How do you decide on a cover for a cross-genre book outside of your usual market? How do you balance feedback from potential readers with the emotional promise of the book?
In this article, I go through the book cover design process for Pilgrimage: Lessons Learned from Solo Walking Three Ancient Ways.
I've been working on this travel memoir/solo walking/pilgrimage guide since October 2020. It's a very personal book. It's a book of my heart. It means a lot to me. So yes, I am emotional about it!
Pilgrimage was difficult to write because I didn't really know how the book would turn out.
I started out writing it as a solo walking guide with practical tips about the routes I walked — the Pilgrims' Way from London to Canterbury, the St Cuthbert's Way from Melrose to Lindisfarne, Holy Island, and the Camino de Santiago from Porto, Portugal to Santiago de Compostela, Spain.
But as I spent several years walking and writing and working out what the hell was going on in my life, it turned into more of a travel memoir.
It emerged out of many thousands of words scribbled in my journals, and many more thousands typed into my Scrivener project over the last few years.
At one point, the draft expanded into over 100K words, the majority of which did not make it to the finished book.
All of this uncertainty made the cover design difficult, and I wanted to share the cover design process for this kind of book with you in case you're struggling.
I started by researching and collecting book cover designs from similar books
I've been working with my fantastic book cover designer, Jane at JD Smith Design, for many years now, and usually, I only have to send a couple of lines about the book and she nails it in one go. But with this one, I really didn't know what I wanted or where the book might fit, so the process was more drawn out.
[If you need a book cover designer, I have a list here.]
I started by finding examples of similar books. It could stand next to travel memoirs about pilgrimage and the Camino de Santiago like these:
My book also has tips for multi-day walking and travel advice, as well as historical, religious, and spiritual aspects, similar to non-fiction books like these.
It's also a solo walking book, and I was particularly drawn to Holly Worton‘s solo walking guides.
I also provided Jane with some of my photos from the routes to incorporate in possible designs.
My cover designer came back with 6 alternatives
Jane came back with these designs, with varying color palettes, fonts, and emotional resonance. I included the route names in the sub-title in these early stages.
The images in C, E, and F are my photos from the Camino and the St Cuthbert's Way. The others are stock photos.
I did a poll with my Patrons to see which cover they preferred
I share a lot behind the scenes of my creative business with my patrons at Patreon.com/thecreativepenn and since they know me, and support my work, I wanted to see what they thought of the covers. (Thank you, patrons!)
I asked for feedback from those people who bought travel memoir books or were interested in the Pilgrimage book specifically. The results were clear.
I also asked two travel writer friends with many books between them. Both also said they preferred D.
But there were a few problems with this cover. The picture is a stock photo from one of the Camino routes, but it was not from any of my walks. It didn't feel right to use a picture that didn't reflect my routes on a personal travel memoir.
Of course, we all use images on our book covers that don't exactly match what's in the book. It's all about branding and genre resonance, about hooking a reader in.
But there was a more important issue.
The preferred cover was too happy and too sunny, and it felt like a glossy brochure for a perfect walk. The reality of my three pilgrimages — and my midlife searching for meaning — did not feel that way.
A cover must communicate the emotional promise of the book
This is the opening paragraph of Pilgrimage.
“In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost.” —Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy
Pilgrimage attracts the seekers. Those with a question to answer, a problem to solve, a sin to atone for, an illness to be cured, a prayer to be answered. Pilgrims walk with a desire to make a change, to mark a boundary from one life to another, to heal, to escape.
I needed all of these, and more.
Perhaps you do, too.
It was important to me to use one of my pictures for such a personal book, and also to make it clear that the reality of pilgrimage (and mid-life) is more like climbing a mountain than skipping downhill without a care in the world.
Of course, there are moments of beautiful weather and incredible views and effortless flow on pilgrimage, but there are also days of walking while in pain in a storm questioning the meaning of life.
I asked for variations on my preferred cover
Even though cover F was the joint least favorite, it resonated with me and the content of the book.
I remember that day on the St Cuthbert's Way, walking out of Melrose in Scotland over the saddle of the Eildon Hills. I write about the aftermath of it in Pilgrimage and the picture definitely captures the emotional aspects of solo walking pilgrimage during mid-life.
Jane did some more variations with the new sub-title.
And then some more variations with different filters and shades of blue.
I finally settled on a cover that I am happy with!
Part of the joy — and the challenge — of being an independent author is that you get to choose your book cover.
I might have made a mistake, but equally, I might have chosen exactly the right cover for this book. Those who read it will be able to tell me!
You can buy Pilgrimage through my Kickstarter (launching 23 Jan, 2023)
There will be a special edition hardback that will only be sold as part of the Kickstarter, as well as early access to the ebook, audiobook (narrated by me), paperback, and workbook editions.
I share my lessons learned and insights from walking these ancient ways, as well as historical, religious and cultural aspects, and plenty of practical tips. There are also questions for you to consider around your own journey.
Part 1 goes into practical and spiritual preparation before pilgrimage, including how to make decisions about the route and whether to walk solo, as well as what to take with you, and how to face the fears that might hold you back.
Part 2 covers the journey itself with the practicalities of the pilgrim’s day, as well as how walking the path of history and facing the challenge of the way can give you much-needed perspective on life — and perhaps even a glimpse of the divine.
Part 3 addresses the arrival at your destination, and how to leave room for the gifts of pilgrimage to emerge after your return home, as well as how my three walks impacted my experience of mid-life.
At the end, you’ll find appendices with practical tips for each of the three ways, as well as a gear list and bibliography for further reading.
I hope you've found this process interesting, even if you disagree with my final cover. Please let me know in the comments if you have any questions, or if you've faced similar challenges with your book cover design.