Seven Steps from Snowdon to Everest: a writer’s journey to a perfect book cover

I’ve spent a little time recently thinking about book covers as I went through the process of having one designed professionally for the very first time. I really enjoyed the process; it made me think harder about my book, the genre of mountain writing, and the type of readers I am hoping to appeal to.

I love the final cover, and the book is now available to pre-order on Amazon. Readers of this blog have played an important part in shaping my decisions (for which many thanks!), so in the course of unveiling the cover, I thought it would be interesting to share with you some of the journey which led to the final design.

Those of you who have read some of my expedition diaries as ebooks may have been surprised when I said I went through this process for the first time. After all, I’ve been selling ebooks on Amazon and other online stores for around four years now, and they all have covers. Some of them even look OK.

Diary book covers
A selection of ebook covers from my expedition diaries. Some of them even look half decent.

The truth is, while I am hugely grateful to the many of you who have discovered my writing through the diaries, posted favourable reviews and are now readers of this blog (and I hope will become readers of my new book), I have never regarded the diaries as proper books. They were scribbled in my tent during the expedition, typed up by me back home, edited by me, formatted by me, and published live without a single other person having read them or contributed.

This is not the way proper books are supposed to be produced, but I don’t regret it in any way. I sell them at the bargain price of a single dollar, pound or euro depending on your location, and while some readers may have been put off by the quality, the diaries have enabled me to build a loyal audience for my writing in advance of publishing my first proper book, and I’m touched by all of you who are in that group.

As for the covers, I designed them myself too. I simply picked a nice photo from the expedition and stuck some text over the top in Photoshop (or GIMP 2.8 now that I’ve become a Linux user). Some of you will doubtless say you can tell.

That was never going to work when it came to my first proper book. I wanted Seven Steps from Snowdon to Everest to be as professionally-produced as I could possibly make it. It has been reviewed and polished by a professional editor, and reviewed by beta readers, some of whom are also writers. The cover needed to look professional too, and make the book stand out not just from my self-edited diaries, but other books on the market.

I engaged the services of Andrew Brown of Design for Writers because I liked the diverse range of book covers he had produced for other authors, and I liked his design process. Andrew would produce two very different concepts for the cover initially, and then we would take the one we liked and keep tweaking it until I was completely happy with the final look.

We started with a thorough design brief. To begin with Andrew had no idea what the book was about, and neither of us were expecting him to read the whole thing. Somehow he needed to understand enough about it to design exactly the cover I was looking for to attract readers and accurately describe the contents of the book. No easy feat.

I was immediately impressed by the questions he asked me, because in providing the answers I was not only helping him to understand the book and its readers, but me too. Among other things we discussed examples of good design and bad design, my target audience, similar books, themes, and scenes from the book that might make an arresting cover.

Although I hadn’t done it at that stage, he asked me to write a back cover blurb that will be used for the book description in online bookstores, and is arguably the next most important thing to draw in new readers after the cover (if you have any feedback about the product description for Seven Steps from Snowdon to Everest I would be very interested to hear it in the comments of this post).

I wanted a cover that would stand out from other covers in my genre (mountain writing, and more specifically books about Everest), but also broaden my audience to people who may not normally be drawn to books about mountaineering.

If you read the deliberately provocative post I wrote last week you will know that I felt I had a head start because there are very few mountaineering books on the market that are written in a light-hearted manner by people at the lower end of the talent scale (by which I mean climbing talent, not writing talent!). I also believe that many book covers in the mountaineering genre are unimaginative and may actually be deterring readers rather than enticing them.

We agreed early on that the two initial concepts Andrew produced would include one photographic cover and one that involved artwork. This was a risky tactic, because it immediately narrowed my options. Deep down I was already favouring a cover which used artwork rather than photos, so there was a good chance that I would ultimately be giving myself no choice of concept.

Sure enough, when Andrew sent the initial concepts, the photographic version came with two font variants, but I knew immediately neither would make a suitable cover for my book.

Two variants on the photographic design for Seven Steps from Snowdon to Everest.
Two variants on the photographic design for Seven Steps from Snowdon to Everest.

These are both very good covers for a certain type of book and a certain type of brief. They even fulfilled many of the aspects of our design brief (I liked the cover of Jan Morris’s classic book Coronation Everest, and the way it depicted the meeting of two different worlds in a similar way to mine).

But this concept didn’t meet one very crucial requirement: to make the book stand out from other books about Everest. My personal feeling was that it wouldn’t even make the book stand out from my own self-edited expedition diaries.

Andrew had done the right thing by producing these covers, though. In fact, as things panned out, he couldn’t have produced a better alternative concept to convince me that the eventual cover we chose was a perfect cover for the book.

But it did mean a lot was riding on his other concept. Luckily he came up with the goods, though it wasn’t immediately obvious to some people to begin with.

There are a few things wrong with this cover, which I will go into in a minute, but the thing to bear in mind is that this was only a concept and not a design. I liked the concept right away and was confident we would be able to tweak it into something great.

The initial concept for the illustrated cover
The initial concept for the illustrated cover

First, though, I wanted a sanity check. I knew which concept I wanted, but I needed to validate my opinion with readers. I posted both concepts in two places, to get feedback from two very different groups.

  • This blog. Most of you are familiar with my writing and you read books about mountaineering.
  • My personal Facebook profile. Nearly all my Facebook friends are people I’ve met over the years from various walks of life: old school friends, family, people I went to university with, people I’ve worked with, as well as people I have trekked and climbed with. Although some do, most have no interest in my writing or mountaineering.

