Anatomy of a Book Cover

SW-Cover-fullDesigning book covers is an exercise in optimization. There are so many different needs to be served, and they can sometimes be in opposition to each other. Does it accurately convey the genre? Does it plant the germ of a story in the reader’s mind? Will it appeal to exactly the kinds of people who will enjoy the story inside? Will it draw attention away from the other books around it on the shelf? Does it state with confidence that the story is of top professional quality and worthy of a reader’s money? Does it seduce?

Sometimes the cover also has to convey price, looking slick and professional enough to justify a high price tag, but fortunately that was not an issue with this project because we’re giving the ebook away for free. So it had to look professional and respectable of course, but it didn’t have to look expensive.

There was, however, one added complication. From the very beginning, I knew that the stories would not sit neatly inside a single genre—there were almost certainly going to be both fantasy and science fiction tales in the final set. So the cover had to be one that would look at home on the shelves of either department in the bookstore.

But genre aside, the other major job of the cover is to captivate the potential buyer’s attention, plant some seed of interest. I’ve always thought the best way to do that is by hinting at some kind of story right in the cover art—presenting an image that makes the reader curious about what’s going on. So the challenge was to find an image that could do that without dragging the cover squarely into one of the genres, at the expense of the other.

The idea I ended up using came to me while we were still judging the submissions. I was struck by one tale in particular, in which an ancient fist-sized jewel turned out to be a portal into another world. “Hey!,” I thought. “Stories are like that too—portals into other worlds. This book isn’t just a collection of stories—it’s a sack full of portal jewels, each of which can take you to strange new places and experiences.”

I was especially pleased with that metaphor because it neatly straddles the concepts of fantasy and science fiction. A sack full of jewels has a very “fantasy adventure” feel to it, while portals into other worlds have a strong association with science fiction. It even suggested our title—All These Shiny Worlds—and I know a creative idea is working when it starts to make connections to other aspects of the project.

The next step was to see if I could actually execute what I had in mind. For that, I thought there were three key elements: a bulging sack obviously full of jewels; a handful of said jewels spilled into the foreground, where we could see the different worlds within them; and I wanted the scene to have a soft, atmospheric haze that would suggest a variety of locations, but leave the viewer free to decide the specifics for themselves. Was the sack sitting in a long-forgotten cave? Was it resting at the bottom of a lagoon? It’s that hint of a question that I hoped would pique the curiosity of the book buyer on a subconscious level.

Inspiration image, by Gerezon on DeviantArt.

Sack of jewels inspiration image, by Gerezon.

Armed with these guiding principles, I found an excellent reference image by Gerezon on DeviantArt, that captured much of what I was going for. All that remained was for me to make the idea my own, transforming literal jewels into “portal jewels” and shifting the whole thing a bit more toward the science fiction realm, in terms of color palette and lighting. I’d done half a dozen book covers previously, all of which were fantasy, and they were all done as 2D projects. (I’ve always felt that a flatter, more “painterly” style fits the fantasy aesthetic better.) But I worried that a 2D treatment here (as you can see in the Gerezon image) would weaken the sciency feel of the world portal jewels, so I decided to tackle this project as my first 3D book cover. And naturally, I turned to my favorite 3D workshop for the task: Blender, and the Cycles renderer.

Composited-Cover-banner-smThe most important part of this cover was the design of the jewels themselves, so that’s where I started. Notice how they seem to glow just a little, with their own internal light, and they’ve got a slight fisheye distortion, but not so much that it distorts the charm of the scenes within. The effect was done by making the bauble itself a plain glass sphere with an inflated index of refraction, and then placing a flat circular face inside, oriented toward the camera, with the otherworld scene applied as an emission texture. Then I faded the outer edges of that texture to black, which gives the appearance of extreme refraction at the edges of the baubles. Once I had the first bauble done, I knew I’d be able make the idea work for all of them.

The sack was done pretty quickly. For my interpretation, I just lopped the top off a sphere, which I took into sculpt mode to fatten at the bottom and draw out the opening at the top. Then I put some draw-string creases around the neck. I knew I didn’t have to be too meticulous, because for my cover, the sack itself needed to fall into the background. The jewels are the heroes of this image.

For a hazy atmosphere, I worked with a couple of large area lights to fill in the shadows, and then keyed it with a simple volumetric spotlight. But I dappled the light shaft by placing a random grid of flat shapes above the scene, creating obstructions for the spotlight ray. It took a bit of fiddling to find the right light angle and get the shadows arranged in an appealing pattern, but I’m happy with the final look.

All of this, however, still came out of the renderer as a very crisp final image. It didn’t have that dream-like gauzy quality I was going for. So after rendering was finished, I took the whole image into Gimp and applied a couple of G’MIC filters: Dream Smoothing and Graphic Boost. The first does exactly what it says on the tin, creating a wispy, technicolor dreamscape version of the image. The other does almost the opposite, firming up the edge lines and texturing the color ramps, giving the image a tougher, grungier graphic novel feel. Then I layered these two images back over the original and jiggled the opacity and compositing methods until I got a blend of the three that I was happy with. Arty and atmospheric.

montagThat one trick—of applying a final processing filter as a sort of global dry brush effect—does wonders to unify a rendering and give it character that can’t easily be achieved by the renderer itself.

Final text layout was done in Inkscape. I thought the finished artwork still leaned a bit more toward fantasy than science fiction, so I used the typography to pull it back into balance, employing a slightly NASA-like font (called Nulshock) for the title, and then matching it with a clean, simple sans-serif secondary font (Steelfish) for the details.TitleDetail

Overall, I’m very happy with the final effect. And more importantly, it seems to be doing it’s job. We’re giving the anthology away for free, and since we launched it earlier this month, it has been in Amazon’s top 10 list of free anthologies for that entire time. I like to think that the cover is at least partly responsible for that.

And I couldn’t have done it without Blender.

Update: It’s been almost a year now, and the book has never fallen out of Amazon’s Top 20 list. It gets great reviews because of the quality of the stories, but nobody would have seen all that if it weren’t for the cover. (Check it out.) Thanks, Blender.

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The Best-of-2015 Collection from ImmerseOrDie

About the author

Jefferson Smith is a Canadian fantasy author, as well as the founder, chief editor and resident proctologist of ImmerseOrDie. With a PhD in Computer Science and Creativity Systems compounded by a life spent exploring most art forms for fun and profit, he is uniquely unqualified in just about everything. That's why he writes.