Cover-up: Third Wheel

This is the first of an occasional series of posts exploring my process for creating many of the covers for BCCPress’s amazing books. #CoverUp

I’ve been a lover of book covers since I was in diapers—my mom, may she rest in peace, knew the value of books and I was surrounded by them from a very young age. And it was always their covers, first and foremost, that grabbed my attention. To this day, I’m drawn to books whose publishers take the time to dress them properly.

That’s why I was so tickled when I was asked to head-up cover design for our publishing group. I already had big shoes to fill… the cover to Tracy McKay’s The Burning Point (review) is a truly exceptional example of the craft. So with my first cover, I really wanted to put my best foot forward.


Once I have a feel for our design goals, I’ll quickly bang out a series of sketches—incomplete, sometimes downright sloppy images that point out various directions we could take. And then I share these with the team—usually Michael Austin and the author. It’s essential, at this stage, not to take anything too literally, and I’ve been blessed by a partner who gets that—Michael sees through the fog of ideas to the nugget(s) inside.

With Melissa Leilani Larson’s two-play tome Third Wheel (review), I had two goals—to avoid literalism and to offer up something subversively playful, in order to balance the sober material inside.

My brainstorm for Third Wheel was a raucous mix of the good with the downright awful.

Book cover concept for THIRD WHEEL, featuring a sketch of Alice, from Alice in Wonderland, struggling to stay afloat.

Alice Drowning: It’s been almost a year since I worked on Third Wheel, and for the life of me, I can’t recall what I was thinking with this cover—a hint, no doubt, at its awfulness. But you can see that the slanted color wash made it to the final design, as did the children’s book motif.

Book cover concept for THIRD WHEEL, featuring a delicate brush painting of a young Asian girl sitting, looking forlorn.

Sitting Girl: Again with a strong wash of color (notice the cut-out for the legs) and an off-center illustration. This one is a little more on-point, emotionally. I also really really wanted to reference Melissa’s Asian heritage.

Book cover concept for THIRD WHEEL, featuring a red tricycle.

Tricycle: This one played with 1950s colors and imagery but was a little too literal. It could have worked but was definitely weaker than the two that made it to the next round.

Book cover concept for THIRD WHEEL, featuring a dark piece of paper partially obscuring an old painting of two sisters.

Mary & Margaret: This cover uses a technique book lovers will have seen elsewhere to greater and lesser effect: the obscured photo (in this case, a painting). It was one of two covers that made it to the next round.

Book cover concept for THIRD WHEEL, featuring a drawing of two girls in pinafores playing; one girl has her hand raised with a wand in it.

Raised Arm: I love the washes of color, the 1950s faux innocence, and the ever-so-softly menacing pose struck by the taller girl—not to mention the possibility that the younger girl was hiding a shiv behind her back. This one, albeit with a big rework, advanced to the next round. The illustration style and the polka dots stayed. Also the off-centeredness of the illustration.

NB: As with most sketching I do, these sketches feature photos and other tidbits that were lifted from the web—the final cover would be original illustration or otherwise properly sourced artwork.

Round Two

Mary & Margaret

This dark cover really struck a chord with us, and it was brought back for a second round of refinement. Though the books are published as either ebooks or paperbacks, this cover imitated the look of a hardback, with cut-outs of the dust jacket revealing another image beneath. In this case, the hidden image beneath was “Two Sisters” by Thomas Gainsborough, and I thought a discussion of the painting in the front matter might be fun.

A painting from the 1700s showing two sisters standing close to each other. The younger sister is touching the older child’s hair. The older child is looking at the viewer.

“Two Sisters” by Thomas Gainsborough, circa 1758. Thomas made several paintings of his daughters, Mary and Margaret, over the years. This one is in the collection of The Victoria & Albert Museum in London. People describe the painting as sweet tinged with melancholy—but I can’t help but also see a bit of menace in it.

When I updated this cover, I added text—Clarendon Wide Bold for the title and Adobe Jenson for the sub-title, attribution, and call-out (notice the spelling errors—“forward” instead of “foreword”, and “Samuelson” instead of “Samuelsen”).

Book cover concept for THIRD WHEEL, featuring a dark piece of paper partially obscuring an old painting of two sisters.

