The Cover That Wasn’t and the Cover That Was: Homeowner With a Gun

by Joel Friedlander on July 21, 2014 · 44 comments

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By Samuel Hawley

We’d like to welcome back author Samuel Hawley. His previous post for The Book Designer detailed the steps involved in creating a book cover. Today, Samuel explains the various steps he went through in the creative process for another book cover. I hope you’ll find it interesting.

My latest book Homeowner With a Gun is a thriller about a family man who shoots and kills two intruders, thereby setting off a chain of events that threaten to destroy him.

Initial Efforts

For the cover, my initial idea was to use the image of a door or a house with a big, looming title, “Homeowner With a Gun,” almost like a warning sign. I started out playing around with a grainy picture of a door at night, just to see how it would look. Here’s the first thing I came up with:


Yuck. I dumped the door idea right then and there and found a house photo instead.

First I tried putting the house image out of focus, with the titles in front.


Yuck again. Next I tried creating a composite image of the house set against a dramatic night sky — actually a day sky made to look like night in Photoshop, then run through FotoSketcher to give it a subtle painting look.


Okay, this was starting to look better. It wasn’t perfect, but I was now feeling that I was on the right track. It’s probably obvious, but my idea in putting the author name at bottom over a yellow strip was to make it look like police tape. It does, but it’s too garish. So I played around with other colors.


Better? I don’t know. More important is that in playing around with different colors I stumbled on a Photoshop technique to punch up the title. Instead of just an opaque red title, I set the title layer in the cover above to “Overlay” so that the night sky would show through the letters. The letters become really faint when you do this, but if you then duplicate the layer (i.e. so that you have two identical layers on top of each other, both set to “Overlay”) you get a nice effect.

I liked the transparent effect, but not the red titles. So I changed them to blue.


Kind of blah, really. Anyway, it was time to start whipping this beast into shape.

House Photos

I went out and took photos of houses here in Kingston, Ontario that I could use for the final cover design. Here’s the raw photo I ended up using. It’s back lit by the sun to approximate the moonlit shadows I wanted. (I’m using my hand to reduce the glare.)


I cranked up my ancient version of Photoshop CS to give the photo a night look, then I ran it through FotoSketcher to give it a painting look.


Then I made a composite combining it with the night sky.


Assembling the Cover

I now went to work assembling the cover. I selected the color white for the multiple stacked layers (I was using three layers now) for the book title and the author name. When the layers are set to “Overlay” they become transparent and take on the color of what’s underneath. I also used drop shadow to make the author’s name stand out. Here’s what I ended up with.


There’s a problem with the bright moonlight overwhelming a part of the title and making it a bit hard to read. I could fix this by toning down the brightness, using a filter—something. But I wasn’t thinking about that as I looked at this semi-finished cover. What I was thinking was: Jeez, I don’t like it.

The design lacks simplicity. It doesn’t have any real impact. The house is indistinct and your eye isn’t drawn to anything much.

So I dumped the whole thing.

Back to the Door Image Idea

My original idea of using a door image for the cover had remained in the back of my mind all the while I was chasing after the house design that I ultimately discarded. I was thinking of using either a whole door or maybe a close-up of just a door handle and lock.

As I looked around at doors here in my hometown of Kingston, Ontario, however, I didn’t see anything that looked right. To begin with, almost everybody in town has a white door, and I wanted something dark, something suitable for a night image. When I did spot a door that might work, moreover, it would be blocked by a screen door, which most homes in Ontario have.

It was while I was on a road trip down into Virginia that my door idea flared back to life. Walking around the city of Richmond, I saw all sorts of great doors, blacks and natural woods and dark blues and whatever, and lots of them were unimpeded by screen doors. Well, I had my camera with me and I took a bunch of shots. Here’s the one I ultimately picked.


Not much to look at, eh? Well, as John Holmes said as he got out of the cold water, “Just wait till you see the full potential.”

