbnail look muddy. Too little makes a print cover look empty. Finding the sweet spot is a unique challenge to book cover designers.

  3. I always love your cover design discussions. And the covers themselves.

    Two questions: What upis your process for avoiding the Uncanny Valley people in the cover? I (and some other readers I know) find the off putting. It is something I really struggle with in cartooning.

    And: How do you make the whole thing a cohesive whole. Everything in the image just FITS. I know it when I see it, but I don’t really have any real understanding of how it got there (yet!)

    Okay, just thought of a third. How do you convey night without just drawing a bunch of eyeballs in the dark?

    1. The Uncanny Valley people are what I also call ‘plastic dollies’ and they are CGI, often rendered from set poses. They fall short of ‘human’ in being a bit stiff and too perfect. Close, but not there. I have been told that with a really high-end program, you can attain something near-human enough to pass. I can’t afford that. So I use stock models – real humans – with filters to make them look painterly.

      Look up photocompositing tutorials. I often achieve this using layers and blend tools, with a ‘texture’ layer (on Dorothy’s cover it’s leather) to unify the saturation and lighting. I’m sure there are better ways – I am but a novice in this field! – but I have found it to work reasonably well. You do not want your image to look like a collage.

      Dark is a matter of shadows. You can do dark, but it’s not pitch black. Shadows, deeper shadows, and grays. Keep in mind if you plan to do print that the print renders out darker than on the screen. If I am doing a print and an ebook version I will sometimes tweak the lightness to keep them even.

      1. That shadow insight is really helpful. I’ve been using blue-shift and destination mostly, and I miss the mark more than half the time. Thank you!

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