What makes a book cover?

I’ve been posting the cover of A Jar of Thursday quite a bit in social media lately –

a-jar-of-thursday-final

Whoops, sorry, finger must have slipped 😉

Anyway, while I’ve put a credits section in the back of the book, it struck me that to be fair I should also share the credits via social media. And as the cover has had some compliments (thanks all, she said, blushing), I thought sharing a bit about how it was made could be useful too.

I had a completely different cover in mind at first for Thursday. As it has adventure and SF elements, I was keen on a pulp/Amazing Stories look.

But then I got to thinking. Would that sort of cover express what was inside the book? And as it’s a sort of sequel to The Secret Notebook of Sherlock Holmes, was it sensible to choose a cover which looked so different?

I was pootling around Warrington Library when I caught sight of a book cover which made me walk over. I won’t post a picture here for copyright reasons, but the book was The Explorer’s Guild, by Kevin Costner (yes that one) and Jon Baird, and you can see it here. Retro type, three colours, and lots of action while retaining an adventure book feel.

I still loved the idea of my pulp cover, though. So I decided to see what other people thought. I asked friends and family, and posted a question in an online writing group. While the pulp cover had some support, the retro-adventure cover was well ahead. Plus, unlike the pulp cover, I was fairly confident that I could do what I had in mind myself, with the assistance of GIMP image editor (like Photoshop, but free).

A Jar of Thursday’s cover is nowhere near as complex as the cover of The Explorer’s Guild. However, it has around 25 separate elements. Here’s how I built it.

The first part was easy: find a green-leather texture similar to the maroon one I used for the Secret Notebook. I had one saved, but when I put it up I didn’t like the graining of the leather. So I pulled up the maroon leather texture I’d used before from photos-public-domain.com, chose a different part, decolourised it, and coloured it emerald (according to Pantone specifications).

Next: lettering. There are heaps of blogposts showcasing 15 retro fonts, 20 vintage fonts, etc, which are great to browse through, and from these I found Campanile. It’s a lovely font, but when I checked the details, they said it was for personal use only. After a bit of digging, though, I found a message from the font designer Dieter Steffmann that people could request permission for a one-time commercial use. I sent my request, and around an hour later, permission was granted. And after a lot of messing around with font size, spacing, and whether or not to put ‘of’ on the diagonal (nice, but took up too much space), the lettering was about there. The lines which box off the ‘of’ were from clker.com, which has lots of public domain C00 elements. You don’t have to give credit if you use them, but I thought I’d give you the heads-up.

Next, the decorative bits. I knew I wanted stuff in the corners, but not right on the corners, after my experience of having to change the paperback design for Secret Notebook  because half the corners might have been cut off due to the trim margin. I definitely wanted cogs, and a sort of vine, but beyond that I wasn’t sure. I found the vine at clker.com, tried it in two corners (duplicate the layer, rotate 180 degrees, and move) and liked it. The cogs were harder, especially because most sites had them listed as gears. In the end I found two sheets of likely cogs at Vecteezy (thank you, carter art and norasfed), selected the ones I wanted, took the background off each using GIMP’s select by colour tool, and moved them into position on the cover, rotating some slightly so that the cog teeth would match up. Once I was happy with the arrangement, I merged the six cog layers into one.

I wanted to put some sort of fancy box round the subtitle, but most of the cartouches were either too fancy or went pixellated when I tried to manipulate them. The one I’ve used came from clker.com and I picked it because it has some echoes of the vine.

What to put in the bottom left corner? There wasn’t room for the cog design, so I wanted to choose a couple of things from the story, which was quite tricky to do without giving plot away! A lamp-post says Victorian London to me. They’re quite hard to find online without going to Shutterstock, but I found one which I thought would do at clker.com, and  I found an accordion at http://www.publicdomainvectors.org/, courtesy of Jonny Doomsday. If you want to know their significance – you’ll have to read the book!

Getting there…but at this point all the elements were black, apart from the font which I’d done in yellow. Time to gild! I added a new layer of gold foil, one I’d used before from www.myfreetextures.com, and scaled it to cover everything i wanted to include. Then I merged the lettering and the vines into one layer and did a bit of select-and-cut trickery I learnt from a wikiHow post to gild it all at once. The wikiHow post is called ‘How to Add Patterns/Images Inside Text without Layer Masks with Gimp’. Just trips off the tongue, but it works like a charm.

Finally, shadows. The lettering and vine have a sharp ‘cut-in’ shadow to make them look stamped into the book, and the cogs and lamp-post both have a slight glow. I used Drop Shadow for both and moved the coordinates around.

And that’s it! Or…was it? I showed the cover to my other half, who responded with words to the effect of ‘I like it, but something’s not quite right.’ After interrogation, we arrived at ‘The lamp-post’s a bit Pink Panther’. So I tried the cover at my writing group, and got responses from ‘Love it, everything but the lamp-post,’ to ‘Is it too generic?’ One more go with an online writing group, and the lamp-post came up AGAIN. Now, I wasn’t prepared to join a photo library for the sake of one photo, so there was only one thing for it. Find a suitable lamp-post in real life. Luckily I found several while we were on holiday in Devon, so my phone came into play (who knows what people thought I was doing). Back home, I made a path round the outline of the lamp-post to cut it out, colourised it to remove some peeling paint, and added yellow light to match the gilding using Bucket Fill.

Yes! Finally! A genuine lamp-post! We’re there! I unveiled the cover and my other half wrinkled his nose. ‘What is it?’ I growled.

‘The bottom left still looks wrong.’

I looked at it, and looked at it – and I had to admit that he was right. The lamp-post and accordion didn’t sit together. But why not? Then I looked at the cover as a whole. Green background, gilding, black elements – and the white of the accordion. I selected the accordion and painted the white bits cream. It took about two minutes.

‘How about now?’

‘That’s it!’

So there you have it. Getting a nearly-there version of the cover done took maybe half a day, including finding all the different bits and pieces online and checking the licences; the additional work with the lamp-post etc etc was maybe another hour.

Maybe you’re thinking that I could have gone on Fiverr and got someone to do a book cover for peanuts. Or I could have bought a premade cover, or used a stock photo and stuck my title and name on the top. Or of course I could have gone the whole hog and hired a professional designer. I know people who have done all those things and been very happy with the result. But for me, at the moment, doing the cover myself meant that I could take my time over deciding what I wanted, get opinions, and make changes quickly and easily. I know there will probably come a point when I don’t have the skills to do the cover myself, and that’s fine. Till then, it’s something I like doing, and it satisfies my pernickety control freak nature 😉


If you’ve found this post useful, or if you like the sound of the book, please consider popping over to my Thunderclap link for A Jar of ThursdayIt takes just a couple of clicks to support the Thunderclap and share it via Twitter or Facebook, and if all goes to plan and I get 100 supporters, you’ll be part of a big social media share on book launch day, *Thursday* 29th September.  Currently I have 43 supporters – 57 to go! Hayulp!

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You can learn more about the book there too!


The featured image is Colour Pencils-3 by David Blaikie, and is shared by permission of Creative Commons license 2.0. No changes were made.

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