Okay, so first step: pop the photo into Photoshop, flip it, tweak the contrast, brightness, color etc. to make it look like the photo was taken at night. Then run it through FotoSketcher to ease the photo harshness and give it a slightly softer painting look. Oh, and I also moved the locks around, erasing the old-fashioned keyhole under the door handle and shifting the newer brass lock down into its place.


Now it was time to build the cover. Working in Photoshop, I used the door image I’d created as the background for the entire cover—front, spine and back. I used “Filter > Render > Lighting effects” to approximate a flashlight being shone on the door, and “Filter > Render > Lens flare” to add a light reflection on the metallic lock. (Note: the image has to be set to “Image > Mode > RGB color” to use the “Render” options.)

Next, I added the titles. My earlier aborted design using the house image hadn’t been an complete waste, for the multiple layer transparent letter effect I’d stumbled on worked great set against the door. I used three layers for each line of the title and for the author name: two layers set to “Overlay” and the third layer to “Normal” but with opacity greatly reduced. I tweaked the colors for each layer until I got the effect that I wanted—transparent letters that are sharp and clear and easy to read, and that have a cold bluish tinge that screams “night.”


The title and author letters are whitest near the beam of the “flashlight,” then fade to blue farther out. I knew right there that I had my cover. All that was left was to fine-tune the whole thing to get it just right. This included adjusting the drop shadows to vary with the direction of the centrally directed flashlight: up-cast shadows on the book title above; downcast shadows on the author name below; side-cast shadows on “A Thriller” in the middle. (Note: to do this you have to turn off “Global light” in the drop shadow box.)

Final Cover

I finally had a cover that I was happy with. It’s simple. It’s effective. It has impact. All that was left was to finish it off.

Here’s the full cover, front and back, final draft, ready for printing. (Click to enlarge.)


Samuel_HawleySamuel Hawley spent two decades teaching English in Japan and Korea before becoming a full-time writer. His books include The Imjin War, the most comprehensive account in English of Japan’s sixteenth-century invasion of Korea and attempted conquest of China; Speed Duel, about the quest for the land speed record during the jet-car era in the 1960s, and I Just Ran: Percy Williams, World’s Fastest Human, named one of the five “Best Sports Books of 2011” by the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation). He lives in Kingston, Ontario. Bad Elephant Far Stream is his first novel. Homeowner With a Gun will be available in the fall of 2014.

Photo credit: finchlake2000 via photopin cc. Amazon links contain my affiliate code.

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    { 44 comments… read them below or add one }

    Andy Farman March 26, 2015 at 1:00 am

    I personally would have considered a large picture a the door with one of those stickers afixed to it that some car owners sport, ‘Gun On Board’, or similar.


    Jan Hurst-Nicholson August 16, 2014 at 8:53 am

    A picture is worth a thousand words, and as I’m a visual learner this step-by-step process was invaluable.
    I like that you changed ‘a novel’ into ‘a thriller’. Sometimes you have to spell it out for readers, although your cover really says it all.

    (I also didn’t realise that the stripes were the door mouldings and thought they were blood.)


    Julie Valin July 24, 2014 at 9:33 am

    Superb article on a process that I haven’t been “walked through” before. I appreciate it tons, and admire your willingness to bare each step and the thought process that went along with it. I feel like if it were me, I might have stopped at the Blue lettering one with the night sky shining through, just because I’m in love with that newly-discovered technique! (Thanks for that, too!) So I’m amazed at how you pushed yourself even further, even though that was an attractive and effective result. I love your final design, the glare on the lock, and don’t find the flashlight glare distracting at all. Thanks for this immensely helpful article, and good luck with your book!


    Samuel Hawley July 24, 2014 at 3:22 pm

    Thank you very much for those kind words, Julie. I wish you productivity, prosperity and inspiration!


    Jamie July 22, 2014 at 1:23 pm

    Thanks for showing your process! I’m curious if at some point you considered marrying the police tape idea with the door? The closest example I can think of are the promos for The Closer, only instead of wrapping Kyra Sedgewick in tape, the tape would criss cross the door, with the title and byline on the tape. Or would that have been a cliche in this case?


