From Rick:

As I promised last time, this post will discuss how the cover for Dave Schulz’s novel Searching for Sound was designed and show that you don’t need to be a graphic designer (which I’m not) to be able to turn out a great cover for your book (but don’t expect it to be easy).

I’ve said previously that I believe the absolute best way for a designer to start is to read the book in question. Absent that, being very familiar with it is second best. However, when hiring an outside designer, you can’t expect he or she to have time to read it.

I’m not saying that you can’t get a perfect design by other routes. Being very familiar with the book opens more options for the designer and takes some of the author’s prejudices out of the equation.

Let’s look at the cover synopsis for Dave’s novel:

Where does the sound go when the song is over?

At nineteen, Alex Semple feels lost in a world he’s not sure he even belongs in. Struggling for direction in his life, Alex finds himself on a path beset with more questions than answers, a path he’s not equipped to cope with, let alone understand.

Searching for Sound is a story of second chances and fulfilling a dream even when the world is pushing you in another direction.

That doesn’t offer a lot of design information. Here’s a longer synopsis, one we didn’t use.

Do you follow your passion without knowing where it will lead? Do you follow your heart and risk having it broken?

Alex Semple is a conflicted young man. At nineteen, he knows where his passion lies: music and playing the guitar. But after graduating high school and not knowing what to do with his life, he lets his parents talk him into pursuing a sensible business major in college.

When Alex meets Dave Baines in a random street encounter, he’s given a seemingly simple, yet cryptic, piece of advice: search for whatever you’re looking for. And with those words, Alex’s life is turned on end and he finds himself following paths he never imagined he’d be on.

Searching for Sound is the story of choices and second chances. It’s a story about following your heart when logic says you shouldn’t. And it’s a story of a passion so strong that it transcends the barriers of time itself.

One possible problem with using this second synopsis for design inspiration is that it almost has romantic overtones, but it could help guide the color palette.

The primary theme is music, and that presents many ways to go. Let’s add some more information that would help a designer. The setting is Cleveland, Ohio, and the main character, Alex Semple, is nineteen. He has shoulder-length dark hair and wears a fedora. He plays guitar and has his own rock band consisting of three others, one being a female vocalist. Alex hates contemporary pop music (the novel is set between 2002 and 2004) and prefers the rock sounds of the 1970s.

Since this is a personal story of Alex’s struggle, we thought having him on the cover with the background being the Cleveland skyline. My wife and I had just visited Cleveland just prior to my reading the novel and we would go again the following year. When we knew we’d revisit the city, we made plans to photographs plenty of possible location shots.

Anytime you consider putting your main character on the cover, you have the problem of finding a suitable model, be it a stock image or a photo shoot (which has its own challenges but can be a lot of fun to do). I usually advise caution when putting a character on the cover (except for silhouettes or shadow images) unless it’s an interesting enough character that the photo will attention. I’ve seen it done on covers from traditional publishers where the cover picture is nothing like the character’s description in the novel. To me that makes no sense, although I suppose the publishers don’t care as long as the cover made you purchase the book.

Alex’s description is pretty specific and bit of a challenge. Here’s where good fortune came in. Dave Schulz’s daughter knew a guy who fit the profile. She took over 90 shots of him in different poses, with and without the guitar and fedora. He was older than the character, his hair wasn’t quite shoulder length, and the guitar was not an electric one (although Alex also used an acoustic guitar in the novel). Aside from those small differences, he was indeed the perfect model.

The first design idea I came up with is shown below. It’s not bad idea, but it’s rather static pose of the character and the overall design isn’t particularly compelling.

While I was playing around with this and a few other designs, my wife came up with two other ideas. One was to create a sort of guitar-neck highway leading into the city, as in the one shown below. As I recall Dave Schulz independently suggested putting the city at the head of the guitar neck.

The challenge with this idea was getting a photo along a guitar neck. None of the stock photos I found showed a view up the neck at such a low angle. I have a good camera, but no access to a guitar. Dave has several perfect guitars, but he lives in Ohio and I live in New York. He attempted to get a low-angle shot up the neck of one of his guitars and had limited success. It’s a very challenging shot under the best of conditions.

So how did we manage it? I found online a fantastic 3D model of a guitar that someone had created from scratch using Blender, a free, 3D modeling program. The artist had made the file available for free. The great thing about a 3D model is that once you have the source file, you can manipulate it into any orientation you want, even change the lighting and color of the instrument, and it will look perfect and completely in focus at every angle. Although I lacked the skills to create such a model, I had used Blender enough to be able to manipulate the artist’s pre-made one. As you can see, for a 3D model, it looks pretty incredible and very realistic, even down to the shadows. Again, this is just a concept cover and would need more work.

My wife’s second idea came from a different pose of the character with one foot against the brick wall that served at the background for the shot (not an ideal background to work with, either). She also suggested making the image look like a graffiti-like chalk drawing on a brick wall. While he was already against a brick wall, I still had to extract the image so I could manipulate it separately. Further, in that pose, he was not wearing the fedora. I was able to cut one from another pose (again thanks to having so many shots to pick from).

Note the lesson here: If you plan on doing a photo shoot, be sure you take MANY shots, more than you think you’ll need. The one you think might be perfect at the time, could turn out not to be later or have some flaw you didn’t spot. The more choices you have, the better off you’ll be. When I was taking photos of the briefcase full of money for Scott’s Martyr’s Interno, I took dozens of shots, and only a few were suitable.

In the image below of the final Searching For Sound cover, a lot of work went into each piece of it: extracting the guy, experimenting to get the right chalked look (an effect in GIMP, but it has many parameters to choose from), turning the raw Cleveland skyline shots I’d taken into a usable image (including having to add more sky at the top), and adding a brick wall. From there it was a matter of playing with various blending techniques to get a good look. There is no rule book when it comes to this. You just have to experiment. The final wall fade to the sky effect was Dave’s idea. Then after the main image was done, we had to find the right font and look for the title (again, Dave found this one).

While we all loved the guitar neck cover—a very cool look—it did not adequately convey the flavor of the novel, and it was impersonal. Having the character on the cover, in this case, we felt connected the better to the reader.

I won’t call the cover perfect. We could have played with it more, but the novel was done and ready to go, waiting on the cover. And I don’t think nitpicking would affect sales.

Would hiring a professional have been a better choice here? It’s hard to say. It certainly would have cost a lot more, and I’m sure the cover would have been a very different one. But who can say whether it would have been a better one?

How many total hours of time were spent by all involved to reach this final result, including all the experimentation? I can’t even begin to guess. It’s easy to spend a couple of hours playing with various looks. I do want to thank my wife for raising the bar on this one and challenging me not to accept something that was just okay.

Next week: Dave Schulz tells us about the challenges he faced writing the novel.

–Rick