Thursday, February 26, 2015

Pendragon's Heir: Cover Reveal and Making Of

Today I'm thrilled to present the cover of my upcoming epic Arthurian fantasy novel, Pendragon's Heir.

by Suzannah Rowntree 
Blanche Pendragon enjoys her undemanding life as the ward of an eccentric nobleman in 1900 England. It's been years since she even wondered what happened to her long lost parents, but then a gift on the night of her eighteenth birthday reveals a heritage more awe-inspiring and more dangerous than she ever dreamed of--or wanted. Soon Blanche is flung into a world of wayfaring immortals, daring knights, and deadly combats, with a murderous witch-queen on her trail and the future of a kingdom at stake. As the legendary King Arthur Pendragon and his warriors face enemies without and treachery within, Blanche discovers a secret that could destroy the whole realm of Logres. Even if the kingdom could be saved, is she the one to do it? Or is someone else the Pendragon's Heir?
I'm also thrilled to announce a giveaway! To win an advance copy of Pendragon's Heir in the e-format of your choice, enter below:

a Rafflecopter giveaway

So, some background on the cover: I started off making this myself, and after many tweaks, came up with a design I liked.

Except that out of nowhere, I got an email from a friend and designer with an impressive portfolio, who wanted to paint something in the style of Howard Pyle and NC Wyeth, and wondered if I'd like him to make me a cover. Just as I was certain I'd finished the job myself, I suddenly had professional help. Unsure what to do, I showed him my cover. He agreed it was a good concept, and offered to make some tweaks (I'll discuss them in more depth in a minute). But the best part? Because he didn't get to paint me a cover, Isaac offered instead to draw three black-and-white illustrations for inside the book! COO ER GOSH, Y'ALL.

I'd like to thank Isaac Botkin for all his kind help--not just with the cover and illustrations, but also with drop caps for the interior and various other aspects of the design. It's been a privilege to work with him, and thoroughly encouraging to have his support with this project.

The Pendragon's Heir cover design process was quite a long one, and I'm going to walk you through it, because while writing a novel is usually mind-numbing hard work, cover design is actually pretty fun.

More under the cut!

I began by dreaming up a few different concepts. What would my cover look like if I could have absolutely anything I wanted on it? I dreamed. I doodled. I browsed cover art in bookshops. I did what you're supposed to do, and paid close attention to other covers in my genre. Adult fantasy? YA fantasy? I considered and discarded the idea of a painted cover; I did not have the resources to hire an artist. I skimmed through stock and free photos, since I like covers with people on them and always have. Plus, the most helpful thing I have read on cover design so far impressed upon me the importance of having people on covers. Finally, I made a mockup. It was awful. (It was meant to be).
The dream...                                                                              Nailed it.
I kept on sifting through stock photo sites. (Urrrrgh). Finally I realised that I was never going to find a photo that perfectly represented my main characters. Possibly I would find a picture of a girl that fitted, but my book spends a lot of time focused on a main guy character, too. I couldn't find any pictures that weren't creepy or toothpaste-y.

Or featuring the wrong kind of hair.
Then there was the problem that invariably cropped up when I was deciding how to market the book. Put a girl on, and it looks too girly (unless she's looking extremely tough--which is not my heroine). Put a guy on, and it looks too manly. Include a guy and a girl, and it looks like a romance. Ack!

I decided to start collecting covers I just liked. These ones instantly caught my attention, especially Talon:

Cool! Maybe I could do the same thing, just with armour.

Plate, because chain mail is hard to find.
No. Simultaneously too sombre and too museum-y. At this point I give up and throw together something else, because, NC Wyeth. Also, fonts!

At this point I have read most of The Non-Designer's Design and Type Books by Robin P. Williams, and as you can see I have spent a few hours looking through some free online fonts, and selected a handful of the ones that seem most appropriate.

Meanwhile, I am scraping the bottom of the barrel as far as concepts go. I realise that if I do produce anything, it's going to have to work well with my current skill set and my limited financial resources. And I have a brainwave.

I will google "Cover trends 2014."

Google spits out page after page of book reviewers posting their favourite covers of 2014 and discussing best-loved and most-hated trends. They're so over anonymous girls in dresses or extreme close-ups or in fact any people at all. They do love creative typography. Minimalism is good too.

OK, I can be minimalistic. I collect a bunch of minimalistic covers.

The only one of these books I have ever read is Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.
So, with renewed vigour, I try my own version.

It's a bit wimpy, but it's a good concept.  I begin a process of stripping out unwanted elements, and exaggerating what I have left, until suddenly I get the idea of blowing up the text as big as possible.

I know I have a winner.

I'm still not completely satisfied. The title is crowding the author name. "dra" is optically a little too far away from "gon's", even though the line spacing is all technically at the same width. From my reading in typography, I've learned that type is properly spaced when it looks properly spaced, not when all the numbers are the same.

