Perfect Author Tees

No essay in this blog post. Sorry. But I’ll be back at it in April. But in the meantime, have some fun looking at the new Author t-shirts I’ve designed!

Classy, clean, simple designs. I think there are about 46 designs. Obviously some of them are funny too. Go have a look, if you need a t-shirt that says I am the most beautifully-sublime, wisely-eloquent writer to grace God’s green earth! Or if you’re neither of those things: buy one for a writer friend, that is!

You’ll find them all here:

Go On Write Tees

What Makes a Book Cover Intriguing

Go on, Define ‘Intriguing’ If You Can

At first glance, the concept of ‘intriguing’ seems somewhat of an ineffable, unquantifiable trait. Intriguing makes someone stop and want to investigate further and hopefully subsequently enjoy that experience. 

But is it really that ethereal and out of our grasp or can we actually define it?

And when I say ‘we’, I obviously mean ‘me’.

This is going to be the fun task of this essay. So buckle up, we’re about to go on an interesting journey into the world of everything!

Intriguing is a concept I’ve always thought about in my artistic and creative life, whether designing book covers, making music, coming up with recipes, or even writing and selling my own books.

Also as an idiot consumer of entertainment I’ve always asked myself: why is my interest piqued by certain things, and not others? Why do some things work and others not? Why do some TV programs grab me and others I turn off after ten minutes, with an utterance of “boring, boring, boring!”

It’s a fantastic philosophical question. I could even go as far as saying: it’s an intriguing question. But I won’t.

I’ve also found it’s a subject that seems to pop up again and again in the books I read. Whether it’s pop culture, art history, art theory, psychology, philosophy, or even history and science. I guess because it’s always been rattling around in my head. A question I’ve wanted answered. 

But it’s probably taken me most of my adult life to truly understand what’s going on, to be able to quantify it and come up with my own theory. But more importantly to simplify into a usable form. Something I want to share with you.

And maybe, just maybe, if I can define it for you then maybe you can use it in your life to harness its power. 

It should allow you to get some more eyeballs on your book, by making people stop to look at your book cover, or even write better marketing copy, or maybe even write better books. And you can even use it to make more friends, by making yourself more intriguing. Okay, the last one might be a bit of a bold claim. But we’ll see.

There is a lot of groundwork to lay down so get yourself a nice big healthy smoothie and get comfy. 

We’re going to go on a wondrous journey through a good number of opposites, but as we were talking about people, let’s start off with that. 

Banal Vs Over Complex

Everyone knows boring people. Maybe you’re a boring person. I know I can be. Sometimes I’m talking about a subject and people just have that far away look in their eyes. But why do people bore us? Others not?

I remember when I was about 10 or 11 as a kid, there was an in-joke between me and my group of friends. One of us, I can’t remember who, had overheard a conversation in the P.E. block changing rooms, which went something like this:

So my group of friends would go around saying the most banal of things to one another. Pause. And then hilarity. The childish ‘Yeah, same here’ joke. 

This went on for weeks. It still makes me laugh to this day when I think about it. But why was the banality so funny? It seems rather childish. But there is a truth at the heart of that in-joke, as there are with all jokes.

What we already know is utterly pointless. It’s funny that it is so pointless.

But why is it pointless to know: that someone doesn’t smoke, is having their dinner that night, or is quite predictably wearing their school uniform at school?

In short, banal useless information doesn’t really benefit us. We already know it. The sky is blue. People like sunshine. The sort of thing that politicians serve up to us, the masses. Better jobs. More prosperity! Free ice creams for everyone. Who’s not going to want that?

At the other end of the scale there is another type of information that people love to serve up and we just love to ignore too. It’s another way people bore us. It’s those that insist on telling us overly complex information that has no use. 

You all know the sort. 

Someone will tell you in excruciating detail the specifications of their new 850cc motorbike, their camping-slash-hiking trip to the Mesa Verde national park, the electrical circuit layout of the 320A Airbus aeroplane. When you’ve never ridden a motorbike in your life, you’ll never visit Utah or will have to fix the electrics at 30,000 feet. 

It’s just a mass of overly complex facts that have no relevance to your life. In short, deathly boring. Not banal but just as useless because you’ll never actually use it. You tune it out.

And if we wanted to we could put these things on a scale it would look something like this. And because it’s a scale there has to be a sweet spot, right? Let’s bang that on there too. 

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here with that very good looking sweet spot. We’ll be returning to this scale throughout this essay.

But to summarise that’s why some people bore us: we already know the information or it goes over our heads. Either way we lack interest because our brains are not intrigued.

But why is this so?

The answer is pretty simple, it’s because that’s the way our brains have developed down the ages.

There is a Darwinist Imperative for this lack of interest. It’s how we survived as a species. Our brains are programmed for survival and survival is only based on useful information. If we expend energy on things we already know then we might miss out on new information that gives us an advantage for that lovely lovely survival.

We ignore the banal or overly complex.

Our caveman brains try to filter out the information we already know. That’s the feeling of boredom we have. It’s our brains saying, screw this for a game of soldiers. No use. I’m losing time on this rather than learning information that will help me put food in my belly or give me shelter from the elements.

Let me give you an example. 

A group of cavemen (or cavewomen) are sitting around the fire (that’s just been invented) and one person is talking about how you properly skin an animal so that the toxic part of the animal’s lower intestines don’t contaminate the meat but you already know this. Everyone knows this. But at the same time a second person in the group is talking about a new rich hunting ground they’ve found. Because the first person is taking your attention then you’ll miss out that valuable hunting information.  

And food!

Tuning out what we already know helps us glean new information, that puts us at an advantage.

Likewise, if someone is chuntering on about advanced spear techniques with hunting, and you’re the person that just lights the fire every night, because that’s your task in the tribe, your brain is saying to you: yeah, but this is not relevant to me. Too complex.

So next time you’re bored of a conversational topic, or part way through a film, you now know why your brain is losing interest. It’s looking for the next piece of useful information that will help you survive. Or at least the caveman part of your brain.

Our brains are trained to be intrigued by things that could give us an advantage and in turn we can use this fact, exploit it, to our advantage to intrigue others. 

But how does that help me create something that’s intriguing, I hear you ask. Hold on there, not so fast, there’s quite a bit of extra work to do. A few more foundations to lay. But this is a good start and a good thing to remember, as we move forward. 

So let’s leave the cavemen and cavewomen behind and zoom through the annals of history right up to the period of late-19th century / early-20th century and look at what was going on there. It was a very fertile period of change.

Seismic in fact.

Experience Vs Experimental (A Little Art History, Again)

Right up until around the middle of the 19th century western art was based on one pretty basic idea. Art was there to represent the elevated ideals of human experience, things such as faith, beauty, power, community, love. The more elevated the better it was as a piece of art.

In fact, Sigmund Freud (of mother-loving-dream-diagnosis fame) proposed his own take on art in an essay. He was an experience-loving chap so as you would expect his definition was pretty straightforward:

Heightened reality, plus a person’s experience equals art. 

It’s how a lot of non-creative people think about art: I like pretty pictures. Pretty being the elevated part, and the picture part says “I have experienced this object before, so it’s a thing.” What they are saying is a very Freudian view of art. And most artists agreed with Freud for thousands and thousands of years. So he reckoned he was right. Smart people always do.

As an aside, Sigmund thought art pretty useless if the truth be told. It was of no value. It didn’t really elevate the ego. It was just a pretty bauble to look at. A waste of time. Sad bloke.

Then Modernism came along in Freud’s lifetime and blew his theory’s right out of the water.

So he simply changed tack and said that all art had become the artist’s neurosis laid bare. He said modern version of art now provided an ineffective escape to that elevated state, and that the only way to make great art was with the traditional recipe. Convenient that, eh?

So, what was this Modernism and why was it so important? And don’t worry we’ll come back to Freud. And why all this is important.

Modernism happened when some artists got together and said: screw this, why does art have to reflect how we see the world? Why does it have to be that elevated version of the human experience? Why do we have to paint in the colours we see (Cezanne)? Why can’t we write a piece of music which contains notes out of key (Debussy)? What actually constitutes art (Duchamp)? Or why do elements need to even be connected, life itself is all just nonsense, why not reflect that (The Dadaist)? To name but a few concepts.

It seems rather quaint thinking about it, sitting here in the 21st century, but they just started creating whatever they wanted. A boundary had been crossed and the ‘heightened experience’ way of making art went out of the window. Even if it made no sense in terms of what art was meant to be according to Sigmund Freud.

And the public at large was absolutely livid. “What is this guff,” they said with one accord, “it doesn’t make any sense.”

Because it wasn’t in the traditional mode of making art. It was literally a scandal that artists were no longer making that lovely heightened version of the human experience. “We like those pretty pictures,” said the general public.

And the artists, being the rebellious sorts that they were, just pushed it further and further. Becoming more and more discordant with their artworks, thinking that the further they pushed it, the more they’d find the magic, secret, special, Szechuan sauce we call ‘art’. 

This went on for decades.

They did not find the secret sauce. Because they were looking in the wrong place, as we’ll find out.

But if we look back now at some of the artwork that was produced at the time, such as Monet’s Water Lilies, Debussy’s Clair de Lune, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Seurat, the works of Picasso, etc. It just sort of seems, well, it’s just art. We see it as art. But it wasn’t at the time. And I’m about to explain why.

It was a period of great change, where a lot of the work produced you could call very ‘experimental’. And people didn’t like it because they didn’t know it. It was not part of their past experience. It left them cold. 

More than a hundred years later, people still say the same thing, “Modern art is rubbish.” In most probability it leaves them feeling stupid and uncomfortable. 

But if art is your jam, you don’t always feel this way.

Let’s talk about my favourite subject — ME! — to illustrate the point.

I come from a fairly working class background. I didn’t really visit galleries as a kid, even though I was really into drawing. But as I’ve experienced and read about art down the years — and as I know more I am more au fait with the field — I appreciate it more. It moves from the experimental side of my brain into my realm of experience. Thank you cultured ex-girlfriends, and my curious mind.

When you start going to galleries, you gain experience with the art works. And the more galleries you go to, the more art you experience and suddenly you find yourself enjoying it more and interpreting it in your own way, based on that experience.

It slowly ceases to feel experimental. It’s what you know.

It shifts along the scale towards the experienced. And you get to where I am today with what I know about art and you start saying things like: I don’t like that, very derivative of

Or something equally poncy and you’d think me pretentious. But I’m not saying it to sound smart. I’m saying it because I’ve experienced that sort of artwork before and what I’m looking at does very much look like copying (i.e. derivative).

Meaning it has slipped into the too experienced area. It’s no longer in the sweet spot for my brain. There’s not enough ‘new’ there for me to enjoy it.

Oh, a ‘sweet spot’ you say? I’ve heard that before.

So let’s do another scale then. This one we’ll call ‘Experience – Experimental’.

But where does this experience actually come from? Surely we all live different lives and experience different things? Everyone’s experience is different, right?

Well we could have a chat about semiotics here, but I’m saving that for a later essay, because that’s a whole different, interesting and important subject I want to delve into.

But for now let’s see if we can’t chat about some universal experiences we all encounter, no matter who we are, where we live, what we’ve been through. 

Harmonic Vs Discordant

There is some order to the universe. But not in some hippy way; if you ask it, it generally doesn’t answer. Well it will, but only with hard science and cold maths. Rather than, you know, your heart’s desires.

But some of this stuff is quite magical, at least to me.

So let’s talk about harmony. 

Colours sit on the electromagnetic spectrum at certain frequencies. Red, for example, sits at 430 terahertz, while blue’s frequency is closer to 750 terahertz. So far, so what.

