Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Evolution of THE DARWIN ELEVATOR's North American cover

Since I'm often asked about the covers for my books, I thought I'd give you all an in-depth peek into the cover design process.

While it varies from publisher to publisher, authors are not always involved in the cover design process.  The normal experience is to be shown a “final” cover, upon which feedback is given and generally ignored.  I was warned of this by my agent early on, but luckily my experience did not go this way!
In this spirit, my editor has also provided some commentary for this post, which I'll include in grey and indented, like so:

Mike: Hi everyone!  Creating covers for our books is one of the toughest things we do at Del Rey.
Basically, our job is to create a package for a product that is intriguing, informative, and iconic.  We want potential readers to see the cover and be inspired to investigate more.  In addition, we want to convey some of the cool things that a reader will find between the covers.  Lastly, it has to stand out amongst other covers on the shelf (or online).
To accomplish this, we have to keep lots of things in mind: Who is the target audience and what would they like to see?  What have similar successful books done to visually attract readers?  How can we stand out?  What do we think are going to be the visual trends when the book comes out?  How can we appeal to the broadest possible audience? We’re lucky in that we have a great design team and lots of input from various departments such as editorial, marketing, sales, and publicity, so we can tackle these questions and more over the course of the cover design process.
I’m excited to share some of this process with you here, thanks for doing this, Jason!

So here’s a little history of TDE’s cover, start to finish.  Actually this will go back even further than that!

Many moons ago, in 2009 when I was working on the book as a rank amateur, I decided it would be a good idea to commission a painting I could use on my website, on business cards, and so on.  I reached out to my friends in the video game industry, asking if they had any concept artists at their studios who did freelance work.  This eventually led me to Kelli Davis, a very talented young artist working (at the time at least) at Supervillain Studios in Irvine, CA.

Kelli agreed to do a rough painting for me, and here was what I asked her for:

As I've envisioned it, the focus of the cover is the space elevator itself, as seen from near the base of it looking up.  I'd love to see the hints of tall, rundown buildings at the sides, and if possible a man looking up.
I also included this sketch:

It's interesting for me to go back and look at this now, because it's actually not that different from the final cover! But we'll get to that...

Kelli took this and sent me back a few rough sketches of her own, asking which I liked:

The curve in the middle one had a dramatic appeal to me, so I asked her to go with that and here was the final result:

This was really excellent, and exactly what I was hoping for.  I think the only criticism I had was the buildings were a bit too old-fashioned for futuristic Darwin.  Between that and the color scheme more than a few people got a "steampunk" feel from this, but at the time I was fine with it and happily paid her for the piece.

Now, fast forward a few years.  I've got a book contract with Del Rey and finally, months later, I get the email starting the discussion about covers.  I'd been told many times before this that authors rarely get any say in their cover art, so being included in the conversation at all made me very happy.

Mike, my editor suggested one of two paths (quoting the email verbatim here):
  • We could go for the sci-fi classic: figure with slightly futuristic garb/weapon in front of a slightly futuristic backdrop (with the Elevator, of course), a la John Scalzi, Jack Campbell, and Anne Aguirr
  • We could go highly stylized: I was thinking about the pictographs aboard the Builders’ first ship

The idea to do something abstract was soon discarded, so the focus became a "character cover".

I was, to be honest, a little miffed that all other paths were apparently already closed.  I replied with some thoughts on both of the above, and then pretty strongly indicated my preference for a "landscape cover", ala those done by Stephan Martiniere.  It's worth noting I grew up with the ambition to do 3D graphics and animation for a living, and idolized artist like Syd Mead and Ralph McQuarrie.

Mike: We’re tasked with creating a cover that conveys the right information to the biggest potential audience so that a customer browsing the shelf (or online) goes, “Ooh!  That looks cool!  What’s that?” and then goes to investigate further.
When the Del Rey team was thinking about Jason’s covers, we wanted to convey several things.  First, they had to be clearly sci-fi since that was the primary reader for this book.  Beyond that we wanted to tell people that Jason’s books are about A) characters you actually care about and B) breathtaking action.  We felt that a “character” cover with the right sci-fi elements would be the best way to communicate this to potential readers.
With regard to the “landscape cover”, we had briefly considered that too, but were put off by the fact that those types of covers can look static and monolithic and didn’t always inform about all of the great stuff inside.  Some sci-fi readers go nuts for images of huge ships or colossal sci-fi landscapes, but they can also be a turn off for non SF readers.  This was definitely on our mind as we felt that TDE had something to offer readers who didn’t regularly read sci-fi as well as those who have lots of experience in the genre.

Mike and I both exchanged examples of what we were thinking.  So here they are side-by-side:

Jason's idea              vs.               Mike's idea
Keep in mind, my point of view was coming purely from what appealed to me, while Mike was thinking (as he rightly should) only about what would be the best cover to help Darwin fly off bookstore shelves.

My main concern with a character-focused cover was that they often look cheesy.  The cover above for EMBEDDED was not cheesy at all, so I was happy about that.  My comment back to Mike was that I'd seen the book before and had no idea it was Sci-Fi. From afar I'd assumed it was a military book and had never picked it up.  I suggested if they go that route they at least try to get a sci-fi looking backdrop.  And, I subtly urged him to try and find an artist who painted people well.

Mike: I absolutely loved EMBEDDED and I really dug the cover. For me, seeing it made me want to know who this dude was, what was going on, and what shot down that craft in the background.  I knew we could do something cool in a similar vein, but tailored to Jason’s books in a way that emphasized the series’ strengths, and did so with more color and oomf.

