Science Fiction?

Ron Peterson’s Gardeners of the Universe

What will we make of our future as a species?

Paul Nylander at the Launch of Gardeners of the Universe

In his second book, author Ron Peterson challenges us with the question, “What will humans become?” In a futurist style reminiscent of Issac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke, Ron sparks this question by introducing us to an ancient alien species, the self-proclaimed “gardeners” who have appointed themselves as cultivators and curators of the universe’s evolving civilizations. Steering humanity’s evolution, they bestow genetic gifts to three unborn children, and it is through their choices that we learn about the decisions we will face over the next 100 years.

With a literal lifetime of possibility, we used the cover to focus on the three protagonists, their relationship to one another, and a generalized depiction of their place in the growing universe.

Cover Development

When I met Ron, he was already well into his edits, and had created a working cover concept for early promotion of the book. We discussed his aspirations, the general plot, his perceived audience, his preferences and comparable titles. From that foundation, I began doing my research.

As a fellow former physicist, I came to appreciate Ron’s use of color in the story—as the medium of communication amongst the ”gardeners,” and in his more terrestrial descriptions of the lives of our central characters. Ron’s adherence to scientific accuracy, reminding me of Andy Weir’s Artemis and The Martian, also weighed on my thought process as I created the initial concept covers.

A book cover’s central purpose is to promote the book. It is governed by marketing rules, and as such, must strike a balance between fitting in with the expectations of the genre, and yet standing out to grab a potential reader’s attention, either on the bookshelf, or in a webpage thumbnail. Yet simplification is usually my goal: an effective cover cannot tell the entire story, or even a chapter, or a single paragraph, but instead must capture a moment, a singular idea or emotion.

Although this is a science fiction book, and involves alien races interacting with humanity, Ron was very clear that this wasn't a “space opera,” and so wanted to avoid the stereotypical “stary black space” cover. In his initial concept, however, we have the red background, the mechanized “probes” of the story, a comet, and three figures, all accompanying some very “un-science-fictiony” sort of typography.

Gardeners of the Universe, Authors initial Cover Concept

Author's initial concept.

Gardeners of the Universe Cover Ideas, First Round

First round of my cover concepts. I usually start purely typographically to get a sense of how the title will fit into the space, and the combine the words with sketches or rough collages of image ideas.

Based on these initial rough ideas, we iterated on a couple ideas, but ultimately Ron liked the three figures locking arms, and the yellow “sunburst.” I played around with this feedback, ultimately rejecting the interlocking arms, but visually overlapping the silhouettes to imply a closeness between the characters. To create the sun, I used an actual NASA solar image. Working this into full cover spreads in both “positive” and “negative” colors, we ultimately chose the redish-yellow sun and, perhaps a bit ironically, the nearly black background.

I really enjoy when an author (or art director) comes with ideas during the creative brief, but is still open to exploring other possibilities. Personally, the cold-blue star and white background was a very intriguing and non-conventional approach. It would have made a strong cover. Yet in the end, in consultation with the entire creative and publicity team, I think Ron made the best choice in going with the redish-yellow sun.

Before going to press, this cover underwent a few additional refinements, such as perfecting the cover silhouette “glow,” adding the final back cover elements, a front-cover review quote, and adjustments for the actual spine thickness once the interior was finished. As a production note, I also spend a fair bit of time color adjusting to maintain the vibrancy of the original RGB image when printed in the CMYK color space used by the printer.

Gardeners of the Universe, Round 3 Cover Spread Concept Gardeners of the Universe, Round 3 Cover Spread Concept Gardeners of the Universe, Round 3 Cover Spread Concept

Interior Layout & Typesetting

While buyers may judge a book by its cover, it is fair to say that readers judge a book by its interior. Or rather, they shouldn't, because the interior should work intuitively, and blend in seamlessly with the style, mood, and story. In the case of Gardeners of the Universe, Ron presented an interesting structural challenge: 48 chapters, including a prologue and epilogue, spread between six distinct time periods. Many of the chapters were quite short, yet the book is overall quite long (and therefore expensive, from a production standpoint). In addition to the text of the book, often broken by dividers, there are several sections of broadcast news reports and sections of autonomous data reporting by monitoring probes.

DNA double-helix divider line

I am always proud of my custom divider lines, and this double-helix of a DNA strand was exceptionally pleasing to create.

interior, table of contents interior, section divider interior, chapter opening interior, chapter run-in

To solve this problem, I decided to run the chapters together, providing just a header and separation space. The time period section breaks, however, were far more elaborate, on a black page with an illustrated depiction of one important scene from the section.

These six illustrations were their own challenge. Ron wanted to utilize some of his own photographs, as the places where the book takes (at least the ones on Earth) were places he had visited, lived or worked in. But we needed to add characters to the scenes.

I ended up incorporating stock elements into actual photographs, with a great deal of compositing, and back-and-forth iterations with Ron. To make the illustrations work, I then applied a mixture of pixel and vector effects to create greyscale sketches from each of the collages, effectively hiding most of the rough edges.

progression of images

Publicity: Advanced Reader Copies & Reviews

Early in the process, Ron knew he needed help with the promotion of the book if he was going to have any chance of reaching beyond his immediate circle of friends. He hired Rachel Anderson of RMA Publicity. It was with Rachel’s guidance that we decided to create two versions of the book: an “advanced reader copy” (ARC) to be used for reader reviews in advance of the publication (as well as final proofreading), and a final print run version for publication. While a small run ARC is a relatively expensive proposition for a 410 page book, there is no better way to get potential reviewers excited about the book. Printing, for both the ARC and eventual release version, we done through the short run digital printer Bookmobile, who Ron was already familiar with from his first book.

With these ARCs, Rachel was able to secure several reviews, including a national Kirkus review and a shout-out from Publisher Weekly's Booklife Report. Reviews have all ranged from positive to enthusiastic.

Gardeners of the Universe ARC Cover Spread

The advanced reader copy was tagged “not for sale,” and allowed us to do a full run proof with binding. The back cover copy was changed, and the image was tweaked, for the final version.

Gardeners of the Universe Final Cover Spread

Book Launch

Every author I’ve had the pleasure of working with has wanted to do a launch party. While these vary in size, and budget, they are always a great way to celebrate the official end of what is universally a long and sometimes stressful process for authors.

In fitting with his biology, evolution, and space themes, Ron decided to do his launch at the Bell Museum on the University of Minnesota campus.

(Thanks to Rachel Anderson for this photo of Ron Peterson at the launch party.)

Gardeners of the Universe Launch Party Presentation, photo by Rachel Anderson

Explore Other Projects…

Design is process of creative problem solving as applied to challenge of controlling how a user (i.e. a reader) interacts with their environment (i.e. the book). While Book Design isn’t writing, editing, or illustration, it affects the success of all three. It is part production minded, and part visual story-telling.

learn more about paul nylander and illustrada design

I encourage you to step through my recent projects and learn for yourself how I have applied a design process to a variety of different challenges. Or jump back up to the overview.