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A Tale of Two (or Three) Covers

“Never judge a book by its cover.”

We’ve all heard this familiar admonition, warning us that superficial first impressions may be misleading (for good or ill) when measuring the merits of a person, thing, idea—or book. What is the job of a book cover anyway, beyond keeping the pages together and displaying the title and author’s name? Should it give potential readers a straightforward sense of the story told within, like a movie poster outside a theater? Or is it better to be abstract and symbolic?

After my first novel came out in 1981 with a cover I didn’t love, whenever possible I’d ask my editors if I could provide them with a few cover idea sketches. Most welcomed the offer, since artists and designers can’t read every book assigned to them—and who knows a story better than its writer?

With my first Galloway’s Gamble novel, I found that my editors at Five Star Publishing happily invited author input. After sifting through countless stock-photo website images, my first choice—two young cowboys about to encounter trouble inside a dark saloon—graced the hardcover (below, left). My second choice—a Mississippi riverboat at sunset—was used for the paperback (below, right). The art team made both look great, and both gave readers enticing, story-specific information.

With Galloway’s Gamble 2: Lucifer & the Great Baltimore Brawl, I had the opportunity to design my own cover from scratch. Seeking inspiration, I began by looking at lots of existing Western/historical novels—and discovered that many literary historical tales (by well-known authors from major publishers) had surprisingly generic covers, like News of the World by Paulette Jiles (below; the excellent movie adaptation starred Tom Hanks).

The covers for Mary Doria Russell’s fact-based literary novels about Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp were artistic but also more illustrative of their stories. On Doc, we see refined elements of young John Henry Holliday’s early life in a genteel Georgia household—piano, cane chair, and lace curtains—plus the wide-brimmed hat symbolic of the notorious gambler and gunfighter he’d become after moving out west to violent towns like Dodge City and Tombstone (below, left).

Russell’s sequel Epitaph tells the true story of the famous Tombstone gunfight near the OK Corral. The cover features a sepia photo of a dusty Wild West street, embellished with embossed bullet holes (below, right). Pretty cool, huh?

While big publishers can spring for expensive frills like original art, gold-foiled or raised lettering, or Epitaph’s bullet holes, small and self-publishers rely on finding intriguing images available at low cost (many under $20) from stock-photo websites. But so many of those affordable images are so interchangeable that an identity problem may arise: do these two scenic covers featuring lone riders in wide open spaces (below) look too much alike?

So, how can a cover stand out in a crowd? One way is for words and art to work together—like Holmes on the Range, where the clever title and playful image highlight the high-concept idea behind the story (below, right).

With Galloway’s Gamble 2, once I’d settled on the rowdy sub-title Lucifer & the Great Baltimore Brawl, I wanted the synergy between title and image to make readers wonder, “Who’s Lucifer? And who’s he brawling with?” As they’d soon discover, Lucifer is a horse, and The Great Baltimore Brawl is a momentous high-stakes horse race.

I borrowed visual inspiration from the flamboyant circus and Wild West show posters, dime novels, and florid advertisements common in 19th century America.

My stock-image search turned up a colorful yet understated background with a stars-and-stripes Americana motif. Then I dug up an old horse racing lithograph from the vast Library of Congress online collection—which I could use for free! As a finishing touch, I used a vintage-style font for the title and curved the lettering to mirror the oval racing image. I really liked the result (below, left) . . .

. . . until the completed proof arrived from’s Kindle Direct Publishing division—and looked as if drunken monkeys had printed it (above, right). The starry outer border was clipped unevenly, and the whole cover was crooked. That’s when I learned Amazon’s print-on-demand process isn’t precise enough to keep everything exactly square and plumb, so any design with a border was out.

Changing gears, back I went to scouring the stock-image websites—and eventually found a bold alternative background, bright blue with subtle stars and stripes. All the other cover elements transferred nicely, and Galloway’s Gamble 2 had its final All-American, red-white-and-blue cover.


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