For some strange reason I thought that there might be one or two folks out there who might want to know what goes into the designing of a book cover, at least from the point of view of a self-published author with artistic talent but no experience or training whatsoever. And since there were a couple Beta versions of the cover for my upcoming poetry book The Cynglish Beat, I thought I’d pick on that one. (Click any image to see it larger.)
I wanted to achieve a few things with this cover, besides keeping the pages together,
- It had to draw a viewer’s attention.
- It had to have some class & a professional look (too many self-published books look like amateur shit).
- It had to have a ‘retro’ feel, so as to harken back a few decades to the era of the real Beat Generation (Allen Ginsberg & Jack Kerouac, not Bongo Buddy & the Beatniks)
It took a number of elements to create the look I wanted but before I break them down for you, let’s take a quick look at the first cover I created for the book. The idea here was for a one-man version of a trio of Beatniks in the image Hollywood has popularized — black turtlenecks, bongos, beads, little round sunglasses.
I love the visual harmony of this cover, with the balance of black and the other many colours, but once I did a bit more research into the Beat Generation, I found that the Hollywood image was as wrong as it ever was. The images I found were of college students on campuses and intellectuals pondering the meaning of life. Some day I’ll use this cover for something else, but in the mean time, I wanted the first edition of the book to be more of an homage to the Ginsberg & Kerouac, not Hollyweird. Back-burner one cover design and The Timbo Trio.
It took a number of elements to create the final cover so let’s deconstruct it one piece at a time. Because this was all created with digital images in Photoshop, peeling back the layers is actually much easier done than said.
Starting with the bottom layer: the background of red leather. The leather effect was achieved by simply photographing a large brown leather-bound photo album, then adjusting the contrast to punch up the image and then the colour, to go from muddy brown to blood-of-the-poet red. I even adjusted the scale of the leather image in order to get the grain to a size which matched the size of this book (5 1/4″ x 8 1/4″ at the time of writing).
With the background settled, I moved on to the photo. Here’s the original photo, shot on our front door step with a self-timer and a tripod. There’s very little in the photo to date it as 21st century, except maybe the vinyl-clad screen door, which I cropped down (see below) to minimize its presence. I went with baggy slacks, a corduroy jacket and the simple button-down shirt — as close to a 1950s college intellectual look as could be found in my closet. Can you tell I used to be a school teacher AND an accountant?
The cigarette is fake and the mickey is real, containing Jack Daniels. The somewhat flat light still had enough punch to it for the shadows on the lilac bushes to give the image some natural texture.
Next, I cropped it down to roughly the dimensions of a 3 1/2″ x 5″ photo and did my Photoshop magic on it to make it a semi sepia-tinted black & white snapshot. It looked okay, but I wasn’t quite satisfied. When Sue got home I suggested a tour of Ingelwood, one of Calgary’s older neighbourhoods, in an attempt to find a building more suited. We also wanted to try the old ruins of the General Hospital in the Beltline.
The ruins were a bust, lacking completely in spontaneity simple because no one just ‘hangs out’ at ruins. All of the images looked too staged. We wandered over to Inglewood and found an old, closed garage with perfect light. Sue took up the camera and took a handful of terrific shots, one of which I eventually picked for the cover.
With regards to the final finish on the ‘snap shot’, although plenty of photos taken back in 1955 still retain their crispness and contrast, I decided I wanted a slightly faded, sepia tint, as though it was processed in a home or college darkroom and was exposed to the sun for a few years because it was someone’s favourite photo. Rather than going with the usual scalloped edges so prevalent at the time, I opted for a straight edge with a little bit of wear and tear. I stopped short of adding wrinkles or creases because they would be too distracting, and I did try using black photo corners to ‘attach’ the photo to the cover (see last image below), but the look was more appropriate for an interior image. The angle, shadow, and placement are all carefully calculated to create a balance between the photo of me with the blood-red leather and the softer text above and beneath the photo. The soft colours of the text of the title are meant to add to, but not detract from the red & the sepia. A closer look will also show that I’ve tried to emulate the texture of the leather within the text in order for it to look more integrated.
On the back cover, I wanted to convey the creative process, but rather than hand-scribbled notes, I went with the idea of recipe cards that look like they were run through an old Olivetti manual typewriter. Instead of creating them from scratch with Photoshop I simply photographed a recipe card in natural light so as to get more natural shadows and light.
I had three pieces of information to convey on the back so I went with three recipe cards scaled down. Because “Cynglish” is a word I made up and was so prominent on the front, I thought I owed a definition to anyone who picked up the book and made it as far as the back cover. That’s the first card.
Jumping down to the third recipe card, it needed to give a sample of what was in the book, because this was not “Flowers in the stream, I dream, of cream and smile” poetry. The restrictions were the obvious ones: the snippet had to be clean and it had to be universal, and so I went with the opening lines of “Me, Myself & Age”, the first poem I wrote for the collection before I even knew there was going to be a collection.
For the second card I wanted to give the idea that someone other than myself and Sue had actually read and enjoyed the poems, so a review/blurb from a well-known person was needed. For the ‘celebrity endorsement’ my first and only thought was of Mark Breslin, the CEO & Founder of Yuk Yuk’s, the largest chain of comedy clubs in North America and the man many consider to be the grandfather of Canadian comedy and mentor to such comedy legends as Howie Mandel and Jim Carrey.
Mark caught my scruffy third performance as Bongo Boy (doing a poor imitation of Beat poetry) at the Calgary Yuk Yuk’s at Elbow River Casino and he pulled me aside after the show. For half an hour he generously gave me his time to tell me how unique what I was doing was and how to raise it up off the street and into the limelight. Those kind words of encouragement got me writing like a madman, and once the idea for The Cynglish Beat took hold of my lapels, I put aside performing to concentrate on what I suspected would be the most interesting way I could come up with to raise some funds for Cancer Research.
When I approached Mark with my finished project and asked if he’d consider doing the cover blurb he loved the idea and what he sent back was this: “Kudos to Tim Reynolds for channeling Fifties Beatnik culture in his new volume, ‘The Cynglish Beat’. If you like your poetry hip and bop and full of barbed wire, Reynolds is your man.” Wow. He nailed what I had been trying to achieve and hadn’t even articulated to myself. “Full of barbed wire”. Yup, that’s exactly what it is, and I am honoured to have Mark’s words on the back cover, to draw readers in.
Other stuff on the back cover needed to be the Cometcatcher Press logo (‘self-published’ doesn’t have to mean ‘unprofessional’ — create an imprint for your works!) and the two websites, one for the book and one for Cometcatcher Press. I have half-a-dozen others, including one for all of my writing, but the two URLs I included have links to all of the others.
With all that decided, designed and created do you think I was able to just sit back and let it be, ready for the printer? Oh no, not me. I came across another notebook amongst the detritus of my office and got another brainstorm. I then spent far too much time creating this cover, just so I would have a third option. Sue loves the red cover, as do I, but there’s something raw and spontaneous about this black one. Maybe it’ll be used for a special edition with hand-written interior font, or maybe for a sequel, should it be warranted.
If you have an opinion about which of the three you prefer, leave a comment below and I’ll take it into consideration.
Thanks for listening. I hope this answers questions you didn’t even have.
Ciao for now,