Back to the Drawing Board

by Siol na Tine

My job necessarily involves spontaneous lessons in erotica cover design. D.M. Atkins has all kinds of business, marketing, publishing, law, and human sexuality information crammed in that purple-braided head than I could possibly anticipate. We never know what I need to know until I stumble across a gap in my knowledge.

For example, I initially proposed a cover for “In the Death of Winter” that strongly implied one character is fisting another. Sounds hot, right? I made sure the hand and crotch were off the top of the image. It should be fine. Did you know clear depictions of fisting are automatically obscene according to certain decency laws, and even censored depictions are too pornographic for the front cover? I had no idea.

Well, back to the drawing board — literally.

That wasn’t so bad. I knew I was pushing it, and was prepared to be told to take it down a notch. I was having fun seeing if I even had it in me to design a cover like that. So being told to take it back down to my comfort zone was almost a relief. I did have fun getting my housemate, a fetish model, to pose for the reference photos, though.

"Forever After" Draft 1Imagine my surprise when the next cover caused an even bigger stir when I made it safe as houses! Or rather, safe as fairy tale castles, which was exactly the problem. You see, “Forever After” is a delightful short story by Kailin Morgan about a fantasy librarian and his utterly fabulous fairy “godmother”. It’s cute and sweet and romantic and funny and gay as the day is long at midsummer.

Naturally I illustrated the characters to be as cute and sweet and (hopefully) as gay as they are depicted in the story. To really drive home that it’s a fairy tale, I took a physically impossible fantasy castle I drew many years ago and fixed it up to be the background. The resulting cover was worthy of a Saturday morning cartoon.

Oops! My boss loved the characters I drew, and was dismayed to have to tell me that we couldn’t use the cover. Outside distributors would never forgive us if some parent or child mistakenly purchased gay erotica for a 10-year-old. That’s NOT what we mean by “bedtime story”.

We discussed the need to make the cover more realistic and more overtly sexual, so no mistakes could be made. Granted, the story is every bit as charming as the cover design I’d developed, but we’re better off playing it safe even if it means pulling away from the feel of the story. What if we started over with photo manipulation?

I was heartbroken. I had spent hours making the main fairy character match the scene as closely as possible, and didn’t want to let him go. I started negotiating. What if we put them indoors, somewhere darker? That could work. What if I put the Magic Mirror behind them, to emphasize the fairy tale setting without being so happy-shiny? The mirror might work, but less happy is bad – it’s a romance, they should look happy so people know what to expect. What if we put them in the library and have them looking directly at each other? Try it and see.
"Forever After" Library Background Draft
So I sketched a library to put them in, rearranged the characters, and filled in detail to make it more obvious that the fairy’s shirt was enticingly open. I also put a blurb on the cover to emphasize the true nature of the story, hoping Atkins would let me get away with procrastinating on the photo manip option for another round.

It worked! The draft was approved! Time to tighten up the details. I made the floor wooden paneling instead of carpet, and added depth of shadow to the librarian. Then I went digging for better fonts.

Like everything else, the font needs to match the mood of the story and the cover design. The writing can’t be too close to the edges of the cover in case webpage design crops the edges too tight. The title needs to be the largest font size on the cover, followed by the author name, and so on, unless the words are actually part of the cover art.

"Forever After" Final CoverThe fonts I’d chosen for “Forever After” were pretty and thematically appropriate, but didn’t scale well. If a font is too thin, it’s not legible on a small scale because it disappears. So I swapped in a classic blackletter font. The resulting third draft was almost ready for prime time. Blackletter fonts don’t scale well either, but for the opposite reason. Fonts that are too thick tend to blur together on a small scale. D.M. Atkins came to my rescue at that point with her more extensive font library (note to self: get more fonts).

That left us only with author approval. Sometimes I wish I had direct access to the author’s brain during this process. I read their stories, but I can’t read their minds. Did you know that librarians wear a particular kind of thin cotton archivist glove? So those big brown gloves I drew had to go. Eh, no problem, I suspected that might be off, and it wouldn’t have killed me to do a little more research before settling on leather gauntlets.

