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.
Imagine 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.
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.
The 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…