Cover Story

By Debbie Burke



Recently, Jim Bell wrote about baseball legend Honus Wagner, a shortstop in the early 20th century, and one of the first inductees into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Here’s a story for Valentine’s Day about how Honus played matchmaker between me and my wonderful cover artist, Brian Hoffman, right here at The Kill Zone.

I still get chills when I remember how Brian and I “met”.

In 2017, the first novel (Instrument of the Devil) in my Tawny Lindholm Thriller series was traditionally published. They provided a cover that was predominantly lizard green, not my favorite color. But they paid me, so I went along with it.

Original cover


Six months later, they closed their doors, leaving me orphaned. The second book in the series was ready to publish and a third was in the works. After considering options, I decided to self-publish the subsequent books.

But self-publishing meant providing my own covers.

A professional design company did several cover drafts but I didn’t like any of them. Being a DIYer, I tried creating covers myself and wrote a post for TKZ about the process.


At that time, the fourth book Dead Man’s Bluff was close to publication but had not yet been released. No one except my critique group and editor had read it.

After that post, I received a gracious email from TKZ regular, Brian Hoffman. He said he enjoyed my posts and had learned a lot from them. Then he added he hoped he wasn’t offending me but “Your cover for Dead Man’s Bluff looks amateurish.  I’ve made one you might like better.  It is my gift to you for all the help your columns have been to me.”

He attached this cover:

Wow, just wow!

Since the book had not yet been published, Brian had no way of knowing the McGuffin in the plot was the Honus Wagner 1909 baseball card. Yet, there on his cover was that very card!

Chills ran through me. The theme from The Twilight Zone played in my mind.

How had this complete stranger perfectly captured the essence of my story about a Florida hurricane and a stolen baseball card?

I immediately wrote back to Brian, with profuse thanks, saying of course he hadn’t offended me, far from it. He’d blown me away with the beautiful cover and his generosity.

Believing he was a professional who designed covers for a living, I asked him for a bid to redo all my books.

Bing, bang, boom. More emails arrived from him, each containing another great cover. They displayed a consistent style for the series that fitted the thriller/suspense genre. I was thrilled.

How much do I owe you? I wrote back.

Nothing. I enjoy doing them.

No way could I take his work without paying him.

If he wouldn’t give me an amount, I figured I’d send him a check for a fair market price. What’s your address?

 No answer.

After more back and forth emails—me offering to pay, him declining—we finally came to an agreement.

The Book of Ecclesiastes says: Cast thy bread upon the waters, for you shall find it after many days…

Brian and I continue to enjoy a great working relationship. I send him a synopsis of each new story. He sends several sample designs. We yak back and forth to fine-tune and decide on a final version. Here is his work:

Thank you, Brian!

Being member of TKZ’s community yields many rewards, both expected and unexpected.

Happy Valentine’s Day to TKZ’s family and friends from all over the globe who enrich my life as a writer and a human being.


TKZers: Have you ever received a gift you never anticipated? Have you ever given a gift the recipient didn’t expect?



Here’s a sneak peek at Brian’s cover for my upcoming thriller Deep Fake.

You can’t believe your eyes.

Sign up here at my website and I’ll let you know when Deep Fake is released.

34 thoughts on “Cover Story

  1. I had lunch last year with a friend from 50 years ago, and she gave me a fine copy of “The Hobbit.” Another friend gave me his dad’s 1964 Olympia typewriter, which was holding down one corner of a tarp on his patio, but I’d asked for it.
    Speaking of writing-oriented gifts, back in my poetry reciting days, I was inspired to design a little poster advertising a reading by another poet, Tim, whom I hardly knew. A friend and I posted the copies around downtown Ventura. People accused Tim of “self-promotion,” but he pled innocent, having no idea who’d put them up until later. He got a good turn-out. His parents were there, too; I hope they were impressed.

    • J, thanks for two great examples. Gifts can be physical items or the gift of time and effort. Poetry events rarely draw crowds so your friend must have been pleased and grateful.

  2. The gift I never anticipated has been a young developing writer who chatted back and forth with me on (IIRC) Jenny Hansen’s blog – and, when I had the good sense to ask if she would like to beta read, answered yes. She’s been reading, commenting, and doing a quick proof on every chapter I finish – 20 each – of the first two novels in my mainstream trilogy.

    I only send her work I’m pleased with and happy to have finished. Errors and awkwardnesses are mine to deal with before she gets thee chapters, as the author. Occasionally she’ll point out I’m too elliptical – or she found a typographical error – and of course she’s right; those mostly are quickly fixed. Sometimes I point out why not – and she’ll agree.

    I aim each chapter for her to call me ‘an evil woman,’ but agree I had no choice.

    She’s married now, with a toddler and a baby on the way – and insists she can’t wait for the third book. I am blessed.

  3. Debbie, thank you for sharing that amazing story. I love it. And it would be difficult to describe how terrific Brian is as a human being, but you did it.

    Have a great week, Debbie, and Happy Valentine’s Day!

  4. Funny you should mention gifts this morning as I rise to celebrate what February 14th means most to me–Arizona Statehood Day. She’s 111 years old today. Having grown up in a flat & featureless state on the east coast, one of my greatest earthly gifts is to be living in the west as I always dreamed of as a child. I love the desert! Beautiful sunrises & sunsets. Awesome blue skies. And mountains, mountains everywhere! YEEHAW!!!!!! So blessed.

  5. Great post, Debbie. Heart warming story. You are very fortunate. Brian’s work is beautiful! You’ll probably start getting requests for Brian’s email address.

    I am fortunate to have a friend who is a graphic design artist, and who consented to work with me to design my covers. We’ve both learned a lot along the way, and my covers have changed their style. But, you won’t find many cover artists who will agree to come over for Sunday dinner and spend the afternoon discussing the next cover. He does let me pay him.

    As for an unexpected gift: During med school, I was once down to my last pennies, not knowing how my wife and I were going to pay the rent. A 50 dollar bill showed up in my college mailbox. It got us over the hump, but I never found who had given the money. Whoever it was, was an angel.

    Thanks for all you do here at TKZ, Debbie! The rest of us are blessed to call you a friend!

    • Thanks, Steve!

      Your cover artist probably appreciates a good, home-cooked meal as a bonus.

      What a beautiful story about the $50. A friend in need, for sure.

  6. I have had a wonderful time working with Debbie and being a small part of her terrific books. I think the key the getting a good cover that represents your story is clear communication. The writer needs to express their needs and the cover designer needs to be a good listener. A bit of flexibility by both also helps.

    I have been blessed to be Debbie’s partner. I hope to be on many more projects.

    I have all of Debbie’s books and I enjoy seeing my work on such good stories.

    She has also helped me overcome near terminal writer’s block. My novel will be out in the late spring. The Change is the story of a young archeologist who discovers much more than she bargained for. Much more than the world bargained for.

    Debbie, thank you for your kind words.

  7. What a wonderful story, Debbie! Brian is so awesome. His covers are so evocative and well-designed, and make you want to check out the books. Your story truly captured what a gift he’s given you.

    One of the “gifts” of being a self-published author is being able to work directly with talented cover designers–I’ve been very fortunate in that department as well.

    I have been so fortunate in the gifts of friendship I’ve received over the years, including here at TKZ. Steve is so right–we are blessed to call you a friend!

  8. What a lovely post, Debbie! The baseball card “coincidence” took my breath away. And kudos to Brian for his generosity and talent. The covers are wonderful.

    I have been the grateful recipient of much in my life, I count the wisdom and friendship of the folks at TKZ as some of the best gifts I have received. I’ve also asked authors to be my interview guests on my own blog, and I am always surprised at the generosity with which they respond.

    I suppose the greatest gift my husband and I gave in our lives was when we helped sponsor a Laotian Hmong refugee family to the U.S. after the Vietnam war. That young family (husband, wife, baby) had lived in a refugee camp in Thailand for five years, and when they came to the U.S., they lived with us for several months while we got them assimilated into American society. I wasn’t working at the time, so I was able to get them into English classes, teach them about groceries, banking, etc. We have so many funny stories from that time. That was over forty years ago.

    We haven’t seen our little family since we moved away from Wisconsin a year or so after they came. But we’ve stayed in touch all during the interval, and one of their daughters will be bringing them to Memphis in June. We thought we were giving something to them, but in reality, they were a gift to us.

    Thanks for an uplifting start to the day.

  9. In the early days of ebooks and ebook publishers, there were some brilliant publishers and then there were the idiots and crooks. I made the misfortune of getting one of the later for my space opera, THE ONCE AND FUTURE QUEEN. He believed I had to follow the contract but he didn’t. Anyway, he refused to give me my author copies, and I had to harass him for this and other things until he dropped my contract. So, I had no copies of my book. A reader heard about my plight and sent me her copy. That was the sweetest thing ever.

    The next publisher decided to move into science fiction and gave the book a romance cover of roses. The next cover looked like PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE with dorky flying saucers. Sigh. After three attempts, I commissioned my own cover which I took with me to a better publisher.

    • Marilynn, the dark cloud of your slimy publisher had a silver lining in your sweet reader.

      Yeah, there are many cover horror stories that make you wonder if the publisher ever read the book. Cover control is one of the benefits of self-publishing.

  10. My current editor is editing for free and has done a much better job than any paid editor I’ve had. She wrote me about two years ago and said, she loved my imagination, but could she edit my books for free. She was a former editor. I’ve had other offers like that over my ten year career and I would try them out, but she’s the real deal. I thank her in each book, send her a printed copy and a holiday gift, she makes my work so much better and cheers me on. There are some very kind people in the world.

  11. Amazing story, Debbie. Discovering this site a few years ago was an expected gift that keeps on giving…

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