Here’s where it gets interesting though. For me as a designer there are just some colours that go together well. These colours you’d call harmonic colours. They work together because there is actually a mathematical equation that strangely works on the ratios between the distance of where the colours sit on the electromagnetic spectrum. 

All visual harmony can actually be represented mathematically. Although I won’t bore you with the equations to those ratios — go look it up if you don’t believe me. 

It’s why ‘red and green should never be seen’, it doesn’t fit that equation of harmonic ratios. Most people have just an innate connection with things that work well. Some better than others, admittedly. But this is because harmony is an innate human trait, because of the maths.

Another place where you might have heard the word ‘harmony’ is as a musical term. And just like those ratios for the distance between colours of light that work well together, we have exactly the same thing for notes on the musical scale. 

So as an examples, the most basic chord in the key of C major is C, G and E, and the distance between them is pretty much:

C= 256 Hz

E= 330 Hz

G= 393 Hz

We could get into the maths of it, but let’s not though, eh? 

But there is a mathematical ratio that works for all triads (three notes played together). Basically the distance between the notes that make them sound nice together. Pleasing to the ear. In exactly the same way as some colour combinations are pleasing to the eye. I mean literally the same ratio distances.

We could even get into the timing of the way beats happen, because it’s governed by these mathematical equations. If you really want to go down the rabbit hole on this concept there’s a fantastically interesting video from a few years ago about it here:

In short, we find something pleasing because of these ratios and equations.

Not to get too hippy about it, but the universe really does tell us what goes together really well.

And you’re going to scream at me: I want things that work together. I love harmony. 

And I’m going to say to you, no you don’t. 

You’re wrong! Sorry.

Let me explain why in the form of a question.

If we have the cheat code to harmony why don’t we all just use it all the time? It is after all the thing that pleases us. 

The answer is, we do! 

All the blinking time!


So much so that it actually becomes pure banality (remember that?). It’s something you’ve heard a thousand times before. And you turn off. Not another cheat code song. The caveman parts of our brain kick in and say, not this again. 

So visual artists, musicians, even chefs need to come up with new combinations to keep your ears, eyes, and taste buds interested. To keep us interested. But at the same time they can’t stray too far away from what’s mathematically correct.

Let’s return to those crazy Modernist artists for a while. 

At the other end of the harmonic spectrum we have the discordant. Like a toddler smashing their tiny ham-shaped fists on a piano thinking they’re Nils Frahm and it just sounds like a mess. It’s horrid. It’s because none of the notes work together. This we call ‘discordant’.

And those crazy modernists said to themselves, why not explore this discordant area, see what we find there. And what they found there was a lot of fertile ground. Things that didn’t go together, they found, made them think in strange ways. And they liked that.

A good example of something discordant actually working are the films and television of David Lynch. None of it makes sense or fits together well. It’s not for everyone. But some people like the strange feeling it gives them because it is so zany.  Enough I guess that he gets to make them.

But this exploration into the discordant gave rise to the artists and musicians saying: people will leave my concert if it’s completely discordant, but maybe I just sprinkle a little bit of oddness on my cornflakes then that would serve as a counterpoint to all the trite harmony people have heard a thousand times before, that might work. Maybe we’ll mine the discordant for ideas and bring a little back into the harmonious realm.

And that’s actually what they did. And it worked. It’s basically why people call the art period we’re in now: post-modern. We did the modernist exploration and we’re back now with our discordant goodies to use.

Even in the modern pop music you’ll find topping the streaming charts you’ll hear small discordant concepts dropped in here and there, to keep the listeners ears playing attention. It’s something that the Beatles understood more than half a century ago. It’s one reason, even though I despise pop music, I can’t get enough of Toxic by Britney Spears (true fact).

And here’s the point, you can’t have something that is completely in tune with the harmony because we’ve heard it all before, we turn off. And we can’t serve up something that is utterly discordant that people don’t understand. 

We need a third way, a sweet spot if you will. 

Does this sound familiar?

Yes it does. Yet again, this sits on a spectrum. 

I’m starting to see a pattern, are you?

So are these things completely unrelated?

Not on your nelly.

Pulling it All Together

These spectrums we’ve looked at thus far I feel explain why we grow bored of the known and are fearful of the unknown. There is something intrinsically scary about what we do not know, like the sabre tooth tiger for the caveman, I don’t want to hear about that area of land to the north where someone spotted one. Don’t relate that story to me. I’m just never going there. 

Or to put in another way, our modern brains feel that: this piece of information makes me feel stupid. Best avoided then I won’t feel bad about not knowing. What you don’t know won’t kill you, if you will.

At the other end of the scale, you have the interminably dull, you’ve heard it a thousand times before, the ‘grey goo’ as good friend Lars calls it. He’s a DJ and has to trawl through all the grey goo music to find the gems to get the dancefloor moving.

But why does it have to be one thing or the other?

A good life is lived in wonderful shades of grey. It’s not black and white. It’s in the exploration of that spectrum. No one wants to feel 100% comfortable or 100% uncomfortable all the time.

And here is where it gets interesting. Very interesting. 

Let’s put all these things on a scale. All these opposites. 

So remember back when we were talking about Sigmund Freud and his rather slapdash approach to trying to define art. Well a little later, in the 1960s, another Teutonic chap came along called Theodor Adorno. Another proper philosophical thinker. And his last work was called Aesthetic Theory

It’s a book I’ve tried to get through a few times. But it is heavy philosophy with a capital H, E, A and a V and the Y. But the basis of this post is pretty much something that he was saying. Art is nothing to do with experience or neurosis as Freud posited, it is the dance in the sweet zone on what I’m going to call my Unified Spectrum of Interest. 

That’s what gives something the moniker of art. This sweet spot is the enjoyable area. Because it is hitting the required ‘not too scary’, or ‘not scary enough’ sweet spot. It’s the area where the art works because it opens your brain up to different ideas, emotions and possibilities.

All good art dances along that line without straying too far into either forbidden zone. 

It stays in that ‘intriguing’ sweet spot. It may for a short period of time take you into the direction of what you already know or don’t know. But it never tarries too long in either place. It moves back and forth between these two poles.

It’s forever moving along the line from what’s comfortable and uncomfortable, what’s banal and what’s over complex, what’s harmonious and what’s discordant, what’s experience and what’s experimental. 

To Theodor this is what good art is.

For what Theodor said about art, I say exactly the same thing for ‘intrigue’. They’re inseparable concepts. And this is important to remember when approaching any creative activity. How to pique people’s interest, keep them hooked.

But this seems all very abstract in nature, right? 

Okay. Let’s give you some real world examples to explain what I mean and you’ll start to see the power of this concept.

Example #1: The Murder Mystery Novel

In my working week I make a heck of a lot of these book covers. It’s a super popular genre. And these sorts of books are wildly popular simply because they’re basically taking this concept and presenting it in a pure narrative-form.

These types of stories are constantly moving along the line with dropping information for the reader to do their own detective work. Between what’s known, and what’s unknown, what’s banal, and what’s not. What is comfortable and what’s uncomfortable. What makes sense (harmonious) and what doesn’t make sense yet (the discordant). They are literally doing that perfect dance in the sweet spot to generate intrigue in the reader’s mind as the story moves along.

Well, that is, until a story is neatly wrapped up at the end.

It is a genre that is wholly based on this concept. And without dancing on that line they simply wouldn’t work. Anyone that is a master of their craft in this genre is already a master of this concept, whether they know it or not.

Think of a murder mystery without the discordant red herrings, or the banal characters that turn out to be the murderer, the little clues that move from the unknown, into the known, when we work out who the killer is. Without this dance along the line it just wouldn’t work.

Example #2: Star Wars Cinematic Universe

If you don’t like Star Wars, then don’t worry. I don’t either. But it serves as a perfect, albeit more complex, example of what I’m talking about.

Sometimes I watch the films and TV shows if I’m a little hungover, mainly to see what’s going on with CGI these days. It’s quite fun. But it’s all a bit childish for my tastes really. But this is a fantastic example of what I mean. So let’s have a chat about that.

Sorry, if it’s not your bag. 

I’m rather obsessed with the Star Wars Cinematic Universe on a conceptual-level simply because it is such a good example of what I mean. It really solidified my thoughts on this subject.

Here we go …

So we have the first three films: Star Wars, Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi. These stand alone on their own and were wildly popular at the time. They must have hit some sweet spot with the movie going populous at large.

Then the next three films came along in the 90s: The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith. They were generally panned at the time, when they came out. It’s as if George Lucas thought that all the fans had now grown up and were interested in all the political intrigue, council meetings, and some sort of more grown up love tale. But this meant that they ended up being too far away from the ‘experienced’. So they probably end up here on the scale:

The for the final three films that JJ Abrahams or whoever directed and wrote those films went back to the tried and tested formula of the original films and they made The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, The Rise of Skywalker.

And it’s not controversial to say that they were roundly panned. It is generally agreed amongst the die-hard fans they were just horrid rehashes of the first three films for a new generation of kids. Or that was probably the idea. 

But because they were too close to the fans’ experience they drifted into the banal zone. They’d basically overshot in completely the wrong direction this time. Oops. So something like this:

What has happened in the meantime though, is that Disney bought the IP and has been churning out stand alone films and television programs. And some of these have been successful with the fans. Mainly because they’ve hit that sweet spot of being completely new (unknown) and yet familiar (known).

Just off the top of my head, and I’ve not watched them all, but they interestingly sit on the scale, to varying degrees of success. This is where I’d roughly place some of them:

In exactly the same way as me becoming more experienced with galleries, we need to remember that the ‘Experienced’ always informs everything that comes after it. So that sweet spot is based on all the Star Wars Cinematic Universe material that has come before it. It’s a constantly changing and evolving set of experiences for the fans. So that needs to be borne in mind when something new comes out.

To my mind I find it quite shocking, in a way, that some of these Star Wars products failed. It’s as if the producers and writers of these things were just employing a hit-and-hope strategy and no one asked them where their project they were working on sat on my Unified Spectrum of Interest scale. 

If the Hollywood Producers had just sat down, one afternoon, and hashed out where these projects sit on the scale compared to the original films I feel they might not have had as many duds. They were probably too busy getting their cute dogs manicured whilst drinking posh coffees. Actually that’s unfair. I have no idea what Hollywood execs do with their afternoons.

Example #3: Gossip / Soap Opera / Politics in the News

All three of these things are pretty interchangeable to my mind. I mean really. They pique interest with intrigue because they all have the same quality of having ‘known’ characters we feel comfortable with (i.e. friends, soap characters, politicians).

But the thing that makes these three things so powerful is the fact they share the same trait of constantly having new ‘unknown’ storylines popping up on an unstoppable regular basis. Also, don’t they always have that small sprinkling of the discordant strangeness that keeps us coming back for more? That ‘you’ll never believe what happened’ quality. 

Of course you can believe what happened because they are rooted in our knowledge of that person, but with just enough of the unknown, in that sweet spot that keeps us hooked and coming back for more. 

It might sound like I’m being dismissive about all three. But I enjoy them all immensely, like anyone else. But I’m under no illusions of why this is the case. We are being manipulated in this sweet spot by the sheer scandal of it all.

It’s pure intrigue all the time, 24/7.

As a little side note, as this is entirely true, somewhere in my hazy past I lived in Belgium for a year. I moved there to live with a woman I was in love with. At the time Belgium did not have a government in power (or actually, for about 5 years), I had no friends there other than my girlfriend, and I wasn’t watching soaps. I look back to that year and think to myself, it was rather dull. Well, apart from the beer and the love making. Oh, and spending a night in the police cells for crossing the road, but that’s a whole different story. Intrigued?

