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You shouldn't choose a book by its cover...

I’ve had a lot of very positive comments about the artwork for The Cry of the Lake which was designed in-house by darkstroke. I love my cover and, though some might say it was a little tragic, have even turned it into a phone case. But the initial idea I had for the cover was very different to the end product, not least, because the original title was The Forget-me-not Crown. There was also a last-minute change of colour scheme. So, I wanted to speak to the designer about what he thinks makes an eye-catching cover and how he goes about fulfilling a brief which keeps both the author and publisher happy.

How long have you been the art designer for Crooked Cat/darkstroke and roughly how many covers do you think you have produced over the years?

I’ve been working with darkstroke since it started as an imprint, in January 2019. Before that I worked with Crooked Cat, the main branch of the company, and had done since September 2011. I’ve contributed, to a greater or lesser extent, to the design of 701 covers over this time.

I know from personal experience that darkstroke give their authors a strong input into their cover design whereas a lot of my published friends are given theirs as a fait accompli.  Why are you so proactive when it must make a lot of extra work? 

In the long run, working collaboratively, and in a guided way with authors, is a good thing. They know their story better than anyone, and they know the tone of the story. Since our authors are at the heart of the marketing of their story, it makes sense to us for them to have a hand in the design. 

Can you give a brief description of how you take your ideas and turn them into a physical cover. 

I would tend to start by pooling for ideas. I may ask an author what they think their story is about, and what their audience might be for it - young, old, male, female, British, North American, and so on. This offers scope for the design - the sort of vibes that it gives off! I sometimes ask the author to check out books on their bookshelves, or in Amazon to search for a story that they really admire. This can help us to narrow things down even further.

Since it is the first thing that people see, we consider the front of the book to begin with. There’s a specific size that we need to design for, and certain rules of design that we tend to keep in the backs of our minds.

My tools of the trade are Photoshop and Illustrator. We acquire the licence for, or create from scratch, the various visual elements of the design, and bring them together carefully. A design is built on layers, the same is true for the work of a sculptor or a painter. There may be ten or more full attempts to get it right before the author and we are happy with that front cover.

I then move to design the full wraparound paperback design.

What do you think makes a good cover?  Are there any tricks of the trade you would be willing to share here?

A bad cover design tries to tell the story of the book, a good one offers the tone of the story. A bad cover might contain unintentional design flaws - text that is difficult to read, colours that clash, visual elements that seem to clutter the space, are poorly devised or considered. A good cover might appear too simple, with contrasting colours and with sufficient factual visual information for the casual bookstore browser to stop and look.

It’s all about giving the reader enough of a visual cue to choose to read the story within. Text is the most important thing on a cover, the images or illustrations are the least important.

Is there a cover that you are so proud of, you have framed it and put it up on your wall?  If so, what makes it so special?

I particularly like the original illustrations that Crooked Cat and darkstroke have used over the years, from Tom Gillespie’s 2013 story, Painting by Numbers, and Amy Elliott Smith’s A Guide to Becoming Distinctly Average, to Maggie Reid’s 2014 book, The Quiet Life of Marta G. Ziegler, and finally the adapted illustrations that were used in more recent years - Joy Norstrom’s Out of Play, Deirdre Palmer’s Dirty Weekend, and Emma Mooney’s Wings to Fly. 2020’s The Cry of the Lake is a continuation of that trend and, for me, it is one of our strongest recent cover designs. All examples don’t, indeed, try to tell the story in the design. Their design offers the viewer a sense of what the story is.

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