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Brilliant Deduction cover, part two

2013 January 29

I spent a lot of time and effort on the cover for my book before arriving at this:

Front cover for Brilliant Deduction: The Story of Real-Life Great Detectives

Oh, child, a lot of time and effort.

The cover was a hugely important milestone in the whole project of publishing this book, because so many other tasks were “path dependent” on it. I didn’t want to do much in the way of interior page design, or really get into creating the companion web site, before I had a visual look established with the cover. So I had considerable motivation to get the cover design done, rather than string it out… yet string it out I did because I just could not decide what to do with it.

I come up from a concept-centric design tradition, so I looked in that direction first, but the possibilities seemed fairly limited. There aren’t many visuals that say “detective” that don’t also scream “cliché.” I might have helped my sales by featuring a man in deerstalker hat with smoke-trailing pipe, for example, but then I might also have helped my sales by putting the words “Sherlock Holmes” on the cover, or at least in the title; I determined not to go there, though.

I wasn’t rigidly set against “going with the flow” in terms of visual iconography. I actually came up with one design involving magnifying glasses that seemed just playful enough that I could feel comfortable about it, and for a while I was fairly certain that design would end up winning out…

As is now plain, it didn’t. I did something like 18 thumbnail sketches, and then prepared several developed cover options in InDesign (plus multiple variants of some). Of those developed cover designs, aside from the magnifying glass concept (which proved one of those ideas that just doesn’t translate from sketch to finished art), all are roughly similar in general approach, and in the end it seems like all of my brainteasing and fretting were almost beside the point: certain parameters arguably made the outcome inevitable, in broad outline.

The one idea I felt strongly about, throughout, was including photographs on the cover. My book is about real-life detectives, and showing images of real people just seemed an essential part of any appropriate design. All of the covers I actually developed do this. And from that intent, I was quickly limited to a handful of images; there aren’t a lot of photos of most of my subjects and even fewer that I could use on the cover without rights issues (figuring out which exact images I would have available was another reason why I was so slow to really get going with the cover design, in fact). Meanwhile, all of them are black and white photos (or illustrations, as Vidocq was afaik never photographed). And, because part of what sets my book apart from the few other works in this area is considering famous real-life detectives as a phenomenon rather than as individuals, I wanted to include multiple portraits, at least three or four.

Many of the cover designs I work on professionally begin with a similar number of “givens,” of course, and still permit a range of potential visuals. And I suppose the several designs I fleshed out include some variety of approach, but most were going in a similar general direction, and the few which strayed didn’t stray that far. Nearly all of the colors are either neutrals, or natural warm colors; green or purple or other fun-fair colors just didn’t seem to have much of a fit with my book about suited 19th-century urban professionals, even if most of them did have “colorful” exploits to their credit.

Finally I arrived at four designs which seemed like plausible options, and sought out opinions from a few friends and fellow design/publishing professionals. I leaned strongly toward two of the four, and one of the others was really just a “ringer” that I included “just in case” my own judgment was way off, but all three besides the ringer ended up receiving similar degrees of favor. So much for getting other people to spare me a difficult decision…

In truth, had I really been determined to pick out a “committee favorite” from the responses I got, it would have been the other of the two covers I favored. I liked that design, and at some point I will probably share it and some of the other process work; I may even extend the runner-up cover into a complete alternate dust jacket as a bonus item. For now, though, I’ll keep all other designs private for branding reasons.

In settling on the design you see above, I think that I had a combination of instinct and practical considerations in mind. The other cover was cool but didn’t seem quite entirely “resolved,” particularly in one area. The above cover seemed more complete, as well as more legible with its relatively straightforward typography, and more serious. As much as the other cover is a visual grabber, I couldn’t help picturing it on and feeling like it would look just a little too wacky—particularly given that this is a self-published book. If you have Random House or Penguin behind you, perhaps you have a bit more freedom to flout convention; in my position I felt like working hard to embrace convention, at least in terms of the “feel” of the cover design. The cover above felt like it did that. When I finally made my decision, it felt like the right one: it included what I needed it to, it had an appropriate style, and seemed to balance liveliness with authority.

The specifics of the cover are, mostly, simple enough. I have an early sketch that must have inspired it, as all the main elements are basically there; I worked out the ornamented portrait frames in InDesign, along with the border and corner decoration (though had I known what a f***ing pain those borders would be, between’s trimming imprecision and their outright measurement errors, I might have done something else). I set my cover text in a lot of typefaces before I started designing, to explore type possibilities, but ended up using a similar mixture of Bodoni variants on three of seven designs; I think it just has the right 19th century feel. As noted, I didn’t really have that many images to work with, and just kind of slotted four of them in as you see in the finished version; that combination, too, just seemed to work comfortably from the outset and I don’t think I ever did much second-guessing of it.

The only real headache (prior to the production issues) with this cover design was color. This design actually began with a black leather texture image I grabbed from a stock site, believe it or not. As with the other cover I dropped, though, it seemed kind of half-resolved, plus upon deleting the image and exposing the off-white background behind, the whole thing suddenly “popped” in a new and surprising way. I still wasn’t decided; I went back and forth between something like the above and a plain dark-background version, and both seemed to have their strengths. Even now, I look at the other one and think “boy, that packed a real punch.” In the end, what decided things in the brighter version was that the text and images weren’t fighting for attention with the background, plus I felt like that version would jump out more on screen against a white background, i.e. at most online catalog sites. That’s the reality of book cover design these days, as far as I’m concerned: it’s first and foremost a marketing image which also happens to go on the front of the product. I felt like this one would achieve that purpose, best.

I also think it looks pretty spiffy as a book cover, though.

3 Responses
  1. February 11, 2013

    It’s a terrific cover and you should be proud of it. I only wish you’d shown the names of your great detectives; they’re photographs are unfamiliar to me even if their names are not.

    I also really enjoyed your earlier musings on getting the rights to these ancient photos. It was so interesting! I incorrectly assumed that ancient photos would be well 0ut of copyright. You may have just saved me a legal fee.

    Best of luck!

  2. February 11, 2013

    Crap, used the wrong form of “their”.

  3. February 12, 2013

    Thanks Anne. Appreciate the comments!

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