Friday, February 3, 2012

Book Covers and Their Journeys: How to Create Book Covers (and what makes a book cover unconventional)

Book Covers and Their Journeys

Backbone by Alina Oswald
This blog is about unconventional topics. That includes unconventional images and the book covers created/designed with such images. As I just finally reached the finish line for my book, Journeys Through Darkness--A Biography of AIDS, I've gone through a journey (or maybe journeys) of my own. Some of these journeys are related to getting into the story so that I could make sense of it and actually write it; some include lots and lots (think years) of editing and re-editing (I'm not even joking); lately, I've just learned how to convert a book into an e-book (that's a journey of its own); design and create the book cover, bookmarks, posters and much more.

This was not the first time to make photography or design covers. I've done it multiple times before. In the future, I believe that this aspect of book... creation/design will be an intrinsic aspect of the larger, more complex journey through book publishing. Therefore, I'd like to share with you a few things I've learned about book covers. And, even more, unconventional book covers. (In a future post I'll talk about other book covers and also photography for inside the book).

First things first: what makes a book cover?

A book cover may be unconventional because:

* its shape is unconventional (think fancy photo albums, especially wedding albums)
* the image used to create the cover is unconventional
* the book story is unconventional, and, therefore, conveyed, somehow, in the cover

The Awakening... by Alina Oswald
What's not that unconventional about book covers is how they get created. That means, conventional or not, fancy type or not, a book cover designer should follow some rules. That means, usually, publisher's rules. Each publisher has its own guidelines that have to be followed in order for the cover to come out just right (not only to be accepted but also to look great in print and on screen). That applies even when the book cover designer works with the author of that book, not directly with the publisher (I've worked with both, with authors, creating promotional material and covers for their books, and also publishers, usually creating material (book covers) for my own books).

There are several things to consider:

* does the client want a full book cover (back, spine, front) or just the front cover; usually, when working with authors, may just want the front cover; even then, be prepared to design everything based on the publisher's guidelines, which are usually posted online on the publisher's website. If they are not, contact either the author or the publisher (or both) and ask for those guidelines

* work either in Photoshop or InDesign (sometimes combined) but make sure you do use layers, so that if you have to make changes to the cover design (which usually happens), you don't have to start from scratch (save time, aggravation, sleepless nights, stress, migraines and much more)

* have your monitor and printer calibrated, color calibrated, that is (it usually helps tremendously if you work on a big screen (think iMac) rather than a small screen (think MacBookPro). You may have or want to send the author (if you work with an author vs a publisher) a printed version of the author's book cover; you can also check with the publisher and ask about their printer's color profiles; also, print the book cover sample at original size, 100%, to make sure that it looks as close to the original as possible; a 100% size book cover sample, if we talk about front cover only, for example, may be 6x9 inches or 5x8, either way, it's not a large size of paper; the author can further use that sample to autograph it for readers or for promotion...

* especially if you create only the front cover, do save your Photoshop file and its layers, and name those layers something that it makes sense to you and, possibly to someone else... like the publisher; the publisher may ask for it to adjust (or further adjust) the title and byline, etc to fit with the rest of the book cover; this can happen, so be prepared

* in addition, you can use that front book cover file to further create other promotional material for your author client--bookmarks, poster, etc

Here are a few examples of the book covers I created:

Kurt Weston's "Journey Through Darkness" (part of his Blind Vision series) first inspired the title of my book, Journeys Through Darkness, which tells the photographer's story through AIDS and related blindness:

Journeys Through Darkness: A Biography by Alina Oswald with Photographs by Kurt Weston

From an image I took on 9/11/2009 photographing the 9/11 Tribute Lights on a rainy night:
9/11 Tribute Lights 2009. Copyright 2009 by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.

I came up with this cover, which was also published on the cover of a local newspaper:
Infinite Lights: A Collection of 9/11 Photography by Alina Oswald

And talking unconventional, I think writing about and photographing vampires and dark angels qualifies as "unconventional." In September, 2010 I started photographing vampires and dark angels (thanks to some very helpful friends and models). Here are two images from my vampire photography collection (which has been growing ever since):

"I'm Not Afraid" Copyright 2010 by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.
 From Vampire Fantasies photo-books

"Superstitions" Copyright 2010 by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved. From Vampire Fantasies photo-book.

I decided to use "Superstitions" as cover for my Vampire Fantasies photography collection. And I came up with this:

Vampire Fantasies: A Collection of Vampire Photography by Alina Oswald

When creating the back cover, make sure you have content to add, be that image (can be an image stretched out over the entire front-spine-back cover), text (praise or blurbs for the book). If you don't have blurbs/testimonials, you should still include something. While I have blurbs for Journeys Through Darkness (thanks to authors, photographers and activists) and while for Backbone (my photography collection "praising queer courage," as Out IN Jersey wrote about the book (thank you!)), I did not have anything like that to include on the back cover of Vampire Fantasies... so I used the available space to talk more about vampires, the subjects of my book. Here's what I came up with:

Vampire Fantasies: A Collection of Vampire Photography by Alina Oswald

One more thing... when creating/designing the cover, you also have to keep in mind the kind of fonts you are going to use. The font should accompany (and even add on to) the image. For Vampire Fantasies I used Lucinda... it does look vampire-ish.

I will write more on book covers and book photography, in general, as I'll also continue my posts on the AIDS alphabet. Until then Happy Book-Cover-Designing! [smile] and, as always, thanks for visiting!

Alina Oswald
Author of Journeys Through Darkness: A Biography


  1. Fantastic! Not only are your images beautiful, but you write with purpose yet show class and individuality. I like that. Of all your photos here, my personal favorite is for "Backbone." It's striking for me in some way. You can ask my partner, who's sitting at his own computer next to me, first thing I said was, "Wow, what a great picture," before I even read the blog post, having no idea it was about book covers and the importance of design. Great job. By the way, have you heard of Chip Kidd? Book design artist. He did the covers for two of my favorite novels, both by Donna Tartt, "The Secret History" and "The Little Friend."

  2. Hi Sean,

    Thanks so very much for your wonderful comment! Totally made my Sunday :-) I'm a writer/photographer at heart but also do my own (and others') book cover designs... wearing many hats, whenever necessary.

    "Backbone" is one of these images that just... happened. I was taking pictures of my friend, Angel. He'd brought with him a wooden cross. I think he was playing with the cross at the beat of one of Freddie Mercury's songs (I'm a fan, what can I say ;-)) and I noticed him with the cross on his back, as in the image and told him not to move, hopped on a chair and took a few pix (he was on the floor, on his knees, I believe). I shot the pix for my solo show from 2008 hosted by 32 Jones Gallery, at Hudson Pride Connection Center in Jersey City, NJ. I wanted to call the show "Chasing Rainbows" ('cause I love rainbows of all sorts :-)) but then my favorite picture was that of Angel with the cross on his back. I called it "Backbone" and decided to dedicate the show to the unsung LGBT and HIV/AIDS heroes. BTW, that tattoo took two days to be finished; it covers the entire spine. It's awesome! Made in Spain, I believe.

    Anyway, this is just a short story of "Backbone," the image. I'm glad you and your partner liked it :-) Appreciate it!

    Also, thanks to you I'm now following Chip Kidd @chipkidd, (fantastic work).

    In addition, a shout-out to your fantastic blog,

    and to Donna Tartt (fabulous covers and books)

    Thanks again!