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Cover advice: Again

I think the issue here is that the image currently being used is a great image which has loads of book cover potential - but not for this book!

So I'm going to set out to show that you don't need to be attached to a single image. The way to arrive at a great cover with really striking imagery that also represents the book is to start by throwing a bunch of stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks.

To know what's worth throwing, one first have to have a clear sense of what the book in question book is, in the broad sense. Now this is actually a bit chicken-and-egg. What defines a book will to some extent be decided by what cover you put on it. But before I get into that, let's look at what the synopsis and title and tagline tells us are the major pillars of this text:

  1. Small college town setting, academic world

  2. Software development, digital, immersive gaming, VR

  3. Love story - rekindling former romance, searching for missing lover

  4. Second Chance - replaying past events?

Tangled up in questions of content are ideas of genre and audience. The author has described their book as 'a dark-academia-adjacent mystery novel' but a lot of the other choices and elements are signalling something else to me too.

I think the above ingredients add up to suggest one of two possible genre strains. Firstly:

So this is commerial literature which mixes high-concept ideas with a real-world, modern, distinct, everyday setting and characters. 'High-concept' doesn't have to mean a science fiction of fantasy device. Wikipedia's definition is a decent one, "a type of artistic work that can be easily pitched with a succinctly stated premise". Heck, the titles of most of these books pitch their high concepts.

This particular strain of modern popular fiction almost always centre on a romance which is a great anchor by which to explore a concept in a human-scale way.

I can't know for sure based on the synopsis, but it seems plausible that this genre is a good match for the text.

Then again - it might not be! As I say, all the elements are there to suggest the book might be that. But the same elements can add up differently.

There's another strain of popular fiction which uses the same ingredients - literary prose, strong storytelling, SF and/or fantasy elements, 'gimmicky' devices - but rather than centring on conventional human-scale drama is more interested in exploring philosophical questions and questions about humanity which are kept more in the abstract.

So the kind of post-modernist/surrealist stuff of Murakami, David Mitchel, sometimes Zadie Smith, Paul Auster etc.

So the two areas I have described are different but one reason I hesitate to call them actual genres is because there's no absolute line between these kinds of books.

For instance, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell makes for an interesting case study. It's a critically acclaimed, boundary-pushing novel founded on philosophical questioning - so very much in that second camp, you'd think. And its cover looks like this:

It's a bit of an aside but I think really worth noticing the differences between the UK and US market here. The UK put out this high-concept, doorstopper book which contains hard science fiction and some visceral violence all serving a post-modernist focus... in a shiny pink cover. Over the years the publisher has only leaned harder into that aesthetic. They obviously see Cloud Atlas as a book you can sell to the David Nicholl's mass-market crowd.

Meanwhile the US has only ever had one cover, and it signals 'high-end literary post-modernism'. Rather than seeking for imagery that packages this sprawling novel neatly into a simple image, it celebrates the disparate and wide-ranging nature of the narrative by using six images each with very distinct aesthetic style.

I go into this to make the point that there is no one true cover for a book and while authors can get very hung up on whether a book represents their book's soul, really it's about marketing. That doesn't mean misrepresenting a book, pretending it's something its not to get more customers. That doesn't work. All you end up with is disappointed readers who didn't like your book because they expected something else. Its about recognising that a cover is there to call to potential readers.

And markets vary and a single book can be defined very differently according to where it's released. In the UK there's a strong tradition of high-concept-ness in really commercial popular fiction, to the point a pretty post-modern writer like David Mitchell can be comfortably packed up in friendly pink imagery and it doesn't seem a misstep. Meanwhile in the US there's much less of a tradition of this in popular fiction.

So... what?

The point is that Again is going to fit a number of areas of fiction and marketing at once, and exactly where one chooses to pitch it via its cover is a matter of judgment and choice.

And the way to decide what angle to take is to give yourself options to choose from. Rather than pick a single idea or image and pursue that, try out a bunch of different images representing different parts of the book and then you can pick from that range which you think best communicates about the book.

So I'll work through this initial process.

Let's just remember what I said the four big elements of Again are according to the synopsis...

  1. Small college town setting, academic world

  2. Software development, digital, immersive gaming, VR

  3. Love story - rekindling former romance, searching for missing lover

  4. Second Chance - replaying past events?

... and start pulling together elements that sum up each point and putting them together to see what we get.

