Take our poll to tell us which cover you like best. It doesn’t mean we’ll change our minds about the one WE like, but it’s always fun to see what everyone thinks!
While Katherine Smith writes beautiful poetry, Kathryn also creates collages we can’t stop looking at.
The story begins with the Madville crew doing some online research about a new poet we had just signed, Katherine Smith. (Secret City, Madville, August 2022). Expect a preorder page to become available for this collection in May. You’ll find that on our homepage, https://madvillepublishing.com.
But back to the reason for the search in the first place, we were looking for inspiration for Katherine Smith’s book cover. We like to start by looking at an author’s previous covers, so we started by looking at Katherine’s Woman Alone on the Mountain (Iris Press, 2014). After that, our eyes were naturally drawn to the really striking collage art of Katheryn Smith, who turned up among our search results. We contacted her about her art before even realizing she is also a poet. Learn more about her at kathrynsmithpoetry.com
Shortly after my short story collection Judgment Day & Other White Lies was picked up by Madville Publishing, I read “Under the Cover – Mistakes by the Lake” on Madville’s blog where author Brian Petkash describes his process of coming to the stunning book cover design for his debut short story collection Mistakes by the Lake, a collection that is coincidentally my favorite book I’ve read from the Madville catalog. Since my own short story collection is, like Petkash’s, a linked collection with several shared themes, I reached out to Kim Davis, press director for Madville, and asked if it would be possible to have a local artist and graphic designer I knew design the cover for me.
Kim informed me, in fact, that it is the intention of Madville to offer author’s more creative control in the publication process, that she believes collaboration makes for better titles. Especially on an element like the cover design, she thinks writers can offer much help in selecting pointed images that direct readers’ eyes to books they will enjoy reading.
In my own case, I knew right away I wanted to ask Crowcrumbs to design the cover. She is an old friend of mine and local artist in Houston, TX who studied design at the University of Houston and does compelling illustrations and graphic design. I also have always sensed a lot of similarity between her work and my own in terms of its thematic nature. In particular, two images spoke to me and told me she would be the best person to ask.
You see, my collection is centered around retellings of Greco-Roman and Christian myths that challenge foundational truths in American society like patriarchy, capitalism, and in particular, white supremacy. The above images jumped off the page to me as ones that were both blasphemous and reverent at the same time, images that could reflect my own technique of using meta-narratives that both reify and problematize traditional culture. Additionally, two of the more prominent stories in the collection in terms of their imagery are the opening alternative telling of Genesis “Para(Fa)ble of the Stoned Ape,” where violent sex-crazed stoned monkeys create western civilization by hallucinating and then telling stories of their hallucinations, and also, “‘Per-C and ‘Dusa: A Narrative Representation of a Graphic Epic’ by Angela Ames, PhD,” which is an ekphrastic retelling of the Perseus and Medusa myth in the form of a fake scholarly article. Therefore, the monkey and the mysterious woman adorned in religious imagery felt like they could be synthesized in some form that would make for a great cover to Judgment Day & Other White Lies.
Not to mention, most of the collection takes place in Houston, TX, where Crowcrumbs and I both live. In fact, one of Crowcrumbs’ most sought after images is her sketch of the famous rock music club Fitzgerald’s (RIP) which was once home to many of our favorite local punk bands over the years (buy a print of the below image here!). I figured between the ominous religious imagery, the evolutionary and creationist themes, and her photorealistic interpretations of local landmarks that we would surely find a cover design that was perfect for the book (and I believe the one we eventually came to is, in fact, perfect).
Setting out with a few images I picked out of Crowcrumbs’ catalog to give her direction on what kind of design I would like, we discussed the possibility of synthesizing local haunts, religious imagery, and also some imagery from the stories themselves. We also discussed doing a black-and-white color scheme that would align with the discussions on racial identity that are interspersed throughout the collection. Crowcrumbs went to work sketching some rough images that we might use on the cover.
She also told me she liked the process because while “it relates to the text, it is also not necessarily true to life, something that makes it both an interpretation and its own creation, and I get to use my other skills at my day job too where I focus on user experience of software design. It forces me to consider the audience and what they will imagine as they read the words and process my artwork.”
I was thrilled with it when she sent me the initial proof and believed this was where she really came through in taking ownership of the image, as I told her she had free rein to do, since she was the artist and I was the writer. I trusted her skill and trusted her as a person, us being friends for years and all (and in the same online book club together to protect our sanity during the pandemic).