Fast forward a few months.  In Mike's next email, he shared with me the three artists they were considering.  I'm not sure if I can say who they all were, but suffice to say I looked at samples from each and they were all amazing.  As someone who doesn't generally care for "character covers", I don't say this lightly.  As far as I could tell, Del Rey was looking at the top three artists out there.

In the end they selected Christian McGrath, and I felt very confident then that the artwork would be of the highest quality.  If Chris is anything he's amazingly consistent.  Just glance at his portfolio and you'll see what I mean.  Every one of his covers is well composed and none, in my view, could ever be called cheesy.

Some of Christian McGrath's covers

Despite being with one of the top publishers in the business, I think this news marked the first time I really felt like I'd joined the big leagues.

Mike: We’ve all been big fans of Christian’s work for years at this point, especially the covers he’s done for Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden books.  I love that his figures are dark and purposeful, gritty and tough, but also appealing.  I look at the images above and wonder, “Who’s ass is she going to kick and can I read about it?”  We knew he was our guy and were very happy that Jason agreed!

Fast forward again, as Christian went off and started to do his thing.  Another month passed before Mike sent me this little preview: a few very rough sketches from Christian as he attempted to find the right pose, mood, and composition.

Here's the sketches Christian provided.  Remember these are extremely rough:

Mike: This first round of sketches is used to give us the opportunity to decide on the direction of the overall composition.  How much would it suck for an artist to create a cover image, only to have the publisher say, “That’s cool, but can you change his pose?”  Nope, the sketch is the time to have that discussion.

We chatted a bit about the merits of these, and Mike also worked internally with his graphic design people.  Eventually feedback was given to Christian, and he came back a month or so later with this gorgeous work:

This painting really pleases me. I love how it captures both the character and the Sci-Fi aspect. My only feedback was that the climbers looked too much like those oversized ski-lift passenger cars.  I sent a sketch of what I envisioned the climbers looking like, and Christian revised them before the final version.

Mike also felt something needed to be done about Skyler's hair.

Mike: I can’t tell you how much I love this image.  Love, love, love.  Skyler looks like a consummate badass, and Darwin and the Elevator are so freakin’ cool in the background.  And the color palate?  Brilliant.  Christian McGrath is amazing.  That said, the hair was a little poofy for my tastes (but this is coming from a guy who keeps his head shaved; I acknowledge my bias).  Now that we had an arresting cover image, it was time to start tinkering…

Next up was the layout and typography.  There were many iterations, a handful shown here in chronological order, and I'll only add a few comments between because I think the evolution of it speaks for itself:

(Del Rey decided to change the angle so Skyler wasn't leaning, and crop in a bit. Personally I prefer the full painting)

Mike: As Jason mentioned, we wanted to zoom in on Skyler, again trying to focus on action and character above other elements.  Unfortunately, to get Skyler to the right size and orientation, we had to crop some of the city.  This bummed out the sci-fi nerd in me, honestly, but there are methods to our madness. 
We also wanted to try some other treatments to the background as a means of highlighting the figure even more.  Often this is done by shadowing the background, but we tried the opposite and instead lightened the background.  With those options side by side, the lighter one was the clear winner. 
Then it came time for text!  We tried dozens of different typefaces, layouts, and colors, many of which were so off that we didn’t even bother sending them on to Jason for consideration.  In the end, we liked the big, vintage-looking action font and decided that red/orange would pop against the blue-hued background.

And there we reach essentially the final version on the right. 

All in all it was an interesting process and I'm happy with the result, especially the way the whole series looks together!  If I haven't before, I'd like to publicly thank Michael Braff and Dave Stevenson at Del Rey for including me in the process and listening to my feedback, and Christian McGrath for his extraordinary talent and professionalism. 

Mike: I’d like to echo the thanks for Dave and Christian, but also to thank Jason for his input and notes.  But more than that, I’m grateful for his patience and trust.  The cover design process is not an exact science and there is a somewhat complex system of thought behind the decisions that publishers make.  In the end I’m ecstatic with the final covers and so glad that Jason is on board with them: to me they tell about a great character embroiled in an epic struggle, all set in a unique and realistic setting.  Hopefully you agree but, even if you don’t, hopefully the cover was cool enough to make you look further into Jason’s fantastic series.  Thanks for reading!


Anonymous said...

This is absolutely fascinating! Thanks for sharing.

randy scope said...

unrelated, but i just wanted to tell you how much i am enjoying your books. i've never read much sci-fi or fantasy apart from LOTR, but your work has really pulled me in. when i was much younger i read this series of books called The Warlord (i'd love to find those, but i think they're long gone), and I vividly recall the thrill they produced in my imagination, how the story just kept me on the hook and obsessed. i'm experiencing that again with these books and very much enjoying the sensation and escape. so, thanks for that. i remember reading an article in popular science several years ago about nano-tech and the possibility of a space cord that would be about as thick as cassette tape. i wonder if you saw the same piece. cheers, randy

Jason M. Hough said...

Thanks Randy! I don't recall that specific piece, but over the years I've heard various specifications for the size the cord should be. They're generally shockingly small considering the overall length, so in the books I just tried to describe it from that layman's perspective rather than getting into specifics.

Seahorse Ranch Girl said...

Such a process for the cover. That city scape painting would have been cool. Let me just say that I like the cover. That young man IS Skyler. I ordered the next 2 books in the series as soon as I finished "Darwin". I do wish there was a hardcover option, or the larger size softcover. A fantastic story from start to finish. I am a 65 year old who reads a lot but rarely science fiction. Just say'n you appeal to a diverse audience. I heard about "Darwin" in a magazine review. Maybe Elle, or Vogue, or The Week.