Ladies and gentlemen, in my rule book, you CAN tell a book by its cover. In fact, it’s imperative. Covers can grab your attention by acting as their own little posters. The artwork on the best ones obviously looks terrific, both from close up and from far away. But art has other uses too. It can showcase the title....unless you’ve cleverly left your title out and decided to let the art speak for itself. And it gives a tantalizing hint about the story inside.
In my last blog, I set out a whole assortment of ways illustrations work overtime to enhance nonfiction. Today I thought it would be fun to pick a specific nonfiction cover and walk through the thought process behind developing the art. Well, the very first time I wrote a serious book of nonfiction, I wanted to give it my best shot. Hmmm… I always try to give things my best shot. But this book presented a special opportunity for me, and besides, I loved the subject matter. The book in question was How We Crossed the West: The Adventures of Lewis and Clark. Maybe you’d like to follow along and think up your own ideas for this cover.
By my own set of rules, a title should always be prominent and easy to read. That would be pretty easy if my title had been short. But why do anything the easy way? I had somehow managed to come up with a very long title, so to make it stand out, I thought I’d hand letter everything on a banner in the style of the early 1800’s. Here ‘tis. (In those days I didn’t have the greatest camera to shoot the following pictures, but if you click on each shot, you can blow them up a bit.)
Also by my own set of rules, a cover should be simple and powerful enough to be seen from far away. For example, a big close-up of the protagonist’s face can always work well. But far be it from me to do something easy. Besides, a book about Lewis and Clark means that there are two main characters and a supporting cast of all those hearty members of the Corps of Discovery. I decided to include as many of them as possible.
And how could I write this story and leave Sacagawea and York off the cover? You’ll see some more of these folks in a minute.
I also wanted to give a big hint about the tale of adventure inside the book. It occurred to me that just as Lewis and Clark were seeing most of the Indians along their route for the very first time, these same Indians were seeing a set of oddly dressed strangers with white and black skin for the very first time too. So I picked a specific day in the journey, drew the scenery the Corp passed and the boats they used and Indians they saw as accurately as humanly possible, and added them all into the mix. Try making that look like a strong, simple image. Not easy, but my rule does say to keep it simple. Here’s the full wrap-around cover with the back of the book included:
And this is the front cover the way you’d see it on the shelf, assuming the bookstore placed my book face-out and didn’t simply squeeze it onto a shelf with just the spine showing.
Every cover has its own story and they’re all different, so have a blast—take a closer look at some covers one of these days and try to figure out what the artist had in mind for his or her own little poster.