Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Behind the Cover Artist's Curtain: The CAF

By Michelle Lee
BWL Art Director
“And so it begins …” 

Just where does a cover begin?  To some degree, it starts in a place that I have no way to touch – within the author’s imagination.  Authors will have some kind of ideas of what their characters, settings, etc look like – and they do their best to get it across within their story.  Some authors will even have an idea on mind of what their perfect cover will end up looking like.

So the first step (that involves me) is a way for an author to get those ideas across to me, so that I can try to bring it to life.

Now in an ideal world, I would have time to read each and every story two or three times before I start working on a cover, so that I know all the ins and outs of the story.  Unfortunately, I don’t even have the time to read the story once before working on the cover.

So instead, I work from something called a cover art form, or CAF.  Basically, it is a form that author’s fill out, that takes their story and boils it down to character details, and pivotal settings/scenes.

Each publisher has their own CAF …

I am an artist who likes details.  Lots of details … and options.  I am a big fan of options.  I like it when authors suggest a couple of different ways the cover could go and still be something they are proud of.

Because, that is what ultimately I am trying to create – a cover that the author is proud to have marketing their book.

So a CAF askes for the most crucial elements of a story.  What kinds of things are those? I am including various questions from various CAF's that I have used, all of which I feel am important.

First of all, I need to know what genre line I am dealing with.  Mysteries/Suspense/Thrillers will have a lot different style of cover from a Romance.  For example, let’s look at two books by the same author.

Just by looking at the covers, you can tell which cover is for a romance … and which is not.

And despite being close in genres, a romance will often differ from a Spice line book, since the Spice line tends to be erotic romances.  Although, that is not always the case – some Spice books will still have a softer cover.  But some won’t.

In this case, I bet you can tell which is which.

Next are details of the book itself …

The full title
The author’s name
Series title, if applicable

Then we get into the details of the book itself … and different publishers use different forms/questions.  Some of them that I have worked with are:

* Tone (in other words, is it dark, humorous, colloquial): 
* Specific Genre (contemporary romance, urban fantasy, etc.): 
* Setting (time period AND location):
* Pivotal scene(s): 

* Scenes or settings that are integral to the story: 

* Give us a brief synopsis of the book: (This means, literally, a paragraph or two. The purpose is to give the artist a feel for the action and tone. No more than 150 words.)
* Provide the blurb for this book:
From there, we move on to what could easily be the longest section of the CAF, depending upon the story itself.  The section where the author has to work the hardest – because it is the most crucial, and all that I have to work from to create the cover.  Some of the various questions I have asked are:

* Mood (anything that might help set the feel of the cover):

* Colors (those you want and those you absolutely do not want)

* Objects that are part of the storyline that you might like to see on the cover:

* Main CharactersMost covers WILL have a person or couple on it.  Make sure to provide information for each pivotal character.

- Hair Color:
- Eye Color:
- Build:
- Style of Dress (give at least two examples):

- Additional Information (be sure to include any tattoos or piercing, facial hair, etc that are mentioned about the character):

* If there is something you specifically do not want on the cover state it here. This is your chance to speak up – PLEASE use it.

If asked what the most important detail is, I would have to say eye color.  Why?  Because it is the most often overlooked detail when images are selected.  I've had it happen often that an author will find an image that fits their character to a T, from the hair to the clothes.  And then come to realize that the image has blue eyes and the character has brown.

Luckily, eye color is a fairly easy fix.  If I had to suggest which to find images based on, I say go with exact hair color, and let me change the eye color.  Because hair color is a pain to change, and have look realistic.  But eyes are fairly simple.

After that, we look at fonts.  A lot can be conveyed by a font, and it is my job to make sure that each font matches the cover I created, the genre of the book, and most importantly the book itself.  For example, I wouldn’t use a loopy lasso looking font on a serious thriller.  But I might use it on a fun, and whimsical contemporary romance about a woman roping her perfect man – a cowboy.  Conversely, I might use a stark, simple font with sharp lines and pointed tips if the book were a dark vampire romance.

Now, some authors have fonts that are used on all of their books, and they like it that way.  Others don’t mind something different each time.  So that has to be taken into consideration too.  So authors normally have a chance in the CAF to weigh in on the fonts …

Generally, the last part of the CAF directs authors to look at previously created covers for their publication house, and even covers created for other publishers by the house artists, to give a suggestions of styles, colors, look and feel. 

For example, if an author says they  like this cover By Shirley Martin.

What this tells me is that they like a sexy cover with clean, bold lines.  Nothing too busy.  But still has some soft elements – namely the red silk along the side. 

What about the following cover by Rita Karnopp?  

At first glance, this is also a fairly straightforward cover, until you start to look closer.  The woman is a bold focus point, but it isn’t as simple as it seems.  The background is stark black and white, suggesting at grittiness.  You also can’t quite make out what the background is, but you can kind of see hints of rocks, trees and water, so it is outside.  Along the bottom, is a man on a horse, in silhouette.  And it is balanced by the dreamcatcher with the author’s initials in it.

So it is a relatively busy cover, with a lot to say.  If an author suggests this cover – it could be for the colors, and the play of softness and starkness.  Or it could be because of the way numerous elements of the story are blended together. 

What about when both ideas need to be blended together?  Something a little bit busy, but sexy!

 Then you have something like Ann Cory’s Unladylike Behavior.  It has a lot of elements, the castle, the pearls, the roses, and the women.  Obviously, the woman the focus, but they the cover overall is soft and sexy, and very feminine.  And notice the roses aren’t quite normal – that is because there is a silk sheet laid over them, and faded in.  The castle has mist around it, in a soft pink to match the roses.  The roses, by the way, are colored to match the lipstick of the two women.

So if an author suggests this cover, I know we are looking at soft, sexy, and yet it can convey numerous elements of the story.

I definitely like when authors mention covers that they like elements of, even if it isn’t my work.  Makes things easier …

Now if you are interested in looking at my cover portfolio, it can be found HERE.  http://eroticdesign.eroticpen.net  I feel I must mention, some of my covers are for erotic romances … so some may be very sexy, and rather hot!  You’ve been warned. : )

So that, in a nutshell, a cover art form. 

I hope that you have enjoyed this brief glimpse into what goes on for me in creating a cover.


  1. Really nice bit about covers. Being visually challenged I really have a hard time with deciding what should go on a cover as you probably already know. I've enjoyed all your covers, and the one for Escape has interesting connotations since the falling people could be the children's parents whp morph into birds.

  2. Interesting article. Amazing how much goes into it. Almost as much as writing a story. Well, you are with pictures. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Terrific blog. As the daughter of a printer, I have had a love of fonts most of my life and really feel what a carefully chosen type face can do to augment a picture. What you said about choosing the right one to further articulate the concept in your cover designs is so very true. Thanks for sharing...and for my lovely cover :-)

  4. Hi Michelle,
    Terrific blog. I always wondered how a cover artirst operated, now I know. Thank you for the two fabulous covers you did for me. I am so thrilled with them.



  5. Great post Michelle! I am absolutely in love with the covers for the War-N-Wit series, all three are framed and on my bedroom wall, even though two of them are still waiting for the final contents. I don't know how you're going to top them but this winter, I plan to give you a chance to try this winter -- dark vampire romantic thrillers!


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