Designing book covers can be quite a challenge, but I have to admit that it is one I truly relish. Knowing that my visualisation of an idea will be turned into a something that surrounds a body of written work – which may have taken months or years to create – needs to be taken seriously, as it is a significant responsibility. And when you feel that you’ve achieved that or at least gone someway to giving that work an accurate visual representation it can be hugely rewarding.
As you might be able to tell I love book covers, I always have done. I know people say you can’t judge a book by it’s cover and that should be true. However, I am a firm believer that whether you like it or not, you will be heavily influenced by the book cover. The book might be absolutely fantastic, be about a subject that really interests you, has a great blurb on the back and comes with recommendations from reviewers you know and respect. But if you don’t like the cover then chances are you won’t buy it. The blurb gives you a written introduction or taster for what to expect, but the cover give you a conscious and subconscious immersion into what you might feel within. You need to set the tone and make it interesting, but you have to be aware you are setting the expectations for the reader when they first read the blurb and then hopefully when they start reading the book itself. If the cover sets expectations that jar with the content then the reader could feel confused or cheated. Also if there is a twist in the story, you don’t want to give anything important away within the visualisation as that could spoil the experience for the reader later on.
With that in mind I had quite a challenge looking for inspiration for the collaborative story we had written. In some ways it might seem obvious – use the pub. But then you have to consider that photos inside the pub from present day would look quite old and bleak and not particularly interesting by themselves. Photos from back in the mid nineties were fairly scarce, not great quality, not necessarily available for us to use and most importantly by themselves did not convey anything of the story. All our characters were made up and we didn’t really have obvious doubles we could use for a photoshoot, especially as it was a collaborative work with several characters, it could end up looking like an awkward catalogue pose.
Quite often I find some of the most effective book covers are the simplest. By that I mean that they don’t try and do too many things, they don’t have hundreds of elements crammed into one space, overloading the senses and leaving a potential reader confused before they’ve even got to the blurb. Instead these covers pick one idea or element from the book and focus on that, whether it’s portrayed in a photograph, illustration or whatever. If it gives the reader some inkling of what to expect and entices them to find out more, then this can be so much more effective.
I knew that even though the story took place in several locations and even time zones, it was clear even from the title that the Green Man pub was a key element and to ignore would be silly. I wanted something simple but intriguing and for a start needed a background. For me I pictured that it should be a fabric covering to one of the seating benches from within the pub. Aside from the fact we have not been able to get inside and photograph anything for ourselves, any current interior photos showed all the upholstery had been removed. The only real colours I could see inside were from the elaborate paintings on the walls and the ceiling which was painted red! I though it would be unlikely I could get approval to use the painting for the cover, even if I could get a good enough image of it in the first place. So I took a stock image of a floral pattern and overlaid it onto an image of green fabric, to make it look like a brocade seat covering that might have been used in a pub years ago. I wanted to give it a feeling of years of neglect and decay so added stains and dark patches to my fabric. I also added lighting effects to add atmosphere and mystery, and to represent elements of the story that would not be known until much later. I needed to add the book title and given that the name ‘Green Man’ was part of it, it made sense to style this in the same fashion as was used on the actual pub back in the 80s and 90s. Then I added additional text in a style that was sympathetic to this. This I felt gave the book the right look and feel. I would like to add that I did tyr other design ideas rather than just jumping on the first one, but these really weren’t working and a I just had a feeling about this one, that it had something that was working for me.
Of course I needed to share this with the other writers to make sure they felt my design represented the theme of the story to all of us. If they’d felt that this gave the wrong impression then I wouldn’t have used it. There was feedback to suggest that it looked quite dark and miserable, which was a fair point. I wanted there to be atmosphere, but there was also a humour and I like think warmth to some elements of the story, and such a dark cover wasn’t necessarily going to convey that. I had also completely missed out any reference to magic. So I set about lightening the background a little, then I thought that it might be an idea to use a more unusual type of light to light the book with, then it would have the effect of lightening the cover and perhaps give a suggestion of something magical and mysterious happening just out of view. Also, the suggestion was made to include the mythical Green Man figure too. Although I didn’t want the cover to suddenly change its direction, I did like the idea of including this more subtly, so this was worked into the cover as well. Thereby (hopefully) enticing the reader to want to know what is causing it.
After putting this together and adjusting it several times to make sure I had included all the relevant text, logos and space for the barcode, plus making sure there was enough contrast in the text and background to be readable, we agreed it was good to go. Hopefully you will feel it was interesting enough to draw your attention and that if you’ve had chance to read it, hopefully you felt it represented the story without giving anything away. In which case you may have an opinion on the initial question posed – should you judge a book by it’s cover?