We're always told we shouldn't judge a book by the cover, but, let's face it, if we didn't make judgements and assumptions and find appeal in the covers, why have artwork on them in the first place? Would the lovely blokes of Spinal Tap have been upset about their "Smell the Glove" album cover if they were allowed to keep it sex(ist)y instead of solid black? No. Cover art is important.
We all judge books by the cover. We shouldn't. But we do.
Because of this undeniable fact, I knew I was taking a big risk with the two books in my duology,Vampire Noctuaries, The Gothic Rainbow and Annwn's Maelstrom Festival.
As you well know, hardcover books in ages past didn't have fancy pictures on their covers. Typically, most books were leatherbound or clothbound and merely had a title on the spine of the tome. Nothing more.
The word "noctuary" is rather antiquated. In fact, most dictionaries don't even have it anymore. So, forgive me if I'm telling you something you already know, but, allow me to indulge the folks who might not know what the word means; A "noctuary" is a diary or a journal that is only kept in the evenings. Since the book is literally supposed to be a journal kept by the main character, I wanted the cover to be reflective of that. I didn't want the cover of The Gothic Rainbow to look like a novel, I wanted it to look like a leatherbound diary.
Back when I first released The Gothic Rainbow in 1997, there was no such thing as on-demand printing. I had to purchase 1000 copies of the book and stuff them in my grandparents basement. At $5 per copy, printing a full-cover cover would had added about $2 to the cost of each book. At my wages, it was a struggle to be $5000 in debt, I simply couldn't afford to be $7000 in debt. Thus, the original printing of The Gothic Rainbow was not in color and instead has a solid black-and-white cover. That was all I could afford. But, that was never my vision. That was never the cover I had in my head.
When it came time to release Annwn's Maelstrom Festival, the long-awaited sequel to The Gothic Rainbow, I was finally able to create the cover for both books, the way they were meant to be.
Designing the leatherbound look was a mix of my photography and Photoshop work. I went to a used bookstore in Los Angeles, in search of any old book with a brown leather cover. Unfortunately, this proved to be much more difficult than I imagined it would be. I tended to find one extreme or the other - beautifully flawless leather books in every color but brown, or books that were utterly destroyed and missing covers, but I could tell from the coloring of the spine, it would have been awesome.
Why was this so difficult? I couldn't find a cool old book in an old used bookstore? Auuuugh!
Eventually, I settled for a 1820's paperbound book, that looked very much like leather. It had a wonderful tarnish and erosion and gold leaf splattered around the edges. When I got the book home, I set it up against some black posterboard and photographed a number of closeups with my Canon SLR digital camera. Then, I found some weathered leather images online and augmented my photographs with the leather texture, blending the two and thereby compositing an original piece of art for the cover, that was not a stock photo image, and couldn't be recreated by any ol' schmuck fumbling around an image database. I'm excited to think that both covers of The Vampire Noctuaries are truly based upon a real book that is nearly 200 years old. Makes the aura of the books feel that much more authentic; Like something you really did pick up and dust off from the catacombs of an ancient vampire mansion.
Even the title font is original - created by hand, by me, using Fontographer, back in 1996. I've never uploaded it online or made it available on any font sharing sites or anything. That way, it has always been unique to The Vampire Noctuaries and has never appeared anywhere else.
The logo on the front of The Gothic Rainbow is actually a tribute to Skinny Puppy. Not many people notice that. However, if you look at the stylized ankh and the curves, you see it's actually the initials "G.R." which are a homage to the S.P. initials used on Skinny Puppy albums, as Skinny Puppy is also the first band to make an appearance in the musical references of the story.
As I said before, I knew this was a risk. There's no text on the back cover of The Gothic Rainbow. No summary to entice the potential readers. Just the symbol of an ankh, stamped as gold leaf into antique leather. Even the back of Annwn's Maelstrom Festival contains an emotional bit of poetry, not a book description. Would I be intrigued to read such books myself? Honestly? Yes. I'd at least flip it open to the beginning. Anyone with the audacity to print a modern day book with an 1800's style cover would be worth 30 seconds of my attention. I don't know if others would agree with me or not, but I think it works.
Risky, but worth it.
Despite a lack of a story summary, I think the simple and stark cover gives a good impression of the kind of characters and tale to expect. The main narrator of The Gothic Rainbow is a young male vampire who is the cliche of cocky, smug and powerful jerks. However, we learn of his mortal life through flashbacks and slowly come to realize, he has turned cruel and arrogant as a way to cope with his loss of humanity. Once upon a time, he was a genuinely good kid. Deep inside, he has a decent heart, he was just thrown onto the wrong path by a horrible twist of fate and circumstance. I like to think that shows in the book cover - a sense of nobility in decay.
The second book, Annwn's Maelstrom Festival, is told from the point of view from an even younger female vampire, who becomes lovers with the vampire boy from the first book. She too is a broken soul, but in a much different way. Instead of living a happy life that was taken away from her by being made a vampire, she had an awful family life and becoming a vampire was her salvation from an abusive home. The front cover of the second book is identical to the back cover of the first book, symbolizing the connection and the full-circle of the redemption both characters find in each other.
These are facts no one would know when they see the book covers for the first time, but after you read them, an astute observer could find those connections.
The purpose of this article isn't to give advice on designing a book cover. After all, I'm not so sure what I did is effective. But, I hope this article does show the kind of thought and work and effort that can go into even the most simplistic of covers.
Judge a book by the cover. Go right ahead.
Just remember, a lot more may go into creating a cover than you ever realized.