• Richard Hinchliffe

The Fun and Frustration of Book Cover Design.

An insight into the fun tasks (and occasional struggles) of a micro-publisher’s production process.

When I first decided to set up Brindle Books Ltd, I had a dream. I wanted to re-create the style as well as the substance of the books that I had enjoyed so much in my younger days. I was a voracious consumer of the classic Pan, Penguins, and New English Library paperbacks that were so popular in years gone by, as I mentioned in a previous post which was predominantly about the TV Tie-in books that I collected.

My interest in these old tomes, however, was not confined to merely the content of these works, but also to the covers. After all, that was the first thing that you saw, and it was the thing that made you pick it up, read the blurb on the back, and then, (if you’re anything like me), annoy staff and fellow customers by blocking the bookshop aisles, reading the first chapter or so. The cover is very important:


NORMANBY: Amazon.co.uk: Dixon, P G: 9781739864811: Books

When we released our first title; Normanby by P G Dixon, I knew exactly the kind of cover it needed. Normanby is basically a Spy Novel (with elements of the detective novel mixed in there). It’s unlike most modern spy stories, in that the central character is not a larger than life super hero type, with dazzling martial arts skills and such like. Nor is the book set in glamourous locations that most of us can’t afford to visit. The closest book in tone that I could relate it to would probably be Len Deighton’s ‘The IPCRESS File’, (though again, there are major differences – Normanby is very much set in the modern day, dealing very much with modern issues, both in the Intelligence world, and in society at large). For this reason, I felt that the cover illustration should reflect this.

We drew on the basic theme of Raymond Hawkey’s brilliant design for the first cover of The IPCRESS File for our own Normanby cover. Hawkeys’s design was a stark black-and-white image showing a chipped mug of tea, in which a cigarette butt had been disposed of, above a revolver and two rounds of ammunition. Of course, the image is such a classic that it has been copied, to varying degrees, by many publishers.

Raymond Hawkey's cover design for Len Deighton's 'The IPCRESS File.'

In the cover photo for Normanby, the chipped cup has been replaced with a pair of spectacles. I’m sure that many people would assume that this is part of the homage, since Michael Caine and, later, Joe Cole play the role of Harry Palmer in the Film and TV adaptations of ‘IPCRESS’ wearing similar spectacles. Of course, any purists reading will know that the central character in Deighton’s novel isn’t called Harry Palmer and, as far as I recall, doesn’t mention wearing spectacles. The titular character in Normanby, however, does.

The revolver in the IPCRESS cover is replaced in Normanby with a different kind of weapon, a Makarov, or Pistolet Makarova, the Russian equivalent to the Walther PP. As this particular handgun plays a significant role in Normanby, it was an absolute necessity that we use the the right kind of handgun. Of course, living in the UK, firearms are somewhat difficult to obtain. Fortunately, I knew of a very good Military Surplus and outdoor store, Army Stall, Wakefield, which I often use for camping equipment and workwear. They also sell a range of CO2 air gun replicas, and I was able to order the Makarov from there. (It’s also great fun for back garden ‘plinking’- taking down dangerous and hostile tin-cans - by the way).

Beneath the pistol on the Normanby cover, Hawkey’s bullets have been replaced by a chess piece, a white pawn, seemingly lying dead, with a splatter of blood coming from its head, as though it had just been shot. Again, this part of the image ties in with the book itself. The main tag-line, used in the advertising, and the blurb for the book, and one of the themes in the story is “Pawns were made to be sacrificed.”

The overall design of the Normanby book cover is very simple, neat and uncluttered, but each item in the photograph has something to do with the book. The moment you see it, you can get a pretty good idea about the themes of the novel. The simplicity of the cover also makes it very easy to identify as a thumbnail picture, which I felt was very important. Let’s face it, most indie fiction releases these days are more likely to sell as eBooks than print editions, and most of those shoppers are buying their reading matter from Amazon, picking their next read on the basis of that tiny picture, along with the book description next to it. The customer’s ability to see the cover as a thumbnail is therefore very important now.


