Picking a final book cover is one of the hardest things an author can do. We have so many ideas running through our brain, and we want to fill every bit of space without it looking clunky. Every decision matters. The color isn’t the right shade of white or the font needs to be a little smaller. Those decisions can prolong a book being published because we have a tendency to want to perfect everything, and if the cover we have isn’t a flawless vision of what we want, we keep going until we’re satisfied. In this week’s blog post, James W. Ziskin details the process of picking his newest book cover and how satisfying the whole journey can be.
In the waning days of a lazy August holiday, Ellie Stone is enjoying a bright Adirondack-lake morning. Nearby, two men plummet to their deaths just a few feet short of the water of a dangerous diving pool. A tragic accident, it seems. But the state police quickly establish that the two victims—one, a stranger to the lake and, the other, a teenaged boy from a nearby music camp—surely didn’t know each other. That anomaly is strange enough, but what really perplexes Ellie is the out-of-place station wagon parked twenty yards from the edge of the cliff.
Wading into a slippery morass of fellow travelers, free-love intellectuals, rabid John Birchers, and charismatic evangelicals, Ellie must navigate old grudges and Cold War passions, lost ideals and betrayed loves. She sticks her nose where it’s unwanted, rattling nerves and putting herself in jeopardy. But this time, it’s her heart that’s at risk.
Today, I’m discussing the cover of my latest Ellie Stone mystery, Heart of Stone (Seventh Street Books, June 16, 2016). Readers judge books by their covers. They may not choose the book after skimming it, but they certainly pick it up in the first place because of the cover.
Covers attract attention in a variety of ways. The artwork creates mood through images, colors, fonts, and other elements of design. These are the covers of the first three Ellie Stone novels. The amazing Jackie Nasso Cooke of Prometheus/Seventh Street Book designed them all.
What do we see? First of all, there is a consistency in the layout: a clean font, and similar placement of the text. There’s also the thematic repetition of women’s clothing: shoes and gloves. Jackie strives to maintain the same design basics for each cover to build a look, a branding that readers have come to associate with the Ellie Stone mysteries.
One of many advantages of being published by a press like Prometheus/Seventh Street is that they are willing to discuss cover ideas with their authors. That doesn’t happen at every publishing house. Since the Ellie Stone mysteries are set in 1960-61, the marketing folks told me they wanted a stronger nostalgic look for the Heart of Stone cover. They wanted readers to recognize the era instantly.
From the moment I plotted out Heart of Stone, I knew what kind of cover I would like to see. A summer lake with mountains in the background. Ideally, there would be a wooden dock and perhaps an Adirondack chair. And the item I wanted more than anything else was a discarded women’s one-piece bathing suit that matched the early sixties era. But the perfect image proved to be elusive. The art department considered thousands of photographs, looking for just the right one.
They found lots of docks with lakes, mountains, and Adirondack chairs. But they didn’t look anything like 1961. And there were no bathing suits, except those filled with women.
We tried other ideas. I liked this one, but it wasn’t quite right. No lake, mountains, or bathing suit. And no nostalgia.
This one was perfect to illustrate the nude bathing that runs through the book, but the title would have been lost against the text in the image.
Jackie explored several other themes that might fit, but no one was satisfied.
This one is beautiful, but it looks more like a young-adult novel cover. A little too wholesome.
Here’s an idyllic Adirondack lake, and it has a nostalgic look. Nice, but still no bathing suit, no mystery, no fun. And the orientation is landscape, which in this case wouldn’t have worked for a cover.
Time was running short. We were in danger of having to send out the reviewer copies with no cover art at all.
And then, eureka! I stumbled across the photo below on a stock photography site. It took some imagination to picture the final cover, but I knew Jackie could turn this into a gem. First, we’d need to cut it down to fit a portrait orientation. Then we had to get rid of the hat and flip-flops. They didn’t fit the period. But the rest of the photo ticked all the boxes: the dock, the lake, mountains, and bathing suit. The splash in the water was gravy.
Using Photoshop, I made a crappy mock-up and e-mailed it to Jackie to get her thoughts. She responded almost immediately with the comment, “This one is a contender.” I was thrilled.
But my version was far from acceptable. Jackie went to work, removing the hat and shoes, and correcting the color. We wanted a faded Kodachrome look to give it more of a retro mood. Here’s the concept she came up with.
I loved it. Everyone else seemed to be on board as well. But my brilliant agent, William Reiss of John Hawkins and Associates, thought the dock looked a little empty. He said he’d like to see something else there to set the period. He suggested a transistor radio. Jackie worked her magic, found the perfect radio, and slipped it in. It was a home run.
And so the Heart of Stone cover was born. It’s sexy without being sexist. It’s fun and consistent in style with the covers of the previous books in the series. It even features an article of women’s clothing. And it evokes the appropriate time and suggests the nude bathing I wanted. If Heart of Stone fails to set the world on fire, it won’t be the fault of the cover.
Heart of Stone: An Ellie Stone Mystery arrives in stores and online June 7, 2016. (Seventh Street Books
James W. Ziskin is the Anthony-, Barry-, and Lefty-nominated author of the Ellie Stone mysteries Styx & Stone, No Stone Unturned, Stone Cold Dead, and Heart of Stone. Look for Cast the First Stone in summer of 2017.
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