Packaging is what catches the eye. Many a times I’ve been hooked into buying expensive bottled water purely on its killer packaging. It’s engaging and it makes you want it, or at least want to know more about. I think manufactures of high-end bottled water are the best at this.
I get a lot of compliments on the covers of my books, especially the cover and title of Chop Suey. People say it’s very eye-catching and different. Hearing that makes me happy because that’s exactly what I set out to do. I believe the cover and title of a book are the second most important thing an author can pay attention too, the first being the writing. Because so many people have asked about my cover, I thought it would be great to show how I arrived at the final cover.
I knew right from the beginning I would turn Chop Suey into a series. It was important the cover and title have a theme that could tie each book in the series together. The title for Chop Suey did not come easy. It was a long battle. I started by jotting down possible titles based on what the book was about. A hundred titles later and all I had was a long list of crap. So I started over and came at it from as many directions as possible. I tried playing off of Chinatown, the serial killer, the detectives, the fact it was a mystery, the organized crime aspect, that it had a telecommunications theme or that it took place in San Francisco and Hong Kong.
Three hundred titles later and I had nothing. I even tried fooling myself into thinking I had something. I bounced a couple off of my wife. She liked one. I think she was being nice. The problem I ran into, besides none of them sounding great, was that each title positioned the book in a niche area. This was no good. The book was a combination of many things, not just one. Plus I wanted future titles to have a connection to the first book, which made the process harder.
I knew I had to keep pushing. Eventually it would come. And it did. I remember it distinctly. I was in the middle of editing footage from a bunch of interviews I did with twelve NASCAR drivers. Bored, I started talking about my book and began throwing out titles I mildly liked to the editor, the producer and whoever else was in the room. The titles aroused nothing but the sound of crickets. Not even the obligatory, “that’s cool.” I was in deep shit. The next thing I knew, I was explaining to a sleepy crowd how the serial killer used a cleaver to chop people up. Bingo! It popped into my head. I blurted out Chop Suey. The room picked up, chuckles could be heard. I had gotten an honest to goodness, real-life reaction. I had something. I kept repeating it over and over. Everyone began nodding their heads. I knew right then I had my title.
Everything fell into place soon after. In Chop Suey, chow mein is the dish that Darby eats all the time. I changed it to chop suey instead. In each book, Darby would be working with a gang from a different ethnic background. That ethnicity would decide the dish Darby would fall in love with and thus become the title of the book. In the next book, Darby is working alongside the Russians. He discovers shashlik which is Russian for shish-kabob. Therefore the next book is titled, Shashlik.
So now that I had my title nailed, it was time to focus on the cover. I immediately thought of the expected. Show a bloody cleaver. No wait, how about a hand that was neatly chopped up like it was a carrot? Nah. I started looking at other thriller covers. They either had a figure running or something bloody or a weapon in cover. Snore. I had the same problem here as I did with the title. Each visual painted a picture of what I believed to be one element of the book. I needed a visual that was as interesting as the title, yet organically captured the essence of the book. After much thinking, it finally dawned on me. Why not connect the cover visual to the title instead of the content of the book. The cover could be a restaurant. Better yet, a restaurant sign. And that’s how I came up with the idea for the cover and title of Chop Suey and ideally, the future books in the series.
But that’s just half of the solution, the other half was execution. That’s where having a great cover artist comes into play. In my case, it was a friend of mine who I use to work with at an ad agency in Chicago. He’s an art director.
We approached the cover pretty much like how we would approach an ad. We started brainstorming various ways to bring this concept to life. Did we need the restaurant? Could it live with just the sign? Did it need to be sign, could it be a menu in restaurant window? Was the sign modern, old—does the design of it tie into the ethnicity of the food? Did we need weapons? How do we make it convey thriller? What about a shadowy villain? All good questions. All good things to explore.
We researched what Chinese restaurants signs looked like. He walked through Chicago’s Chinatown. I walked through San Francisco’s. One thing became apparent right off the bat. We wanted the sign to look retro and we wanted a little kitsch. These old school signs had character. Once we knew the type of sign, we need to figure out how it was presented. Was it in an environment? Was it free-floating against a design? Was it just the sign and nothing else?
Again this required more exploring. All good because it definitely showed us what we didn’t like really quick. It didn’t work when it was just the sign. We liked it in an environment but none of the environments seem to work so far. And another thing that was really bothering me. None of what we were looking at said, “thriller.” Did we need to add a villain or a weapon? I hoped not because I really just liked the sign. It was important that readers knew right away what type of book this was or at least able to make an educated guess.
The more we talked about it, the more we realized simple was good. A background that supported the sign visual but didn’t overpower it. That’s where the idea to just have it attached to building came from. Once we did this, we knew we had the cover. As for the thriller problem, we realized mood could easily convey this. Darken skies, cloud cover, an old building—this all helped tremendously.
It was a lot of work. It took about two months from beginning to end but it was all worth it. I know many of you are dying to know what it cost. All in it was $700.00. Too expensive you say? It’s actually a bargain in my eyes. I wanted to pay my buddy to do this but there was no way I could afford his normal rate. This was my budget and he said it was cool. I know a lot of authors can’t afford this. A lot can’t afford more than a hundred bucks. But it’s not so much the price, it’s the effort you put into it.
Too many authors rely on the designer without contributing. Too many try to do it themselves. Bad idea. Just because you know Photoshop doesn’t mean you can design. I’m serious here. Very few of these covers come out looking great. Don’t listen to other authors who have the same limited experience as you, they’re covers aren’t that great either. It’s like the blind leading the blind. I notice a lot of advice being thrown around by authors on what a great cover should be and shouldn’t be, for the most part it’s a pretty good guide. But remember, you can stray from it a little to get what you need. It’s a guide, not the holy bible.
I realize I might have an advantage, this sort of work falls into my daily job description, but I still I think someone without my background can come up with a cool cover. Give your cover thought. A concept is very important. Don’t be afraid to come up with a lot of ideas. It’s how you get to the good ones. Select a designer that is willing to work with you. Make sure you explore various directions and that the final cover conveys what you want. Most importantly, don’t stop until you have something that really stands out and engages.