Another version of this cover featured a different painting by Gainsborough and several small tweaks to the dust jacket.


This painting, “Chasing Butterflies” lacked the menace of “Two Sisters”, and it had a clarity of composition that lended itself more readily to being obscured by the dust jacket.

A painting by Thomas Gainsborough, circa 1756, features his two daughters outside, chasing a single butterfly.

This painting by Thomas Gainsborough, circa 1756, features his two daughters in a more bucolic setting. I especially like the metaphor of chasing the butterfly—the very embodiment of fleeting, fragile happiness. Appropriate, given the content within.

Girl with Hoop

In reworking Raised Arm for a second round, I swapped out the two girls for just a single image of a girl playing by herself, removing the sense menace—which is not found in the book—and replacing it with a certain solitude, a feeling which is most definitely reflected in the two plays. I also swapped out the muted pink and cream tones for school bus yellow—one of my favorite colors.

I also added text—Clarendon Wide Bold again (I was smitten) for the title and Brandon Grotesque for the sub-title, attribution, and call-out (I still haven’t caught the spelling errors). Notice how tight the title is to the spine, which adds a nice tension to the cover. Also check out that vermillion highlights—jewel tones, mmm…

The inspiration image for both Raised Arm and Girl with Hoop came from 1950s dress pattern packaging… which inspired

“Girl with Hoop v1”

Girl with Hoop: This iconic image really won our hearts—as did the bold use of school bus yellow and vermillion.

“Dress Pattern“

Dress Patterns: Inspired by the skads of pattern envelopes I was looking at for inspiration (which gave me both Raised Arm and Girl with Hoop), I decided to try out some basic dress illustrations. They nicely referenced the women in the plays, but in the end, this cover lacked the charm of Girl with Hoop.

”Girl with Hoop, Cutout“

Silhouette: I wanted to see if I could drive the little girl even further into the corner by just using a silhouette of her. It achieve the goal, but robbed the cover of so much of its charm.

In the end, Girl with Hoop one the day.

Round Three

In this round, it was time to bring in the spine and back cover details as well. Right off the bat, though, I brought back the only redeeming quality of Drowning Alice—the angled color wash—and paired it with right-aligned text. The effect was dramatic: now the girl with the hoop is not only alone, she is practically being pushed off the front cover by the text and color wash.

Careful observers will also notice a slight change in the dimensions of the cover. Early drafts were all for a front cover measuring 6 x 9 inches, an error in communication. The actual cover was always to have been 5.25 x 8 inches.


… and we fixed the typos!

Round Four, the Final

Now that the cover was nearing completion, I contracted with illustrator Emily Call to make the little girl our own. Out with the cute little white girl with flower print, useless pockets, a little jacket, and curly russet locks… and in with an adorable filipina child (a nod at Melissa’s own heritage) with polka dots, a soft mahogany bob, and a vermillion hair clip.

The back cover also went through several rewrites as we tried to balance the several elements. Melissa’s blurb got smaller and the praise was moved to the top of the page—and two new jewel tones (emerald and turquoise) were added.


The final cover—bold and playful—hints at the harder content within, without being literal or two on-point.

I couldn’t be more proud.

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  1. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for this tour as to what goes on in creating a book cover. Fascinating.

  2. Thanks for this–not only the compliment to my own work, but also for revealing your process.

  3. That was really interesting. Thanks for sharing the process.

  4. I agree; fascinating. It takes so much work, re-do’s,creativity, and persistence. Congratulations on a job well done.

  5. Really interesting, Christian. What about costs? Do you have a design/production budget? If so, how is it arrived at? Who determines it? Thanks.

  6. D Christian Harrison says:

    My design time and talents are offered to BCC Press free-of-charge. I have a nominal budget to commission artwork or to pay for stock photography.

  7. Fascinating, Christian. Thanks for the run down.

  8. I really enjoyed this, Christian.

  9. Thanks, Christian. It all sounds like a true labor of love. Who does the interior design, typesetting, etc.? Just curious.

  10. D Christian Harrison says:

    Andrew Heiss has done most of the typesetting.

  11. Really interesting. I had no idea this much went into a cover, although I also love a “book that is properly dressed.”

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