Thursday, February 2, 2012

The All-Important Cover

Elizabeth Zelvin

The cover of my new mystery, Death Will Extend Your Vacation, due out in April, is a collaboration between me and my publisher’s book designer.
When the book was accepted for publication, I was about to set off for Malice Domestic, which is one of the best places for an author of traditional mysteries to hand out bookmarks. Since it would be months until my manuscript reached the cover design stage, I did my own provisional cover and slapped it on a thousand bookmarks. Later, when I found this publisher invited authors to submit a possible image, I sent it along and was pleased when they used it. Not being a professional graphic designer, I never would have thought of using the fonts and colors of the text that they added to my photograph. Appropriately, it gives the impression of an old-fashioned postcard that you might buy at some beach boardwalk.

I’ve been creating images to represent my books and stories since the first time I needed a provisional bookmark. They’ve also come in handy to circulate an anthologized story in standalone chapbook form. I’ve given out hundreds at library conventions (ALA and PLA) and many more at fan conventions where I’ve had a story nominated for an award. When the advent of e-books created an ongoing need for covers supplied by the author, I already had a running head start.

Let’s talk about that severed hand on the cover of Death Will Extend Your Vacation. (You did notice it, I hope.) This is not the hand’s first starring role.
When I needed a cover for my short story, “Death Will Trim Your Tree,” I had a bright idea that sent me to my desktop to google “bloody hand.” You can buy anything on the Internet. I would have been happy with a whole arm, but I chose this severed hand because it looked realistic and the price was right. (The severed end is kind of disgusting, but I omit it from my photos. However, if I ever take to writing horror....)
It also works with my newest story, “Death Will Tank Your Fish.” I couldn’t work it into “Death Will Tie Your Kangaroo Down,” but for that I googled “kangaroo on couch” and found the perfect photo on the website of an animal refuge center in Australia, from which I received emailed permission to use it within an hour or two.

When I first started sending out my work and hobnobbing with published writers, I heard a lot about how important a good cover was to sales of a book and therefore to an author’s career. I also heard about publishers who changed book titles and provided hideous covers over the author’s dead bodies. The most memorable of these was a woman whose publisher threw a Halloween reference into the title—no Halloween in the book—and smacked a grinning orange pumpkin on the front, to the author’s horror when she saw the book in print. I heard a senior editor at the same publisher’s describe their cozy line as books of which “you can put a puppy or kitten on the cover, even if there are no puppies or kittens in the book.”

I was lucky to have my first publisher assign its top art director to my first two books.
David Rotstein (look at the back flap of any hardcover from Minotaur and you’ll probably see his name) had resources I don’t, as I learned when he told me he achieved the effect of a whiskey glass shattered by a bullet not through CGI, but by shooting an actual bullet at the glass and recording the impact with high-speed film. His cover for Death Will Get You Sober was nominated for an Anthony award, though it lost out to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, as most award nominees did that year.

Now I have the rights back, I can’t use the original cover if I want to offer the book for e-readers. I don’t have a gun, so can’t shoot myself up a glass—and don’t really want to find out the hard way whether an imitating another image violates copyright. But I could lay a glass on its side with whiskey spilling out of it. Not real whiskey, since I couldn’t make it puddle. But maybe honey....


About Bobbi C. said...

Hi Elizabeth -- Love your new book cover, and the previous ones, too. I especially like the shattered glass in the last one. As for the honey, it should work (an old photo trick), and if it's not dark enough, you can tint it with some yellow or brown food color or a bit of coffee/tea.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Thanks for the honey tip, Bobbi. :)

Betsy Bitner said...

Great post, Liz - and I really like all your covers. I also like the idea of designing your own cover for a stand alone short story. Once you have the images you want to use, what program did you use to put them all together?

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Betsy, what I do is very primitive. After cropping and editing the image with the software that came with my camera (a Canon Powershot digital), I open it in Microsoft Picture It! 7 and add effects and text in a png file, which allows me to layer. Then I resize it and change the resolution depending if I need it for print or online and save it as a jpeg. I'd love to learn Photoshop, but it's expensive and I hear there's a steep learning curve. Who has time for a learning curve!

Anita Page said...

Liz, you've got a good eye. I like the new cover a lot. And you're right, it does have the look of an old-fashioned postcard.

Julia Buckley said...

I am also a fan of the new cover, as you know. It really puts me in the mood for a mystery.

Nick Miliokas said...

You can't judge -- oh never mind, it looks fabulous.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

LOL, Nick. And thanks, Julia and Anita. :)