Designing urban fantasy novel covers

Novel covers for the first four books in The Wild Rites Saga

This is a post about stumbling through something I’m not very good at. I began with absolutely no clue, and now I have slightly more of a clue, but I’m still pretty clueless. If you find yourself stumbling into designing novel covers, hopefully this might help you to start staggering instead of stumbling, too.

Cover design

I love great design. I’m not really a designer, but I have pretty good design skills for a coder. Some of my favourite designers include Neil Kellerhouse (you’d remember his work from The Social Network movie posters, and Fincher’s Girl With a Dragon Tattoo, and Gone Girl), Rob Sheridan (art director for Nine Inch Nails), and Russell Mills’ work also for NIN (you can tell I’m a fan). For book cover design and lettering, I’m a big fan of Jessica Hische’s work and eye for elegant and intricate design (and her website is just beautiful). And my all-time favourite artist and illustrator is Gabriel Rodriguez, particularly for his work on Locke & Key with Joe Hill (my favourite graphic novel series — and look, it’s just my favourite book).

But when Anna McIlwraith asked me to help design novel covers for her urban fantasy series The Wild Rites Saga, having favourite designers and inspiration from other people’s work didn’t help me in the least.

Design trends and product design (of which a novel cover is a kind of product) are often particular to their area or field. While app UIs and corporate branding has gone from gradients and skeuomorphism to flat design and desaturated block colours, I really have almost no idea about the history and trends of novel cover design, but more importantly, of urban fantasy novel cover design.

Maybe it’s just me, but take a look at a month of book cover design winners on The Book Designer — and I can barely recognise common ideas and themes. Or take a look at this Pinterest board someone put together of good urban fantasy covers, and again how do you nail down a good trend? The cover will or will not use a saturated colour, the text will be large and in a sans-serif or serif font that will be in colour or white. And the cover will or will not feature the heroine. Looking through the Kindle urban fantasy best sellers is also illuminating. The cover may or may not be a photo manipulation or set of flat design and styled text. And it may or may not try to look like a movie poster.

In the end, the only conclusion I could come to is that an urban fantasy novel cover has to look really cool. Anna’s advice was always this: make it shinier. For me, this was the simplest, dumbest and best approach to take. Forget trying to think of what meaning we’re trying to convey with the design, and just design something that feels like it genuinely captures something of the book, and looks really good. Her other edict was this: “It has to look shiny, not elegant.”

I’m a coder — I like elegant, and for me this was a real challenge. While I created these covers, they’re really Anna’s designs. She selected the fonts, the stock photos, and guided me through iterating on the covers again and again, patiently putting up with my constant complaints that “I have no idea what I’m doing!”

The Wild Rites Saga

The series starts with The Jaguar King, a book where we find Emma Chase, the heroine, in her early 20s studying vet med when she gets kidnapped and discovers that she is the prophesied Caller of the Blood, a human woman who can call the beast from shape changers. Each shape changing race tries to possess her and claim her, and the big bad in the first book is the eponymous Jaguar King. The book (and series) is an adventure story, I haven’t read the genre widely, but as a Buffy fan, it feels like familiar territory of something that’s edgy and contemporary, but also mythic in scope with a story that weaves in ancient history. So it’s both new and evokes old things.

The Jaguar King (Book one in The Wild Rites Saga)

In the cover, these ideas of new and old play out in the choice of fonts. The title font is Downcome, a distressed sans-serif font, with a paint-splatter background, and the author and series fonts are set in Cinzel, to capture the more fantasy / ancient sorts of aspects of the story. I don’t know how much really gets conveyed through the choice of fonts, but this is the contrast between those two things. While it’s probably not a great idea to exclusively rely on free fonts these days, there are some really good ones, and lists abound of free fonts for good design work. The main thing to watch out for is that free fonts often don’t come with rigorous kerning pairs, so you’ll often need to adjust the letter spacing quite a bit to come up with a good design. For novel covers, this is totally fine, since you’ll be doing this anyway, but for a project with a lot of body copy, I’d probably want to invest in a good professional font set with multiple weights.

Anna selected stock photography from Shutterstock for the man on each cover. These aren’t literal depictions of the characters from the book, but they’re photos used to capture a sense of those characters.

Then we sat together working on the covers, adding gradients, overlays, drop-shadows and all kind of things we often avoid in corporate design work, until the books looked good and shiny. With just enough consistency between the covers, with common elements and placement, and just enough difference so that each book would look distinct. We played with sizing and positioning all the text until it felt like the different bits weren’t competing too much with each other, deciding that the hierarchy was something like this:

  1. Book title
  2. Author title
  3. Series title

And the top-right corner is reserved for the dude on each cover, which will change for each book (currently four released, the fifth will be out later this year).

Paranormal romance and the Wayward Heart series

While The Wild Rites Saga is urban fantasy, Anna’s other series the Wayward Heart is paranormal romance. I’m still not too sure of the difference between these genres (I’m so sorry all of you who actively read these genres, I am an ignorant hobbyist designer!), but as far as I can gather it’s this:

Urban fantasy is slightly dark Buffy kinda stuff, with werewolves, shapechangers, vampires, fairies, all that sort of thing. In urban fantasy, bad things happen, and there may or may not be romance.

Paranormal romance may include all of those things, but they’re more the backdrop to the central narrative which is a romance between a hero and heroine. And in paranormal romance, bad things may happen, but there’s always a happy ending.

So, if we’re designing a cover for a paranormal romance, then instead of a dark broody man and edgy contemporary text, we went with a dark broody man and a dark broody woman embracing, with non-edgy contemporary text, and softer, lighter hues. If The Wild Rites Saga and The Jaguar King made me think of Buffy, this made me think of Practical Magic and Charmed. Anna might kill me for saying that, but tonally it helped me find a distinction.

Cover revisions for Heart of Flame.

Book one of the Wayward Heart series, Heart of Flame, was far more difficult to get right, and involved dozens of revisions before the final version. We just had so many different elements. A couple embracing, a city skyline (it’s set in Los Angeles), the title and author text, and also an ornamental detail behind the text. But we really wanted this cover to feel magical, and while I can’t remember an electrical storm from the book, we went with lightning as a motif.

I hand drew the lightning in Photoshop with a graphics tablet, and retouched the couple photo, trying to blend the elements together without the whole thing turning to mud.

Just as with The Wild Rites Saga, we set out to make the cover look shiny and cool, and be something like what the book is about. I’m not sure it got much more intellectual than that. And we have our cover, with the book title set in Voltaire to give a sense of Los Angeles and the art deco of old Hollywood, and the series title in Vladimir Script.

Final novel cover for Heart of Flame (out later this year)

Where to from here

When it comes to designing covers, I still have no idea what I’m doing. I just know that I love working on this stuff, it’s so much fun to get to help extend the fictional universe of a novel (and series of novels) through design and imagery, and I feel stupendously lucky that Anna took a chance on me and let me play in her world.

If you’re an author working on your own books in these genres and don’t have a designer (or aspiring designer) in your life to go on this journey with, fantasy artist and cover designer Rebecca Frank is doing excellent (and affordable) work in this space. I don’t know her, but she seems incredibly prolific, and when it comes to the particular needs of this area of design, she just seems to nail it.

And check out Anna McIlwraith’s books, you can sign up to her mailing list to find out about new releases.

Photography used in the novel covers courtesy of Shutterstock. Ornamental detail used in the Heart of Flame cover courtesy of the British Library, check out their huge collection of copyright-free material on Flickr. Los Angeles skyline photo used in Heart of Flame cover is “I love LA” by Ronald Sarayudej, which was released as a public domain image.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.