My image-finding is as simple as putting different search terms into a stock site (and also Google Images, making sure to ask only for images with 'Creative Commons' licencing to be shown). In this case things like 'college town', 'digital love' 'VR' digital texture' 'mansion' and so on.

First up, the most basic idea: find a photo that represents the setting and does so in an atmospheric way. Then use modern or even computery fonts to contrast that with the VR/development vibe:

The pinkish tones suggest a romantic vibe though in this example that element isn't stated very strongly. The low framing of the mansion with a moody sky bring in a bit of thriller tension.

But altogether, not a great cover. All the parts are there but not in a way which speak to one another and build something cohesive. One can't make any guesses about what kind of book I'm looking at glancing at this.

Hokey dokes, let's try leading the imagery instead with the high-concept, science fiction, digital, cutting-edge software vibe:

Much better. A couple of these actually look like book covers - and of books I'd be interested enough to click on if I were browsing a book buying site.

The one far left has a lot of similarities in approach in a cover I referenced before in my comment on - that for Alex Michaelides The Maidens. I.e. it takes an image of a classical bust and then disrupts that image with design choices that introduce notes of mystery and unsettlingness. In particular the jaggedness and red around the neck suggest violence and murder. And I've 'blinded' the figure by placing the title over the eyes, just as the designer of The Maidens did. This is always a good way for making a figure appear unsettlingly mysterious and unknown, putting a block between viewer and subject because we can't connect with their eyes and it makes their expression more ambiguous. As the male lead in this book is (it seems) an object of both mystery and some suspicion this is appropriate imagery.

Staying with that left-hand option, in contrast to the first set of roughs, with this attempt the elements feel like they hang together to create a cohesive idea of the book we're looking at.

When you read the tagline 'What will you do for a second chance?' you don't know exactly how that question and this image connect but you can make the link between the question and the imagery to guess this is a book which explores some techno concept that specifically speaks to the idea posed there.

Meanwhile the sculpted look of the bust connects back to something old, something classical, something academic.

So this is an option where various notes are hinted at but there's a strong through-line that makes this cover led by a particular idea. That's what we're after.

The middle option of the three is also quite strong. This one leans larder into that 'high-concept romance' territory by using imagery that clearly and unmistakably evokes themes of love and human connection.

The elements all connect up very neatly here. To look at this cover, to see its imagery, read its title and tagline, is to infer a specific vibe: this is a book in which a protagonist with regrets about the past that have to do with love is enabled by some science fictiony means to in some way address or revisit that. Other signals (palette, title, typeface, 'a mystery') signal specifically that this isn't science fiction by genre but 'mainstream'/commercial/literary fiction. That's a very neat package. But neatness can be good and bad. I've described a very particular book suggested by this cover, and if this is that book - then great! If not, this cover focuses us too much on a misleadingly singular angle.

Finally the right-hand option is no good, I include it to show that any direction produces both promising ideas and duds. A lot of cover design is having broad ideas of what might work and throwing a lot of version of that at the wall to see what sticks.

Now this approach to sourcing imagery has throw up a couple of potential ideas but that doesn't mean they're the only possibilities or we're found our approach.

So let's move on with our ideas-testing and try out something of a comination of the two appraoches tried thus far: a cover which combines an image of real-world setting with some SF/digital touches and so signals both sides of the coin:

Again, this has thrown up a possibility. That first image on the left has potential. For whatever reason this kind of pointillism-esque patterning has come to immediately signal classy post-modernism on covers for the last ten years:

So even though my sketch is extremely rough and the photo of the town not very carefully chosen for atmosphere at this stage, one immediately gets a strong vibe from the rough, and one that seems apt for the synopsis. The other two attempts aren't keepers, but we've got enough for proof-of-concept for this approach. Some combo of traditional setting-depiction and more abstract and digital patternning could be a goer.

Lastly, the final angle I've tried is based on an unusual illustration I came across while searching stock.

Usually as a designer who is relying on existing imagery in a project, one expects to have to juxtapose and crop and edit various images to build something that fits a particular vibe. But sometimes you happen across an unexpected kind of illustration or image that seems to embody a lot about what you're looking for in an unexpected but immediate way.