The response I received was overwhelming. On my blog I received feedback from regular commenters, but I received even more feedback from people who had never commented before. And on my Facebook profile, people I hadn’t seen for years, and hadn’t even exchanged messages with on Facebook, shared their thoughts. In fact, I received almost as many comments on that post as the one I posted to say I’d actually climbed Everest!

There were quite a few exceptions, but in general the feedback could be summarised as:

  • Climbers preferred concept A (the photographic cover)
  • Non-climbers preferred concept B (the artwork cover)

This isn’t that surprising, and it was partly as a response to this feedback that I wrote last week’s blog post. My conclusion was that climbers and readers of mountaineering books are conditioned to a certain type of cover, and didn’t like my attempt to create something different.

What was pleasing was that I received the validation I had been hoping for from people who weren’t climbers. Here is a small selection of their comments.

‘A’ feels like you’re ex-SAS and it’s going to be a tale of death and destruction

B definitely. “A” is much more ordinary, I wouldn’t notice it in a bookstore.

A) looks like a book only a climber would be interested in, and dry as shit. B) says that anyone can do it, and it might be a laugh on the way. Where do we pre-order?….and I want a fucking signed one!

B Definitely. Looks like a fun read. The other one looks like you die on the way back down.

B, the humorous title and cover match perfectly. But I have never seen you climb with tie.

The illustrated version looks much better. Photo one looks a bit dull. Illustrated one looks like it would be a better read. What do they say about “books” and “covers”? Alternatively put some tits on it.

A for a serious read, B I expect more humour! Surely that’s you all over!

B looks like the sort of book I would pick up on a whim, really enjoy and learn loads from.

A just looks a bit scary and like every other adventure/real life book on the shelves. B feels like it’ll be more inspiring and attainable – like I might be able to follow in your steps.

This was all very encouraging for me, but perhaps more surprising was that even the comments by the people who preferred concept A (who, as I’ve mentioned, were often climbers and people who already read this type of book) convinced me that I should stick with concept B, because the reasons they gave were the very reasons I was keen to avoid concept A, chiefly that it looked more serious and reminded them of Into Thin Air.

A – appeals more to me, but I suspect (sadly) I am conditioned to be drawn to these covers

A has more gravitas

Definitely A, for me B is not serious enough. It’s like a children’s story book, A looks ‘adventure, challenge, excitement, achievement’.

A’ is definitely more serious, in-depth explorer’s insights. ‘B’ is more lighthearted, Bill Bryson style.

I prefer A cos I’m old and traditional.

I prefer cover A … Just picked up “One Day as a Tiger” from my library and it’s very much the same style.

I much prefer cover option A because it shows mountain scenery, which is where the books are set after all. Cover A reminds me of books like Into Thin Air.

The other big problem many people had about the more light-hearted cover was that it reminded them of a self-help or business management book. This didn’t concern me in the slightest, because I knew we could change this perception with a bit of tweaking of the cover (in any case, I would be delighted if it became a self-help book which helped people by encouraging them to get out into the mountains).

All we needed to do was:

  • Get rid of the businessman in a tie and replace him with a more active person who appeared to be climbing the mountain for fun.
  • Take him off the summit, as this suggests to people the idea of business success.
  • Instead, have him on his way up to the summit. This helps to promote the idea that the book is about a journey as much as the destination.
  • Have something else on the summit to encourage the idea of following a dream, an important theme of the book.

The second version of concept B was a big improvement, but it still wasn’t quite there.

The second version of the illustrated cover
The second version of the illustrated cover

The prayer flags on the summit are perfect. Not only do they symbolise a dream to be pursued, but they strongly evoke the Himalayas, where much of the book is set. There were still problems with the figure, but again these could be easily solved:

  • The figure was a climber, but one of the themes of the book is that although I learned climbing skills in the course of my journey, I have remained at heart a hill walker.
  • He appears to be abseiling, which suggests he is going down, not up (critics will say that it looks more like he’s water-skiiing, but all this requires is for one of his arms to be moved down to his side in the action of belaying).
  • He is faceless, and needs eyes, a nose and a mouth to look friendlier and a little more human.

It took a few more tweaks to get to the final version, but the end result is one I love, and I hope you like it too. He has become a hill walker, enjoying the journey and looking towards the summit with a big smile.

Final version of the book cover, now available for pre-order on Amazon
Final version of the book cover, now available for pre-order on Amazon

I expect some of you still prefer the photographic cover and think this is too much of a departure, and some believe it can still be improved, but it doesn’t matter. It’s the words that are important, and I hope I’ve done enough to tempt you to buy the book.

It’s available for pre-order on Amazon, and will very soon be on the iBookstore, Kobo and Barnes & Noble too. You can join my mailing list to keep updated.

Better still it’s HALF PRICE. By pre-ordering it, you will help to catapult me up the bestseller lists when the ebook is finally published in November/December, just in time to be your holiday reading!

Finally, I couldn’t resist including this little screen shot. Despite not being published yet, yesterday the book briefly became a No.1 bestseller in the Mountaineering category of the Amazon US Kindle store, alongside some well-known titles. This is a first for me, and I dream of repeating this when the book is released and people have had a chance to read it.

Seven Steps from Snowdon to Everest becomes a No.1 bestseller

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