When it comes to people, it's usually bad form to metaphorically "judge a book by its cover." But in the realm of actual books, it's the norm. As I believe it should be.

An effective book cover signals many aspects of the book itself: the professionalism of the author and publisher, the genre, and the essence of what's inside. The cover accomplishes all this through title and subtitle, typographical choices, imagery, background colors and patterns, and how all these elements work together. In seconds, the cover helps a potential reader answer the question, "Is this what I'm looking for?"

A talented cover designer can work magic. I saw this firsthand when I worked with one on a novel I recently published through Transformations Press.

The author had hired someone to make the cover, but the result, though not awful, failed to convey the essential elements of the book. It said, meekly, "I am literary fiction," but nothing more. The new designer, Owen Gent, did what the original cover designer had failed to do: He read key sections of the book, he asked questions of both me and the author, and he iterated through several versions, incorporating our feedback, but also trusting his own understanding of the book and his artistry.

Here are "Before" and "After."

Owen's cover not only strongly signals that the book is literary fiction, it also hints at its spiritual setting, that a man and woman are the central characters, and that they are in some kind of mutually transformative relationship. The cover's elegance and mystery also inspire curiosity about what's inside the book -- the ultimate goal of a cover.

While I was working with Owen, I was debating whether I should take a stab at designing the cover for Street People. At an early age, my father instilled in me the belief that if you want something done right, you should do it yourself. Sometimes this belief has served me; equally often, it has not. I've learned to avail myself of the expertise of others when "doing it myself" is impractical, inefficient, or impossible.

I already knew that for most authors, my father's adage was more often wrong than right. Nearly every blog post, article, and book I'd read on self-publishing hammers home the point that, just like traditionally published books, self-published books should -- many experts say must -- have a professionally designed cover.

But my glimpse into Owen's creative process had inspired me, and in the mental war between my father's lesson and the advice of book-publishing sages, Dad won.

The way to an effective cover design turned out to be roundabout. Because the book's title is Street People not Street Person, I rejected the idea of using one of the interior portraits, which is what most books in this genre do. Instead, I decided to try something that more generally indicated life on the streets. I began with the street itself, with text painted onto two types of pavement.

The result was pretty bad!

But I reminded myself that even Owen's first attempt had missed the mark. I pressed on. To the asphalt background, I added two abstract figures and then changed the font so that it matched their "distressed" look.

The second attempt, with the white and yellow on black, seemed workable. I still like it. But when I posted it to a cover-design Facebook group, people there thought the tone still didn't signal the genre or sufficiently hint at the content. One person told me, "It looks like a driver's education handbook."

Back to the drawing board.

A friend suggested I use a fragment from one of Mondrian's New York City paintings to symbolically represent the grid of Manhattan's streets. Here's how that attempt went:

I liked the contrast of yellow and shades of gray and also the idea of a grid. I picked up a subtitle. But these covers, too, seemed off. The first and second attempts suggested a light-hearted novel more than they did than a nonfiction narrative of a turbulent time, and the third seemed too ambiguous.

While I worked on these cover variations, I slowly made my way through scanning the thousands of negatives I'd created in my years roaming the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn. Every day, I spent several hours examining contact sheets, tracking down the negatives, scanning them, and separating the scanned film strips into individual frames.

Halfway through this process, I had a "Eureka!" moment: What if I used a contact sheet as the cover's background?

"By Jove," I thought, "I've almost got it!" Although none of my actual contact sheets quite worked, it was a small step to realizing I could fabricate one from the images I would use in the interior. Once I'd made those selections, completing the cover was straightforward.


Was I the next Owen Gent? Not even close. Might a book cover designer have built a better cover? Perhaps. But the one I'd created seemed to do what a cover should do: signal the genre, complement the title, hint at the content, and (I hoped) inspire curiosity about what's inside the book.

If you're curious about Street People, click here or on the thumbnail above to take a peek inside. On a computer or tablet, when you get to the book's product page, you can click "Look Inside the Book." On a smartphone, you can download a sample of the Kindle version.

Have stories to tell of your own book cover or self-publishing adventures? I'd love to hear about them in the comments.

More to come -


Copyright 2022, David J. Bookbinder 

Online Courses:
Mastering the Art of Balance: Stay Sane in an Insane World
Art of Balance Basic Training: Stay Sane in an Insane World

The Art of Balance: Staying Sane in an Insane World
Paths to Wholeness: Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas
Street People: Invisible New York Made Visible

Street People Portfolio: Invisible New York Made Visual

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