I found a surrealist illustration of a woman lying across a town, the elements disproportionate to each other. I never would have thought to search for imagery like this, but happening across it, it does seem to have potential to speak to the novel in hand.

The surrealist imagery conveys strongly a key point of intrigue and tension about the book. The tension between the mood of the pretty, calm town and the strange mood of the woman, heightened into intrigue and weirdness and mystery by the playing with scale.

Of these I prefer the crop which just shows the legs. I think it emphasises the intriguing surrealism and reads better. It makes the image more ambiguous if we can't see the face - do these legs belong to a woman who is sleeping, lounging, dead?

(Cutting out the face makes the figure somewhat more universal but of course she is still clearly a white, slim, youthful woman. If the hero of Again is not all of these things, this image won't work.)

There's also something quite nice in how the title treatment sits there. The computery font makes for a nice contrast with the watercoloury illustration. The look isn't a very traditional approach to covers from commercial fiction, whether literary fiction or thriller. But it does reflect some stuff from Japanese fiction. That might be too envelope-pushing outside of traditional publishing and the marketing budgets attached. Again, a book cover has to encourage browsers to recognise where the books sits and this might be a bit too stylistically esoteric to do that. But it's certainly worth keeping in contention for now.

I think this image works best with the tagline left off altogether. It's too cluttered with it there. both visually and conceptually. There's so much going on with the image you don't want to add more ideas in. But I think it's a particularly useful focusing device to include 'a mystery' here. That centres all of this strangeness of imagery and unusualness of style on a very simple core idea of 'what' this book is.

So from these various approaches, we're left with four ideas that have potential as great books covers:

If I were working this cover through to completion I wouldn't be quite narrowing down to one definite direction yet. I'd probably still be trying out more ideas.

And then I'd be picking out the best and taking several forward. Of the possibilities I've generated here, I've picked out thee four favourites as the ones I'd try developing further.

So where we've got to is a place where we're looking at four covers with distinct vibes and in each case a slightly different audience is going to respond. And that gives the author the ability to pick hat particular face of their book they want to show to the world.


I've mostly talked about imagery here but of course I've been making typographic decisions as I've gone along too.

In my Covercritics comment I mentioned that this title, Again, is one that in itself doesn't communicate anything strongly in itself. I've mentioned further here how other elements can be used to push a particular meaning of the title. I.e. when the tagline 'What will you do for a second chance?' is present, the title clearly relates to that question. This is a book about revisiting past regrets 'again' in some way.

In some of my covers (the two on the left in the above line-up) that idea is further backed up by the imagery which emphasise further the high-concept and romance angles to create a very cohesive idea. Others (the two to the right) leave the title more opaque and embrace the mysteriousness more.

Again, neither appraoch is more correct, it just depends which of those angles is more appropriate for this book. Is it a focused single-concept-led novel or a more weird and nebulous beast?

In all my type treatments I've gone for either all-caps or more frequently all-lower-case. I tend to think this helps give a single-common-world title like this weight, almost makes it the book's brand.

I've always used sans-serif fonts because I think anything serif is going to immediately pull too hard in the old-fashioned, historical or conventional direction for a book like this.

I've tried some 'computery' fonts in some places. The thing with these is that they always connote a retro computeriness. Such fonts are inspired by dot matrix printing or 80s screen fonts. So I've used carefully. I think a slighty retro computery font works on the legs cover because the look is otherwise so modern and it fits an overall quirkiness. It's just something to be aware of.

Another trick I've tried in one or two places is picking up on the meaning of the word 'again' and the idea of repetition or echoing, with the type treatment. I think that's quite cute but again it's only going to work in some contexts. In others it will be one piece of visual and conceptual clutter too many.

Further development

I won't go too much further as I think the important part of the process to talk about here is the conceptualising, possibility-generating stage. But I'll finish up by showing my favourite of the selection worked upon a little further.

With the 'digital bust' concept I felt it had all the strengths I've already talked about but there are weaker aspects too. In its first form it looked rather masculine and hard. I've worked on colour and tonal values and developed the use of fonts to get to something more accurate to the book's description.

Hopefully what I've demonstrated is how you can trust the process to turn up really striking and appropriate images that will result in more than one possible avenue for a great book cover.


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