Thursday 5 July 2012

E-Book Cover Design Part One: The Authors’ Perspective [A Guest Post]

Last year I was talking with writers Noel Boivin and Christopher Lombardo about book design and how it has changed for e-books, as they were in the progress of publishing an e-book follow-up to their first joint work. They kindly agreed to record the process and write about the experience for this blog. Here, in the first of two posts, Noel and Christopher talk about what's involved in getting a cover for a book that is never printed on paper...

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When it came time to come up with a cover for our newly completed e-book Tastes Like Human, the first thought we had was this: Let’s not get mocked. It was a justified concern. Browsing on Amazon, we came across—and forwarded between us—covers by indie authors that would have looked boring and dated when people were asking, “Hey, have you heard of this new ‘clip-art’ thing the kids are talking about?” (Check out the tag “ebooks: the mocking” here for some prime examples. A favourite: The Jungle Book featuring a cat on the cover that resembles one Noel bought in college to kill mice). 

Our first book, The Man Who Scared a Shark to Death: And Other True Tales of Drunken Debauchery was published by Penguin Canada, the cover designed by New York artist Edwin Tse. Not only did Edwin manage to fit that long title onto a trade paperback cover without running out of space at the margins, but he came up with a creative concept based on the book’s content and we were happy with the results. The only request we made—and one I’m sure designers just delight in receiving—is that the font used for our names be changed from black to white to be more readable and bumped up a point size or three.

Countless sites offering tips for e-book authors recommend the DIY approach, calling it an economical and practical route for e-book authors. There are even programmes out there that help authors who may not be Adobe wizards put together their own e-book covers.

But for us even trying the e-book experiment was enough of a leap, never mind taking the electronic equivalent of a photocopier and staples approach to production.

Covers may not seem as significant in the e-book world as they are in print. You can’t place e-books on book cases and around toilets to impress company like you can with traditional books. But when a person is browsing online, covers are still the face of the book and if that face looks like it was created during crafts time at the Getalong Gang Summer camp, then you’re in trouble.

Still we had to keep in mind that despite looking like diamond studs in tuxedos, we were no longer operating under the auspices of Penguin and our pooled resources couldn’t quite be considered on a par with those of a publishing empire.

We first checked out the dozens of online design services tailored specifically to e-book covers. Some of these guys do work for best-selling authors, so are obviously successful at what they do, but the cover designs were predictable—a red pump for a romance or a cigarette smoker in the shadows for a murder mystery. Our book features lists such as the Top 10 Animal-Human Marriages, the Top 10 Horniest Cult Leaders and Etiquette Tips for Meeting the Queen. We weren’t comfortable that it would be the right fit for design services shooting out covers in bulk and then mainly in genre fiction.
So we moved to illustrators whose would work would, we thought, be more personalised and thus a better fit. There are hundreds of freelance illustrators online advertising their work on sites such as We emailed several, with two at the top of our list.

The first was an established illustrator who had done everything from comics to commercial work, even a couple of book covers, though they weren’t his specialty. As experienced as he was, his style was pleasant, cheerful and straightforward, which might or might not have worked well with a title that conjures up cannibalism. So we passed.

Our second choice was a graduating college student whose illustrations were rich, layered and looked ready to go up straight to the printers of a graphic novel house. She undoubtedly could have come up with something stunning for Tastes Like Human and liked the idea, but she had no book cover design experience. It seemed to us that we needed someone who clearly understood what a cover needs to do and the elements involved.

Again we took a step back because we were in frontier land.

She’ll likely be drawing Mickey Mouse fighting zombies for Disney in a few years and won’t recall the exchange anyway.

So we were back where we had begun. During this process, we had looked at more covers than we probably have in any five years’ worth of regular reading, hanging out in libraries and killing time in international airports while refusing to pay outrageous prices for food and beverages. It was while reading up on book covers online that we came across this website, reading several postings and coming to appreciate the craft. This was both through seeing some of the industry’s best at work, and also enjoying the Caustic Cover Critic’s withering takedowns of the industry’s less than creative types.

So we emailed the Caustic Cover Critic, who was, truth be told, downright congenial. And after explaining our dilemma he passed along the names of two designers whose work he recommended and who also, crucially for us, took on indie authors.

We went with Ian Shimkoviak of There was nothing boring about any of Ian’s covers, even the more Spartan ones like the one he did for Alan Cheuse’s To Catch the Lightning. It didn’t hurt that he said the book title and concept were “exactly up my alley”.

Two of Ian's sketches for the To Catch the Lightning cover

We were not disappointed. Ian sent nearly 20 choices, some of them just a basic idea that could be fleshed out, others looked complete. He interpreted the title in all kinds of ways—the unfurling tongue was a favourite as was the pop art-like one of a shark with a human mouth slapped on coming up on a gormless swimmer, and then there  was the bizarre but brilliant one of a dejected-looking fellow in a bird costume.

If we could have had five covers, we would have, but there was one to which we both immediately had the “That’s it!” reaction, the hand with its fingers amputated so that it’s giving the devil’s horns, with the title and subtitle woven in. It had an iconic look to it and would have looked as great on a poster as it would for our purposes.

We undoubtedly tested Ian’s patience with last-minute debates on whether it was the correct style of hand, and we looked at a few color options, but we realized we had our cover.
There was only one change requested: that the font used for our names be bumped up a size or three, of course.

The final cover design

Our thanks to Ian Shimkoviak at Book Designers. You can check out his handiwork, and ours, by checking out Tastes Like Human: The Shark Guys’ Book of Bitingly Funny Lists on Amazon or Smashwords and our website:

Noel Boivin and Christopher Lombardo 

[You can read the Caustic Cover Critic interview with Ian Shimkoviak here.]


StuckInABook said...

Fun! And an interesting insight to their decision making. I adore the man-in-bird-costume cover myself (and wouldn't buy anything with blood on the cover because it makes me feel ill... which makes me think it might not be the book for me anyway!)

Andrés Feliciano said...

Great work. And I love, love, love the 6th one, with the open mouth and the long-ass tongue. That one's brilliant!

JRSM said...

Thanks for the comments! Part two will be up in a couple of days.

Ryan said...

Any chance of namedropping or linking to the fresh-out-of-college illustrator? Aside from simply being curious to see her work, I know if I was her, and I came across this article, I'd be very appreciative of the compliments and high hopes, but incredibly frustrated that having already missed out on this project, no other readers would have any way to make contact!

(And I like the last one, with the frying pan - it's dark, but it's also somehow funny in a way I can't pin down...)

Ian Koviak said...

Thank you for the post. It was a great project. Did it while vacationing in NYC. I feel the ideas explored were playful and irreverent and spoke to the contents of the book. I still silently mourn that it will never be an printed book. Imagine some spot UV on that blood!