Example #4: It’s How Fiction Actually Works

If you stop to think about it, it’s how fiction or nonfiction actually operates in our brains when reading. In a story the author is actually performing a delicate dance of the known and the unknown to drive the story forward. Slowly moving from what we know, or have just learnt, onto something we don’t already know about the characters or their story. It’s that tension between those things that gently drives a narrative forward.

If a story becomes too repetitive and we already know that aspect of that protagonist, and we’re just shown the same aspect but in a different scenario we turn-off. We like to learn new things about the protagonist. Likewise if the protagonist does something too unexpected and discordant it breaks the spell of the suspension of disbelief in our mind’s eye. A good story will always build the character and story by dragging the reader from unknown into the known. That’s what gives a story its momentum.

Great writers are a master at this sweet spot balancing act.

Example #5: Okay, One More and then I’m Pun

Love them or groan at them, a pun is a perfect example of this concept. They tickle our brains in a really odd little way. What they’re doing is actually hitting our brains in that sweet spot. It’s something that we immediately know and most of us understand, whether that be a common saying, an existing title or what have you. And then we’re introducing an unknown element into the mix. Boom. It takes it into that sweet spot on the Unified Spectrum of Interest.

For the most part, all jokes work in exactly the same way if you start to pull them apart and understand their structure. They all share this sweet spot of thinking you know where you are going, and then at some point we sprinkle a little discordant or unknown magic in there.

So I think we’ve established the veracity quite clearly here when I’m talking about with my Unified Spectrum of Interest scale. 

But you want to know how it can be helpful to you as a writer, right? And not just to be able to write terribly punning titles. So let’s see how we can apply this theory in the real world.

Finally — Let’s Talk About Self Publishing

It’s been a long ride thus far. But finally we’re arrived at a point armed with our scale we can use as a tool to apply to all manner of things. But before I get onto my specialist subject of book covers, I feel it’s probably a smart and fun thing to talk about things I see in self publishing all the time in relation to this scale, and how it can help you.

Because after all: I do write; I always deal with lots of books on a constant basis; have to work with marketing copy; people come to me with their premises when they commission me to do work. So I’ve probably seen more books than I can shake a stick at over the last 10 or 11 years. So I am somewhat well-placed to talk about it. Although you’re more than welcome to disagree with me.

So how can we apply what we’ve learnt to self publishing. 

Well maybe it’s a good place to start is to talk about the two mistakes I see all the time, with book covers and with marketing copy. They’re always too far outside of this sweet spot. I would say with 80% of the books I see this is what happens:

It would be churlish for me to not take some time to explain to you how these can be improved. Along with the other marketing bits and pieces you might do as an author. We’ll get onto how we can fix these. Suffice it to say, book cover ideas tend to be a tad banal and the marketing copy tends to be a bit obtuse. We know we have to hit that sweet spot right. But how do we do that? Well let’s give it a go and see if we can’t generate some of our wonderful intrigue. 

Perfect Taglines

Years ago I read a few books about taglines. Because I thought it was an interesting subject. Most of these books were truly awful. But one really stuck with me. An author had written a book, because they had changed their tagline, and it had suddenly become somewhat of a bestseller. So he decided to share his wisdom in the form of a guide for taglines.

In the book he proceeded to spend page after page scrambling around trying to understand why his new tagline was so powerful. He couldn’t quite grasp it. The book blathered on forever skirting around the real reason. It was all psychology 101, primitive thinking, etc. There was even something about the high jumper who started jumping in a different way. I dunno. Baffling stuff that didn’t make any sense to me, because he just didn’t see the wood for the trees. 

His new top seller tagline was something simple, like:

“What if the serial killer turned out to be your husband.”

But why was this tagline so intriguing to potential readers? 

Well, he never quite got it.

I do.

And having read thus far through this article I’m sure you can tell me, too. 

Yep, it hits that sweet spot between known (what a husband generally is) unknown (what a serial killer does), banal (home life if you’ve been married a while), the complex (how serial killers do stuff), harmony (marriage), discordant (murder). I mean it’s pretty much perfect in its construction when you think about it. It’s sweet-spot-heaven. It’s a balancing act between both poles.

I would obviously put this down to being a perfect premise (but that’s a whole different subject I’ll cover in a later essay, at a later date) rather than tagline, but we can still use our Unified Spectrum of Interest to come up with something that fulfils the same sort of brief.

A tagline needs to offer both that balance between the two poles, hitting that sweet spot, to create intrigue and tension. 

And tension is not one of my pet hates: faux-jeopardy. I despise faux-jeopardy. I can feel the bile rising just mentioning it. 

We all know the formula, “Janice is returning to her hometown after a messy divorce, will she ever find love?” 

It’s that question that’s meant to create the tension. The only problem with the question is that it doesn’t create tension because potential readers already have experience with those sorts of books. So the answer is always: yes. I’ve never seen a book where the answer is: no. Which I find infinitely amusing. So it’s pretend jeopardy, it’s not real. That faux-jeopardy is meant to drag the book into the sweet spot, it does not.

One reason why this is the case may be because all lazy authors use the same formula. It’s overused.  Which drags the tagline into the realm of the banal, the known, the experienced. But it’s mainly because it doesn’t actually create tension because there is no ‘unknown’ in there.

So with a tagline, to hit a sweet spot, we need to make sure that tension is real. It needs both ends of the spectrum represented in the right balance to work. To pique interest. 

Even something as simple as “Janice is returning to her hometown after a messy divorce and no one likes her,” is a hundred times better because in a potential reader’s mind, they have no idea why people don’t like her. But they wanna know, it’s too much of a gossipy unknown to pass by. 

I mean it’s really that simple. 

We know and have harmony with what our own home town is like to us,  so we have a ‘known’ in there to anchor readers, and then we’re giving them an ‘unknown’, and it there is also that discordant feeling of people not liking us. It makes us fizz.

That’s where the tension operates, in space between the known and unknown.

That, in short, creates intrigue. As long as you’re making sure you have both things in there, as a sprinkling of something unknown that a potential reader wants to know, as well as something that they also can anchor themselves to, then you’re creating something in that sweet spot. 

Stupidly simple, eh? 

Better Marketing Copy

As I said earlier, I tend to run into most sets of marketing copy being too far on the overly-complex, unknown, discordant, uncomfortable end scale. And as such rather uninviting. But why is this? And how can we improve that?

I would say, most authors are great at writing and telling stories but when it comes to telling someone something that will invite readers into the story they fail. Maybe it’s because they seem to think that the marketing copy should be some sort of backstory to the protagonist, so we can fall in love with them, like they have when writing their novel.

Or they think marketing copy should be a cut down version of the story. 

So they simply do this: it’s this person, here’s their details, and the circumstance, this is what’s happened to them, what they have to do in this story, and buy my book to see what happens to the protagonist. 

But let’s look at this another way. 

Imagine you’re in a bar (or on a plane) and there is a person sitting next to you and they want to tee-up a great anecdote. What they’ll do is sell that anecdote to you. They might find on opening in the conversation to say something like: 

“Sounds like have a great relationship with your family, but yeah I have this one aunt, she’s a crazy one, there was this one time she was at a wedding dressed in a clown outfit, man, it was one of the saddest yet most beautiful thing I’ve seen my life, wanna hear the story?”

Who’s not going to be all-in on such a premise? What happened? It’s just far too intriguing to turn down. Tell me, tell me, tell me.

And this is because it’s pulling you in both directions without you even knowing it. Hitting the sweet spot.

So for fun, let’s break it down:

Crazy Aunt: this grounds you in the known, we all generally know who’s the crazy aunt or crazy uncle is in our family. By the way, it’s me in my family with my nieces and nephews.

Weddings: Also a rather banal concept, something we either really like or think they’re trite. But most people know how they feel about weddings.

Clown Outfit: Banal too, but you’re adding this into the mix at a wedding. No one has ever seen someone dressed at a wedding. What would happen? Why was she dressed as a clown at a wedding? How would everyone react to a clown at a wedding? It doesn’t make sense. We need to know, because it’s an ‘unknown’ mixed with a ‘known’.

Saddest: This is also interesting because both of those emotions are ‘known’ to us. We’ve felt sad, we’ve had empathy when we see sad things. We generally don’t want to feel sad. It’s not really cool. It’s sad to see homeless people without a roof over their head. Kids with cancer. Sad is not good. But we know it. And it wouldn’t work …

Beautiful: … but then you add ‘beautiful’ to the mix. This is very much an ‘unknown’. Things that move us in a beautiful way can be sublime (like music) when we’re feeling a certain way, or the kindness people show or other sentimentalities we call beautiful, but it’s not just one single emotion. It’s somewhat undefinable. But when coupled with the ‘known’ sadness, now our interest is piqued. ‘Sad’ plus ‘beautiful’ is exactly like ‘clown’ plus ‘wedding’.

It’s the crazy mix of all those things in succinct succession that gets us interested, all those elements that make us feel we want to know more.

But that’s not what most authors do when they write marketing copy, and I’ve read thousands of these down the years. 

This is the formula they follow:

“A story of an aunt. She was a small town gal from the wild planes of Ohio and had lived all her life in that same small town of whatever, until she went off to college in Chicago and met the love of her life, whilst she was studying for her law degree to help the underprivileged. It was when she’d just come back from Mexico that she realised Richard, who was now a hot shot copyright lawyer for the Music Industry, was getting married to the new woman in his life … etc … etc …”

On and on with all this superfluous backstory, world building, and details, until that faux-jeopardy line of …

“Will she be able to win him back by dressing as a clown?”

Imagine I’m back at the bar, on that plane, and someone started to talk to me in this manner, with lots of detail about someone that I didn’t know, and the love of her life, who I also don’t know. It would have me thinking: what’s my second favourite bar in this neighbourhood or where are the parachutes? 

And this is what most authors are doing. 

They’re not creating intrigue because they don’t think about what a potential reader coming cold to the situation knows and doesn’t know, so why not just tell them everything. I’m educating you about my story. I’m going to preach to you. 

Sorry, no thanks. 

What’s better would be something like this:

“She’s that crazy aunt. The years haven’t been that kind, fun or funny. That is until she goes to his wedding dressed as a clown. It’s the saddest and most beautiful story you’re read all year.” 

It suffices because you’re hitting enough known and unknown to create the intrigue. Potential readers are not stupid. They know you’ll fill them in with the tedious details inside book.

So four or five sentences max, interest piqued, intrigue created. Job done.

Marketing copy is the person at the bar teeing up the story with a great Tweet-length intro to a really good anecdote. That’s what marketing copy should be and you can use the Unified Spectrum of Interest to make sure you’re hitting all your bases. And you will notice that the sweet spot is not in the middle, it’s more to the ‘experienced’ end of the scale. That’s a massive clue! So you need to anchor your copy in things that people know. What do all people? Use them: feelings, human connections, activities.

I have four or five clients I work for (out of thousands) that actually understand that potential readers don’t want all the guff of back story, and don’t have time to read two hundred and fifty words. Suffice it to say, this small handful of clients all sell really well.

There is a whole book somewhere that I started writing last year about this subject. So I could go further into this topic but now who’s being verbose now?

So let’s get on with it.

Titles with Power

We’ve covered puns already, and to me this is pretty interesting. It seems a rather formulaic thing to do, but unlike the aforementioned faux-jeopardy this does seem to sit quite neatly on the sweat-spot scale, it is after all a pun.

Or does it?

Maybe it’s something that authors have utilised so much that potential readers are now blind to it, because it now sits on the banal over-experienced end of the spectrum. I guess this is open to opinion. And I’m sure you have one.

So let me tell you my experience, because I’ve seen them all.

I tend to find when I’ve given titles for book covers most of the time I’m pretty unmoved. Although I don’t think that there is anything wrong with a utilitarian title. They’re serviceable. But I feel that authors are somewhat missing a trick. A chance for intrigue.

And unlike taglines, or marketing copy, it’s rather impossible to create tension in three to five words, it’s harder to achieve this intrigue, because you don’t have space for those vying elements. 

So I would say we need to use our intrigue scale in a very different way. A more poetic way, but none-the-less in the same way, to get it in that sweet spot. 

So let’s explore how we do that.

There is one of my expressions that I tend to use a lot, one that all my friends use as well, which is ‘it all a bit poetry for poets’. It’s when you go somewhere or see something and the only people interested in it are the people making or doing that thing. Karaoke is a really good example. Maybe reading and writing are too?

But as a writer myself, I am actually not that dismissive about poetry, in actuality. It’s just a thing I said to my friends to not come across as a dandy fop. I am a dandy fop. Or wish I was.

And I feel poetry can teach us a lot and should not be avoided. If you don’t read poetry then I suggest you go find someone that tickles your fancy, it’s not all daffodils and clouds. Some modern writers use the form really well. 

Above are a few books of poetry that I remember reading and if you knew me, you would not think, yep poetry guy. Also another place I used to go to every morning with my coffee was to read the poem of the day. It would set me up for the day.

Because what poetry is really great for is teaching us the feeling a sentence can give us when coupled with an economy of words. And that’s what a good title is all about. It’s the tension between the ‘unknown’ nature of a well constructed sentence and the ‘known’ nature of the semiotic connection we make with words. That’s what hits our sweet spot. The tension between the banality words and complexity of how we order them.

Let me give you an example. 

A decade ago I was designing a book cover for an author and he wanted to call his book ‘The Drunken Artist’. So far, so utilitarian. What was the book about? Yep, you guessed it: a boozy painter. This was back at the very start of my book cover designing adventure, so I had time to spend chatting about titles with him (don’t ask me now, far too busy with the designing, sorry).

We spent a while chatting and came up with: Painting with Wine.

Not amazing admittedly but better. Much better. 

Because in reality you don’t paint with wine, have you ever seen anyone paint with wine: nope. It doesn’t make sense. You use paint to paint. It has an unknown poetic quality to it. It gives you just a little of the discordant sprinkling in with the semiotic connections you make with both ‘painting’ and ‘wine’. This mixing of two knowns creates a new unknown, which places it in the sweet spot. 

I’m sure I could go into detail of other ways to target the sweet spot with titles. But it is something you can use yourself to create intriguing titles, as long as you remember you need to create that tension.

And playing with the words for their interconnected feeling is half the fun of being a writer. So that play should be something in our toolbox when coming to discovering tension with titles.

And I don’t like to say, and don’t tell anyone I said it, and I’ll never say it again but: reading poetry really helps. It gets your brain working with words in a different way.

We’ll keep that our little secret, eh?

Mailing Lists / Social Media Engagement

This is another topic I want to cover in a whole other essay, to really sink my teeth into it, because I find it incredibly interesting. So watch out for that. But in the meantime, if it’s something you do with your reader fan club, then hitting the sweet spot is also vital. 

So you might have discovered this post because you, yourself, are on my mailing list. In my fan club. And as such, you’ve probably thought to yourself: oh, James’ mailing lists are usually pretty nice, he seems like an okay chap. You probably think the newsletters are natural and off the cuff. In a sense they are, yes.

But at the same time, I’m going to let you see the man behind the curtain.

When I first started writing newsletters all those years ago I did spend a terrific amount of time considering the tone I was going to use. Without even knowing about it at the time what I came up with was somewhat in this sweet spot. 

I said to myself if I keep it all salesman-like ‘I’ve got book cover designs to sell’ it would become stale very fast (banal). If I chatted too much about myself it would put people off (for I am ‘unknown’ and ‘complex’). Maybe throw a bit of both in there. And without knowing about it I was actually doing the thing that keeps people intrigued in GoOnWrite.

You know what to expect from me, but also at the time, I tend to drop the odd leftfield tidbit into the newsletter. You never quite know what you’re going to get without it being unfamiliar.

If you have your own mailing list and you’re not getting great engagement it might be because you’re offering too much information that’s at the wrong end of the scale. You might be offering information that readers already know, expect, have already experienced (the banal). A writer just talking about their books or writing, for example. Or you might be offering too much information that way out there, readers have no connection with, too discordant.

You need to mix it up a bit.

This is what a quick google search revealed of what should be typical:

My stats hover around 40% openers and 15% click throughs. So I must be doing something right, hitting the sweet spot.

And Finally, Book Covers

Oh, I have led you a lovely merry dance thus far. We’ve covered a whole lot of ground. It’s like one of those hikes my dad will take me on when I go back to the North East of England. But here we are at the top of the mountain. That being my so-called specialist subject and actually the title of this article. 

So what makes a book cover intriguing?

I guess we all pretty much can answer that now, pretty succinctly. 

It’s a book cover that hits our sweet spot on the Unified Spectrum of Interest. Something that creates tension between the experienced and experimental, known and unknown, banal and over complex. Harmony with a bit of the discordant thrown in.

Job done.

All good and well but how can we practically achieve that visually?

With words this seems a little easier, right?

Well it’s a good job that I’ve been designing book covers for over ten years of my life on a daily basis. Because I’ve got a few tricks up my sleeve, things I’ve learned and I’ll share a few of them with you. 

It’s probably best to explain what is the banal, the experienced, the know, the comfy first.

There is an expression that designers will use when it comes to stock images they’ll say, “it looks a bit too stocky that one”. But what they’re really saying is that it’s too banal.

Here’s an example:

It’s staged and it’s horrid, it’s all the tropes you’d expect from a business meeting image. In short, it is banal and we switch off, no matter how much it’s trying to communicate our business’s core message: which is obviously ‘business’. That is a stocky type of stock image. It’s the visual equivalent of our ‘grey goo’.

So what’s the equivalent in terms of a book cover? Well if we use our Unified Spectrum of Interest it would be something that is banal, experienced, comfortable, harmonic, and known. Basically a book cover that potential readers have seen a thousand times before for a genre. 

But some of you, as writers, are screaming inside: I don’t want to turn up at the party looking completely out of place.

To which I would counter: but don’t you want to catch the eye of a prospective handsome man or lovely woman at said party?

I thought so.

You don’t have to look out of place but you’ve also got to have something about the outfit you’re selecting that’s will make you stand out.

And that’s where our sweet spot comes in.

But how do we achieve that tension between both things? 

Well there are a good few techniques I’ve learnt over the years to subvert what is a cliche, and I am always playing and discovering new fun ones. But here we go with some of my ideas, with examples of what I mean.

1. Adding a Soupcon Madness to the Mundane

The simplest way of achieving intrigue is to take all this a bit literally. Take something that we are comfortable with visually within a genre and just add another element that we don’t expect. Our small sprinkling of the discordant with the harmony.

2. Using Colour Creatively

Colour is information. Colour tells us things, as does objects, typography and composition. But if we keep everything else standard but present the colour in an unfamiliar way we’ve created that tension we need. If all horror books are dark dark dark but we go light, it’s intriguing. Another way is to go to the more stark end of the scale. But if everyone else is using stark palettes in that genre then it becomes banal. So to use this concept we need to understand what is already ‘experienced’. But there are loads of colour palettes out there, and generally a single banal one that gets used all the time in a genre. Intrigue with a new palette. Easy-peasy.

3. The Medium as the Message

It’s quite easy as a design amateur to say there are only two ways you can present something, with a photo or with an illustration. Job done. As someone that’s spent the last thirty years designing, it’s a little more complex than that. There are hundreds of different ways of taking a photo, or illustrating. All these different mediums have their own message associated with them. They all say different things and speak to potential readers in differen ways.

For example, if you draw something in the kawaii k-pop or j-pop styles it says happy-happy-joy. If you draw something in the Frank Miller school of comic book illustration it says dark and brooding.

The message is always intrinsic in the style.

So we can always take a bog-standard banal element and present it in a non-standard medium to create that tension between subject and presentation. Something that creates intrigue.

For example, if all erotic fiction covers are male torsos photos shot in moody black and white why try a different medium for the photo, maybe of a male torso but in bright 50s technicolour. After all, your story is bright and fun. And you’re creating an unknown feeling in the average reader of erotica’s mind when they stumble across your bool. Why is this cover not a modern looking black and white studio photo, they think. You’ve got them intrigued.

4. The Composition as the Message

For a designer it’s super easy to be drawn into a rather rote way of composing a book cover because after all you don’t have much space to play with and you have to fit at least the standard elements of title, picture and author name on there. And that in turn starts to feel all very much ‘known’.

It’s easy to go the banal route of designing in thirds, centre aligning, a simple visual index of title, picture, author name, or what-have-you. All lazy book cover designers do this all the time. I know I do when I’m feeling lazy designing pre-made covers.

But the other things I try to do as well is break my coding. Go outside the rules. Compose in odd ways. That oddness creates our sweet spot tension. It takes more time to experiment but that’s the fun part of design. This shouldn’t work but I like it. Zoom in the crop too close. Have something hanging off the side of the page. Have the image off kilter. Stupidly small text. Stupidly large text. Split the image in two. Format one thing as another. There are hundreds of fun little experiments you can do which will create intrigue and visual tension, by making something very much known to feel like something unknown with exactly the same elements.

5. The Mood as the Message

Likewise, our mood-type tropes are really probably the strongest thing that comes to the fore when we talk about genre. Memoirs have that vintage hazy quality. Horror book covers are dark and brooding. Romance covers should be sweet, warm, inviting. 

And all these ‘known’ moods or tones make sense. They tell our story. They set an expectation for potential readers. They’re a great shortcut.

Get the mood wrong on a book cover and it all falls to pieces. 

So you would think that we don’t have much wriggle room with this to move it from a ‘harmonic’ expectation and move it to the right on our spectrum, into our sweet spot. And I’ve purposefully used the word ‘harmonic’ because if we go back to what we’ve learnt thus far, it’s not about throwing out the harmonic. It’s about sprinkling our harmony with a few ‘discordant’ elements to drag into our sweet spot. 

Emotions in stories, or in life, are not blankly uniform. We have a few laughs in the hard times. In those terribly sad memoirs about awful childhoods there are always flecks of hope and joy. Or dark moments of adversity in a happy romance book. It’s what keeps us intrigued within the narrative. Otherwise it would all be one long parade of mystery or happy-clappy love.

And this is something to remember when designing a book cover. Those little sparks of the opposite of the standard mood is what can elevate a cover into the realms of intrigue.

6. A Good Visual Metaphor

I remember when I first started designing book covers all those years ago it was all about Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight. It’s fair to say I’m not a massive fan of either of those books, in fact I’ve not read them, surprise surprise, but I am a massive fan of their book covers. Either book could have quite easily gone for the easy option of sticking a half-dressed bloke and woman on there, or a sexy vampire. But they didn’t. Instead they had both had poetic visual metaphors on their book covers instead. Bravo!

This creates tension and intrigue.

Fifty Shades: A tie (oh, I get it, the book is about tying people up, nice visual pun) but the photo is shot in those sexy platinum grey tones we all associate with wealth. 

Twilight: The temptation of Eve. We all know that story. But I heard this book isn’t about Eve, it’s about vampires, right? And this creates tension and intrigue. Our protagonist is going to be tempted just like Eve? I wanna know how!

7. Mixing Two Knowns for an Unknown

Let’s do a little thought experiment here. Think of a sexy shirtless man with a cat on a book cover. Got the picture in your head? Good. Now how does that make you feel? What do you think the story is about? The sexy man part makes you think this sort might be somewhat romantic or erotic. But where does the cat come into it? The mind boggles. Hopefully not in a bad way. Maybe the man can turn into a cat? Maybe he uses the cat to entice the woman of his dreams. Maybe the cat controls our man telepathically with the right chat-up lines to get the woman. 

See, our mind is racing. We have no idea. There is enough of a gap between the two ‘known’ elements to create an ‘unknown’ quality, and in turn creates intrigue.

There is an art to this though. Creating that correct distance. So for example if we had the sexy man holding an ice cream. We think, so what, he likes ice cream. Where’s the intrigue? But at the same time we can’t turn a cover into a Salvador Dali surrealist painting where we can’t make a connection of intrigue in the potential reader’s imagination.

It needs to be a distance where we write our own stories, we make our own semiotic connections. A good cover will do this. One of these covers below work, the other doesn’t (but I’d read the second because I’m psychopath).

8. Never Seen Before

For me this is the holy grail of book cover design.

Back when I was using more stock images to use for creating pre-made book covers, rather than playing with MidJourney, I used to spend hours and hours trawling for images. Too many to count, if I’m honest. If something suddenly caught my eye it was generally because I knew it could work for a book cover, i.e. it was something ‘known’ that would work for a genre, but it also had this quality of having never seen that sort of image before.

It would give me a little spark of joy. I’d think: cool, this is my jam!

I feel exactly the same way when I’m sitting here playing with a bog standard image and I get it to work in a new way. Or generating images using MidJourney and it comes up with something odd but not too far away from what people would want on their book cover. In that sweet spot. That ‘new’ intrigues me.

And that same sort of thing will happen to potential readers, when they spot your book cover that’s new enough to be outside what they’ve experienced but still inside their frame of reference.

New is good

We all like ‘new’, right? New shoes or sneakers. The smell of a new carpet, new born babies.

So don’t be afraid of it, as long as potential readers can make a semiotic connection they’ll get a little rush of joy at the ‘new’ too.

I know what you’re going to say now: but I’ve been to your GoOnWrite website and a lot of the book covers I see there are more of the comfy banal stuff. 

You’re right. There are two reasons for this.

Authors, I have found, are generally not as adventurous as I would like (hence all these words I’ve just written), and if I don’t have the banal on my website, then I don’t get sales and a man needs to keep a roof over his head.

Rightly or wrongly: banal sells.

I look at some of these covers on my website and I’m actually sick to my stomach at how dull some of them are. But needs must.

And more importantly …

A lot of my more adventurous covers actually sell well, and have already been sold, because the adventurous authors have been intrigued enough by looking at the cover, that they wanted to purchase that cover, and all probably without even thinking about it on anything other than a surface level.

Intrigue sells! Who’d have thought it.

Something deep down inside of them has felt this all along and now they know why.

The ‘new’ gets snapped up fast.

Furthermore, when it comes to commissioning me from scratch you get the full intrigue package of me playing with ideas until we hit on that sweet spot and it’s been some of my best work down the years.

Here’s to many more, because I really enjoy my job!

In Conclusion (Yes, We’ve Got There)

Humans are spotting pattern machines, we turn off if we see the same thing over and over again. We become immune to the grey goo.

That’s not what creates the glorious intrigue in people’s minds. The thing that suckers them in and keeps them interested. We don’t have to be completely out there to be artists. I know I fit into this latter category for sure, with my own creativity, and need to keep reigning myself in from the ‘overly discordant’ zone.

We just need to keep in mind that something truly glorious sits on the scale and is generally just an ever so slight nudge to right of where we feel comfortable.

It’s quite simple really. 

This small amount of bravery, this nudge to the right is why we enjoy in: falling in love; riding roller coasters; travelling to new places; and why we pick up books we’ve never read before.

It’s this mixture of the known with the slight addition of something completely unknown that creates pleasure. 

So next time you sit down to work on something remember: will the people interacting with the thing I am making already know this, or do I need to add something unknown into the mix.

And if you promise me that, I’ll try to remember to do the same, and stop being so experimental with my works and pull it back in the realm of what people know.


And Finally. I Promised, You Could Make More Friend

Okay. If you’ve read all the way down to this point I guess it’s only fair to share with you my thoughts on this subject.

From everything we’ve already covered you can probably work this out yourself: where your interest in new people should lie; or how you should present yourself to others to be intriguing, without coming across like some Dale-Carnegie-How-to-Win-Friend-and-Influence-People, insincere, try-hard creep! 

We all know the sort.

Obviously this is going to be a little right on the Unified Interest Spectrum of how you currently probably present yourself when meeting new people.

But if you need it spelled out. Here we go.

Present yourself in a braver way. People are judgmental creatures. They already think they know who you are at first glance. 

And what you do in tern is think to yourself: I don’t want to rock the boat with this new person so I’ll just present in a non-confrontational way.

What you’re doing is this:

You don’t need to be one of those wacky people we all knew in the first year of university.

Offering one small single piece of information that people wouldn’t think about you immediately changes their tack. Makes them think in a different way about you. You’ll intrigue them.

You just need to give a little more of yourself when you meet people for the first time. And a little more of the unexpected. Confound their judgments.

So more like this:

Secondly, ask braver questions. Slightly different questions.

I’ve lived in a number of big cosmopolitan cities over the years: London, Berlin, Barcelona. I’ve met all manner of people from all over the world in bars and pubs. It’s glorious. As a writer myself, other people’s personalities, lives and stories are my fuel. As such I’ve become adept at asking somewhat intriguing questions. You don’t have to go too far outside of the known to get something. Just that little nudge to the right. 

An example.

Most people when meeting new people always end up asking those three utterly banal questions: 

Where are you from? 

What do you do? 

How long have you been in here? 

Which I used to answer: my mum; drink; about an hour. Which I thought was rather facetiously delicious until I bored myself with my drollness. And changed my tack. 

I simply started asking them more intriguing questions. My favourite being:

What have you been up to today? Has it been going well?

It’s odd. It’s an off-kilter thing to ask a stranger you’ve just met. It’s not what they expect, but at the same time it seems like a perfectly normal question beyond that. It hits the sweet spot. 

And believe me, people will always, but always, answer you. Telling you all about themselves and their life, starting with their day, that day. It’s a wonderful jumping off point for them. And people like that, they love banging on about themselves. 

And with that it seems like I’ve been banging on for quite a while now. I think I’ve taken enough of your time already. So here’s where today’s ‘banging on’ finishes.

Even if you couldn’t get a word in edgeways at least you’ve made a new friend at the bar, 

And that’s me,


PS I promised this essay would be a little shorter than the last one. It wasn’t. I lied. The next one will be, though. Although I wouldn’t bet your house on it. Because you might end up with nowhere to live.

Self-published Authors Worried about AI Artwork on Book Covers


Over the last six months we’ve seen rapid advancement in AI Image Generation and there is a lot of chat and controversy around the subject. So understandably a lot of authors are somewhat worried whether it’s a good idea or not to use AI art for book covers or pictures in an illustrated book. 

So I think it’s time to get my thoughts down and dispel some of the myths and tell you how it works and where you stand. 

So here you’ll find the facts.

Controversy #1: It’s All a Bit Dodgy, Run by Dodgy Disruptor Companies

Of course a lot of these services, such as Dall-E, Stable Diffusion, MidJourney, no one has ever heard of before AI Image Generation. And yes, these are the first movers in the field. But there’s a number of well-known names already on this too.

Microsoft, under its Bing banner has a product coming up. More info about that here.

ShutterStock, the place I’ve used for stock images for ten years, is getting in on the AI Image Generation act. They have a white-labelled version of Dall-E running on their website. Go look for yourself here

Big companies like these aren’t getting involved without it being 100% legit. It’s just that some of the lesser-known companies are the first movers in the space.

But if you want a deeper understanding of the subject, the controversies surround it, then sit back, get yourself a nice cup of tea and let me try and guide you through it. 

There are quite a few topics to cover. It might take a while but it will definitely leave you a little more informed on:

  • What your legal rights are, as an author.
  • How AI actually works.
  • Where the controversy lies.
  • What’s generally super interesting about it.
  • And finally, what the future holds.

Who I Am

If you don’t know who I am, I guess it’s worth pointing that out, to give you a little background. I’m James, the chap that runs the book cover design service. I’ve been a freelance graphic designer since the nineties. In fact, this is an important point, because I was designing over the internet in pre-broadband days, when you had to dial-up via a landline to get the internet. 

As in, I’ve always been ahead of the curve somewhat when it comes to technology. Because I love technology. I always have. In fact, another lifetime ago, I did a Computer Science degree at Brunel University. I dropped out in my final year back in ’94 to do more graphics stuff. I found drawing fun pictures more interesting than writing buggy code.

The point is that when some new technology comes along I’m a vociferous reader and thinker on the subject. Because I’m generally incredibly interested. And AI is no different. I’ve actually been reading on the subject for many years. 

I knew it was in the post. But AI Image Generation took me by surprise last year. 

But the fact that I’m a designer, and run a business, I have to be above board with everything. I can’t leave my backside out there flapping in the wind, so to speak. So this is something that I’ve thought about and looked at in thorough detail.

So let me try and explain how it works in the simplest way I can for you.

But before we get to the fun stuff about AI Image Generation, let’s get to one of controversies. One that just leaves me scratching my head. And that’s Copyright and Rights.

Controversy #1: You Can’t Copyright a Book Cover with AI Generated Images

The concept of copyright seems pretty straightforward to most authors. You can write a novel and copyright that novel, and own the copyright. Job done. 

When it comes to book covers the situation isn’t as clear cut.

Let me explain why.

A novel is made of elements called ‘words’. And words are not copyrighted. No one owns them because no one created them. So far, so facetious. 

But with a book cover design, this isn’t the case.

Traditionally, a book cover will be made of things other than words: so fonts, design elements, stock photography, or maybe stock illustrations. Someone else has created that stock or font set, and they wholly own the copyright to those things, and they give you rights to use them under certain terms with a licence. Those terms allow you to use them on a book cover, if you pay for the licence. Which is what a legit book cover designer does. What I do.

So does that mean that an author can now go away and copyright a book cover that I have designed for them? 

In a word: no.

Any designer saying otherwise is talking out of their posterior.

Because for the most part, you can’t exert the fact to a copyright office that you are the originator of the work. The photographer of the stock image and the font designs have done the heavy lifting here. With a copyright you need to prove that the work is unique and original enough (and there are no clear rules on this). And I would say with a book cover, the moment you tell them you are using stock images, they’re going to laugh out of the copyright office. Not original enough. End of.

Let me give you a real-world example.

Imagine you make a book cover with a stock image and you could copyright it. Then another designer or author comes along and finds the same stock image and pays for a licence and uses it on their cover. So your two book covers look similar in some way. What’s going to happen now? Are you going to say they broke your copyright, take them to court? They’ll just show the courts that you’ve both used the same stock image. Case closed. 

This idea of owning the copyright to a book cover is a popular misconception with self-published authors. A misconception that probably comes from the novel-made-of-words simplicity of being able to copyright a manuscript. A misconception, as a book cover designer, I need to correct on a regular basis.

