The [D]Evolution of Cover Art
Trying to find your place in the process whilst keeping a tight reign on your wallet when all you want to do is get the bloody thing done!
So I have a book completed. Yeah, there are still tweaks being done to tidy it up a bit more. I think it’s in a good place. It’s not a formulaic romance story. It’s a very deceptive work. I created it with that in mind. It probably means it won’t find much of an audience, but you know what? I don’t really care. Here’s the skinny on the whole Angels of Mercy project for me:
I was writing another series that was going to be my big ol’ Gay LOTR (and if you have to ask what the fuck LOTR is, then you need to come out from under that rock you’ve been occupying and take a look around for Pete’s sake). It’s that Fae Wars thing I got placed elsewhere on the website. But that fucker is huge. Epically huge. LOTR with a bunch of man on man action huge. But there’s a war so there’s destruction and mayhem abounding there as well.
Here’s the dealio with that – because it’s so big (I tend to think Cecil B. DeMille epic) I had to put off writing because I got caught up in the quagmire I’d been back building in that particular universe. I am still contemplating that story. A good friend (and beta reader) gave me some advice to simply write the back story as one big epic tome all by it’s lonesome and then spring into the one that involves Earth so it would, in effect, be like my Hobbit to the Lord of the Rings. One off leading to a series sort of thing. That’s handy. And I can definitely see the advantage to doing just that.
Anyway, so what does that have to do with the cover art of Angels of Mercy?
Well, I ended up setting aside the whole Fae Wars epic to ponder those things I’ve just mentioned, and was listening to Jay Brannan’s Rob Me Blind while bringing lunch back to the girls at home. It hit me. Two boys trapped out on the Bixby Bridge near Big Sur, CA. Police cars on either side closing off the bridge to through traffic. My boys clinging to each other as a third man’s body falls perilously to his impending death in the fog laden morning.
So yeah, that image stuck with me as I was listening to Rob Me Blind. By the time I got home one exit down the freeway later, I had the story mapped out. It came to me that quick. I knew three things with absolute certainty:
- The boys (Elliot and Marco – I didn’t have last names for them yet) would come together at the very first chapter. I was more concerned with the ‘what happens next’ and not so much about the whole “will they/won’t they” that permeates so much of the M/M genre. So yeah, boys fall in love first chapter – BANG!
- The jock in the story NEVER wavers in his love and devotion to the boy he wants. I am soooo tired about the ‘straight’ appearing jock being the questioning one. My own Marco (my hubby) played football for Clemson back in the day and even played for Massillon (the birth place of modern football). And he has NEVER WAVERED once about what he feels for me. So yeah, Marco is deeply rooted there in my own life experience. If the hubby can be that strong – so can Marco.
- The story would be deceptive in nature. I wanted to tell a story that from the outset was more introspective, more reflective rather than the standard romance fair. I also knew it was going to spiral into a murder mystery/thriller of sorts (I am a BIG HITCHCOCK fan).
So I knew those three things by the time I got home seven minutes later. The book was already shaping up by the time I picked up the food from the car, the walk from the garage up the flight of steps to the main part of the house. Marco and Elliot were established. Their world already taking root and like a Morning Glory vine, they spread like wildfire. After lunch I told the hubby all about my new boys. They’ve been a part of us since (that was about 8 or 9 months ago).
I went through several boys as my inspirational source. Each of them though had to have a common thread or element that made them either Marco or Elliot.
Here’s the other thing – While my story does NOT involve the supernatural in any way, I wanted a strong Angel theme to thread its way in and around my boys and their world. So four more things got added to my list:
- The school was going to be big, an ex-Catholic parochial school that had been deconsecrated, but would retain its strong ties to its past by creating the high school mascot to be an Angel – and not just any, but an Avenging Angel. This was an important element as it established for me a thread to tug upon time and again with each of my boys.
