Friday, May 8, 2009

The All-Important Cover Art, Title, Lettering & More by Robert W.Walker

“A Bic Lighter held menacingly at the viewer? Nah, please tell me, no!” – Rob Walker to art director at Zebra Books circa 1982

I’ve blogged here on just about every aspect of marketing and selling and publishing and craft, but while I have touched on “title” fights and cover art fights with various publishers over the years, I have not blogged expressly on the importance of cover art. It is after all the FIRST IMPRESSION your book makes—a visual one in a visual society.

The cover art design is all important and your publisher may want you to change your title so as to present a better or more commercial appearance on the cover, and the very lettering—size type, style, etc. along with your very name and size, type, style becomes part of the artwork. Designers working with cover art are not simply working with the images you or they want to see on the cover but the lettering. This covers every letter on the cover, including a subtitle if there is one, and a quote if there is one. On my DEAD ON for instance there is the title, my name, and a quote from Tess Gerritsen. The designer(s) has/have to decided where they can place lettering—in and around—the images, which image to bring to the forefront, which to the background, and how all those troublesome words get placed. Not unlike working with building blocks.

My son who has his own graphics design business in Atlanta, Stephen Robert Walker ( is a genius at developing cover art; he worked up covers for 13 of my titles that went into eBook at and all of them are unique—some extremely so. I have studied what Steve’s done with my concepts for the cover art. I think far too complicated and give him far too much detail for a cover, then he comes along and simplifies and thinks image is everything. From the jumble of ideas I throw at him, he works his magic.

The artwork is key to book sales; it gets readers to pick up the book and check out the copy on the back. My City for Ransom, Shadows in White City, and City of the Absent were designed in-house by HarperCollins art department and they are lovely, beautiful “paintings” into which my Inspector Alastair Ransom was dropped—right down to his cane and watch fob, and as backdrop scenes from the Chicago World’s Fair. With DEAD ON, Stephen placed a victim in the forefront in a horrible plight against the backdrop of a serene, moonlit lake and the warm lights of a cabin home in the darkness, and a touch of fire to one side. The composition on the cover is everything. It can indeed be a work of dark art as the HarperCollins covers and Stephen’s covers display a terrific sense of color and depth that draw the reader in.
My wife’s cover art for her The Well Meaning Killer designed by Krill Press is a terrific cover as well, and talk about a cover that “sucks” you in! It depicts the gaping maw of a well shot from overhead looking down into the darkness, Miranda Phillips Walker printed across the top and the title along the bottom with subtitle: A Megan McKenna Mystery. The color scheme is black at the backdrop center, blue-cast brick circling in foreground with stark red lettering.

So much depends on one’s relationship with one’s publisher. HarperCollins kept me abreast of the cover art from beginning to end, and Five Star took my “suggestion” of what the cover might look like—Stephen’s first workup—and the final version so well that they wanted to use it. Conventional wisdom is to not even bother, especially with a large NYC publisher as they have an art director who runs an art department, and said art director is not so easy for the author to get to, and often that’s the way they want it.

The cover is all-important, and it appears the larger the publisher, the more they feel they MUST control it entirely as it is a sales tool—which it is. They see it as one of the most important sales tools they have to work with, and since they have degrees in this sort of thing—from art to marketing.

In the end, no title—no matter how many years you have lived with it and loved it is worth losing good working relationships with (as I’ve regrettably done in the past), and no specific image on the cover is worth losing good rapport over—but if it really is BAD, if it is horrible (as has happened to many an author, myself included), you do need to stand up for what you believe. It puts the author in a difficult position, standing up for a belief in a title or cover art or both. However, in the larger firms, despite what your contract might say about cover art “say”—well by the time you see it –even in its so-called early stage—it’s pretty well a done deal, a decision made in-house and often a committee one at that.

Final word, you normally have a lot more input with the smaller publisher on such matters of cover art and title. In fact, you can also often write the cover copy. What a dream for a writer and my advice to every writer—write the back-flap copy for your own book…Wow! Just exactly what you envision your book to be, top to bottom. Five Star allows for that kind of creative cooperation for me and many other Five Star authors (some truly stellar writers in this stable!). And Krill Press allowed a great deal of input from Miranda along these lines.

So what’s my point? Well when you are setting out to sell your idea to an editor at a major NYC publisher don’t bother to send them your “vision” of the cover as they will take it as an affront (or many will) – but don’t hesitate with the smaller presses, especially if you have had a “professional” craft the cover. Even more important, however than sending a cover to your publisher is to “SELL” your novel on the basis of the most important short story you will ever write—the story about your story that fills up the two or three paragraphs you ENVISION as the back-flap copy, and if you write it as well as I wrote it for DEAD ON, you just may find it actually put to use—right there on the back of the book—like a dream!

My first book, the back copy told me the copywriter had not read the book and did not know what he was talking about, and it was misleading to the reader. After that I began writing my own—crafting it as a pitch or synopsis. It’s a real bonus when you see all or part of your pitch on the book itself!

Dead On and The Well Meaning Killer due out July – Summer Reading with an Edge…
Happy Writing one and all,

Rob Walker - for more on Dead On and my other works!
Miranda’s myspace –


L. Diane Wolfe said...

Keyword here is getting a professional to design the cover art!

But you're right - if you're dealing with the big boys in NY, you're pretty much gonna have to go with what they decide.

L. Diane Wolfe

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Rob,

It's great that your wife and son are both into graphic art. That's such a help! I do feel that Five Star/Gale wants our input and pays attention. I was pleased with the cover art done for THE INFERNO COLLECTION, although the red and black on author's name bled together. But the rest of the cover was great.
My daughter-in-law Anna criticized the cover art for THE DROWNING POOL which was recently released by Five Star. She is a great photographer with an artist's eye. She felt the figure in the water was too much of a cartoon and not appropriate to the novel. I'll run the next cover by her before it goes into production, but I'm not certain we have much say after the work is complete.
I really like your cover art for DEAD ON.

All the best,

Jacqueline Seewald

Rob Walker said...

Thanks Jacquline and Diane for your input. I think young people with an artisic eye are invaluable to the process, and there is a lot more to cover art design than we always know. Getting input from various sources ought to be welcomed and in my case with Five Star they were quite open once they saw Stephen's work. But it did surprise me that they went with it, and he retains RIGHTS to the cover as well, so I can take it to the paperback version or the ebook version if I choose to do so.


Jacqueline Seewald said...

It's really great that they went with your son's artwork!

Morgan Mandel said...

Your son has great talent.

Morgan Mandel