When you see an image on a book cover it’s just not a pretty picture. It tells a story. It’s that story in that image that gets people’s attention. And that story can mean the difference between a book getting a sale or getting ignored by potential readers.
In order to create the art on a cover, a publisher has to develop a concept that tells the entire story of the novel in a single image. It can be a picture based on something that happens in the story, or it can be an idea of something related to the story. The image has to give a reader a sense of what’s going on and make them care enough to pick up the book.
When I create a cover, I usually take a scene from a part of the story and turn that into an image. It’s that one image that I believe will define the story and get the attention for readers.
Sometimes I’ll take a scene from the beginning of the story. Other times I’ll take a scene from the middle of the book. And sometimes I’ll use a picture related to something in the books theme.
When I was storyboarding Bill Walko’s cover for Isis: Brideof Dracula I took an image from the middle of the story. And the image shows a hypnotized Isis getting ready to attack John Haynes while Dracula mists above watching the action. I thought that image would tell the story of the book and grab the reader with one single image.
Usually when I’m designing a concept for a cover story, I have to write and draw out what the scene is so the artist knows what story to tell in a picture. From experience I’ve found the more information the artist has, the more details they can add to the picture. But I don’t write too many details, I want the artist to put some of their ideas in the story!
In storyboarding a cover, a writer has to be clear about what they want in an image. They have to clearly describe the mood and the tone they want to set, and how they want the image to look.
For The Legendary Mad Matilda, I believed that the scene where Matilda takes her mugshot defined the story. And I wanted to get a little more artsy with the image. So I drew up a concept piece:
And a model sheet of Mad Matilda. While the cover concept is a ¾ figure, the model sheet is to give an artist a sense of Mattie’s character, her outfit and how the elements of it work. The notes are to give an artist an understanding of Mattie’s size, proportions, what her outfit should look like, how the clothes drape and a sense of the story behind the character.
The Concept piece art give the artist a set of how I want the art to look on the cover. With Legendary Mad Matilda being a novel about a African-American Goth, I wanted to exaggerate some of the mugshot with elements related to the subculture. So instead of height lines I gave it some stripes reminiscent of Tim Burton and Beetlejuice to make the visual pop. The lines draw us to the figure and the center of the piece which is the Black Widow pendant on her chest, which represents who Matilda is as a Goth.
For the tone, I wanted Mattie to have an uneasy look on her face and some tense body language. That’s supposed to represent her uneasiness about being arrested and her future coming out of college. She’s nervously holding the board that shows the her arrest in her black manicured hands that features the title of the book.
In that image I tell a story that I hope has the reader asking a bunch of questions. Who is Mad Matilda? What makes her a Legend? And what happened to her to wind up in this situation? Was it a wild party? Or was it something else? It’s those questions that will have the reader wanting to pick up the book and check out a few chapters of the story to get the answers.
Oftentimes the final image of a cover will be open to an artist’s interpretation. They may change some elements of a design to fit their style. However, the goal of a great piece of cover art is to remain accurate to the models provided by the publisher and tell the story the publisher wanted for the cover. There’s a lot of work that goes into a cover, and that story that single image tells has to be as well written as the words in a book.
I’d love to see how an artist would tell the story I wrote for the cover for The Legendary Mad Matilda in pictures, and I need your help to pay an artist to design it. So if you could donate to my Patreon or my PayPal, I’d greatly appreciate it!