Cover art is a very important tool in marketing a book. In my years as a published writer, I’ve had some covers that worked and others that didn’t. If a book is set in the Bay Area, New York publishers have a tendency to put the Golden Gate bridge on the cover, even when the books are Jeri Howard mysteries set primarily in Oakland, Berkeley, and other East Bay environs.
As a writer, I like it very much when the cover says something about what’s between the pages. However, I’ve been told by people in the publishing biz that what they aim for is a cover that’s visually striking.
I had some distinct ideas about the cover for Death Rides the Zephyr, the train book that comes out in September. The book takes place on the old California Zephyr, in December 1952, so it counts as a historical mystery. The advertising for the CZ, also known as the Silver Lady, had a distinctive look. You can see examples below.
The book will definitely appeal to mystery fans. There’s also a whole world of railfans, people who live and breathe old trains, and this book is right up their track. A cover that had the look of a California Zephyr advertisement or brochure would certainly be recognized by any railfan, and I hope lead to sales.
The folks at Perseverance Press liked the idea of using old advertising images for the cover. Then we ran up against a problem, one of image quality. The images available on the internet were not high resolution, and that’s what we needed.
Where could we find high res images that would work for cover art? I checked various sources at railroad museums and came up empty.
Then another issue arose. Who owns the rights to those images?
You see, the California Zephyr was jointly operated by three railroads: Western Pacific, Denver & Rio Grande Western, and Chicago, Burlington & Quincy. Those railroads no longer exist. The WP and the D&RGW were purchased by Union Pacific. The CBQ merged with several other railroads and is now the Burlington Northern.
I’d heard from several sources that the UP was really sticky about copyright. But that was hearsay, so I went right to the railroad. The UP’s communications office referred me to the Union Pacific Historical Museum and a librarian there responded to my query. She did some research and discovered that while the UP had purchased the railroads, evidently they hadn’t purchased any of the advertising images. So she didn’t know where I could get high resolution advertising images.
At this point, Perseverance Press and I were running out of time. As I tried to find an appropriate California Zephyr advertising image, I’d been in touch with some of my fellow railfans. One of them is Roger Morris, a photographer and graphic artist in the Sacramento area. We met in 2010 while taking a special excursion train up the Feather River Canyon, the route followed by the old CZ.
A number of the Silver Lady’s old cars are still on the tracks, privately owned and used for such excursions. One of them is a dome observation car called the Silver Solarium, and it’s based here in the Bay Area.
Roger had an atmospheric photo he’d taken of the rounded end of the Silver Solarium, showing the small neon sign that reads “California Zephyr.” He took the photo in the train station in New Orleans. My book takes place in the winter, as the train winds its way through snowy canyons in the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains.
No problem. Enter the wonders of Photoshop.
Roger played with the image, adding a snowy winter landscape, a starry sky, with a hint of light reflecting off the curved rails. He replicated the orange neon of the sign and the lights at the end of the train, and added some touches that suggest movement.
I think the end result definitely has it covered.