I just love how the image is both threatening and playful, evocative in the color scheme, and how with the presence of Greek history, a revolver, an egg timer, and a wild monkey, that it creates a true sense of urgency, along with mystery, something that I hope this collection does in terms of engaging white people in their own interest in dismantling white supremacy.
So that’s the story of how the book cover came into being. If you like the cover design, please consider commissioning Crowcrumbs for your own artistic needs. Again, this cover perfectly captures my literary aesthetic in a visual form. Also, you can purchase copies of her prints, as well as t-shirts and stickers with her artwork on it here. Lastly, for those of you local to Texas, be on the lookout for combined readings and art show collabs between Crowcrumbs and me to promote the book release, and to promote Crowcrumbs as the incredible artist and designer that she is.
Book covers are amazing things. They can lure readers in, jolt their imaginations, prod them to, perhaps, pick up a book and read it. And during the reading of a book, its cover can be revisited, prompt additional exploration as to what the cover means vis a vis the contents, the characters, the story.
While any best-of lists will inherently miss some great book covers, when I reflect on covers that stuck with me, these are a few that come to mind:
The Great Gatsby: The painting by Francis Cugat is haunting and captures so much of the book’s vibe.
Jaws: Yeah, that image says it all.
Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone: The image is arresting and creepy. The extra warning—“YOU TELL ON ME YOU’RE DEAD”—when the book’s held at a certain angle, heightens the creepy.
1Q84: I probably could’ve posted only Chip Kidd covers—he’s that good. I just happen to be reading this particular book now.
The Nickel Boys: Its stark design captures devastating heartbreak and loss.
When I signed with Madville Publishing to publish Mistakes by the Lake, Kim Davis, Madville’s Publisher/Director, sent over her first cover idea:
Initially, I liked it. It has the skyline of Cleveland in the background. And the viewfinder symbolically captures the many and varied views of the city that my stories themselves attempt to capture. I liked how the full image would serve as a nice wraparound cover, too:
And then I decided I wasn’t in love with it. You know, this might be—I hope not, of course!—but this might be the only book I ever publish. I wanted to love the cover.
One thing I appreciate about Madville is how involved their authors can be. So, with Madville’s blessing1, I went a little nuts.
From April through September 2019, I tried out different ideas. A ton of different ideas. I played with different Cleveland skylines, I played with various Cleveland maps, I played with overhead shots of the city, I played with iconic landmarks, I looked at (and even emailed) a few well-regarded Cleveland artists and photographers (Paul Duda [http://www.pauldudagallery.com/] and Jim Lanza [https://www.foundrywoodprints.com/], both of whom were kind enough to work with me should I find a piece of art I liked). As I stated, a little nuts.
One of the challenges, in my mind: Since my collection spans numerous decades of the city’s history, how could we get a cover to capture that timespan?
Here’s just a smattering of what I did. As you can see, I am in no way a designer, but it was exciting when, later on, I learned how to knock out a picture within the title (see the last two). You’ll also see a few early versions of what, ultimately, became the cover.
Madville patiently waited for me to work through my issues. And, finally, I sent six or so for their review.
They really liked the last one. (I liked that one a lot, too. I love how the old 1796 map explodes into the modern skyline. But, it was mildly problematic: as near as I could tell, the Western Reserve Historical Society owned the rights to that map and I had not yet worked out if we could use it or not. But after some back and forth, WRHS kindly agreed to let us incorporate the map in the cover. Also, it was an old map. The best reproduction of it I could find had elements that were roughed up and lost to wear or folds or both. So, I spent far too many hours digitally touching up and redrawing portions of the map to make it whole.)
Then it was in the capable hands of Jacqui Davis, Madville’s graphic designer: “I take the images and fonts the author likes, then, from the images, I establish a color palette. Ideally, this palette contains no more than six colors … three is better. For Brian’s book, the pinks came from a sunset picture he sent—then there’s the black, beige, and white from the map.”
Jacqui sent this back:
I liked it. A lot. And I loved what Jacqui did with the sky and the words and the overall composition. We thought my name might get lost in the busyness of the map, so that was one element to change. Plus, none of us were sure about the sky. We tried it in blue:
We all agreed the surreal pink was a better choice. (I should note that both sky pieces were photographs I took while living in Costa Rica. To not only have such a big say in my cover’s design, but to also use artwork of mine was all very cool.)
