Making Survival First: Part 14 - The Book Cover
This is Part 14 of the Making Survival First book series. For the previous sections click here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10, Part 11, Part 12, Part 13
I can't imagine whoever said “don't judge a book by it’s cover” ever sold many books.
This idea is stupid.
Of course people judge books by the cover the same way most of us judge most things by appearance. Whether people should or shouldn't is irrelevant. The fact is we do, and it's my job to adjust to how the world is rather than how it "should" be.
The book cover has a few critical jobs. People see books before they read what’s on it. So it has to draw people in. Ideally, the cover visually represents what the book is about. Since I'm not some known author yet who can sell books merely with my reputation, I needed a great book cover that would stand out. I’ll show you how I approached getting to my final cover.
Doing the cover would be a new creative phase for the book. The whole book process so far has been represented through words. This would be the first time it would be represented with images. Of course I was excited, but still nervous. What was my vision? What did I want? How would I know who to hire? How could I communicate it?
Like I did in this section, I documented my thoughts. The better I could describe what was in my head the more likely I could get what I wanted.
Click to Open: Survival First Book Cover Manifesto
I started by explaining what I knew I wanted. I wanted the energy inside the book to be represented outside the book. This meant something bold enough to stand out, heavy on contrast, playfully absurd, and aesthetically exciting.
Then came story. I wanted the book’s story told in the same way I wanted it’s energy conveyed. As somebody relatively new to Liberal Arts appreciation I've come to love classics. Classics are the classics for a reason. They tell the stories of humanity that never change. I wanted a classic that parallels to the central story in the book.
Survival First is about small rebellious entrepreneurs looking to defy the odds and survive. David and Goliath, the ultimate underdog story, is what came to mind.
This is how I started the book cover manifesto. "A David & Goliath type scene. Small plucky cartoon entrepreneur facing Big Grim Reaper and flicking him off and the grim reaper looks sad." I added some character depictions visualizing what I had in mind.
Then came aesthetics. I thought about another core theme in the book - the tension between darkness and light. Entrepreneurship (and I would argue, all of life) is in some way the tension between darkness and light. As entrepreneurs we go through all sorts of shit in order to create wealth, meaning, and sovereignty. We confront darkness so we can hopefully reach the light.
As he did before, my favorite painter, the Master of Light himself, Caravaggio came to mind. No artist in history is more famous for contrasting darkness and light better than he was.
This is where I got my color scheme from - white, black, and red.
Designers often ask for inspirational covers so they can work with. For this I added movie posters from The Godfather and Scarface (which I imagine were also Caravaggio-inspired). Then I used Midjourney to cook up some representations.
With the manifesto complete it was time to find somebody to bring it to life. Through a convenient referral I got connected with my first book cover designer, Josh (not his real name). Josh is an experienced book cover designer who seemed to know his shit and was already connected to my team. Instead of considering other people I went with him.
I sent Josh the manifesto and we got on a call to discuss. After that he went off to do his thing. After a few days I hear back from Josh with his first drafts.
I was super stoked to see the first drafts…..
And then I wasn’t.
Josh's first drafts were...uh....not good. Like, not good in any way. I gave some feedback and Josh went back for a second round. Josh’s second round drafts weren't much better.
I’ll spare my specific feelings about this.
I'm not sure if I got a good representation of Josh’s full talents, but I knew we were way too far off the mark for me to want to proceed. Everyone isn't for everyone, and for me to get my vision to life I had to find another designer.
I realized I didn't understand much about book designers. I can't say I'm an expert yet, but I did learn a few things after. Most book designers primarily use stock images to create book covers, while others custom illustrate designs. In my mind this was the difference between craftsman designers who can literally represent what you want them to do, and more artistically oriented designers who can put their own creative spin to bring ideas to life.
I wanted somebody who was not only experienced in book cover design, but someone who was first and foremost an artist. I interviewed a few more designers after splitting with Josh. One felt too much like a dry transactional business exchange. Another I just didn’t connect with on a personal level.
