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Covers aren't easy

Did I ever say they were easy?

I mean, I don’t think I did? In fact, I’m pretty sure I wrote a blogpost early last year about what a difficult time we had fixing the cover for How to Buy a Planet.

But anyway, if you did ever hear me say they’re easy, please chuck me overboard.

Because covers aren’t easy.

When I last blogged about covers, I drew two clear lessons from my experience with How to Buy a Planet: (a) always use a professional cover designer and (b) don’t overbrief them.

So when Book 2 (The Zoo of Intelligent Animals) was coming into view towards the end of 2021, I duly followed my own advice. I re-hired the peerless Mikhail Starikov and I gave him a simple brief. In essence (…spoiler alert…): “Please do a cover for a book about humans being abducted to an alien zoo. What's happening in the zoo? Alien visitors are coming to watch the humans at work and play in artificially re-constructed towns and villages.”

That is, granted, a tricky brief. How do you turn that into a cover? But then Book 1 had scarcely been a cakewalk either (“G7, desperate to pay off our post-pandemic debts, sell the Earth to rich aliens”) – and Mikhail had come up with a pretty cool concept for that cover. Surely he could do the same again? So I lobbed the new cover brief over to him, stretched back on the sofa, and waited for the great ideas to come rolling in.

Sure enough, not so many weeks later, the first two ideas arrived:

Now these covers weren’t a disaster. The fonts and colours clearly reference the Book 1 cover, so anyone should see the new book is in the same series. And I could tell – perhaps with a little thinking – where he was going with these concepts. The blue one has a snow-globe-vibe – the idea of a civilisation in a jar being a decent proxy for a civilisation in a zoo. And the red cover with the microscope (think: civilisation under inspection) likewise hints at a zoo.

But in both cases, is the connection to the human zoo a bit too subtle? And how well would these covers work at thumbnail size? Zoom your screen out for a moment and you’ll see.

Exactly. Not great.

Something else was needed. But what?

After some days of cogitation it became clear that the image needed to say zoo much more clearly. It’s crucial in cover design that the image and title talk directly to each other. So my mind started to revolve around this question: what image says zoo without involving giraffes or lions or penguins? After a while, I fixed on the old-fashioned, iconic design for zoo gates. I jotted down the two sketches below and sent them to Mikhail.

But something still wasn’t right. The left-hand sketch with the broken gate implied ‘escape from the zoo’ – which added perhaps a hint of intrigue. But not much.

And then the right-hand sketch. This was an attempt to pose a question in the reader’s mind: who’s trapped behind bars? Is it the dog or the human? But this seemed to fall into the trap of the first two cover attempts: asking too much interpretation from the reader. A cover needs to jump out at you – not leave you puzzled and confused.

At this point, I felt frankly that we were still stuck at square one. Which wasn’t a great feeling three or four weeks into the design process. Despair beckoned.

So I guess it was just as well that Mikhail chose this moment to have a brainwave.

Because it really was a brainwave.

His idea was simply this: add human footprints to the above left sketch (the one with the broken zoo gate), implying it’s humans who’ve escaped from the zoo. Implying it without actually saying it.


We would now have an image that was both intriguing and spoke closely to the title of the book. Thank Goodness. That’s not to say, however, that the rest of the design process was plain-sailing. The next cover came out like this:

Not too shabby, to be sure. But still not there.

Why not?

At least three big issues. Firstly, it appears like the word ‘ZOO’ is repeated twice in the title, which is just confusing. Secondly, the zoo gates look strangely detailed when compared to the Book 1 cover style. But thirdly, and most importantly, the human footprints would disappear to nothing when the cover is presented at thumbnail size. Which, by the way, is the size at which we see most covers most of the time. (Think about it: when we’re browsing on Google or Amazon, it’s thumbnails we see.)

So I went back to Mikhail with amends and Mikhail came back to me with version two. (Or version four, depending on how you’re counting...)

OK, not too bad, but…

Don’t those gates look just a bit, well, weird?

At this point, I remembered: Mikhail is a designer, not an illustrator. There’s a difference. So I got another friend to draw the zoo gates the way we needed them. And at the same time I had a little brainwave of my own along the way: replace the ‘O’ in my name with a footprint. That would integrate the image with the text and, crucially, make the footprints visible at thumbnail size.

And so we get to version three (or five):

And, breathe.

We’re almost there.

Just a few things left now: some tidying up of the footprints – add the back cover copy – and the spine – and have a couple of disagreements about the colour palette – and fiddle endlessly with the detail – and, well… You get the gist. It was only after another four versions we actually, genuinely arrived at the final design:

Like I said, covers aren’t easy.

(P.s. If you like what you see, you can browse Mikhail Starikov’s amazing portfolio here.)

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