- The main characters of the story would all have Angelic names assigned to them and those names had to some how embody the emotive core of who they were as a character. For Elliot his first name (that he doesn’t use) is Cassiel (the angel of tears and regrets). Elliot is a quiet, and sad boy by the time we meet up with him. He’s out to the community but keeps a very low profile because he knows how small towns react to big news like a gay kid in town (say nothing that same gay kid has been around since birth – but when it’s all out in the open, it’s a tough thing to deal with). For Marco, Elliot’s boyfriend (the jock), his middle name is Rafael (the arch-angel) and all things in this trilogy point to him. Marco is the pinnacle and meat of the story. I always saw it that way. The last character (which I won’t go into here as it is a spoiler) has a middle name of Azreal (the real avenging angel in the story). It is he who metes out judgement in the trilogy. And he comes out of nowhere when he does.
- The last reference to Angels and the town of Mercy is that the other Angels (the football team) play a part in this tale as well.
- The sex will be blatant. No punches pulled. I can’t tell you how many times I read about sex between two men, written by women that completely miss the mark or “don’t go there” because they don’t want to really know what men think and feel when they are having sex. Which totally blows my mind on one level, but on another completely makes sense because women are always trying to influence men to think another way (their way). But they really don’t bother at all to understand it from a male perspective. So my boys are who they are when it comes to their sexuality. It is rooted in real life. It is how we are when we are together as a sexual couple (to varying degrees, I’ll grant you, but there nonetheless).
So there is a common thread regarding the metaphor of Angels in the story. But it isn’t a supernatural story. It’s metaphorical – in name and essence only.
So the first book is in the can and the second is about a third to half way written. Got beta-readers pouring through book 2 already and giving me valuable feedback. They’re loyal to the cause already so there is an audience out there. Don’t know who they are because the story sort of defies categorization.
But how do I create an eye catching piece of artwork that embodies all of that?
Part of me wanted to keep it simple. Not too involved – involved denotes a dated look. Just look at the covers from just a couple of years ago on some of these books and they already look dated. Mostly because they employed all kinds of Photoshop trickery that was all the rage at the time but no one is doing now. Honestly, the simplistic covers sort of really do it for me. While I think that the 50 Shades book was a right piece of erotic garbage, the look and appeal of the cover work was bold and definitive in my mind. It sent a strong message and played upon the whole ‘shades of grey’ theme from the title.
So here is how I came up with the whole cover concept:
- I wanted angels or an angelic influence to be a part of the cover as it is a theme of the book (not the judeo-christian core but a theme of the story nonetheless).
- I wanted it to be strong in it’s masculine appeal and statement (though I didn’t want some hussy to grace the cover because well, they’re gay – duh)
- I wanted the football theme to come forward as well.
I got completely derailed on my first attempt but as you’ll see below – I think it came together quite nicely.
It all started late last night when I finally decided I’d let my book languish for far too long out there in the beta-reader ether. It’s time to get it out there. So to do that it needed a cover.
Here’s what I had going for quite some time – it was a placeholder:
The actual title artwork really hasn’t changed. I liked it from the get-go (as it were). I wanted the dramatic angel theme even back then. It was a place holder. Nothing more really. But I did have comments from the beta readers that they liked the look of it. They liked the dark tones and the brilliant blue white element. One person even said that if she saw it in a book store, the cover alone would have made her pick it up and investigate it further.
So yeah, even then I knew it had to be dramatic. And it was certainly duo-chromatic (mono would indicate one color but, even so, I got what someone said to me about that).
So last night I’d reached a tipping point. I couldn’t go further with book one until it had a graphic representation that I could call my own for it. That meant licensing. That meant (since I wasn’t a photographer) that I’d be relying on what was out there from other content artists and pay for the rights to use the material.
First stop was a google search (ha! It was actually a DuckDuck search but you get the idea) for LGBT book cover artists. I found a website that seemed, at first blush, to fill the bill quite nicely.
They even have a section dedicated to the LGBT market. Bingo! I was in like Flynn.
I just had to choose one to start with and play around with their little online designer:
Once I selected a cover – and paid for it, it would be mine to use for e-books and printed copies up to 250,000 in combined sales. At what I was planning was $4.99 a pop, that would be over a million dollars in sales. Yeah, I could agree to those numbers. They could come and ask for an extended license at that point. I could probably afford it.
So I picked a cover and started to play with it.
The nice part about all of this? Once I bought the cover, it was removed from the site (never to be seen/offered again). It was mine and mine alone to use as I needed to for the book. No one else would have it. It wasn’t free (prices start at $69 a cover and go up steadily from there).
