Designing a Glam Rock Cover Alien

I’m talking cover design this week – the problems, the choices, the things to take into consideration – and a request to help me choose which version to go with for the release of Glampire next week.

Okay, so we start with concept. What is a cover for? Is it a pictorial encapsulation of the book, a stunning piece of art, or a marketing tool? And what effect has online retailing had on cover design?

My view is that it can be all three but, for ebooks, its primary purpose is to catch the eye. And, because the thumbnail version of the cover is usually the reader’s first glimpse of it, the cover has to be eye-catching at thumbnail size. There are many excellent covers that, when reduced to 100×60 pixels, become a blur. And Amazon have a nasty habit of adding their ‘look inside’ or ‘Kindle edition’ logos to covers so reducing their size even more. Often all you get is 88×60 or less.

Some people say that the essential element is to make sure the title and your name are legible at thumbnail size. But … unless you have a really short name and title, that’s not that easy at 88×60 resolution. My view is that it’s not that important as 99% of all thumbnails have a line or two of text associated with them. Title, author, price and rating are clearly legible there, so you don’t need to worry too much about them on the cover. And unless you’re a bestseller, or you have an eye-catching title, then name and title is not a draw.

So, forget about font types and sizes for the moment and concentrate on a cover concept that is eye-catching and encapsulates the book. Which brings me to the first rule of cover design: Your cover must not suck.

It’s a simple rule but worth mentioning. Because the truth is that the appreciation of art is subjective … up to a point. One man’s great cover is another man, or woman’s, meh. But everyone can recognise a really bad amateurish cover. Avoid them.

But don’t over-think or overpay for your cover. Simple can be good. Janet Evanovitch covers are thumbnail eye-catchers – bold colours, simple design, big letters. They’re not works of art but they catch the eye and encapsulate the story – bold, brash and fun. That’s another thing to take into account when designing covers – the unwritten cover convention – if you have an illustration that is in anyway cartoonlike, then you are signalling that the book is a comedy. An urban fantasy with a photograph or lifelike painting on the cover is serious. One with an illustration is not.

The second rule is: Your cover must not get you sued.

And this is not just using a copyrighted image without permission. As I found out this month when researching for the Glampire cover, there are two other laws you have to take into account.

Is the cover art a painting of a photograph? If you buy cover art which looks very much like a photograph, then the person who owns the rights to the photograph has to give permission as well.

And, secondly, if the painting, or illustration, is a lifelike representation of a person, then, under various US State laws, you risk violating that person’s right to privacy. It may give the impression that the person is endorsing your book.

Obviously getting permission from celebs can be a nightmare and ‘Fair Use’ cannot be used as a defence. What you have to do is create a ‘transformative work’ – that is, you make sure that your artwork is not lifelike – you add to it, transforming the work so, although it may have the essence of that original person, it is now far more. It may be parody. It may be metaphor. Whichever, it is something that has gone way beyond copying a person’s image.

The third rule is: Make it eye-catching

There are hundreds of thousands of books out there all vying for attention. If a passing reader’s eye alights on your cover, make sure you’ve given your book every chance of being noticed.

The fourth rule: Don’t mis-sell

If your book is dark horror, don’t put a cuddly cartoon kitten on the front. One of the things that enrages readers the most is the feeling of being tricked into a buying a book. Try and encapsulate the spirit of the book in your cover.

Which brings me to Glampire. This is a short story I wrote in 1999/2000 which won the Editor’s Choice award for best short story in Del Rey’s famous online workshop. This is a workshop that, IIRC, at that time, had members like Jim Butcher, Charlie Finlay, Elizabeth Bear, Toby Buckell, Cecilia Dart-Thornton and Karin Lowachee. It’s a fun story about first contact and over-the-top Seventies culture, particularly Glam Rock.

So, what could be better than having Ziggy Stardust on the cover?

Read rule 2. I’d tracked down all the Ziggy paintings – and they are legion – selected the one that fitted what I wanted to do, contacted the artist, agreed the fee and then hit rule two when I did some more research.

Here’s the painting.

It has everything – works as a thumbnail, sums up the spirit of the story but … rule two is a deal-breaker.

So, I started thinking. Without giving too much away spoilerwise, the story has an alien who has his physical matrix re-engineered to look like a 70s Glam Rock star so that he’ll be able to fit in better into 1973 Britain. There’s far more to the story than that but that’s a major part of it. So, how about a picture mid-transformation? A picture where he’s half rock star, and half swirling alien atoms. I could use a starfield to convey both the alien and the lack of corporeality of the figure.

Which is what I went for. NASA is a brilliant source for free artwork – stars, nebulae and gas fields – I used them liberally on the face and neck of the character.

But… the first problem I hit was that dark colours, and especially black, is a bad colour for thumbnails. So, I experimented with lightening the face and adding colour. More problems. Too light and the stars look like spots, and the more non-skylike the colour, the less the stars looked like stars.

But Gimp is a wonderful tool and I played with all the features and built layers upon layers. I changed the eyes and experimented with a black hole effect for the mouth. The latter I’m still not sure about. I like the idea of bright star rim/lip to a black hole mouth but it started to look wrong.

Anyway here are some examples. The questions I have are:

Does it still look like David Bowie? I think I’ve altered the features to look like a generic 70s Ziggy wannabe, which is what I’m aiming for – it’s an alien who wants to look similar to the Z, but would regard an exact likeness as blasphemy.

This is the blue faced version with subdued mouth, click on the pic for a larger version. The thumbnail is to scale for Amazon.

This is the black faced version with a black hole rim mouth and neck in the same colour as the face. Click on the pic for a larger version.

This is the Albert Einstein tongue-poking version

Which version works best? I can mix and match bits like mouths, skin colour etc.


Chris Dolley is an English author living in France with a frightening number of animals. His novelette, What Ho, Automaton! was a finalist for the 2012 WSFA Small Press Award for short fiction. More information about his other work can be found on his BVC bookshelf .
An Unsafe Pair of Handsa quirky murder mystery set in rural England charting the descent and rise of a detective on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Which will break first? The case, or DCI Shand?
Medium Dead – a fun urban fantasy chronicling the crime fighting adventures of Brenda – a reluctant medium – and Brian – a Vigilante Demon with an impish sense of humour. Think Stephanie Plum with magic and a dash of Carl Hiaasen.
What Ho, Automaton! – Wodehouse Steampunk. Follow the adventures of Reggie Worcester, consulting detective, and his gentleman’s personal gentle-automaton, Reeves. It’s set in an alternative 1903 where an augmented Queen Victoria is still on the throne and automata are a common sight below stairs. Humour, Mystery, Aunts and Zeppelins!
French Fried true crime, animals behaving badly and other people’s misfortunes. Imagine A Year in Provence with Miss Marple and Gerald Durrell.
International Kittens of Mystery. If you like a laugh and looking at cute kitten pictures this is the book for you. It’s a glance inside the International Kittens of Mystery – the only organisation on the planet with a plan to deal with a giant ball of wool on a collision course with Earth?

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Designing a Glam Rock Cover Alien — 9 Comments

  1. Without reading your text I looked at the first illustration and said: That’s David Bowie. Sorry. It’s the outline of the hair that does it. Ignoring the recognition factor I think the black hole mouth cover is the most effective of the ones on offer, but I do find the bright yellow background and pink text off-putting. Horrible colour combination even if it fits the period. Great title, though. Good luck.

  2. Agree with the previous comment: the resemblance to Bowie is beyond wannabe. Also kind of want the glampire to have fangs.

  3. Number two definitely. I have no artistic sense, but for what you are trying to convey, that’s the one. I’m not a fan of Bowie so recognition was not a factor in any of them.

  4. Yep, David Bowie. However, I think you’ve altered the image enough that you wouldn’t get sued. I like the blue skin, especially if you’re sticking with pink text, but think it would look better on the number-two picture. That one emphasizes the mouth, which makes me think of vampires. And if you put the blue skin back on, you could tell that the guy has a nose, and the eyes would be pink instead of red, so they wouldn’t clash with the text.

    The hair color looks like a bad photo negative; I think you could go with a brighter orange. Or do a pink color to match the text, and then change the background color to orange? I’m not a designer, but I severely dislike the yellow. It’s the brightest thing about the image, so it takes me a second to focus on the character.

    I don’t know, I’ve been staring at the images for so long that they’re beginning to look normal – I can’t think of anything else that might be helpful. I do look forward to reading the story, though!

  5. Yeah, it still looks like David Bowie. That image has become so iconic, you won’t escape the recognition no matter how much the image is altered. Think about how Andy Warhol transformed images of Marylin Monroe. No matter what he did, it was still iconic of Marylin (which was the point in his case).

    I prefer the black hole mouth one myself. The text and background scream 70s, but the title’s text association is more psychedelic than glam. I think of glam as something moving away from the 60s into the disco aesthetic (more like the text used for your name), if that makes sense.

  6. Hmm. Lots of useful comments, I think I’ll revisit the drawing board. As people say it’s an iconic image – which is why I want to use it – but that’s also it’s biggest drawback.

    I had thought of the Rene Magritte option and have an apple superimposed over his face. Is there a Glam variety of apple:)?