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 dream 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 owned a sugar colony in the West Indies that was rich in folklore and old legends about pirates, slave rebellions, sugar plantations, Obeah. I grew up hearing about colorful characters like Henry Morgan, Blackbeard the pirate, Black Sam Bellamy, and the exiled Mexican General Santa Anna, but no novels existed that brought to life these colorful, exotic islands.

After much research I developed a story that takes place around the time of the transfer of the islands from Denmark to the United States. The world was in the midst of the Great War, when the US was determined to enforce the Monroe Doctrine and keep Germany out of the New World. It became imperative for the US to acquire the Danish West Indies for $25 million in gold bullion, an enormous sum. Woodrow Wilson was determined to do everything possible to keep the Kaiser from setting up a colony in close proximity to the Panama Canal.

The story is told through the eyes of a 16-year old Sephardic Jewish girl who becomes embroiled in a German spy's plot to invade islands when she rescues a deserter from a German U-boat. After several years of writing and polishing several drafts, I was ready to start designing a book cover.

And this is where my education in book publishing really began.

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


This added a significant wrinkle to my situation. Since the male protagonist is a German U-boat officer, I thought that guys would be more interested in reading Transfer Day. To successfully market my book to women, I had 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, redrafted my book, and went to to hire a new book designer from India. The relationship I had with the artist was tense and stilted, and this is somewhat reflected in the cover. Gone were the smoking cannons, the 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 was not expecting that. "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 indeed a spy thriller, then it would need new title and a new cover to reflect its true genre. I pondered this dilemma for hours, but I was 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 another big surprise. I 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. Sales were lukewarm. 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. Or so I thought…

After two years of hard work, I learned there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to designing a book cover. It 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 will learn, grow, adapt and change. The hardest lesson of all is accepting that what pleased me as the writer is not necessarily what will please the reader. I had to let go of my preconceived notions about what entails a successful 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 my journey, I'm grateful for all the help I received. 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 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. Yes, it was time to go back to the drawing board.


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 whose 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 the two samples 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:

***UPDATE 2018***

With the release of my new historical thriller, Island on Fire, I decided Transfer Day needed an updated look, one that would reflect a similar tone and style as Island on Fire. Using the same graphic designer as Island on Fire, Tim Flanagan from Novel Design Studio, he came up with this concept. The final results took my breath away:


The model perfectly captured my vision of Abby Maduro and the artwork perfected reflected the setting and the color of the story. And so, after years of hard work, numerous graphic designers, numerous models, and numerous prototypes, I finally had a cover that accurately represented the setting, the intrigue, the history, the color, and the cultural aspects of my story. 


Designing the perfect cover 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 can find it. Keep striving until your vision becomes a reality, then you can truly say your job is finished. 

***UPDATE 2019***

I guess I have come to understand I am a bit of a perfectionist. Not in a negative way, but in a positive way of constantly growing, changing, and improving (at least I hope). Somehow I wanted a more “toned down” cover since the 2017 Centennial Anniversary of Transfer Day has come and gone. Using a lady I know from Fiverr and a very nice model image, this is my cover going forward. What is my lesson from all of this? In book publishing, persistence is key. You will get results!

***UPDATE 2021***

My 20th and hopefully last cover. It's a long story how this came about, only that I wanted something that conveyed the historical setting better than the 2019 cover, one that I wanted to stay around long after I was gone. I hope you like this cover. I don't think I have the desire or patience to do another one. What is the lesson I learned from this "perfect cover odyssey"? That writing and publishing are areas with a long learning curve. You can't really shorten it except by jumping in the ring and doing your thing. You constantly read, learn, and grow in this field, and hopefully improve with each writing project. I know I am a much more savvy writer and publisher than I was when I started out on this journey back in 2006. It was a long, hard road, and I feel the results more than make up for the hardship. What do you think? Let me know in the comments.

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