• duncanralston

The Evolution of a Book Cover

Updated: Aug 5, 2019


A Look Back at the Many Covers for My Debut Horror Collection, GRISTLE & BONE.

Man, Gristle & Bone has had more covers than the Rolling Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction"! Since I self-published it in early-2014, it's had as many covers as years it's been out! So let's go way back and take a look at the earliest cover, with original artwork by my younger brother, Morgan Ralston.


Original cover

I was pretty happy with this one at the time, and I still have a soft spot for it as it's the first cover I designed, using the Gimp program. Aside from the image, it never really popped for me though. The text for my name is too dark and the both fonts are too small. I hadn't looked at any covers for inspiration.

I still think the image my brother did is pretty awesome, as evidenced by the poster in my office and the friggin' comforter in my living room. I liked it so much I wrote it into one of the stories (on the restaurant sign in "Fat of the Land")!

But, it's not a "sales cover." Other than the image, nothing about it grabs the attention. So, I decided one it started getting readers and more attention from reviewers, that I should try to get a more professional cover done. Which meant I had to shell out some cash that I didn't have. You can't get on the ride if you don't have a ticket!


The Infamous Chainsaw Cover

Gawd, I forgot about this one! I'd used it for several months between self-publishing in 2014 and joining up with Booktrope in 2015. Once Booktrope shut down in 2016 I went back to using this one for a while. Yes, those are supposed to be intestines hanging from the top of the book.

This was done by Yocla Designs, who also did the original Booktrope cover for Salvage.(which I liked a fair bit more). As you can see, this one is unapologetically violent. It's grisly, it's grimy, it's raw, but it really doesn't fit with the contents. I mean, the stories get bloody, but that's not all that they're about. This is the cover of a torture porn book and there's a lot more to the stories than that.

Looking through the email exchange I had with the designer just now I see that I'd suggested a worn book cover aesthetic--the kind of covers seen during the '80s Horror Boom. I was told that style was "out of trend" and that we should go with something more modern. Imagine my surprise to see that very style come back into popularity only a few years later. Now they're everywhere!

Fortunately I was on the cusp of that trend with Video Nasties in 2017. I just wish I'd beaten Grady Hendrix's My Best Friend's Exorcism by a couple of years with Gristle & Bone instead of being a few months behind with my second horror collection!


Booktrope Days

Booktrope picked up the book up about a year after its initial publication. One thing that I thought was cool about them was that they had "hired" a bunch of cover artists, professional editors and a marketing team. In truth, those professionals were paid by royalties just like the authors. Only they were given a much smaller percentage. This is something I was vaguely uncomfortable with at the time but I expected Booktrope to do a decent job at selling, and that their smaller percentages would end up being a decent amount in time. I didn't understand the market enough to realize that deferred payment is the same no matter the industry.

Anyway, cover designer Scott Deyett created this lovely dinner scene after working with me painstakingly for several weeks on one concept after another. I had no ideas for the cover when we first spoke. I still liked the one I'd done myself but I knew it wasn't a "sales cover," and the second cover was far too gory to sell to mainstream horror fans. I won't show you the early incarnations (it would violate whatever writer/artist privilege we had), but eventually I came up with the dinner concept after having seen the book for the Hannibal TV series with a similar aesthetic. (Okay, it's probably closer to a ripoff than an homage.) We tried it with a white tablecloth and black text as well, but this one stuck. I think Deyett knocked it out of the park.

However, when Booktrope closed down with barely a month's notice, there was a lot of bad blood to go around. Artists wanted to get paid, and rather than Booktrope paying them out from their coffers it was up to the writers to foot the bill. I couldn't afford the cost, and I'd decided to start fresh with a new cover for my small press, Shadow Work Publishing, a company I started to reprint my work and the work of a few Booktrope colleagues, so that we wouldn't lose all of our Amazon reviews.

Splitting the Difference


Some time last year I decided I wanted to shoot for another Bookbub deal for this book and felt it needed a cleaner look.

I commissioned this one from a designer on Fiverr, of all places. Covers By Creatives also did my latest cover for Salvage, which I like a fair bit more than this. It's the same problem I had with the Booktrope cover: I like it, but it only fits one story. Also, it seems as though it was still too gory to score a Bookbub deal.

I wish I could give some details about the process with this one but I can't find the message thread in Fiverr. So I suppose it's a story that's lost to history. All I know for sure is that I'd intended to make the sales copy (ie. book description) on the back of the paperback look like a menu in a fancy restaurant but then I couldn't decide what the copy should be and I guess I procrastinated long enough that I ended up getting a new cover before I could get that done. Whoops!


Last but Not Least

And here we have it, folks! Author Michael Bray (who once murdered me in an excellent short story) designed this one. He also designed my cover for The Method and both of the VS competition anthologies.

I really love this cover. I dig the minimalist, two-color style that harkens back to books from the '60s and '70s. It's simple and clean but it's also slightly grimy with a blood-and-bandaid feel, and it says a fair bit about the contents, more so than any of the previous incarnations.

Take a closer look at the lettering. Your eyes probably drifted to the eyeball in the middle right away, but you might not have noticed the rest.

Eventually this will serve as the cover for a hardcover Special Edition I'm hoping to put out, featuring illustrations for each chapter. That's a little ways off, but I'll be sure to let you know and update this post when it happens.

Anyway, I hope this blog post didn't bore you to tears. I've always been interested in behind the scenes stuff like this so hopefully some of you out there are as well. If you're interested in checking out the book itself, pop over to the Gristle & Bone page, where all the purchasing links for Amazon, Kobo, etc can be found.




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