The other week I re-edited one of my more popular short stories, Graves. To accompany the new(ish) version I decided a new cover design was warranted. Since cover design is one of the many burdens of the self-publishing author I thought I’d share the story of how it all came together.

Given how badly an amateurish cover can stick out, I’ve always taken my cover designs pretty seriously. The original idea for Graves (first published in 2009) was very simple and also very obvious: a photo of some graves. My wife is a particular fan of perusing graveyards, so I already had some pretty decent source material from various graveyards from the UK. For the initial cover I did little more than add a red overlay to make it seem a bit more sinister and that was that.

However, as I began to put more effort into my subsequent covers (or prevailed upon the favours of far more talented friends), the original cover for Graves began to excite me less and less. Late last year I ended up doing a rewrite of the story which provided me with the perfect excuse to revisit the cover. I decided to retain the basic concept but, in keeping with the theme of the story, the cover would this time depict an image of a grave standing just outside a window.


I already had an alternative graveyard shot and it didn’t take long to find a suitable shot of a window. The next step was to cut out the window panes (or, more accurately, what was visible through the window panes) in Photoshop so I could layer the window over my shot of the grave. I also needed to reshape the window to make it fit the dimensions of a book cover more closely.This was achieved by cutting the far left edge of the window and compositing it onto the middle. I then using Photoshop’s distort tool to make the edges a little straighter (the aim here was not so much to make the window perfectly straight, but more to remove the visual distraction from noticing that there’s more blank space at one end of the window than the other).


I quickly decided that the left side of the image was too empty. Luckily I had a suitably creepy photo of a tree which I was able to blend in easily enough (pro tip: having a window frame over your composition can hide all manner of sins). One obvious problem remained: having found the ideal position for the ‘hero’ gravestone, the main graveyard shot now wasn’t tall enough to fill the window. A quick clipping from the top left of the ‘creepy tree’ shot and the problem was sorted.


graves-merged1 graves-merged2

At this point I had the composition in place and it was just a matter of finding the right mood for the picture. I felt that the window frame was too cold and white, so I fiddled with the hue and saturation to warm things up a bit. This also had the side benefit of bringing the image much closer to the feel of a sunset creeping in.


I was very happy with the result so far, but still felt the image lacked ‘pop’. One major issue for me was that the gravestone was almost entirely lost within the composition, and there was a flash of white at the top left corner which detracted from the sense of eeriness that I was so close to achieving.

I fixed the gravestone by adding a few more layers: one to provide a glow around the edges (just enough to make the outline a little clearer); and then a blurred overlay to give the stone a slightly ethereal look. I fiddled with the colors for a while and eventually decided that a higher contrast look, tinted green, was perhaps the most effective (albeit cliched) look. My goal here, of course, is not to produce art but to create an image that’s effective enough at thumbnail size to catch the passing eye.

graves-merged3 graves-2016-tinted

The almost final touch was to add a red hue creeping in from the top left. To be honest I didn’t want to do this as it seemed the easy way out. I did try some different colours (blues and purples mainly) but ultimately the contrast, between the red at the top left and the green at the bottom right gave the image the pop it needed.

Finally I had to put the cover text over it all. I had three options here:

  • shrink the window and use the black space at top and bottom for the title and author text;
  • place the text over the main composition in some way;
  • incorporate the text within the composition.

I went with the third option. The title and the author name have only minimal importance here (no one really cares about my name, and most people will get the title from the website listing, or from their ereader). As before, what was important was that the image remained eyecatching. Fortunately the title is short enough to fit comfortably within one of the window panes (it won’t be legible at small resolutions, but that’s unlikely to be a problem). My name was harder. There was no way of fitting it within a single pane, and breaking it across multiple panes or breaking the name itself would have been messy. In the end, after much toing and froing, I placed it within the empty space at the bottom of the window frame. As a last touch a subtle bit of of dropshadowing was added to make it seem a little more like it belonged down there.


The whole piece took several hours and a fair bit of second-guessing, a.k.a ‘winging it’. If you asked me whether I felt the result was perfect I’d give you a categoric ‘no’. However, it’s an image that I enjoy looking at and that’s my usual acid test. If I like looking at it, hopefully other people will enjoy looking at it as well, and ideally they’ll enjoy it enough that they’ll want to go deeper and read the story that it’s attached too.

That story is free by the way, and you can read it right here.