I mentioned in a post yesterday that some book covers require several attempts before the design is right. One of the benefits of self-publishing is that you have complete control over your book cover, where it is sold, and the ability to change that cover if you so desire. With ebooks and print-on-demand publishing, there are stockpiles of unsold copies to contend with, so there’s no real reason not to change something immediately if you need to. In some cases, you can even have Amazon update copies of your books after they’re sold.
That said, some self-publishing platforms are more formal than others, and people who pay money to buy your book on Amazon expect professional quality. While we should always strive for that level of finished quality, there’s definitely a place, and a market, for a more transparent writing process.
If you’re reading this, chances are you’re aware that I’m currently publishing a new novel serially on Wattpad. It’s called The Doktor’s Spyglass, and it’s (hopefully) an entertaining mixture of epic fantasy, steampunk, and detective noir. I’ve often referred to it as Locke Lamora meets Sherlock Holmes. (You can judge for yourself whether I’m making good on these promises by reading it, for free, at Wattpad.com. All you have to do to read anything on the site is create a login.)
Wattpad’s a fun venue for a number of reasons, but it excels as a proving ground. Things are a little more informal, and reader interaction on each new section or chapter is an important part of the experience. Whether you’re there solely to use it as a tried and true platform to publish your story episodically or are looking for beta readers to give you feedback on your writing, Wattpad is a good place to be.
While you absolutely still need a head-turning cover to do well on Wattpad, the informality and iterative nature of the website mean that it’s far more acceptable to experiment. Which is why I didn’t hesitate to test a few different covers for The Doktor’s Spyglass. Rather than keep the process a secret, I decided to try different covers as inspiration struck and see what, if any, response the got from readers.
The first version of the cover was deliberately minimalist. The novel is a detective story at heart, and I wanted readers to think of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett when they looked at the cover.
The design deliberately borrows from the stylish, serviceable covers of classic noir paperbacks. The artwork is monotone and merely hints at what the story might be about. The text is the real focus of this cover. Since the novel features a steampunk-like setting, I chose a Victorian typeface for the titles. I thought the opposing justification of the title and my name gave it an informal touch, the kind of thing that says, “pulp.”
The top margin is deliberately larger than the bottom, to prevent the title from obscuring the burning tower at the top of the illustration.
The image itself is composed of a couple of heavily modified licensed stock images. The amber color scheme, as you’ll see, is the one thing that runs through all versions of the cover. The orange hue of amber has a specific connection to the story.
The Doktor’s Spyglass is still only starting to attract readers, but I was never certain that this was the right direction to go with the cover, particularly on Wattpad. After the story had been running for a few weeks, I decided it was time to revisit the cover.
It occurred to me that the cover I had was possibly too dull or “literary,” for lack of a better term, for the book’s intended audience. It looks a little like a paperback you’d pick up on one of those “Summer Reading List” tables at Barnes & Noble. At the end of the day, I write to entertain, not to craft literary scripture.
I wanted the second version of the cover to make the book look like something you want to read, the type of eye-catching cover you’d see on an end-cap and just have to pick up.
As you can see, this one’s a bit more engaging. The layout is centered, and the addition of Captain Steampunk Goggles Man and the unmistakable silhouette of a 1940s-ish detective definitely make clear that this is genre fiction. Overall, it looks a lot more like a science fiction or fantasy novel, and a lot less like Penguin Classic.
I kept the font and the underlying background image, because I thought they still captured the essence of the setting. The city of Oridos is an ancient city that has seen better days. In the distant past it was the site of famous battles and fantastical ordeals, but these days it’s a foggy, gaslit mess that belches toxins into the atmosphere and keeps the rich and the poor nice and separated. I always meant The Doktor’s Spyglass to be one of those stories where the setting, the city, was almost as much of a character as the characters themselves, and I felt it was important to give some sense of that on the cover. I liked the bleak look of this painting.
I did see a noticeable uptick in reads after changing the cover. I have no way of knowing if that was directly related to the cover image or not, but given that Wattpad uses your book cover to represent your book all over the website, without any immediate synopsis or other information, I think it’s safe to say it had something to do with it.
That being said, there were some things that bugged me about this cover. I always felt like I left it a little unfinished; that it was a bit amateur. Captain Steampunk struck me as being a bit too on the nose, and the silhouette of Irik Thijis, the main character, never looked exactly right. There was too much contrast; it looks pasted onto the background (which it is), not like it’s a part of it. The original idea was to make it look like Thijis was cut out of the city itself, like he was as much a mystery as anything else, but I don’t think I accomplished that.
So the other night I gave it another shot, using some of the same elements but starting from scratch with most of it. Version 3.0 is the best yet, and the only one I’ve yet felt completely happy with.
Version 2.0 had obscured the burning tower part of the background image, which I didn’t like. Thinking back, I realized that of the original background, that eerily burning citadel is the only thing that really stands out as being fantasy in any way, and it also evoked the feel of the book more than any other part of the cover. Like any good noir story, The Doktor’s Spyglass features its fair share of tragedy, destruction, and death, and the burning tower represents that in a dramatic way.
The only parts of the original cover that remain are the tower and the silhouette of Thijis, which has been fleshed out and detailed a bit to help it blend into its surroundings. The ragged edge to his coat also indicates that he’s been through some shit. The object in his hand is, I think, more clearly a gun (if perhaps a slightly alien silhouette–this is a fantasy realm, after all. They don’t have Glocks).
A significant portion of the book takes place underground, in the Oridosi Undercity, and it occurred to me that the cover ought to convey that somehow. I liked the chthonic feeling the surrounding arches gave the scene, and they certainly convey “fantasy” to the reader. Another new element is the amber sea and the spots of abstract light at the bottom of the image, which look like they’re flooding the chamber. This is a direct reference to the main magical element of the novel, a magical plane called the Phiros, which is often described as an “amber sea.”
Finally, I chose a new font. While still clearly Victorian, its dramatic design, particularly when coupled with the amber stone pattern overlay and a little embossing, definitely has a more “fantasy” feel to it.
Every cover I design is a learning process, just as every day I spend writing is. I’m happy with what I’ve done with the latest version of this cover, but who knows how I’ll feel a month from now? The great thing about a service like Wattpad and the people that use it is that they’re all about trying new things.
Let me know what you think about any or all of these covers in the comments. Which one do you like the best? Or do they all suck?