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Dark Days: The Monster Within, A Post-Mortem (Book Cover Design)

When a software project is finished, often small companies and teams will release a post-mortem. This is a report on what in the project went right, what went wrong, and lessons that can (hopefully) carried by others without the pain of making the same mistakes. As Dark Days: The Monster Within has been unleashed upon an unsuspecting populace like a giant lizard-beast, I’ve decided to do a post-mortem of my own, detailing the creation, editing and publishing process for any authors thinking of taking the self-publishing route.

Book Cover Design

Above is the finished book cover for Dark Days: The Monster Within. I wish I could show you the many amazing prototypes that were delivered before the final cover was selected, but alas I only own the rights to the final cover. Book covers are interesting, they are the very first impression your customer will see and for many customers, the only element they will often base their purchasing decision on. Let’s be honest, we’ve all seen an awesome cover on a book, bought it outright, and been completely surprised by the content. The book cover is the start of your conversation with the public and its worth putting a decent chunk of time and resources towards it.

Some Examples of Covers that Work:

Remember when this book series hit the shelves? It was a total unknown that swept off the bookshelves, pitching a new subgenre that most readers didn’t even know they wanted. The covers were what drew people in, the lone figure in a world that continued both tired elements of our old world and new growth of the newer world on top of it. The subject is always staring off in the distance somewhere, speaking of the journey that you’d get from a good fantasy book. 

Joseph Nassise’s Watcher series is a great example of expressing a single concept very well. Everything is ethereal and transient like the ghost in the book. The focus of the book cover is on the hero, who famously has almost-blind eyes that are a major part of the books. The background is a sheer black, hinting at the dark nature of the story itself.

Kid’s books are often great because you can use a drawn or animated look, matching what a young person themselves might draw or imagine. I’ve always loved the cover to Mystwick’s School of Musicraft (by the clever Jessica Khoury). The cover shows the school, the principal characters, and the idea of music as magic is given via the floating, flying music sheets. It’s a brilliant piece of design

How do I get a cover?

Step one is to study your own genre. Wander into your local bookstore and peruse the genre of books your own book would fit in. There has already been a Darwinian process by which publishing companies and successful authors have figured out a lot of the key elements to a good cover for their kind of readers. Mysteries tend to have simple picture with a strange detail or two on a black background, action novels show the protagonist looks tough, romances almost always feature either one or both of the lovers involved. A few minutes looking at the shelf can speak to a lot of what you’ll want in the book cover design. You don’t need to have a perfect idea of what you want, but you should get your head around what major elements should be on the cover and – very importantly- what kind of colors you want to see.

People downplay the idea of colors on a cover, but a few strong colors can pop out at people even before their eyes can make out the cover itself. James Patterson’s covers often only contain one or two strong shades that can say a lot about the mood of the piece. For Dark Days: The Monster Within, I knew I wanted to focus on blue and red as police colors and also contrasts, cluing users into the conflicts that drive the action. The final piece actually went with green versus black, but I think it still emphasizes the right idea.

Once you have an idea of what you want, type the following up into a text document:

  1. A verbal description of what elements you want on the cover

  2. A quick blurb on what colors you’d like to focus on

  3. If you plan on having any people or animals on the cover, a few quick sentences on what that person/thing should look like. You don’t want someone to draw up an awesome cover only to get your hero’s hair color/eyes/ethnicity wrong!

  4. The mood you want the viewer to feel. 

  5. What you want the back of the book to say (This is critical because its part of the print book cover)

Next, there are three routes for getting the cover:

  1. If you have a friend that can do the work for free or cheap, great! Just make certain their art style matches your genre. I know some people that can do great anime-style covers, but that wouldn’t have matched The Monster Within at all.

  2. Hire a one on one artist. This can often be done via websites like Fivver, who let you query artists and get estimates on the work required. You might be able to save a few bucks, but you’ll need to be careful to make certain you select the right artist! I get almost all my software app art and concept art via Fivver or places like it. 

  3. 99 Designs. 99 Designs is not cheap (expect to spend at least $199) but it has the most author friendly premise. You fill out a questionnaire on what you want, and a couple dozen artists all produce mocks ups of what they can make for you. You can give feedback to either the whole group or individual artists and go through an iterative process, where the best artists can resubmit work.

For The Monster Within, I went with 99Designs. This would prove important, because I was apparently not clear in my requirements when I first wrote them because I got back a bunch of covers with iguanas on the cover. I also got to tighten up a lot of Marcus Black’s description, since getting him right was so important. 

Side Note: If you, like me, have a character that’s not white, be prepared to receive a lot of covers with white people on them. Stock models are overwhelmingly European and I think artists tend to just default to a white person on the cover if you aren’t explicit. We worked a lot on Marcus’s appearance, but I think only one artist actually submitted a Hispanic person for the cover

The other side benefit to this iterative process is that I was able to release polls to friends and family to get their impressions. I have never been able to get my hands on a beta reader, but I did manage to collect a half-dozen people that would rate in-progress covers. The commitment level is pretty low, but the feedback helped a lot.

In the end, it came down to two covers, one that stayed true to the blue and black theme and focused on Marcus Black and another that actually went with a green theme but brought in the interesting element of rain to help darken the mood of the cover. In the end, the green cover by Didi Wahyudi won and I was glad to award him the prize money and receive the final art. 

The best thing about the book cover is the motivation that came with it. For the first time, Marcus Black had a face and it really felt like we were reaching a final product.

Any questions? Comments? Experiences you’d like to share? Feel free to share them below!

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