A few more tweaks: Could we see more of the map (so “Cuyahoga” was visible)? How would the map look using a parchment color? Could we try a different font? How would “by the” look in a slightly different and subordinated arrangement? From there, Jacqui made additional tweaks. “I chose this font because the letters are imperfect with a slightly organic feel that matches the lettering on the map and the splotchy ink blot textures of the skyline.”
Yes, I loved it. My publisher loved it. And, nearly a year later, I still love it.
1“Madville handles the cover design process a little differently from most traditional and indie publishers in that we involve our authors in the cover design process. This collaboration happens in different ways. We always ask our authors right up front to give us some idea of what they imagine for the cover. Their responses run the gamut from no idea what they want to some who have the artwork picked out and rights secured to use it. From there, the design process goes back and forth with the author allowed to give their input all the way up to the point where I step in and make the final decision, and I’m never going to pick a design the author doesn’t like!” —Kim Davis, Director, Madville Publishing
Brian Petkash was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from University of Tampa and his stories have appeared in Midwestern Gothic and Southword, among other publications. He currently lives in Tampa, Florida, where he remains an avid fan of Cleveland sports.
Because of this, designing a book cover can be one of the most crucial and time consuming aspects of publishing a book (apart from actually writing the book, of course). The cover must be right.
When a book’s cover is wrong, can give a potential reader the wrong impression of what the book is about. This applies if the cover does not match the book’s genre; a shirtless man might draw Fifty Shades fans instead of the high-fantasy audience it was meant for. At the same time, a highbrow cover featuring abstract art might appear too “literary” for the casual reader, who will probably never read the synopsis on the cover to discover that the book is actually a YA adventure novel.
So how do I get the right cover image?
There are many ways to obtain cover art. On the more expensive end of the spectrum, an artist might be commissioned to create original artwork just for the book. It is also possible to license original artwork and photography that already exists, this is generally costly as well. If you are very lucky, you have artist friends who are willing to share their work at little or no charge. As was the case with No Evil is Wide by Randall Watson. In fact, Watson was spoiled for choice as he has an extensive personal art collection.
Released in November of 2018, Watson’s novel is both dark and chaotic and we wanted to make sure that the cover reflected that. Watson wanted to use a piece from his personal art collection for the cover of No Evil is Wide, and there were some excellent paintings to choose from, but we ran into a snag. We didn’t have permission to use them.
Ownership of a piece of art, doesn’t mean one owns the right to reproduce that piece of art.
Ownership of a piece of art, doesn’t mean one owns the right to reproduce that piece of art. Physical ownership does not equal intellectual ownership. The author or publisher musthave written permission from the artist to use their work, or a licensing agreement.
Luckily for us, Watson was able to track down one of his favorite artists despite the fact that they were out of touch for a decade. Once we received Charles Moody’s permission, we were able to create a selection of composite covers, each with a different painting of Moody’s. (see below)
Right off the bat, the third cover was simply too bright and did not match the overall theme of the novel, but we weren’t ready to give up on it, so we changed the background and typography colors, which improved it a lot, but the painting still didn’t convey a strong enough message. Similarly, the first image of the bird-headed girl, while powerful, didn’t have the violent appeal of the hand image. The bright reds in that painting screamed for our attention. We could see ourselves picking up that bright red book at Barnes and Noble. Still, the author, Randall Watson, wasn’t sold on it, so we tried some variations.
There was still something about the red background and and the framed image that wasn’t right. The text and the image felt disconnected. Our resident millennial didn’t like how… “old” it felt—like a text book.
We had just read this Literary Hub article discussing the current fashion in covers that focuses on bold text using all-caps. We got mixed replies when we shared that article on Facebook, but I loved the bold type because it is easy to read, even on a tiny thumbnail of the cover. In addition, the font feels as though it’s a part of the image itself, not just slapped on top of a picture.
With that in mind, after playing around with fonts, colors, and layer blending modes in Photoshop, we came to our final rendition of the No Evil is Wide cover:
This cover immediately catches the eye–peaks the reader’s curiosity and makes them ask the important questions.
What’s up with that dude’s hand? It looks like he’s not having a very good time. Is that fire? Why is there an eye there? No Evil is Wide? What does that mean?
All fantastic questions that inevitably end with the most important thing you want a potential reader to think: