Process of Creating ‘A Study in Sin’ Cover

by August Wainwright on February 22, 2013

I wanted to give everyone a little insight into the process that my designer and I went through when creating the cover of the first book in the Nights of Remy Moreau Series.

The series is loosely based off the characters in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic Sherlock Holmes stories. The main character, Remy Moreau, is an ingenious “researcher” that takes on in-depth jobs for corporations, unravels problems for personal clients, solves the unsolvable crimes, and offers up advice to those hanging from the end of a rope. As inherently brilliant as she can be, she struggles to grasp the social and emotional aspects of a normal life. Her’s is an oddly ambiguous life.

And that idea is one that I wanted to work with for the covers. My designer, Trevor Houlton (who has a cover design site in the works), and I played around with a few ideas before finally settling on overall feel of the covers for the series.

The series will fall within the larger ‘Mystery’ category of works, so I needed the covers to at least give off the feel of being genre-specific.

What we decided to do for each volume in the series was use a somewhat-iconic figure, and obscure their faces in a way that makes them unrecognizable. The idea being to invoke a small detail that’s found within the story to convey a larger “mysterious” look.

Without giving too much of the overall story away, there’s a particularly gruesome scene where one character meets his end when he comes in contact with the sharp end of a blade.

Also, part of the story revolves around the Irish mob. So we did some background research and decided to start with a photo of Whitey Bulger as the starting point. Whitey Bulger is the infamous Boston area mob figure that was recently arrested at the age of 81 on 19 counts of murder.

This is the first photo we found that we thought could work:

We both really liked the image, plus it could be found in a few places at a high resolution which would make things easier. But as we talked things over, the photo conveyed too much menace and violence. A major theme in the Nights of Remy Moreau books is the ambiguity between good and evil; that all people have the capacity for both.

I kept thinking that if people saw this picture, and then were told that the person in the photo had been killed, most wouldn’t care all that much. So I advocated for a more “gentle” image instead of one that was already full of malice.

The image we settled on is seen below, specifically the right half of the photo where Bulger is wearing a fedora. Who gets to wear a fedora in a mugshot by the way?

Whitey Bulger 2 - A Study in Sin Cover

I really liked both the image and the look on Bulger’s face. Moving on to the next step, we discussed how we were going to obscure his face. I had already envisioned a few other covers in the series and I knew I wanted to keep things slightly abstract. My idea was to use a blood splatter pattern, to simulate a left to right slash. I pictured it being a large red abstract pattern that ran across the middle of the black and white cover.

That was the idea we went with; a Fedora wearing Whitey Bulger obscured by the blood splatters from a blade slash.

A few days later, Trevor sent this over as the initial mock up.

My first reaction was to laugh hysterically at the fact that “a Fedora wearing Whitey Bulger obscured by the blood splatters from a blade slash” had turned into “a Fedora wearing Whitey Bulger obscured by a freaking comet hitting him in the face“.

BUT, I knew that he was just keeping me in the loop, which I appreciated. And I could see where he was going and thought it was the right direction.

NOTE: this is a really important part of working with a designer. As the client, we feel the need to be in control, but, we need to remember that we hired the designer for a reason. I have to imagine that most designers don’t mind a little input here and there. Most don’t want to deal with design by committee, though. Give them some wiggle room. Most of the time, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Here is the next iteration:

Notice how he starts to “paint” in areas that weren’t there in the last version. He’s essentially taken a collage of different images and began to paint them together. We talked some things over; I loved the look of the fedora and how sections were missing and I really liked that one eye was still going to be visible. I also liked how the right side of the face seemed to be “whisping” away, it really gives the whole piece some much needed motion.

But we talked about the splatter pattern, and specifically, the geometric “slice” and decided it wasn’t right yet. The slice itself looked disjointed and didn’t really fit with the rest, so we ditched it.

Two days later, I received this in my inbox:

Here we have the almost completed cover. The background is still completely white and there were a few small tweaks that needed to be made, but overall, I loved it. It had the exact feeling I was going for. The typography and font layout is excellent, the retro looking “SIN” stamp in the background is amazing, and the image of Bulger really came together.

We both agreed the background needed just a little texture so it wasn’t completely white. Here’s what Trevor sent over next:

This was meant to be the final version. But upon seeing it, a few things still felt “off”.

(Although, if you really look at the left side of the face, you can notice the extra painting he did and how he added depth even more depth into the eye area. Amazing.)

We talked out the final details and settled on some small changes. If you notice the top of the fedora, he had added in a thin outline and I found it to be distracting, so we lost it. Same thing with the new stylized version of the word “SIN” in the title, so we reverted back to the un-treated version. Last, I didn’t like the halo affect behind Bulger, so we removed that as well.

And here’s the final version:

Couldn’t be happier. A little over two weeks and it’s the exact feeling I was hoping for and is at least somewhat genre-specific.

Afterwords, I went and downloaded thumbnails of the top 9 titles in the mystery category and created a panel, adding in the cover for A Study in Sin. The cover stood out really well against the mostly dark or brightly colored covers of the top sellers. That was important to me; as I’ve written before, your cover should look genre-relevant, but try for something nobody else is doing.

I hope this gives you a good idea of the design process for a custom book cover. Yes, it cost me, but it’s a sound investment. My designer and I work really well together and we’ve already started discussing the next cover in the series.

Tell me what you think. What works and what doesn’t? Would you pick this up if it was on a bookshelf? What did you experience in designing your own cover? Leave me a comment below.

Trevor Houlton is currently working on a website to offer cover design services to authors. He plans on offering both pre-designed and custom cover packages. I can’t recommend him enough and will post an update as soon as his site goes live.

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One comment

[…] The cover for ‘A Study in Sin’ is from a mug shot of Irish mobster Whitey Bulger. There’s actually an article on my site about the process we went through to create this first cover. You can read it here: Process of Creating ‘A Study in Sin’ Cover. […]

by Author Interview – August Wainwright | Orangeberry Book Tours on May 21, 2013 at 2:20 pm. Reply #

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