But using licence material to make a cover gives you the Rights to use that cover on Amazon or wherever. This will become important in a second. There is a difference between Copyright and Rights.

So the question here is: if AI is creating brand new images that haven’t been seen anywhere else, why can’t I, or you as the designer, just copyright them? You created them right, they’re unique. 

At the moment the copyright office in the USA has already said ‘nope’. Something has to be created by a Human to qualify as an original work. There is no stipulation for AI generated work there. Test cases have been brought and failed. Probably setting some precedence. 

Here where the misunderstanding exists. Authors think they can copyright a book cover with stock images, and have heard you can’t copyright a book cover with AI images. 

I’m afraid you can’t do either.

So you’re in the same boat either way. To me there is no controversy. You’re out of luck both ways.

But if you’ve been following thus far, the question you would probably ask is this. Does the service that generates the AI artwork give me the Rights to use that image in a commercial capacity, i.e. to sell a book, in the same way as a royalty free stock image site. And the answer to that question is: yes! Or at least the service I use. I’ve read their terms, and it definitely does.

So this idea of owning the copyright to the artwork, is somewhat of a mirage for authors. 

“But I want to own my cover. I want. I want. I want.”

If you want to copyright a cover then get an artist to draw some image from scratch, or take a photograph for your cover, but to get professional work done you’re looking at hundreds, if not thousands of dollars. 

The reality is for cost effective book covers, you’re using either AI generated images or stock images, under the Rights, provided by either service, whether it be stock images or AI generated. 

What AI Definitely Isn’t: A Copy Machine

After reading a lot in the Self-publishing arena about the topic of AI Image Generation I see in some places there is a large misconception as to what it’s doing. 

It’s quite easy to say to yourself, “oh, it’s taking all the images it’s stored and just cobbling them together to make a new image,” as if it’s some sort of clever collage machine. 

That would obviously be stepping on someone’s copyright by doing that. It has to be doing that, right? I mean the images are too good to not be a copy of someone else’s work. A machine can’t make that.


But it’s such a great paradigm shift the immediate sensation is that it must be simply copying a human’s homework and. There just has to be some sort of plagiarism going on. 

No AI stores images that are copyright. It learns from them.

But how can it have learnt to draw that well? 

The above image shows you MidJourney’s improvement in 12 months. Yeah, it has learned to draw very well, very fast. Version five will hit at the start of 2023 and will be better and I think to myself how can it get better than version four!

But everything that it creates is completely from scratch from its learning. A good example to prove this point is to take an obtuse object and get it to design something that would have never been drawn in that style. 

Here are few examples:

This is the lithographic engraved style which was the only way to do images in books in the 18th and 19th centuries. Also, making music, I’m a bit of a synth buff, and this is no synth that I know of. The AI knows that synths have dials, keys and knobs. It’s deciding to make its own unique synth.

Likewise, I don’t think Xbox’s existed in turn-of-the-century Paris. Maybe less Absinthe would have been quaffed. 

I don’t think superheroes, let alone one called ‘Fish and Chip’ man were part of Picasso’s oeuvre.

All three examples sum up the reason why it would be somewhat impossible for the AI generation to just be copying images if it has to look in its database of all images that already exist. 

Yes, it can paint in the style of what it’s learnt. 

So how does it do that?

What AI Definitely Is: A Structure Analysing Machine then It Enjoys Lots of Arguments

We could get into the really nitty gritty of the technical ways of how AI learns and how it produces images. But some of that is even over my head.

But still, let me try to explain it in layman’s terms. 

It looks at millions of images, and analyses the tags of those images. And looks for repeated patterns. So it can learn the structure of things. Shapes, colours, line widths, composition, on and on.

As an example, if you give it enough apple pictures to look at it’ll know that apples are round and generally red or green. So records that structure. And it stores that ‘round’ and the colours in a database. Then you ask it to draw you an apple, it’ll draw something that’s round and that colour. 

Obviously, round and the colour is a simplistic way to look at it. The AI given enough images will understand other things about apples: stalks, where they’re usually found, that they’re not exactly round, that they can also be yellow or brown, what a half eaten apple looks like, etc. But you get the picture. So does the AI, given enough data.

The way the AI understands what you’re asking in it, and outputs good results from its ‘structure of things’ database, is achieved with something called a Diffusion Model. Basically you have two different AI’s arguing with each other backwards and forwards, until it has an answer for you in the form of a picture.

If you really want to get into the complexity of how this works you can read up about how diffusion models work you can read about things like Generative Adversarial Networks and Markov Chains. All subjects I got lost in because I’m a bit of a maths nut, and went down that rabbit hole. They explain what’s actually happening behind the magicians curtain. But yeah, rather full on, to say the least.

So in basic terms, the AI model has been trained to learn the structure of images. The things any human learns and knows. Cubism has lots of angles. Oil paintings have thick textured brush strokes. Rubens images are dark. A car has four wheels. The sky is blue. The grass is green. You see pumpkins on Halloween.

Literally anything you can think of that you would need to know to draw a picture, it’s been trained to know.

Controversy #2: How it Was Built (a Little Art History too)

So here’s where the controversy starts to hit. The image structure AI has been trained on millions, if not billions, of images from the internet, including a whole host of public domain and copyrighted works, from artists living and dead. 

When you hear the expression ‘copyrighted works’ most people start to feel, oh, there must be something illegal going on. The gut reaction is to remember things like Napster, BitTorrent, if you’re old enough. Something doesn’t feel right.

But as we’ve established here, what it’s doing is learning structure from those work. What’s the difference between you or I learning from art that has gone before, copyrighted or not? As an eight year old I remember learning to draw doodling X-wings and Tie fighters (very much youthful copyright infringing material). 

All artists and creatives learn from somewhere. When you first learnt to write, you might try to copy the style from your favourite author, until you find your own voice. Or as a comic book illustrator you might look at someone like Frank Miller and copy their style to improve your skills. It’s how we learn.

It’s also how the AI learns.

The problem here isn’t that a machine shouldn’t do what humans do, it’s the fact that the AI can do it on a vastly wider and faster scale. 

Let’s take an example. One that I guess is quite dear to me and one that I’ve been thinking about, when I’ve been considering the subject of AI. Picasso and cubism.

Stay with me, it helps explain what’s happening.

The first painting in this style was Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Picasso, which he completed in Paris but it’s actually from sketches that he made whilst he was studying art in Barcelona. And it’s a close subject to me because I walk down the former-red-light-district-street of Carrer d’Avignon quite regularly (it’s about 1 km from where I live currently). Anyway, here’s the picture.

So we can say Picasso invented the style of cubism. It was a radical shift in modernism or short-lived trend, depending on your point of view. But it definitely was the latter. Because there were a good number of imitators that came along. 

In fact, in 2022, I was at the Sofia Reina Gallery in Madrid, which houses Guernica by Picasso — probably the most famous cubist painting. But that room was way too busy, like the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. So I mooched about and ended up spending time with this one instead.

It got me thinking about AI quite a bit. And it’s by another Catalan connected artist, it’s by a 22 year old Salvador Dali, yep that nutty chap. Hardly a style you associate with him. It’s like a young Dali is trying to be Picasso a good 15 years after The Young Women of d’Avigon. Catching the tail end of the cubism. See, I told you it was a trend.

So what’s this Spanish artist style-theft got to do with AI?

Well basically, we can probably draw a very clean line down through art history of styles being ripped off from one artist to the next, there is a clean lineage. 

As Picasso said himself:

As in, it’s better to take the best ideas from other artists and not just copy their work verbatim. Ironic side note: the original quote was stolen from TS Eliot, but I digress.

The point is that we’re at a point in technological sense where the AI can take everything that has come before it and learn ALL the styles. It can, and has, be trained to be every artist, by analysing all the work of all the styles. That’s just facts.

Think of the AI generation as the perfect art student that has been told to learn paint in every style that art history offers. It would take a human thousands, ten of thousands of years. And it cracked its task in less than six months. Or at least it’s 95% of the way there. Don’t get me started on how it does hands (at the time of writing).

And this seems unfair, very unfair. And quite a scary thought if you think about it for a length of time, as I have.

How Can the AI Get Away with Copying Styles?

In a word: you can’t copyright a style. 

This is where my little art history lesson comes in. Everyone copies from everyone else. Nothing is original, everything builds on what has come before it. The problem it seems to me is that AI has hyperturboed this development, and made it reality. 

As the old adage goes: we stand on the shoulders of giants. 

If you could copyright a style everything would have just stood still in art. 

So there is no copyright on style. It’s just the way it is.

So are we in a post-copyright world because of AI?

No. You can still infringe certain copyrights with image generation. Whether it be a famous person’s likeness (e.g. Messi, the football kicky man), or a character (like Charlie Brown), or product design, or logos, or a final photo (like a stock image). 

Put any of those things even on an AI generated book cover and you’ll still run into problems. But not the style they’re photographed in, drawn in, or what-have-you. 

If that’s the case, why all the controversy? Given that you can’t copyright a style and the AI just understands the structure of a style.

Controversy #3: Ethical Qualms

This is where it gets murky from an ethical point of view. And let me introduce you to someone I’d never heard of before I started using AI as a tool, he’s called Greg Rutkowski. 

We need to talk about Greg. He is a good example.

Greg is not a happy chappy. Greg is one of those artists that is alive to this day and is a jobbing artist. Greg’s paintings were on the internet. And these images were used to train the earlier AIs. So it then knew the structure of Greg’s style.

Then one AI user found Greg’s art and started using his name to make art because they liked his style. It made good fantasy art. So other people started using Greg’s name and his style became one of the most used prompts for a while.

He was getting Picasso’ed. People ripping off his original style. He wasn’t happy.

A few months ago he was probably one of the most vocal people out there shaking his fist at clouds. Maybe he thought he should be recompensed for the AI being trained on his images. 

I feel sorry for Greg, I do. 

But you didn’t see Picasso going down to Dali’s barrio and violently knocking on his door and asking for a fight or a big bag of deniros. Picasso was too busy moving onto the next thing.

If you ask me this is a complex issue. Here are my thoughts. 

I like to think of myself as an ethical chap. So I would love for the fact that living artists, who are used in prompts to generate art, got some recompense for their style being used. Seems somewhat fair to me. Will this happen? Who knows. I remain hopeful. Yet, quite recently it’s already going in another direction. More of that later.

Secondly, and more importantly, for me I’ve never used a single artist name to generate artwork, it just seems so icky. It doesn’t feel right. I’m a bit of a Golden Rule chap. How would I feel if I was Greg? So I’ve never used Greg’s name. Or any other single living artist for that matter when generating images for book covers. 

Plus as these things go: that sort of style became quickly overused.

One person uses Greg’s style to make a great image then everyone else just follows like sheep because they want to make great images too. And at one point there was a glut of Greg’s style (I know because I rate other people’s random images for free CPU time). 

Following the crowd has never been my style. Also if I have this fantastical tool why would I want to make obvious book covers with obvious styles. I don’t. And haven’t. It’s so much more powerful than just doing Greg pictures.

But here is where it gets even more complicated. 

Firstly, most of the people that are using Greg’s style, are they using it for commercial gain? Not necessarily. A lot of people use his fantasy style to make things for Dungeons and Dragons. Like character avatars. Should Greg get money when some dice-rolling 12-year-old is using his style for a bit of fun?

Secondly, does the AI actually make exact copies of Greg’s style when you use his name. Let’s do an experiment. Let’s take one of that original work image, shown earlier and try to replicate that using his name as a prompt:

To be honest with you, I actually don’t think it looks the same as his style and from an aesthetic point of view, I sort of prefer this AI image. It has more of a vibe to it. Sorry, Greg. The AI has already surpassed you, even if I use your name (which I would never usually do). 

Thirdly, as I mentioned you can’t copyright your style. You’ll see from my example, is it really that close to Greg’s style, anyway? Some elements of structure might remain, like the shapes of a dragon. And I have a sneaking suspicion that Greg didn’t invent the shape of dragons, let alone copyright it, otherwise he’d be sitting pretty on all that Game of Thrones royalty money. 

And at the time of writing this article it’s actually really hard to replicate his style. This might be something to do with the Spawning service (we’ll get onto that soon). 

And finally, this is where it gets interesting. Remixing. 

As we’ve established, down the annals of history, arts have borrowed or stolen from multiple other artists and developed their own unique style. Dali himself, as well as his foray into cubism, started knocking about with the Dadaist, and the Surrealist. All these inputs made Dali what you remember him to be: that melty clock bloke. 

This is what AI is really good at. Here are some examples of the same image, where I’ve added a second artist. So a cocktail of Greg and another artist.

All of them become their own style. Nothing at all like Greg’s style. Or any of those other artist names I’ve used. It’s become its own thing.

It’s almost like, with AI, styles have become ingredients in a recipe. It’s a way of thinking that never existed before AI image generation. 

But do I feel for Greg? Yes I do. Imagine spending 10-20 years of your life developing your own voice, and taking hours to paint a picture, and then AI comes along, learns your ingredient in months, improves on it, and then can be thrown into a recipe. 

But that’s just where we’re at. There is no putting the genie back in the bottle.

It’s like the moment when all those car factory plant workers were laid off when robots came along. There isn’t a point where Ford or GM suddenly said yeah, this is awful for the workers, let’s get them back in. Those jobs just don’t exist any more. And civilization has moved on from that. It’s harsh. But that’s just what happens.

We’re in that radical technological shift moment in time.

Let me Introduce You to Spawning

And here’s the rub. I think I might have been lying to you.

I’m not entirely sure the newest version of the AI that I use even has Greg’s art even in it. I think it’s more of a generic red dragon.

Because things have already changed pretty fast to deal with this ethical issue.

So when some living artists kicked up a fuss, a service came along, called Spawning, advocating for artists, and created a database of those that wanted to opt out of the data that was used to train these AIs. 

And every time they update any of these AI Image Generating services it needs to be retrained from scratch. And as they’ve gotten more proficient at training the AIs (as shown right at the start of this article), they need to rely less on living artists’ work. 

So I suspect Greg’s style is on this block list now.

So everything has already quickly caught up with this annoyed artist question, ethical concern. But it doesn’t stop media outlets churning out contentious content to grab eyeballs. Controversy sells. Proper journalism is harder to do.

It sort of makes me sad. I would have preferred for Greg to get a bit of a kickback for his original training of the earlier AIs, even if I never used his style.

And now we’re going to stop talking about him.

I don’t even like his style, far too flowery for my tastes, a bit too Monet. Was Greg ever inspired by Claude Monet? Now that would be ironic.

Controversy #4: Signatures & Watermarks

Before we get past all the controversy, here’s another interesting aside to this ‘trained on artist copyrighted works’ which is rather messy, to say the least. 

Greg and other artists, right down the ages, have typically relied on a rather old school way of protecting their works. They traditionally signed their works, or in a more modern way, watermarked their works.

So knowing what we know in the way AI learns the structure of images. What do you think happens when you ask the AI to draw a picture from such an artist? The AI has learnt that that part of the composition is part of that artist’s structure and replicates it. Because it’s daft.

Me, I’ve never had signatures pop up in my AI creations because I generally shy away from living artists. But everyone out there in copying internet land is using artist prompts where this has been learnt.

But this being some sort of proof that it’s cobbling together images from copyrighted work are just that: cobblers. It’s the AI simply trying to sign its own paintings, because that’s the structure it’s learnt.

And that’s it with the controversies. 

I much prefer to talk about myself!

Where I’m At

As a cover designer, AI has been a godsend. I’ve loved playing with it. It’s incredibly useful as a tool. And I use the word ‘tool’ judiciously. Nothing replaces understanding, experience, imagination and hard work. 

It’s easy to think of AI image generation as a magical thing, you just simply type something in there and it gives you the most amazing images that are perfect. If anything, to get good work out of it, it’s been a very steep learning curve for me. Getting what you want takes time to perfect the descriptions, nudge the argument between natural language and the structural nature of images this way and that. 

Here are a few facts about me and AI.

Firstly, I’ve generated about 15,000 images and probably found about 1,000 of them actually useful. 

Secondly, when I’ve used it for a standard commission with my clients I probably spend about twice as much time to generate the right image to use than it would have taken to find suitable stock images. But the results are definitely superior for certain genres of book when it comes to AI. And this is another point. Finding the right way to prompt it for each genre is a whole new set of skills I needed to learn. 

But what it has been really good for is opening up my own brain and thinking in a brand new way about my own semiotic connections, expanding those. I’m sure my design brain is a little bigger after these six months.

But there is much more that’s great about it other than the expanded number of synapses in my stupid fat head.

What I Love About A.I. Generation for Book Covers

But for me this is where it gets interesting, for what AI Image Generation can actually achieve over stock images. There are loads of great advantages to using it to make book covers. 

It’s a tool that goes beyond what humans can do if you open your imagination wider than what’s come before.

Uniqueness. People do want their book to turn up in a totally one-off design. AI Image Generation is really good at this. In fact, the fact it makes new images every time sometimes gives me too much choice! But allows authors to rest assured in the fact that someone won’t come along with the same stock image used on their cover.

Closer to the Author’s Ideas. When I’ve worked on commissions using it, I’ve been able to get closer to what authors want. “Yeah, my main character is a mixed-race, twelve-year-old angel in a magical dress made of crystals.” No problem. I can’t imagine the impossibility of achieving that with stock images. It’s now easier to match an author’s wonderful imagination. 

I Can Give Authors the Original Images to Play With. In the past, when I’ve used stock images to make covers, I can provide a client with the final work, but not the stock image originally used, simply because that goes against the standard licensing terms. With AI generated images that’s now possible, legally. Which I’m pretty cool with, because I’m cool Fonzi. Although if you want me to make other bits and pieces of advertising to go with your cover, I can do that too, from my Design Extras page. You know, properly designed.

Representation. For me this has been a bugbear down the years. The limitations and biases of the originators of stock images always became my limitations to provide for authors. Me, I’m a ‘Bill and Teds’ person: be excellent to one another. I’m happy to work for any race, creed, able’ness, gender, sexuality and kink, as long as you’re being excellent too. AI opens up a lot of possibilities and this makes me really happy that I can provide for everyone. Whatever you want: female pirate captains, spies in wheelchairs, black spacecraft captains, bored purple aliens working in Walmart, Hasidic Kung Fu, or whatever crazy things you can imagine to write about! The AI doesn’t judge. Neither do I. 

AI can easily work out and draw things that are too hard for Humans. You would have thought that anything that can be thought of in an artist’s mind can be visualised and drawn. But this is simply not true. Think of something like a fireball firing across a lake, whilst the water is being disturbed by an iridescent green glowing dragon that breaks the surface. Getting all those reflections, diffractions, and light sources would be virtually impossible. Or any other complex mathematical concepts. AI takes a lot of this stuff in its stride. To me, it’s the most interesting area of aesthetics when it comes to AI image generation. When I see one of these images the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. 

Colour Palettes. One of my absolute favourite things about design is simply: colour. I love playing with colours. Having things that really catch the eye for covers. Something that stands out from the crowd. AI is stunning at this, being able to take an image that might be a common trope and hit it with an interesting palette.

The Madness. I have way more fun with MidJourney just giving it all manner of utter crazy prompting words. I try to confuse it. For some reason this works particularly well. Emojis. Odd character from the full character set like these: ¤ ʨ ₱ ╦ ◙. Or just make up some ideas that seem to make sense linguistically: MinatureCore, MeltPunk, CandySplat, Swizzollo. It all seems to give interesting results.

Where We’re All Going

There is an interesting point I want to make here in closing, about where we’re heading in the future. I’m actually a rather philosophical sort of chap (in the classic sense), so I’ve spent a lot of time with my thoughts on this subject. 

The way I like to think about it is this.

When we talk about AI there are two different concepts at play here in a sense, what I like to call ‘creativity’ and ‘artistic impulse’. 

Creativity says, go make something. I want the final thing. The joy is making it. I spend hours writing a book, writing a song, painting a picture, cooking a meal. And the end result is what you’ve ‘created’. The object. Which is a fine pursuit in life. I do a lot of it.

But there is a deeper way that people make things, which I would call artistic impulse. You have an imaginative idea or deeply felt feeling or brand new thought you want to express, it comes way before the creative part. In fact, the creative part of the process is simply to fulfil that artistic impulse. And generally the end result will not be what that artistic impulse was at the start of the process. It will change and you will be changed because of that journey. I do a lot of this as well.

What AI will never be good at is: artistic impulse. Ever. There always has to be a seed, that’s human and imaginative. 

What AI will replace is that creative slog of the making, eventually and with everything. It’s all in the post, not just images. Think 3D worlds, typefaces, music, fashion, architecture, product design, recipes, and yes, writing.

It just got very smart very quickly. Very good at processing.

If you ask me how far off we are from:

“Write me an 80,000 word book in the cut up style of William Burroughs, about AI, set in Barcelona, with a subplot surrounding a stolen Picasso painting and second subplot involving the fantasy artist Greg Rutkowski, in the cosy mystery genre with techno thriller elements.”

I would say, at most, three years. It won’t be perfect, might need editing but yeah, but a perfect manuscript might be another three years off. But someone still needs to come up with that crazy idea. The artistic impulse.

If you had to pin me down I would say, you’ll probably have some sort of AI book cover design service in about 3-4 years. Will that mean I’m out of job? I think not. Because someone will still need to come up with what actually makes a good book cover, and that’s a skill on its own. An artistic impulse to set the creative wheels in motion.

Or maybe not. Who knows.

Things are changing fast. And I’m trying to keep ahead of it all. But at the same time I think it’s good to share my thoughts as well, so I hope that this has been somewhat of an education, clarifies some points for you all in a simple way.

Before I go, it’s worth pointing out that this article was written by a human being …

… maybe. 

No. Joke. It definitely was a human, that was me, 


PS I swear on my life the next blog post will be shorter. If you’ve made it to the end, well done you. Go reward yourself! Maybe a chocolate bar or something.

My Thoughts on A.I. and Book Cover Creation (Old, Somewhat Out of Date)

So I’ve had a week to play around with my new AI toy, and it’s fair to say, I’ve thought about and done nothing else. It’s really exciting. So I thought I would share some of my thoughts. Because it’s nothing but interesting. Or at least to me.

So if you’re interested, get yourself a nice glass of iced tea, get comfy because this might take a while. But it’s well worth it. It should expand your imagination and possibilities of what it can do and what I can turn into book covers for you.

As a little aside, all the images you’re going to see throughout this verbose diatribe are generated using the AI too.

How it is to Use

Firstly, I think the best metaphor I can give, to explain what it’s like is: it’s like having 10,000 robot painting artists at your beck and call. Unfortunately these robot painting artists are like unruly toddlers, they’re forever bumping into the furniture and falling over, so you have to guide them. And even then they won’t do what they exactly want ‘at the moment’ — more on that later.

