It’s a truism that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but at ChiZine Publications, the tomes—from trade paperbacks to limited edition hardcovers and ebooks—are graced by evocative, haunting jackets that fully do justice to both the content and the press’s mandate of putting out high-quality, thought-provoking genre fiction. Those covers are all the work of artist Erik Mohr.
Mohr studied fine arts and showed regularly in his early twenties; he later moved toward a more lucrative career in illustration and design, working on consumer and custom magazines. It was then he became involved with ChiZine. “As an outlet, I would often do quick digital ‘drawings’ of stories that I was inspired by,” he says. “I sent one of these ‘drawings’ to a friend whose story had been published on Chizine.com. He liked it so much that he forwarded it to the publisher, Brett Savory. When it came time to consider the cover art for my friend’s first novel—and first book published at CZP—I offered to illustrate and design the cover. I’ve been doing the covers ever since!”
Mohr has designed book covers for many other publishing houses as well, including McClelland and Stewart, Groundwood Books, and Fitzhenry and Whiteside. I’m interested to know what are the challenges specific to designing a book cover.
“Capturing the mood of an entire book,” he says. “I am often drawn to a single scene or moment of the story. This sometimes works if it is a significant turning point in the story or a compelling image that drives the storyline, etc… But more often than not, it is more important to capture overall “feel.” Collections of short stories are tricky for that same reason. Also, you don’t want to give it all away. You need to have a cover that piques the readers interest, gets them asking questions and ultimately opening the book. It’s advertising and my job is selling the story. If I can get a reader excited enough to open the book, then I have done my job.”
Capturing the feel of the book, of course, requires a level of familiarity with the manuscript. “I prefer it when I have a chance to read the whole manuscript,” says Mohr. “I have gotten really good at speed reading, skimming, reading long synopses, reading short synopses, emails from the authors, condensed emails from the editors and even direct suggestions from the authors and publishers—but, as I said, I prefer to curl up with the whole MS and leisurely read it over three to four days.”
The level of involvement of the authors in the cover design process can vary from press to press, but Mohr says that, as a rule, he prefers to work with publishers before the authors. “I think it is good to have an outside view of the book,” he says. “The authors tent to have very literal ideas for covers and once I have heard their ideas, I have a hard time shaking them from the back of my mind. I much prefer to start on my own and so far the authors have been really pleased with what I come up with.”
This isn’t surprising. Mohr’s covers are both stunning and original, bucking the current trends in dark fiction book jackets. One thing that has struck me lately, when I’ve visited the horror and YA sections of large bookstores, is the monumental influence of the Twilight series on book jacket design. What does Mohr think of the current trend? “There are always fads in design,” he says. “What I find interesting is how the fad plays out as other people are influenced by it or copy it. The Twilight covers where very striking, and were a real departure for vampire lit. The hands holding the apple was exquisite. Simple, striking and conceptual. It didn’t fall for so many of the genre clichés.”
“The Kelly Armstrong Otherworld series is trying to capture that same simplicity but still using some of the clichés,” he continues. “The original [trade paperback of Broken] 2006 cover’s red rose is a bit clichéd and carries more symbolism than is necessary for the cover, while the TPB 2010 reprint with the figure under fabric is mysterious and poses more questions than it answers.”
“I think that the reprint is more successful as a cover. Don’t get me started on the Haunted 2010 TPB cover. I love the melted candle. I think that shit is smart, sexy and, while it fits snugly into the genre, it is cliché-free!”
What other covers have especially inspired him? “I loved airbrush art as a kid and I remember this cover of Robot Dreams by Asimov,” he says. “It’s creepy, serene, and beautifully executed. I love it! It still gives me chills when I look at it.”
Another inspiration for Mohr was Night Cry magazine.
“I read that magazine cover to cover until the pages fell out,” he confesses. “It was creepy and scary and vicious and sexy… I was 12. I still don’t read much. When I do read, I like to start and finish a book in a couple of days.”
I ask him which of his own covers is his favourite.
“You want me to pick a favourite child?” he says. “You evil woman!”
He cites the cover of Simon Logan’s 2010 book, Katja from the Punk Band, published by ChiZine.
“I love communist propaganda posters and I did tonnes of research to put this cover together,” he says. “The girl is made up of a number of different women… If I had to, though, I would say that my favourite cover is a bit of a collaboration. Napier’s Bones was lot of fun to work on.”
“The story was intense and I loved the marrying of math and magic and how numbers were everywhere in the book,” he says. “I roughed the concept right away after reading a few chapters and it worked. We refined it from there, but what really made it sing was the raised UV when it was printed. Corey (Beep) Lewis is the book designer and his addition of the UV along with fleshing out the interior really made it pop. Running your hands along the cover is really creepy!”
Which, really, is as it should be.