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Building a Book Cover: The Ariadne Connection by Sara Stamey

It was 2014, and Sara Stamey needed a cover for her novel The Ariadne Connection. It wasn’t the plan that I be the person to actually do the cover. Instead, I was Sara’s production advisor, helping shepherd the title through the publication process at Book View Café. She and I were brainstorming about what sort of approach to take with the cover, so that she could offer a designer a solid set of parameters, not burden them with half-formulated expectations.

A number of possibilities suggested themselves. The novel is near-future science fiction. The story involves thriller-like chases, medical experiments gone wrong, action, sex, fast boats, villains with an abundance of resources. And then there was the main setting: the islands of Greece and the seas around them. Surely a visual portrayal of that part of the world might make an effective backdrop for a cover.

Except…no. That direction didn’t pan out. The best views evoked Ancient Greece or showed places tourists would recognize. A prospective customer might gaze upon a presentation of a sun-baked Greek isle and assume the volume was some sort of non-fiction travel guide or a memoir of someone’s vacation. If they did grasp that it was fiction, they might assume the novel was set in historical times. Whatever else, we knew the cover had to show at a glance that the contents consisted of science fiction.

I had one idea at this stage that later bore fruit. I thought to myself, why not a view of outer space? While the story is planet-bound from start to finish, it’s not like the heroine doesn’t find herself out under the night sky. Besides, the internet abounds with lovely Hubble Telescope pics. It wouldn’t have made sense to ignore that sort of trove. I held on to that thought. Eventually it led to this:

Contemplating this image brought me to a certain place, creatively speaking. While there were aspects I would later adjust, namely darkening the image, repositioning some of the stars, and cutting back on the teal hue, this was a full-frame background I knew I could build upon.

But…as mentioned, I was not the cover designer yet. My role was production manager. As best I can recall, I didn’t even mention to Sara that a field of stars could serve as a canvas. Additional brainstorming suggested a different approach. One of the main agents of chaos in the novel is a plague. So to me it made sense to look for an ominous view of a threat arising at a microscopic level, for example some kind of garish bacteria in a petri dish. Sara went looking.

Nothing seemed right. Then everything got more complicated as Sara found she would not be able to enlist the help of the designer she had in mind. I suggested I might be willing to step in, but it would be a matter of narrowing down the possibilities until one said to me, “You can do something like that, Dave. Your skills are robust enough to pull that much off.”

So Sara looked around some more. And finally, the dismal, discouraging, painful “fruitless searching” phase came to a close. She found this image at Dreamstime:

Sara recognized that while this pic does not scream “plague” at the top of its lungs, it was a synthesis of the things that were behind the plague: ecological turmoil and genetic manipulation. Nothing signifies ecology more than a view of planet Earth as seen from space. There is likewise a common motif that signifies genetics, and that’s a DNA strand. This image was so as so suitable it seemed to have been meant for the book all along. It even had a color scheme that lent itself to the starfield I’d mulled over.

I had only one reservation. The image was an excellent choice for Sara’s cover, but likewise it was well-suited for all sorts of other books, articles, blogs, advertisements, and slideshow presentations about ecology or genetics or The Future or…well, the list goes on. I had no doubt, given that it was stock art, that it had already been used a number of times and was bound to be used further. That is always a potential pitfall one risks by resorting to stock art, but in this instance, it was appropriate to wonder if it might be an extreme case. But as I proceeded to slip into the role of official cover designer for the volume, I found it easy to put those concerns aside. I knew the image was not going to fill the entire cover, nor be the focal point of it. It was only going to be one element. Had we used the image without significant alteration, my vote might have been different.

So what was the focal point to be? Answer: a human face.

Incorporating a face on a cover is a tried-and-true method of reassuring the potential customer that the book is not going to be a dry recitation of themes, ideas, mindless action, or what-have-you, but will be about a character or set of characters a reader can root for. This personalization on a visual level is such an effective tool I am surprised how many covers of science fiction novels have no human figure or face on them at all. They just show spaceships or hardware or interstellar nebulae or something of that nature.

As desirable as the approach was, I hesitated. Superimposing a face on a background can be tricky. There has to be a spot for it. You can’t put a face right on top of a busy part of an image or the details may compete with one another. I wasn’t quite sure how I wanted to proceed until Sara pointed to a couple of images she had found of faces. They didn’t speak to me. Oddly enough, that’s what was needed to engage my process. I can’t always determine what works until I’ve seen examples of what doesn’t work. I paid my own visit to Dreamstime with no goal more sophisticated than to find a face image that I could use as an example that was “in the ballpark” enough that I could use it as calibration to give Sara a better understanding of what to provide me with.

That’s when I landed on the image below. As far as I was concerned, Sara didn’t need to look further. This one would do as the final candidate.

Sara trusted that I knew what I was talking about when I said it would work. I suspect she was agreeing mostly on faith. The potential was not necessarily obvious. While the woman bears some resemblance to Ariadne Demodakis, the protagonist of The Ariadne Connection, this is what could be fairly labelled a glamour photo. Which is to say, this individual does not look like the sort of gal who would be racing around the Greek islands on an adventure, surviving a multitude of tense, perilous developments and having to — how should I put it? — live rough. Nor does the color palette in any way suggest it might blend with the first two photos.

But the eyes. The eyes were just what I wanted. Soon, I had this to show Sara:

This is a work-in-progress view. I was satisfied with the placement, felt that the palette issue was resolved, and was becoming confident that the overall composition was viable, but I knew I wasn’t done tinkering. The forehead was cut off too abruptly at the top, with an insufficient gradient, and the overall transparency wasn’t quite what I was aiming for. I decided to stop toying with the levels and sleep on it, resuming the work when I had fresh eyes. In the meantime, I had another question, which was whether to keep the mouth. Before retiring for the night, I fired off a quick email to Sara to solicit her opinion.

The mutual conclusion was, the mouth didn’t belong. If left in place, the pose retained a bit too much of the “pretty fashion model” aspect. The eyes alone, on the other hand, conveyed intensity and sense of purpose. With that settled, it didn’t take long to finish the art layer. The type elements then fell into place rather quickly. Here is the result:

The yellow and gold tones of the title and byline, along with the sharp dropshadow, provided the “pop” I was aiming for, and the legibility at thumbnail level was excellent. White type (actually off-white, with a hint of blue) worked for the teaser and the review blurb. Job done. Or should I say, phase one was complete. Some of the covers I was doing during that portion of the 2010s were ebook-only. The Ariadne Connection came out in print, as well, and so I went on to phase two, namely creating a wraparound version. But that’s a subject to explore some other time.

(The Earth-DNA strand image is copyright Johan63/Dreamstime. The close-up image of the woman’s face is copyright Aryanimagery/Dreamstime. Used by agreement. Further use requires the permission of the rights holders.)


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