I should start by saying that I'm not a graphic designer, and have no artistic talent whatsoever. I'm pretty handy with Photoshop, but I'm nothing special. Still, I wanted to cover to look as professional as I could make it without paying somebody to design it for me (because I'm a starving writer and I can't afford to pay designers, you see). The novel I'm going to be writing is steampunk-y without being purely steampunk, and I of course wanted that to be reflected in the cover. But it's also going to contain some proper magic, and it's going to get pretty dark in places, as well as being a proper Pirates-style romp in places as well (or at least that's the plan).
Initial ideas for the cover, then, were very heavily influenced by the stunning covers for Stephen Hunt's books, and some classic Michael Moorcock covers:
I actually came very close to buying the piece of stock imagery that's used for the blimp on the Moorcock cover before I realised that that was where I'd seen it before.
I really like how understated and classy these covers are, while still telling you that there's adventure to be had inside. That was something I wanted to achieve with my cover, and it's something I utterly failed at (more about that later).
The first thing I did - and this may seem a bit backwards, because it is - was pick my fonts. I adore the font choices on the Stephen Hunt covers, particularly the font used for his name, and I pretty much wanted to copy it entirely. I found a font called Percolator Expert which was very, very close to the title font for his books, and after asking around on Twitter I learned that his name was constructed from a combination of two fonts - one from the Blackletter family (for the S and H) and the bulk from an antiquated serif font, though I couldn't pin down which one. (Thanks goes almost entirely to Stephen Coles of @typographica [@Font_ID] who identified those font families for me.)
I mocked up some titles and bylines using those fonts, which gave me this:
I didn't manage to match the fonts, obviously, but I was pretty happy with some elements of what I had. I particularly liked the second one down for the title (the third on being a blatant copy of the layout of Hunt's titles, which didn't work for me at all). The blackletter fonts I found were all too ornate for my liking, so I scrapped them and went with the same font for the all of my name. (You'll see the end result shortly).
The next step was putting an actual cover together. I knew I wanted a blimp on there somewhere - and if I could draw I would have had the airships that are actually in the book, but I can't. I also quite wanted the silhouette of one of my characters on there, but I wasn't sure how to make it work and the more elements I added the more I moved away from the elegant simplicity of the covers I was trying to emulate.
I didn't save any of my first attempts at the cover, and that's probably a good thing. They were boring and terrible, and they never need to see the light of day. Luckily, while I was looking for nice borders for the cover, I found this image:
The first thing I did - because it was the only thing I had - was to drop my text onto that cover. Initially I put the title in the rectangular box at the bottom and my name along the banner at the top, but it didn't look right. The title didn't sit comfortably in the box, and my name is only two words. I tried putting it diagonally across the circle, but the empty space on either side threw the cover off balance. I swapped them, and my name fit nicely in the box at the bottom, but with A Cure on the left for the across the circle and Itch on the right (again, I haven't saved these early mockups because I'm an idiot) it just didn't look right.
Luckily, I had another title. I didn't (and still don't) like it as much, but if I was going pulpy with the cover then it made sense to go with a cheesy title as well. So I stuck it in, summoned a stock blimp and a stock steampunk man, and came up with this:
Now, that's still pretty bad. The man is blurry and low-res, the blimp is misshapen where I've tried to clean up the edges, and the text is murky and illegible. But it was a start. Part of the reason it looks so terrible is that at this point I was still using small stock images that I hadn't paid for - which meant making judicious use of Photoshop's blur tool to get rid of the watermarks. Once I realised that I could make this cover work, though, I went and bought the images. My next attempt was, I think, a lot better:
The blimp has gone, but the man is bigger and clearer (and, if you look closely, you'll see that he has both a right and a left hand instead of two the same as in the first version). After speaking to a friend who does some design work I got rid of the interior shadows on the text and went for flat colour, which made the whole thing pop that much more (thanks Tom). Still, I missed my blimp.
This still isn't the finished product - I'm going to cover the tail of the blimp with the border to introduce some perspective, as well as a couple of other minor tweaks - but it's close enough to the finished article for now. It doesn't really have any of the class that I was originally going for, but I think it screams pulpy steampunk adventure. I could be wrong. You may hate it. Personally, I'm pretty happy with it. It's not at all what I imagined, but I think it works. And once you read the first chapter, I hope you'll agree with me.