    Samuel Hawley July 22, 2014 at 3:39 pm

    I never thought of the police tape for the door image. My idea was to present what a burglar would see, creeping up to the back door of a house at night, with a flashlight (i.e. before a crime had been committed).


    Jamie July 23, 2014 at 6:53 am

    Ah ha. I missed the significance of the light shining on the door the first time around (it’s me, not you). What you did does create suspense, a feeling of a calm about to be shattered.


    Samuel Hawley July 23, 2014 at 3:25 pm

    “…a feeling of a calm about to be shattered.” That sums it up perfectly, Jamie. I think I’m going to have to steal that line!


    Carla Douglas July 22, 2014 at 10:46 am

    Like most of the other commenters, I loved this article! Showing each step — what you were aiming for, why you made a decision and then why you rejected the result — is so helpful. It really does give the reader a window into the design process. Thanks! (I live in Kingston, too, and I recognize the house you ended up discarding.)


    Samuel Hawley July 22, 2014 at 3:44 pm

    Hi, Carla! I think we’ve crossed paths on the web before. And I see you went to Queen’s. Me too. I graduated–ouch–thirty years ago.


    CL Frey July 22, 2014 at 8:55 am

    Weeelll…. I know it’s not easy getting that “right” design. I’m with the people who find the “flashlight” distracting; I wouldn’t have known what it was. I like the image of the door post-photoshop, it’s very imposing. I think I also would have wanted to shorten the title of the book… maybe “HOME WITH GUN” or something like that. And the curvy sans-serif kind of reminds me of comedy movies, like Ferris Bueller or A Bug’s Life (probably not the intended effect, LOL). But then again I’m hardly the target audience – those kinds of books don’t normally attract my attention.


    Samuel Hawley July 22, 2014 at 3:55 pm

    Oh heck, all right. So, just give me an “A-” for this one. I’ll settle for that.


    Deb Ezzati July 22, 2014 at 7:45 am

    Loved Richard Hawley’s article! I was thinking how much I like his final cover with the house, but when I saw his final door cover, THAT gave me the chills! I see what he was going for, and it’s perfect. I would buy the book on the cover alone…and I think I might just buy the book anyway! I wonder how true to the law it is regarding intruders into one’s home.

    Deb Ezzati
    Oakland, OR


    Samuel Hawley July 22, 2014 at 10:04 am

    Thank you very much, Deb! Sometimes the best thing to do is throw everything out and try again. With this cover, I felt bad doing that because I’d invested a lot of time and effort on the first cover. But I’m glad I did. And, hey, I learned things doing the first cover, so it wasn’t a waste.


    Bridget McKenna July 21, 2014 at 12:23 pm

    Samuel, your article is a seldom-seen look into the cover design process, and an education in not settling for a design that’s just good enough to get by. Thanks for sharing your steps and your thinking.


    Samuel Hawley July 21, 2014 at 3:17 pm

    Thanks, Bridget! I hope it helps!


    Ed Vallender July 21, 2014 at 12:19 pm

    Great article and terrific to have the pictures of the evolution. Two questions: How long did it take you to get the hang of Photoshop? And, when do I really know I have a great cover? Or, the best cover for my book? Is it just if I like it? Did you get a second, even third or fourth opinion? Insecurity is bleeding through my overlays. Just because I like the color I painted my living room doesn’t mean there isn’t a color I’d like better and so would everybody else. Thanks again.


    Samuel Hawley July 21, 2014 at 3:15 pm

    Thanks for the interest, Ed. I’ve been using Photoshop for maybe five years now. In terms of getting up to speed with it enough to do a cover, I don’t think it should take too long (a week of playing around, maybe?), once you get your head around the concept that you are working in layers (i.e. the bottom layer is your background image [in my case the door] then a layer for the book title, another for the author name, etc., etc.)

