Learning the basics of deconstructing cover art

Deconstructing cover art can teach you the principles behind good design that you can use to make your own covers, or in conveying your needs to the artist.

deconstructing cover art

We’re going to put this on the table and cut it apart.

On the road to becoming an indie author, you have to pick up skills in a number of areas. It is more than learning how to write fiction and/or non-fiction effectively — the task all writers need. You have to learn ways to create your career goals, time-management, taking care of your health, sourcing editing, cover art, and ebook making, making ebooks, advertising, and marketing.

Mind, you don’t have to be an expert in all those fields (thank heavens, or else we’d never get any writing done!). But you should know something about them. By building skills in these areas, you’ll grow more confident in your career and find connections among them that can help your decision-making.

career indie author postsFor example, many times you’ll have to write a short blurb to sell your book. It could be the back cover copy for the paperback edition, or the book’s page on your website. For an Amazon ad, you have to write a very short—like 12 words—hook for the book.

This forces you to look at your work from another angle. You have to answer the question: “Why read this?” You have to think about ways to make your book special, to differentiate it from the thousands of books in the same genre.

One good way to learn these skills is by finding successful examples and breaking them down in an attempt to learn how they were put together. It’s called “reverse engineering,” a phrase taken from computer programming and electronic hardware and applied to the arts. You can reverse engineer fiction by typing a page of a novel by your favorite author, or diagramming the sentence structure. You reverse engineer a pop song by playing your guitar until the chords you play match the sounds on the record.

You can also do this with cover design. I’m going to take you through the process using the cover to Rosemary Simpson’s “What the Dead Leave Behind.” Since I’m writing a series of Sherlock Holmes stories as if written by Mark Twain, and I have a series of my own planned that will be set in Victorian-era America, I’ve been reading more books set in that era.

I came across Simpson’s book in the library’s “new additions” shelf. The first thing that caught me was the cover. The tone of the woman makes it look like a realistic painting. The composition is unusual. You wouldn’t find this on stock photography sites. It was obviously cobbled together, but from where? How did the jacket designer put it together.

Here’s how you can find out.

First, look for the cover credits. It can be on the copyright page, the back cover, or, in this instance, on the inside jacket flap:

The designer relied on three resources: Trevillion Images, Getty Images, and Shutterstock. These three sites license images.

Let’s go to Trevillion first. I’ve written about them before, discussing how the cover to Jayne Anne Krentz’s sisters was composed. This time, let’s see if we can find the woman.

There are two ways: using keywords, or using the photographer’s name. Let’s search for photos by Lee Avison.

lee avison photos

We’re in trouble. there are 27 pages of photos. With 100 displayed per page, that’s nearly 2,700 photos to choose from. Let’s go to keywords instead.

Stock photography sites encourage contributors to use lots of keywords. Let’s start with “woman,” “Victorian” and “umbrella” and see what happens.

trevillion search page

No more than 200 here. Much better. In fact, paging down finds our girl.

lee avison photo

We see that the designer “knocked out” (that is, deleted) the background, then put the photo through a sepia filter to drain most of the color from it. That’s step one.

The background of the man on the bridge was a little tricker to find. Searching with the keywords “man”, “bridge”, “snow” returned 18 results, none of them useful. We can get the idea that the man walking away from the camera could have been taken from images like this, cropped out, and dropped into the snowy bridge scene. Even if our designer didn’t do this, we can see that it’s possible to do so.

(At this point, I’ll skip hunting for the man. Searching Trevillon for “man walking away” returns 1,800 examples. Narrowing it down to “one person”, “full length”, “looking away from camera”, “from behind”, “outdoors”, and “man” left 1,112 photos.)

So this is what you’ve learned so far: that it’s possible to take bits and pieces from several photos, and combine them to create a new photo. (If you already know this, congratulations! But I’ve had this exact conversation with people who didn’t realize this is possible.)

Let’s move on to the bridge. Does it exist? Let’s look for “snow” and “bridge”. Fifty-one possibilities.

Here’s a likely one by Ilina Simeonova:

deconstructing cover art

Wait, what? How can this be the photo?

It isn’t. But it shares similarities with the cover photo that indicates this was part of a series of photos Simeonova took at the bridge. If you look at the right-hand side of each photo, the snow looks about the same, particularly the big “U” swoop along the ground. Here, let me show you what I mean:

I don’t think this photo was the source, but I suspect the photographer took several, and that one of them was the source. Unfortunately, she has no other photos of the bridge on the site, so it is totally speculation on my part.

By the way, this bridge is the Bow Bridge, a cast-iron structure from the Gilded Age that’s in Central Park. It’s a beautiful bridge, perfect for photo shoots from that time. Here’s another view by John A. Anderson on Shutterstock:

bow bridge

Bow Bridge, Central Park. Photo copyright by John A. Anderson.

So now we have an idea of how the cover was put together. Can we learn anything from the red rectangle?

Here’s a little typographical trick: If your title and author name are in all caps, bump up the size of the initial letter a few points. It makes them stand out, but not so big as to be readily noticeable. Check out the first letter in each word:

cover typography

The yellow lines were drawn in to show the first letters in each word are about 2 points higher than the rest.

Finally, see the curly lines beneath “A Gilded Age Mystery”? That’s called a fleuron. It’s a typographical element used to separate paragraphs. It’s from the Old French word for “flower,” because that’s what were used at first (or leaves). They are also called embellishments, even “frilly bits.” I have no doubt hardcore gangsta typographers will be paying me a visit for futzing up the language, but I can’t help it. Google “fleurons” and that’s what you get.


Anyway, fleurons can be found anyway. Photo stock services sell them, and you can also look through type books on Google Books, or buy Dover Publications books (or, if you’re cheap like me, ask for them through your library’s interlibrary loan department.