I fix these things and run the result past the only two friends in the country whom I trust to give good design advice. They recommend changing the apostrophe and losing the tail on the S. I also realise that there's another optical distance problem: the a in dra is kerned too far away from the r.

Meanwhile I'm working on the dragon graphic, which is Y Ddraig Goch, the red dragon heraldic symbol of Wales, pinched off Wikimedia Commons, tweaked, Photoshopped, resized, and lovingly finished.

Semi-finalist :D

Awesome! I decided to run with this...and that was when Isaac offered to provide a little professional polish. Here's the final product:

The final cover!
It was such fun--and so instructive--to spot all the subtle little changes lifting it to a whole new level. Scaling down the brightness of the dragon was an excellent decision, and I love the extra little tweaks for the typography.

So that is how I, an author with no training at all in graphic design, ended up with a cover for my novel. As you see, it's not 100% my own work, but I hope you'll find this encouraging anyway. I worked in Photoshop, with which I have only a nodding acquaintance, using principles I learned from The Non-Designer's Design and Type Books and a blog post at Creativindie. For guidance, I mostly stole ideas from professionally-designed book covers.

I learned several things from this process. First, a cover is something that is developed, not flung together in a few odd hours of the day. My first attempts were awful. Even after I arrived at something I liked, there were still a number of smaller tweaks to be made, and even when I thought I was done, my friends were still able to suggest improvements. This is as much a process as the drafts and edits the book itself goes through. (Your book does go through multiple drafts and edits, doesn't it?)

Second, I've begun to notice something about other people's self-published cover design: the typography could usually do with significant improvement. I'm talking about covers I otherwise loved, with eye-popping graphic design or photography, but with typography that was too fussy or too blah or faintly unbalanced. Typography isn't an art I've mastered--but I'm thankful for what I've learned so far, and hopeful that I can go on refining my eye in the future.

Third, those of you who've seen the cover for my novella The Rakshasa's Bride will spot some similarities in the design of the two covers. Even though I published The Rakshasa's Bride months ago, I was able to use the cover design for Pendragon's Heir as a jumping-off point for other cover designs. Working with a specific design vocabulary (bold typography, a simple dingbat graphic, author name in Orator Std, and flat blocks of colour) will hopefully make my work instantly recognisable to readers.

While this sleek and minimalist design is not the cover I imagined when I began the design process, I couldn't be happier with it. What do you think?


PB said...

Love it!

Lady Bibliophile said...

I loved this behind-the-scenes look into your cover design, Suzannah! Thanks for sharing! :)


Joy said...

It's gorgeous, Suzannah! I love Pendragon's Heir's cover!! ^_^ It was also very enjoyable to read the behind-the-scenes of the design. I am excited that there will be illustrations too =).

Also, I love how you're using an illustrated dragon and not models. . . I think it is much more original and suits your genre a whole deal more.

Congrats, and I can't wait to read "Pendragon's Heir"!


Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

So fun seeing your design process! The finished product is wonderful. Oh, by the way—there's one thing I hear all the time you might want to consider. With a white background, it's recommended that you put a fine dark line around the outside of the version you upload to retailers, otherwise it'll simply disappear into the white page background most of them have.

Regarding typography, I just know I've seen the font on the cover of Jonathan Strange before; I just don't know where. Even though I haven't done any of my own covers, just being in the book business and trying to come up with concept ideas has the effect of making one more typography-aware—I once found myself recognizing fonts on labels at the grocery store. :)

Suzannah said...

Peirce--thanks so much for your input in the cover design process :).

Schuyler--it was loads of fun! I do enjoy designing covers...I have to admit I designed covers for the last two novellas I wrote before I even began writing them :D. Probably not best practice.

Joy, thanks for the encouragement. I do prefer covers to have people on them and I was wondering if this cover would have the same impact as one with people on--but I really do think the minimalist graphic look does suit my genre better.

Elisabeth--I'm glad you liked it! And that's a good point about the fine dark line; I'll look into it. Typography is fascinating. It took me years to get into but now I'm a bit of a font junkie. If you're interested in learning, I can't recommend Robin P Williams's book highly enough.

Jamie W. said...

Gorgeous! The cover would draw me in even if the book blurbs and snippets hadn't already. :-) I'm excited to read Pendragon's Heir!

Christina Baehr said...

I actually really like that plate mail concept design - but you are right, it doesn't suit the book. It's too sombre. File it away for future reference?

I'm very excited about Isaac Botkin's collaboration - I was wondering if this might be the case since the hint you dropped earlier!

Suzannah said...

Glad you like the cover, Jamie! And I do hope you enjoy reading the book when the time comes :).

Christina, I liked that design too...but I'm not sure when I'll ever be able to write something sombre enough to go behind it! Oh well :).


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