Evolution of a cover

The original cover. The idea was to keep it simple and understated, yet representative of the mounted band base that Jo Mason, the main narrator, commands.

We’ve all had it drilled in our heads. . . Covers sell books. They are like the home page of a website. Both have less than two seconds to grab the reader’s attention and invite them to stay and learn more.

While designing Spirit‘s original cover, I kept thinking about the original Batman movie and how they just used the bat signal as the advertisement for the longest time. I also figured that people would recognize the front logo as a variation of one that I use as my avatar on sites like Twitter and Google+.

I rejected the alternative suggested by my publisher because the horse wasn’t stylized enough and the background was blue polka-dots. While blue is my favorite color, I don’t do polka-dots of any kind. Even in its most subtle form, the bold pattern disrupts my visual sensibility.

My publisher agreed to go with my idea until they printed out the cover and showed it to a test group. The printout was blurry, and the test group said the design screamed cheap sci-fi. Of course, neither of us wanted that kind of impression.  We started searching for something that captured the power of the book in a simple and elegant way.

The publisher's counter proposal and my first attempt at creating one with a horse's head.
The publisher’s alternative cover and my first attempt at creating one with a horse’s head.

The publisher’s next idea was a rope on a two-toned green cover. While it looked a lot cleaner and better than my horse on gold circle design, I only saw a vague connection between the rope and my story. Ropes are used to control horses, and my book is a tapestry of ideas. The average potential reader isn’t going to pick up on either of those ideas by just glancing at a cover with a rope on it. The green theme didn’t make much sense either, because there is no mention of that color anywhere in the book, except maybe when describing grass.

I had a very strong feeling that the cover needed a horse’s head on it with the horse looking at the reader somehow. My friend and I went through several dozen pictures until we came across the one on the final cover. We found several other decent choices in the ones we reviewed, but none met and held my gaze like the final selection did. Every time I look at the horse, I think about all the horses I have ever known, and the bond and experiences that my main character shares with her horse. There’s also the added, and unexpected, benefit of the horse’s nose pointing toward the title of the book in the final design. Good layouts are always designed with the idea of directional images leading the reader to important text.

After adding a starfield in the background to represent the whole series, I replaced the green with blue. I selected two shades that represented the uniforms that my characters wear. The darker blue for the regular officers and enlisted personnel. The lighter shade, the cadets. Finally, I polished the back blurb’s shield so it blended in better.

Lost the two tone and balanced the fonts, but still wasn't happy.
Lost the two-tone and balanced the fonts, but still wasn’t happy.

Somewhat happy with the changes, I sent the cover off to the publisher with a long-winded explanation of what I had done. Even as I worked on other stuff, though, my thoughts kept returning to the design, which is usually a sign that something is still bugging me. Looking at the layout again, I realized the fonts used for the title and my name were too similar in size, and the two-tone blue distracted from the horse head/starfield image. I played around with more solid colors.  At one point, I had three different versions going: the darker blue of the two- tone, a dark gray with subtle blue, and black. I also changed the font so that it balanced the title and my name.

My friend and I agreed that of the three versions, the solid black one was the best because it allowed the horse/starfield image to pop. I didn’t send any of them to my publisher, but instead slept on the whole mess. While I was happier with the solid color, I still had this nagging, itchy feeling in the back of my head. It was my inner editor’s eye kicking in, but not explaining itself just yet. So what was off? The proportion of the front artwork to the area allocated for the title and my name didn’t look natural. It felt like the picture needed to be bigger. Taking the black cover, I made that change. Now I knew it was done, so I sent it off to my publisher. They loved it. We agreed that I would do the print-ready version.

SpiritSmall
The final cover. The stars in the background represent the series while the horse in the forefront represents and points to the book title.

The starfield was the hardest thing to transfer from the mock-up to the final layout. It didn’t have a high enough resolution. I also didn’t want it to look computer generated. Though I showed a few people four different versions, I went through at least sixty trying to realize the vision in my head. I downloaded all sorts of brushes, tried shading all different ways, and even added moonlight to explain the brightness of the horse’s face. I pushed my limited drawing skills to the point of frustration and my body to the edge of sleep deprivation. Then I caught myself and thought, Hey, waitaminute, instead of looking more real, this is looking more fake. Now what do I do?

My friend had already given me the answer. During our horse review, they suggested that I find a picture of a real starfield and use that. I chose a gray sky with blue stars looking over a bunch of trees. I took the image, made it black and white, and then ran it through the levels adjustment in Photoshop so that only the brighter stars and gas showed up. This means that when Spirit hits 250,000 copies, I’m going to have to buy an extended license for both the horse and starfield. I’m looking forward to that day.

What about the blurb on the back? Yes, even that’s changed. The original version would have worked if Spirit had stayed the single horse story I originally intended to write. The final one ties the book into the series and piques interest without giving too much away. I’m not sure which part of the blurb will actually sell the book. I am confident, however, that overall the cover does its job of saying, “Hey, there is an interesting story in here. Open me up.”