Secondly, it’s SLOW! It’s quite an arduous task to get something half decent out of the machine, it takes a long time to do renders. Once you put in some information you get 4 variations and then you can do four variations on any of those variations, on and on. Until you hit on something useful. And you might have four or five iterations before you get to a good image, and each step needs processing and takes about 4 or 5 minutes, depending on how busy it is and what time of day it is. 

Thirdly, it’s expensive in a way, because to speed this up you can set it to FAST mode but you only get 15 hours a month of fast mode, even if you pay for the top tier, which I am. And then it’s €4 per extra hour. Which is going to add up quickly. To put it into context I’ve already used 3 hours in fast mode of my 15 this week, and 90% of the time I’ve been running it the slow, sort of free, mode. And the fact that I already pay €250 for ShutterStock. I sort of don’t want to wham up the same sort of bill for the AI. But I think this will change at some point down the line — more on this later too.

So to put into context of my normal working days, yes you can get it to do great images but it probably takes about 60-75% more time to actually do the work. I know this because I’ve done four commissions this week using it. But each of those four clients were really taken with the final results. And when presented with the AI examples or Stock Image examples they went for the AI version every time!

And it’s about the same amount of extra time (60-75%) to generate good images for pre-made covers, as it is to look for stock images. But at least we get some really interesting stuff. And I’m bored, bored, flippin’ bored of Shutterstock and I’ve rinsed it to death, after making over 20,000 covers.

How Useful is It?

Well you’ll see from next week’s pre-made covers, it’s pretty damn good! But only once you guide it down certain paths. In fact, I’m really enjoying it. I think the biggest advantage is that once you find styles that hit, you can use it pretty well to make stunning images. So back to the ‘10,000 robot painters’ way of looking at it. Yes, you can get it to paint in the style of most famous artists with ease, here’s a list of all the artists it can and can’t emulate. In fact, you can also do remixing with it. So there is one werewolf cover in next week’s offerings which was a Klimt / Warhol remix.

But here’s the rub, it generated a whole load of garbage before I got to those ones. I mean lots of stuff that didn’t make sense at all. Here’s some examples. It had a tendency to be all over the place a lot of the time. It makes a lot of images where it puts legs, eyes, body forms in totally the wrong place. This I guess will get better. But it’s rather frustrating and time consuming with some things.

Here’s what I had to go through:

So useful yes, amazing images yes, but 90% of the time goes into trial and error. I guess over time I’ll get better at working out my commands I want to use. In fact, I’ve started building some of my command lines already. Also in the public channels in the discord (yep, it’s a discord bot) I’m looking at what other people are using. Which is really helpful to experiment with. I’ll give you an example of a command line that I found that I quite like so you can see what I mean:

in the style of Hyperrealism, in the style of modern futurism, in real life, NVIDIA RTX ON, RYZEN AMD GRAPHICS, Octane Render, blender render, award winning photograph, trending on art station, James Cameron CGI, National Geographic photo of the year, High quality lighting, stage lighting, award winning cinematography, r/aesthetic Top This Week, Canon EF-S Macro 35mm, BluRay, iMAX, photorealistic, photogenic, Ultra settings, Quantum dot display, super-resolution, bullet physics engine –q 2 –ar 5:8 –stop 95

Yeah pretty out there, right? So there is a lot of trial and error to understand what it understands and what you can make it do from its dataset. And speak to it in its own language. 

But I’m not one to shy away from learning. In fact, learning is one of my favourite things!

What Bad about AI in Practical Terms for Book Covers?

There are a couple of things going on here:

Series Covers: When it comes to series covers, and I know a lot of you authors love this sort of stuff. This is a bit harder to generate more images at a later date, because generating something down the line might not match the original book cover. So it’s way easier to do at the time because you can get it to do variations. I guess if we decide on a style then this is less of a problem. You’ll actually see from some of my premade covers this week that I have done series covers. So it’s not impossible. But I need to remember the style for each, or at least note them down. So sort of possible, just a little harder I guess.

Print Covers: You can output images at various aspect ratios. So you can do an image at 5:8 but what it means is that I’ll probably have to be a little clever to make sure that I can do a print cover of that image. I’ll always find design solutions to that problem. But it was a little easier with a stock image because I’d always crop with a bit to the left of the image for the wraparound. But I’ll find solutions.

PG-13-ish: The other thing that the AI I’m using does, is content moderation. So it won’t do words like ‘sexy’ or ‘blood’ or ‘shower’ or ‘entrails’ or ‘naked’ or ‘boobs’. But it will do ‘dark red liquid,’ so you know, there are sort of ways around it.

And when I put ‘woman with shapely bristols’, did it understand this anachronistic euphemism? Who knows? She seems to have three ‘bristols’ in the bottom left. But it’s not a banned word. But these images ‘seem’ erotic in a certain way.

So yeah, too sexy erotica, or too graphic horror is off the table.

No Good for Veruca Salts: There is a certain type of author that gives me a whole list of attributes for their main character and the scene we find them in, because they have a very specific image in their mind’s eye. What the AI is not very good at is following a massive list of instructions that follow this. It just doesn’t happen. It gets confused easily. It’s not good at perspective once you add more than one element and one background element. Actually it’s not that amazing at creating bodies yet. Or space ships for some reason (or at least I’ve had problems thus far). Oh, and horses it’s terrible at. As you can see below. This might improve. But at the moment it’s better to approach it with an open mind and have a single element and background in mind and see what happens.

What Good about AI in Practical Terms for Book Covers?

But once you open your mind to what it produces, that’s where it gets very interesting. And it’s quite good at a number of things that are utterly vital when it comes to a good cover.

One Focus: I always say a cover should be simple, strong and have one focus, and as long as you play nice with the AI, and don’t over egg the pudding it comes back with really good, simple and focused results. It’s good at putting single characters or single items in an integrated scene so you see them.

Semiotics: Here also is why I really like using this AI tool and the odd results it produces. Because it’s based on a neural network it stores and thinks in concepts. What it understands is how one concept connects to another concept. It understands things like scary, dark, happy, angry and the things that we as humans understand as those concepts / symbols. So when you ask it to mix an ‘object’ with a ‘concept’ it has its best go at it. And sometimes it produces things you as a human wouldn’t produce because your neural network (i.e. your brain) immediately goes to the cliché, simply because it’s the quickest shortcut in your own head. But what the AI does, is it subverts that cliché because it takes more roundabout pathways to get there. But as a human we still understand what it means because it’s connecting with us on a semiotic level. We understand A to B, but we also understand A to B via C or D or E or even Pi. And the AI does that. For me this is killer when it comes to a cover design. It’s close enough to what we understand …

Intriguing: … and far enough away from what we normally see for us to spot a break in the hum-drum patterns of the style of book covers we’ve seen a thousand times. It intrigues and to me this is interesting to me. In fact, the best way I can describe the feeling I’ve had this week is that my brain has slightly capsized. Because it sort of produces these subconscious, dream-like pieces of work. Things I understand but at the same time have never seen before. Ever. Or ever will again. It’s a very strange feeling for a designer. If you spend time with someone or something that thinks completely differently to you, you always come away feeling somewhat changed and confused.

Uniqueness: And here’s the rub, it produces different things all the time! Always. You can get it to produce on and on with the same commands and it’ll be different every time. So there is absolutely no way anyone will ever have the same book cover. Because that image is completely unique, unlike images that you find on stock websites. So you know that the book cover is going to be original which is a complete bonus for people who like that idea. 

Eye-catching: Another thing that it’s really good at, given the right set of instructions, is interesting colour palettes. Colour schemes you wouldn’t normally think of that really match well. It seems to have its own sensibilities. And very much understands things like ‘pastel palette’, ‘dark brooding palette’, ‘neon palette’ and never comes up with dodgy results. Which is really wonderful. Good colour is what I’m drawn to and what potential readers should be drawn to.

Emotions: So I started using this one this week and it seems to be a very emotive painter and that’s what a good book cover needs: emotional resonance, a mood, something that draws you into investing the story. So it’s great at that. Tick. Tick. Tick.

Cross-genres: I have absolutely no idea if people are writing shifter paranormal stories any more at all. But it’s something I really didn’t get into designing in terms of premade covers simply because there weren’t any stock images available and I’m not going to spend a whole day doing photoshop work to make one picture of some handsome bloke with tiger skin for €40! It just didn’t make any financial sense. But the AI is really good at doing this sort of mixing two concepts together. So things like: neon blade runner / noir crossover; native American / ghost story; vampire rockstars; etc., on and on and on.

It’s amazing at mixing concepts. Not so good at composing lots of elements unless you want them mixed. For example one of the first things I asked it to do just for a laugh was a computer completely made out of mouse skulls. No idea why. This is what it came up with. So let your imagination run wild on your genre crossovers.

Good at Utter Nonsense Commands: If you want something truly random you can put in statements like ‘the evil that lurks in all men’s hearts’, ‘how to dance inside your own head’, ‘when you’re lost find yourself backwards’ and it truly gets confused enough to come up with some really interesting results. So on those three concepts this is what it came up with:

So yeah very much liking what it does at the moment.

So let’s see if any of my pre-made book covers that are coming this week will actually sell. I guess that’ll be the test!

So if YOU like what it does let’s play.

What does the Future Hold?

So as promised early at the start of this longish set of info, here’s a few things about where I see it going. Because I’ve not just been playing, I’ve been thinking. I’m one of those introspective sort of chaps.

Feedback Loop: Obviously this whole thing is based on machine learning. So as people use it more and more it’s learning more and more. So in terms of getting things wrong, like doing odd perspectives or bodies that have limbs in the wrong place, this will improve. Let me explain why. When humans create their variations at the start, humans are going to pick the ones that look the most correct, the more they do that, the better the AI becomes, the better results it produces, the more humans will pick the even better results. It’ll end up in some sort of exponential improvement over time. That’s just the nature of the beast. This is interesting to me. I honestly think in 2 or 3 years the results it will produce will look utterly different from how it outputs today. Today it’s just a toddler. It’s in its infancy. But you can still get good results out of it. So that’s nothing but good. Things will look more natural for sure!

Quantum Computing: This thing feels like it’s sitting on normal cloud processing somewhere or not really being given any great bandwidth on Sycamore, which is the quantum computer that Google runs. So it’s pretty damn slow. But quantum computing is here. Sycamore interestingly is part of Google’s AI division. Why am I banging on about quantum computing? Well, to me that’s interesting, so Sycamore is a 53 Qbit computer which means it’s X to the power of 53. Or in simple terms 9 million-trillion times as fast as normal computers because it’s running on quantum levels. It’s totally mental when you think about it. But the metaphor I use here is dial-up internet, that’s what this AI feels like at the moment. It’s slow. But eventually fibre came along twenty years later. And I think quantum cloud computing is in its equivalent infancy. The more the two things work hand-in-hand the faster this will all feel. If you’re interested in that sort of stuff go have a read up on it. A fantastic book is Scary Smart by Mo Gawdat. But yeah, I honestly didn’t even know how much of the future is already upon us.

My Job: Yeah, I think I’m going to be somewhat screwed somewhere down the line, maybe in 5 or 6 year’s time you’ll have book cover AI services that are wonderful. I can see it coming over the hill. I mean I feel for all the illustrators out there that are suddenly somewhat fighting a losing fight. But for the moment at least it’s me still doing the donkey work with the design and creating these images with it for you to make covers. So I guess I’m safe. For now.

But I, for one, welcome our new robot painting overlords. For the moment. They’re really fun!

Interesting times.

So if you read this far, I hope you found this somewhat interesting and if you want to have a chat with me about it or ask questions, I’m always open to that. Just give me a shout on

Right back to dealing with all these unruly painter children and getting them to paint me something beautiful to put on your covers.


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