So I found one that spoke to the angelic element – it looked like this:
I could’ve used their tool to come up with the logo, the author byline and any tag line I wanted but to be honest – I have a far more extensive font listing on my computer anyway (like over 10k fonts installed). I am a font whore, plain and simple.
So I bought it without any writing on it whatsoever. I was cool with it.
Now here’s the rub (as they say): It wasn’t everything I wanted in one pic. I loved the deco wing element – cause that was bang on with how I saw the logo emblazoned on their helmets at the school. So yeah, I was good with that part. The one element I wasn’t so pro on was the guy on it. Not that I didn’t like him – I did. He appears to be a ginger so yeah – got a Smokin’ Hot Ginger Stud section in the galleries so yeah, he works definitely on that level. I don’t know why I suddenly have this proclivity for gingers but it sorta sprang up on me all of a sudden – and one of my new characters in Angels of Mercy Volume 2: Marco has a new buddy of his that will prove to be pivotal to how Marco gets Elliot back on his feet after book one (spoiler – sorry). And Angus (Marco’s new ginger stud buddy) is a full on stud material – no bones about it but with a heart of gold that’s been stomped on repeatedly.
From that perspective, the guy (on the cover art I just bought) would work – just not on this book. Angus Carr (the ginger buddy for Marco) isn’t on the scene in book one at all. He doesn’t arrive front and center until book two. This whole buying on a whim was a knee jerk reaction to the studly ginger angel on the cover art I purchased. ‘Cause Angus has fast become my favorite character to write about. I get giddy like a school girl whenever he is in a scene. I think if I continue with this world of my boys at Mercy, then Angus’ story will be the next one to tell. I love him that much. But, just not now. This was Elliot’s book, not Marco’s, and certainly not Angus’.
But I’d paid for the artwork so I had to use it somehow. Also, the color scheme was all wrong – while warm, bold and powerful, it was the wrong tone to take. The school colors are Blue and Silver (with white). So the golden hues of this picture just wouldn’t work. There was no tie-in other than his being an angel.
So the color had to be swapped:
Now I liked the logo work from the first book image I created (remember the placeholder?).
So that got incorporated into it but I stayed with the whole duo-tone idea. For some reason I thought it would work, hence:
The feedback was rather instantaneous – a BIG OL’ “MEH…”
Cue face-palm moment on my end. Yeah, I wasn’t really thinking it through.
So I scrambled again when I got up at 7am this morning after reading the email responses from the beta reader/buddy crowd. I began to look through iStock Photo for a footballer (after I remembered to exclude soccer players from that search criteria) and found some fairly decent picts along with a decent price. The best part? Their license was greater than the one I got from selfpubbookcovers.com site. I could walk right up to the 499,999 sale mark before extended licensing came into play. Another cool thing! So yeah, I sorted out which pictures said the most to me. Finally settling on this one:
The hubby approved – all the other guys I had targeted as potentials were all holding the ball incorrectly and it rankled my ball playing hubby. Being a former Clemson player, I tended to listen to him on this one. This was the only one where the model sorta had an idea of how to hold the ball. It was the closest we came to the truth. It’s rather stark without any helmet logo (it’s just so damned WHITE), but I knew I could do something about that.
So now my thinking was to marry the previous version with this newer image I had going.
First off, strike the black background so my angel wings would be present in the background – if just a bit more muted than before.
Another thing sort of stuck in my craw a bit: he doesn’t have a jersey number. I might still take care of that – though that is a time consuming process, especially with the folds of the jersey in the picture and having to get it to match up. It would take some work to place a number there and get it right. I still might put in the effort but I’m cool with it without the number as well. I also liked the finger pointing toward the camera because Marco does make a definitive choice to be with Elliot from chapter one and that decision (while two years in the making for Marco) didn’t come easy nor were they ever aware of what a chain of events their coming together would cause in their small hamlet of a town.
But I digress. So back to my cover:
I had to marry the two images – but first I had to take the green tones out of the previous duo-tone image I had going before. This after my author buddy mentioned that “monochrome” covers tended NOT to sell – they get lost in the shuffle (which I supposed he was excluding black as a color in that arrangement, but having been a graphic artist in the DTP days of the 80’s/90’s, I knew better – it was duo-tone). Needless to say, since the blue in the jersey is quite strong I had to unplug the more teal elements from my previous angel incarnation.
