Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Evolution of a Book Cover

I started writing Transfer Day, a historical thriller set in the Danish West Indies, in December of 2008 to fulfill a childhood promise I made to write a novel that would capture the unique history and beauty of St. Thomas, the island of my youth. Very few people know that for 300 years Denmark had a sugar colony in the West Indies that was rich in folklore and old legends about pirates, slave rebellions, sugar plantations, and quirky characters like the exiled General Santa Anna and Blackbeard the pirate, but no novels existed that were set in this unique location.

The story takes place during the tumultuous Great War, when the Danish West Indies was transferred to the United States for $25 million in gold, mostly to keep Germany from invading the islands and setting up their own West Indian colony in close proximity to the Panama Canal, where they could wreak havoc on international shipping. 

The novel involves a 16-year old island girl who becomes embroiled in a German spy's plot to invade islands when she rescues a deserter from a German U-boat. Their situation becomes tense when he is blackmailed by the local German Consul into committing acts of sabotage and espionage. I had written a real thriller! After several years of writing and polishing several drafts, I was ready to start designing a book cover.

In the Spring of 2011, I hired a professional designer and described my vision for the cover, which included blazing cannons, Danish soldiers, and U-boat medallions. Here are the results:


I liked the covers, and I have no doubt I would have used one of them had it not been for a certain beta reader—a gentleman who owns a book store—who pointed out that the majority of book buyers are women, and for a book cover to work, it should reflect that fact.

This added a significant wrinkle to my situation. Since one of my main characters was a U-boat officer, I naturally thought that guys would be more interested in reading Transfer Day. I knew that to successfully market my book to women, I would have to change the girl's age, change several key scenes, and create a richer romantic subtext to the story.

I went back to the drawing board and, using Guru.com, hired a new book designer from India to create a new cover that reflected this new image.  The new cover we conjured up was definitely designed to appeal more to females. Gone were the smoking cannons, the unfurled flags, the shiny medallions. Instead, we inserted a beautiful girl superimposed over an idyllic image of Charlotte Amalie. This is the result:


While I generally liked the cover, I wasn't completely satisfied. I decided that the model was unsuitable, so I began to search through stock photo websites until I found a model that better reflected the WWI time period. This is the result:


I launched "Transfer Day" in June of 2012, never realizing that my journey was just beginning. As a thank you for sharing his expertise, I sent a paperback copy of "Transfer Day" to my European military consultant (who is also an avid reader) who promptly declared upon completing it that the book was a spy thriller. A spy thriller? I could feel my brow wrinkling. "That's impossible!" I argued. "This book is historical fiction. Look at the historical setting, the island vignettes, the international cast of characters." "No, no," he answered firmly. "Transfer Day is a spy thriller."

I accepted his assertion, but if "Transfer Day" was a spy thriller, then it would need new title and a new cover to reflect its new genre. I pondered this dilemma for hours, but I remained stumped. I couldn't think of a new title. And then, right out of the blue, it hit me:  "Spy Island". Spy Island was the perfect title for my book. After more intensive research, I designed a new cover to reflect this new image:

I was pleased with the results. But two months later, I got a big surprise. I had entered "Spy Island" in a giveaway sponsored by a popular YA blog (since I was trying to break into the YA market) and to my dismay, the reaction was lukewarm. The new cover didn't seem to excite much interest. I was shocked because I thought the title and cover would appeal to lovers of historical fiction and action/adventure novels. But I was off the mark. Back to the drawing board.

This time, I delved deeper into the study of YA book covers. Many book blogs contain in depth analyses about current trends in YA book covers, and I studied these blogs for hours on end, analyzing hundreds of covers, studying which images worked best to attract readers. After more research and investigation, this is the new image I came up with:

While the new cover captured the essence of my main character and the tropical setting of the novel, the historical aspect was missing. After subjecting the cover to a focus group, the conclusion I came up with was that most people felt the cover projected a contemporary romantic look, not the sweeping historical espionage thriller I had written. I heaved a sigh and went back to the drawing board.

Late one night after everyone had gone to bed, I was browsing through Shutterstock, looking for the right image. Then it hit me. I found a picture of a beautiful Croatian model with a turn-of-the-century hairdo that was just perfect. I knew I had found my Abby. 

It took hours of searching to find this glamorous new model

But what about the background? After more consideration, I decided to go back to my original background, the one that accurately captures the look of the island that I had used for the original Transfer Day cover. My cover artist put the cover together and for the first time in years, I had a feeling of total satisfaction. After all those hours of work, I finally achieved the desired results. The cover is attractive and intriguing, and conveys the historical feel of the novel. My job was finally finished.

After two years of hard work, I learned that designing a book cover is a complex subject best left to professionals. But if a writer is compelled to do it, you should be prepared to make mistakes and learn from them, as it is only through those failures that you'll learn to grow, adapt and change. The hardest lesson of all was accepting that what pleased me was not necessarily what the market wanted. I had to let go of my preconceived notions about what entailed a successful book cover and embrace the market's needs. Now that I've reached this new plateau, I feel like I've passed a crucial test. But when I look back on the journey, I'm grateful for all the help I received along the way. Mostly I'm grateful that I listened to the messages I received, and that I had the flexibility to act on them.

***UPDATE 2016***

With the Centennial Anniversary of Transfer Day rapidly approaching in 2017, I decided to go back to the original title of "Transfer Day" and remake the cover in honor of the momentous occasion, which promises to be a high-profile international event in the Virgin Islands. Yes, it was time to go back to the drawing board. Here is a poster announcing the 99th Anniversary of Transfer Day on March 31st, 2016, just one year away from the big event:


This time I wanted to hire someone with a proven track record of success in designing book covers. I searched online for some high-profile Indie Designers and found a graphic designer who's portfolio impressed me greatly. He worked for all the major publishers plus some bestselling Indie authors. I also found a new model via Shutterstock who I thought best represented the novel's protagonist, Abigail Maduro:


This model captures the look, the dress, and the age of my protagonist, but I decided her expression was too dour. I still hope to use her in marketing adverts. 

Here are 2 sample covers that I received: 




While the two covers are striking and original, something about them bothered me. I didn't feel they accurately reflected either the Danish or the West Indian feel of the setting. They looked too generic American. In addition, I began to see the model's dour expression as a potential drawback. Although she indeed has the right look, she lacks the right expression. As an American, I didn't think my new cover artist would be able to inject the Caribbean feel into the covers that I so desperately wanted. I finally realized that the only way to get that West Indian look into the cover was to hire a local graphic artist from the Virgin Islands. To this end, I began to google "Graphic Artists Virgin Islands."


Adrian Poe of Silver Squid Design wasn't the first name to come up in the Google Search, but her portfolio was outstanding. As a St. Croix-based graphic designer she had an impressive portfolio of island businesses as her customers, and had created logos that perfectly reflected the tropical setting. As a craftsman, she seemed to be in a class all her own. I knew she was the right woman for the job. And the sample she gave me exceeded my expectations:

And so, after five long years of hard work, numerous graphic designers, numerous models, and numerous prototypes, I finally had a cover that accurately represented the setting, the historical time period, and the cultural aspects of my story. Transfer Day is finally ready for the 100th Anniversary celebration and I couldn't be more satisfied. It was hard work, but it taught me many valuable lessons about publishing, book marketing, and perseverance. If I had to sum up my experience in one word it would be this: tenacity. Don't give up until you have the perfect cover. Keep striving, keep digging, keep searching. Your perfect cover is out there, but only you as the Indie author can find it. Keep striving until your vision becomes a reality, then you can truly say your job is finished. 

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