    Did I get a second opinion? No, not for this cover. (“We’d don’t need no stinking second opinion!”) With this cover I felt good enough about it that I just said, “This is it.” As for the cover for my previous book–yes, I did get a second opinion, and it helped me a lot to fine-tune it.

    By the way, you can get Photoshop CS2 for free, if you want to play around with it without investing a significant chunk of change. Adobe has put it out there to download. It’s nine years old (2005) but perfectly good for cover design. Do a web search for “Photoshop free download” to get started. Downloading is easy; getting it installed can be a bit tricky.


    Tracy Kunzler July 21, 2014 at 10:03 am

    LOVE this post! So helpful to read and SEE the process and understand Samuel’s thought process along the way. I think it resulted in a great-looking, effective cover! Very inspiring! I think you’ve motivated me to do a similar post on my humble little blog! Thanks for sharing your process and techniques!


    Samuel Hawley July 21, 2014 at 10:17 am

    My pleasure, Tracy!

    I just checked out your website. Excellent and unique cover for “Aging With Ungirdled Passion”! I’d definitely be interested in reading how you did it!


    Tracy Kunzler July 21, 2014 at 10:33 am

    Ha! Thanks, Samuel. I handed my clumsy attempts for “Aging With Ungirdled Passion,” my first book, to a graphic designer friend to tweak. I like it, but I don’t think it’s spectacular. I was speaking of the cover for my second book – “Men & Women: Getting Into Each Other’s Genes ” – for which I was honored and thrilled to receive The Book Designer’s award for best nonfiction cover design last month! It made my month! I feel like that cover design had a similar type of evolution that “Homeowner With A Gun” did. I think yours is a really fabulous cover! This type of post really is so helpful and inspiring to me!


    Samuel Hawley July 21, 2014 at 3:04 pm

    Congrats on winning the award, Tracy! The “Men and Women” cover is beautifully simple and effective.


    Maria July 22, 2014 at 9:18 pm

    Hi, Tracy,
    I love the design and colors of the Aging with Ungirdled Passion. It makes me smile. I think the other cover is also excellent. Funny and clean and easy to read. Congratulations on your two books and their great covers. I had a good time looking at them.


    Tracy Kunzler July 23, 2014 at 7:30 am

    Wow! Thanks, Maria! You made my day! Appreciate that!


    Christine Finlayson July 21, 2014 at 8:14 am

    How intriguing to see the evolution of your cover design! Thank you so much for sharing your artistic process, the rejected designs, and the step-by-step tasks of creating a cover. It was especially interesting to see how you used real houses and real doors to create photographic designs. Whenever I see your cover online, I’ll think of that history.


    Samuel Hawley July 21, 2014 at 10:13 am

    Thanks, Christine! I found it kind of useful to write down the whole process–even though it’s a bit embarrassing to “bare all.”


    chris July 21, 2014 at 8:07 am

    Does using a photo of the door of someone’s home require their written permission? I know photos with people/faces require it. Curious about private property.


    Samuel Hawley July 21, 2014 at 8:30 am

    I didn’t ask for permission, written or otherwise. I believe it’s perfectly legal to take photos of houses or other objects, so long as you’re not on private property. (I was standing on the sidewalk when I took the door photo I used on the cover. This was another attraction of Richmond, VA: no front lawns, at least on the downtown streets I was on, so doors were just a few feet away.)


    Frances Caballo July 21, 2014 at 6:58 am

    You created a beautiful cover. Thank you for sharing your process with all of us. Kudos to you!


    Rupert Wolfe Murray July 21, 2014 at 6:53 am

    This article gives a rare insight into the design process — I don’t get this even when I work with a graphic designer — and I’m very grateful for it

    And I think the cover is superb.


    Samuel Hawley July 21, 2014 at 8:03 am

    Thanks, Rupert!