I was looking for somebody who was excited about collaborating on an art project. This is why Michael Nagin stood out for me. Immediately on our first call I could tell he was both professionally interested and creatively excited about what I had in mind.
I like that Michael is artist who happens to also do book cover design. On top of that he does photography, sketching and illustration. It helps that his website is badass too. He was the most expensive person I spoke with, but the only one I was excited about working with.
I send Michael the manifesto and he sends me his first drafts a week after.
Since Michael is a busy dude, I recorded a Loom video explaining my reactions so we could better coordinate asynchronously.
Watch here: Round 1 Loom Feedback
These first drafts were a bit further than what I was hoping for. I didn't fall in love with any of them. Some were too flat or confusing. Michael did take one interesting approach where he distilled the entire David & Goliath story into a sleek looking slingshot.
Those seemed they would fit best into a business book section. But while I wanted to be sold in the business section, I wanted to stand out rather than fit in.
Distilling the story into a single object was an interesting idea, but it veered too far from the story I had in mind. I thought the slingshot told the story of a business trying to take down, or compete with larger businesses. This makes sense in the David vs Goliath story, but this wasn't the David & Goliath interpretation of the story I was aiming for in my book. In my mind I was aiming towards a story of defiance against death.
The one below, with the kid flicking off the grim reaper, was the closest one to what I wanted, but it wasn’t quite there yet.
While none of these first round designs really hooked me, the approach of starting wide and narrowing down later made sense.
Michael Round 2
Between the first and second phase I had a spark of inspiration. I was hanging out with some friends watching one of my favorite shows, Arcane. We passed around a joint and dove into this high fantasy masterpiece that juxtaposes a bright vibrant top-world with a dark gritty underworld.
Back home in bed my imagination was playing around Arcane's imaginary universe. As sometimes happens when I'm..uh....consciously elevated…some creativity faeries visited me and went wild with my imagination.
Rebellion. Underworld. Grit. Grounded. Streets. Graffiti.
Holy shit. It's grounded, relatable, defiant, and a tad mischievous. Banksy came to mind. This would be perfect for my cover. Long past appropriate business hours I rush-email Michael this idea of taking a new street art angle. Luckily, I catch him before he's too deep into the next round.
Michael loves the idea and goes off to tinker. A week later he sends me a new round of options. I open the file and the first thing I see...is a giant spray painted middle finger.
I asked for bold, and bold is what I got.
This time around, Michael again distills the story into a single image - a middle finger in this case. This was hyper aggressive, and I immediately fell in love the new street art angle.
But as much as I loved bold, I thought this was bit too bold to the point of being off-putting. But more directly, this giant middle finger wasn't the book’s story. Seeing a middle finger pointed at me felt like I was being told fuck off.
Not what I was aiming for.
Scrolling down were more options and more middle fingers. Some of these other designs were too flat. I didn't like the literal middle finger either. I sensed a layer of abstraction would be more relatable.
Then I get to the bottom. Here was a street art version of my favorite one from the first round.
The made my feely feels go wild. It was right story, it made me giggle, and now it has this awesomely textured and gritty energy that the first round didn’t have. It wasn't as aggressive as a giant middle finger, but it had the drama, the right amount of silly, rebellious, and oozed the grittiness I was hoping for. Most importantly, it felt right. I recorded another Loom with all of my thoughts:
Watch: Round 2 Loom feedback
I loved it, but didn't commit to anything just yet. I sat with it for a few days to see how things marinated in my head. I showed the samples to a few people to gauge their immediate reactions.
People mostly smiled and laughed and communicated something along the lines of “Oh my god I can't believe you're doing this, I love it.” Not everyone loved it. Some explained they didn't connect to the aggressive grittiness of it. Mom hated it. Dad loved it. They're weren’t my direct audience, but I wanted them to see it anyways.
I did get some useful feedback along the way as it related to clarity and legibility. Michael able to quickly adjust a few things. Finally, we arrived here.
More than anything I was shocked at how close I got to the vision I had in mind. I loved it. My team loved it. Most people I share it with loved it.
So I locked it in. Survival First now had a book cover.
And that is how you design a book cover!