A Little Book of Strange Tales eBook : Hinchliffe, Richard: Amazon.co.uk: Kindle Store

Our second release was my own little collection of short stories, and a few poems. The stories are a mixture of horror, science fiction, and well, simply weird things. The cover illustration doesn’t relate to any particular story in the book, but illustrates the nature of the work, which is odd and occasionally (hopefully) mildly disturbing.

We wanted to create something along the lines of the old Pan Books of Horror Stories, but with a feeling for the old Twilight Zone, or Outer Limits television shows.

The Tenth Pan Book of Horror Stories.

For this one, we were able to have a lot of fun. I liked the idea of something so scary that even if you cover your eyes you cant stop seeing it, and that led us to the design that we eventually came up with.

The eyes were fun to make. The eyeballs themselves were flat dolls eyes intended, I guess, for sticking on stuffed toys. We needed those eyes to look realistic though; they needed eyelids if they were to look as though they were actually growing out of the back of someone’s hands. We made the eyelids out of strips of latex, cut from surgical gloves, and then matched the skin colour using concealer make-up from a local beauty store.

After a series of photographs using a black bathroom mat as a background, we had something to work with, and tried a series of special effects, eventually coming to our final decision again, partly, due to how the picture looks as a thumbnail.

We had a great deal of fun making the eyes at our kitchen table, and with the photo shoot. As we were so pleased with they way that the eyes had turned out, just from the materials that we had, we decided to use them again for a short YouTube video that we made as a sort of book trailer, using one of the poems from the book. You can see the video using the link below:



The 'Lost' Village of Lawers eBook : Bridgeman, Mark: Amazon.co.uk: Kindle Store

This one was a little different for us as we didn’t design the cover at all. Mark Bridgeman, the author of the work, had already written, produced and published the paperback version of the book. It sells very well in his native Scotland, and he has had enquiries from the United States and other countries from people who are interested in buying the book, so our job here was simply to produce an eBook version of the work, so that it can be distributed worldwide without the cost of posting out hard copies, and therefore keeping the price at a manageable level for buyers.

The cover of the book is a photograph from the ‘lost’ and abandoned village, in all its eerie, other-worldly beauty.

The only change that we made to Mark’s original cover for the eBook version was to add the Brindle Books logo to the front.


To The Douro (Wellington's Dragoon Book 1) eBook : Blackmore, David J: Amazon.co.uk: Kindle Store

This was another title where we had a lot of fun making the cover. You may have seen my previous post; WELLINGTON’S DRAGOON AND SOME EQUINE SUPERSTARS, about the photo shoot that we did to get a cover picture for David J Blackmore’s historical adventure. Here’s a link to it, just in case you haven’t:


During the photo shoot, my partner, Emma, took about 300 photographs, so that we would have one illustration that would be suitable for the cover. The author himself, David J Blackmore, dressed in the uniform of a 16th Dragoons officer charged repeatedly on horseback past the camera.

As David pointed out to us, he is a little older than the central character in the book, whom the picture is meant to represent. “Don’t worry,” I told him, confidently. “We’ll sort that out in post-production.”

Of course, these things are never as easy as one thinks they’re going to be, and it turns out that I’d made a lot of work for myself with my confident assurance. With the equipment and programs at my disposal, I was told, there wasn’t much chance of putting a youth’s face on the pictures.

Stubbornly, I did it anyway, but it took some doing. Getting another image of a young face at precisely the correct angle to replace the one on the photograph took time, patience and the help of an Action Man (that’s a GI Joe action figure, for readers across the pond).

Once we were satisfied with the results, Emma and I were eventually able to produce a series of finished cover picture ideas with different effects. After all the hard work and frustration, we ended up picking a picture that had needed no fancy post-production wizardry, opting instead for a picture where David’s face had been obscured by his sword arm! It was, I must confess, the best choice as, as David himself pointed out; it allows the reader to have their own view of what the character looks like.

The time spent editing was not wasted, however. It was an opportunity to learn new skills which I am sure I will get to use again at some point in our publishing journey...

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