    One more thing I didn’t mention above: my initial concept for the story of “Homeowner With a Gun” was very much focused on the homeowner–and thus with the cover image I wanted to show his house, the thing the homeowner is protecting. As the story took shape, however, the intruder developed from being a mere villain into a sympathetic character. This is reflected in the final cover design, which more overtly shows the intruder’s viewpoint (mainly thanks to the flashlight effect, which suggests that someone is standing in front of the door).


    Michael N. Marcus July 21, 2014 at 5:41 am

    I admire Samuel’s technical expertise and perseverance, but not the final result.

    The door moldings are simply not important enough to merit showing through the title type. The stripes are distracting. They draw me away from the words of the title and they look like tire tracks, perhaps left at a crime scene in a different book.

    It’s an interesting visual effect — but doesn’t help the cover.

    Also — The bright glare makes the door look very important and takes eyes away from the title. A cover needs one dominant element — not two or three. My attention is divided among the title, the stripes and the lock.

    Also, Also — the spiral in the background of the author photo on the back cover is distracting. That pic needs to be cleaned up.


    Samuel Hawley July 21, 2014 at 7:40 am

    Thanks for the input, Michael! I think you’re right about the spiral on the author photo. I hadn’t noticed this before. But yes, it IS kind of distracting!

    About the door moldings on the front showing through–well, I guess we don’t see eye to eye on this, as I actually liked the effect. A matter of taste, I suppose.

    As for the glare drawing the eye to the lock and away from the title–again, this was actually what I wanted. I wanted the person looking at the cover to go first to the lock, just like they’re the intruder outside the door, holding the flashlight. (That’s what an intruder would be looking at, right? The lock.) In short, I wanted the image to be intriguing and to evoke a feeling–something more than just looking at the title could do. Yes, it means the eye is drawn away from the title, but I don’t think this is a problem, as the title is big–heck, it’s HUGE–and pretty hard to overlook.

    Anyway, it’s all just my opinion. So I could be dead wrong!


    Widdershins July 21, 2014 at 2:21 pm

    My first thought when I saw the molding through the title was, streaks of dried blood! … gotta love subjectivity.

    Thanks for the blow-by-blow breakdown. Each time I see something like this, the thought of designing my own covers becomes less and less daunting. :)


    Samuel Hawley July 22, 2014 at 3:47 pm

    Dried blood….yeah. That adds a nice dimension.


    Maria July 22, 2014 at 9:08 pm

    Hi Samuel,

    Thanks for persevering. You came up with a great design. I absolutely LOVE it. I love the glare on the lock. It’s really thrilling, and that’s the idea. And I actually like the moldings showing through. It gives some mystery, a foreboding, to the book. I congratulate you on an excellent cover and on sticking with your guts. It was interesting that your first intuition was right but you had to go through the process in order to get the details right. When you were on the houses, they were good, but nothing compared to the final result. An outstanding cover, and I am looking at book covers cause they make or break the deal. Thanks for the tour and congratulations on the results!


    Samuel Hawley July 23, 2014 at 5:43 am

    Thank you very much for the vote of support, Maria. Much appreciated!


    Belinda Pollard July 21, 2014 at 5:00 am

    Useful to see all your steps. Thanks!


    Samuel Hawley July 22, 2014 at 3:50 pm

    Thanks, Belinda.

    Hey, I like the logo you’ve got for Small Blue Dog Publishing. Nice!


    hilary Custance Green July 21, 2014 at 3:16 am

    That was seriously helpful, I say as I stand in the middle of the vortex.


    Samuel Hawley July 21, 2014 at 7:21 am

    Good luck with your designing, Hilary! Just remember: if you bang your head against the design-wall for long enough, something eventually is gonna give.


    Lexi Revellian July 21, 2014 at 1:53 am

    Very nice. I never thought you’d get there!


    Colin Dunbar July 21, 2014 at 1:34 am

    Hi Samuel

    What an AWESOME article! This is the kind of stuff that’s not readily available – the actual “how I did it”. Outstanding!



    Samuel Hawley July 21, 2014 at 7:18 am

    Many thanks, Colin!


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