How the amazing UK cover for Rapture of the Nerds came to be

I'm really impressed with the cover of the UK edition of Rapture of the Nerds, the novel I wrote with Charlie Stross. But it turns out that producing that cover was quite a journey. Designer Martin Stiff was kind enough to share his notes on the process, along with all the proto covers he produced for the UK publisher, Titan Books:

Designing book covers is the best job in the goddamn world. If you're lucky, like we are at Amazing15, you get to work with incredibly talented and lovely people, on some of the most fiendishly interesting projects you can't even begin to imagine without the aid of viralised nootropics.

When the incredibly talented and lovely Cath at Titan Books asked us to design the UK cover for Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross' The Rapture of the Nerds we braced ourselves. If you haven't read it, do it now. The book is a melting pot of brain-warping ideas, every time you think you get a handle on what it is, what it means, it shifts in your hands like an organic Rubik's cube.

Books which can manipulate reality aren't easy to design covers for. When you start a new project there's generally two initial ways in: 1) you step into it and find a moment, a scene, an element and pin your cover design on that or 2) you step back and look at the overall picture - try and find the theme. But what do you do when that picture seems to keep changing? The answer is, you keep chasing it. And what happens when there's other people involved in the process, each of whom has their *own* take on the book, a take which fluctuates as wildly as your own? The answer is you chase even harder and you don't look back.

The first ideas we turned in were turned down. They looked non-fiction (v2), or too young (v3). Version 4 hung around for a while but it quickly became too *normal* and that's just not something the novel is, so we threw it out. We fiddled with icons and graphics (v5, v6) and impossible shapes (v7) to match the impossible shape of the story but each time the book out-thought us and proved us wrong. Version 8 hung around for a while, but it still didn't feel *right* dammit, it felt like a good book cover but Nerds isn't *just* a 'good book', it's so much more than that. For a while there we lost the plot entirely (v9 was so wrong it had to be fired into the heart of the sun to destroy it), and when we came back up we played with colours and abstract patterns like madmen. Version 10 and 13 had something – after weeks of getting dirty with angry covers that weren't right we liked the simple cleanliness and easy lines. It felt like a breath of fresh air. It felt like The Rapture of the Nerds.

We chased harder. We imagined a bright spectrum filtered through a fractured pattern, clean fonts with nothing to hide. We got close. We kept the chaos subtle, a radiation of binary noise printed in spot varnish so you can only see it in angled light but you can feel it all the time under your fingertips. We got close and we caught it (v15). It wasn't easy, but if it gets easy, you're doing it wrong. We've just finished designing the covers to Doctorow's Pirate Cinema and Homeland. Designing book covers is the best job in the goddamn world.

Martin Stiff, Amazing15


  1. Client: [looks at v.15] I dunno… You know, the first one wasn’t so bad.  Can we look at the first one again?

  2. I like… 4 or 5 of these better than the one they chose, which doesn’t seem “amazing” at all to me :/ The US cover’s much better.
    This UK one looks like… early-to-mid ’90s (or even late ’80s) cyberpunk/clubland aesthetic I guess, maybe? Not as garish, but with those neon colours and all that. I prefer the red circle, the blue one with the half-face looking up (which is quite nicely connected to the book’s content), and even the multi-coloured eye (2nd last) better.
    Oh well, it takes all sorts?

  3. That cover probably looks amazing when you hold it in your hands. However, I’ve only seen it online, and mostly in thumbnail format at that, and it just looks… well, rather meh. But it does the job, because I strongly suspect the two author names are the biggest draw for this one anyway. 

  4. It’s very, very good, but I just can’t say enough nice things about the US hardcover, with it’s delightful “school textbook” binding…

  5. I had a completely different experience than that, but what was cool was that as each element got added, the book’s story got told. It just seems so weird that your artists would start from scratch each time, very few elements got kept from one iteration to the next. (Mine was by Dominic Harman, interior art is Cameron Davis, design by Cara Lewellyn)

  6. UK genre book covers are usually orders of magnitude better than in North America.  UK publishers seem to have clued in to the fact that a good cover makes money but that doesn’t seem to matter here.  “It’s only a genre title: low prestige…”

  7. God, drop that blurb, it’s tacky and clutters the space. “Booklist starred review?” Who gives a shit? Is anybody who is not a librarian or in the publishing industry even aware of the existence of Booklist, much less read it?

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