So he went silver-blue:
So now the wings were set. I just needed to punch it up a bit and then put my footballer in it. I knew it was going to be one helluva visual break between my footballer (standing in for Marco in my story) and the angel wings in the background – but I was good with it. Those angel wings were symbolic for all of the angelic metaphors within their world (the football team, their namesakes, etc). So I was good with the break in texture. I think it fits. So now in PhotoShop, I had this:
The white was still too prominent but I wanted to see it with the title and my byline (I got all schoolgirl again and couldn’t wait it out) – I also toned down the bluish tint to the wings and made them more silver in appearance since those are the school colors. And I liked that the wings have a dream like quality to them. So now I had this:
But the white of the helmet was a bit too much – I needed to rough him up a bit – and beside that, the book goes dark in the end. Matthew Shepard dark – but with a twist. That action is what sets up Marco’s book (volume 2) which is told from his perspective.
My author buddy said to think long and hard (well not like that – head out of the gutter now, but you get my meaning) about how I was going to present my byline. I should be consistent with it. I happen to like Copperplate as a font. It can be both serif or sans serif because the actual serifs (the tiny ends on each letter that help to distinguish it from one letter to the next – those little flanges on a T or an A or even a W) are rather small and innocuous. So Copperplate Light it was. It went with the “of Mercy” in the title anyway. And thus, the title work was born and stands strong even now.
I was almost there.
All that white on the helmet and gloves was a bit too distracting. Say nothing that it I was missing an element that spoke of the darkness in my novel. So I needed to punch up the color a notch – something to get it noticed. As my author buddy said, you want it to gain attention when it’s on a grid of 100 other titles on Amazon’s site – that’s the goal. He’s right in that regard, even if sales are not the ultimate end game for me in this endeavor.
Angels came to me in a whirlwind. But it was more of an experiment in my mind that just germinated and took off like hell wouldn’t have it. But I needed to fold in that darker element that will carry the story forward.
Blood, that’s what was needed.
Not a lot, but enough that it’d leave pause for thought – “ooh, blood, that’s not normally on romance novels…” – that sort of thing. A M/M romance with blood on the cover would go against the grain. Mixed signals. Yeah, it’s what the story was calling for. Because the entire work is a series of mixed signals. It’s intended that way. From the first page you are in my protag’s head so you get to hear his random thoughts (even mid-stream in a conversation with someone), and he addresses you, the reader, from time to time. He knows you’re there with him. He talks directly to you. That’s intentional too. And gayboys are always bouncing around. We constantly have to keep rethinking our game. That game being just surviving in a world where you’re constantly reminded that you are not the same as the rest of the world. Your relationships are challenged, you have to keep coming out every single day of your life because everyone will try to assume you are one of them – part of the hetero-normative club. God, in sooooo many ways, I can’t tell you how happy I am not to be in that particular club. For me, being gay means I got lucky.
So yeah, blood was definitely called for here. The story gets quite bloody and quite deadly. But all is not lost – though by the end of the book you might well and truly think so. It’s one helluva ride. And you are having to put up with all of Elliot’s idiosyncrasies and mental ramblings. He is constantly stepping from one foot to another just to stay on top of things. When Marco enters his world it is turned upside down and things have never been so right. But it takes him off his game. Marco soothes and comforts, but he also stirs things in his wake – things he doesn’t want to admit, things that are conspiring to make them both pay for the love they feel for one another. And make no mistake, my boys feel it deeply, like a fever in their blood.
Yeah, it needed blood.
Thankfully, I have the entire Adobe suite on hand and have spent a fair amount of time taking special effects courses at the college so I know how to manipulate these kinds of things. So off to After Effects I went with a bevy of blood splattering movies and clips I’d amassed over the years. There had to be some blood I could use somewhere. There was.
Here’s the end result:
My Marco now has it smeared on the helmet (both top and the face guard) as well as on the glove carrying the ball. It’s subtle but strong statement that all is not well within the small confines of Mercy, California.
But our boys do get their Ever After Happily, I swear. But that’s a discussion for another time.
So, what do you think of the process and the evolution of it all – or did I just devolve the whole damned thing?