I really should have anticipated the UK vs. US dialect conflict, though. That yellow “vest” I drew is what the author would call a “waistcoat”. By “vest” she meant “tank top”. Oops! Well that certainly explains why he was wearing it inside his button up shirt. I thought he was just being stylishly quirky.

Luckily I didn’t have to change that detail after all. It turns out we all liked seeing the fairy’s sexy bare abs instead. Score one for US slang.


P.S. You really should go read “Forever After” now – it’s fantastic!


#1 Decency laws are spoiling my fun…

Thanks so much for the description of the cover design process. I see what you mean about the education involved with drawing covers. And, obviously, the concerns raised in the two cases you describe make a lot of sense — I don’t want anyone to ban “In The Death of Winter,” or to have some kind of protest outcry when they accidentally buy gay erotica, as in the case of Kailin Morgan’s story.

But, yeah… fisting. That original cover idea does sound hot. Wish I could have seen it! 🙂

These are serious concerns, though.

An author I know from Twitter recently had a title of hers pulled from e-bookstores, and isn’t sure why. Was it something about the content? (If so, which part? — since the story in question had several elements that might be considered objectionable). Was the cover art too sexy? It was chilling to watch her try to analyze what got the retailers spooked.

I think you ended up striking a great tone for “In the Death of Winter” — the image portrays the oncoming kink, the God-figure is of uncertain gender, there’s a sense of ritual. Worked out in the end, I’d say 🙂

#2 I suppose I could…

Well, I suppose I could email you the composition draft, but I doubt you’d make much of it, since I never got to the illustration phase there.

I was indeed aiming for gender ambiguity for the white-haired figure, so I’m glad that worked out.

I don’t know, I’ve gotten so used to social contexts where kink and non-hetero-normative sexuality are pretty well par for the course, so the idea that this stuff is considered inherently offensive takes me by surprise.


#3 So interesting

So interesting to read the process that cover artists go through as well. We’re so used to just picking a book up and looking and going ooh or nah, so I already knew your work was vital to the whole issue. And sometimes you do wonder if the artist ever actually got to see the story they were making art for. It must be so much harder in the case of erotic fiction.

You have to make it clear that the story is going to deviate from the path, whilst staying within strictly prescribed rules. Am I correct in thinking that the laws concerning artistic portrayal are much, much stricter than those about written material? Even for drawings not photography.

And I also wanted to add some squeeee. How cute is my Cammi? And such a happy accident with the vest/waistcoat mixup. I’m sure he would wear that, he’s just that kind of guy!! hugs

#4 Yes, different rules…

There are three major things that govern the restrictions for cover art:

1) Laws of visual art are more strict than written, especially in the U.S. There is still a fight over whether or not art that depicts characters who even look underage is legal or not. Certainly, we avoid using any art or photos of anyone who looks underage on our covers. If it was only on our site, then it would be less complicated. So …

2) Our covers have to be able to also be in the adveritising/listings for ebooks on distribution sites such as ARE, Amazon, Smashwords, etc. and they have restrictions of their own. For example, we avoid showing the nipples of women on our covers to keep within the limitations set by some of them.

3) Covers are advertising. A good cover will draw the attention of the right reader for that story. You have a M/M story, then it’s best to have at least one attractive man on the cover. If the story is het, then it depends a lot on who you see as the audience. Sexy man if you think it’s primarily aimed at women, or a woman if it’s primary readers will be men. Both if you can make it work. Mood matters too. There’s a lot more involved, but you get some of the idea.

Glad you enjoy!

#5 See!

See how much I still have to pick up? It’s all gestalt knowledge, an ambient sense of rightness that you carry with you from having learned so much from so many different angles for so long.


#6 He’s SOOOO cute…

How cute is your Cammi?

I even DREAMT about him, for goodness sakes! *laugh* No, no, not like that. He was fretting about fashion or something, I don’t remember. I think he’s my new imaginary gay wish-granting boyfriend. ;p



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