Intermezzo 1

There is the critique of a cover, and then there is the critique of the critic. Let me share an account of how not to handle criticism that is negative, even if only mildly.

Joel Friedlander runs a site popular with indie authors, The Book Designer. He has written several books useful to self-publishers, offers training programs, and sells a wide array of book-design templates for use in Microsoft Word, Apple Pages, and Adobe InDesign.

For seven years Friedlander has run a monthly cover design contest. Authors of published books submit their covers for consideration and comment. An average month might feature one hundred covers, three quarters of them fiction, the rest non-fiction. Friedlander chooses a winner from each category and gives gold stars to also-rans. To most books he gives one or two sentences of comment. About some—including most of the worst-designed covers—he politely says nothing.

Usually the winning covers are by professional designers. A few names rise to the top repeatedly. On occasion a winning cover will have been designed by the author, but this is rare. Usually author-designed covers are easy to spot because of their artistic and typographical limitations.

The cover of The Kitty was submitted for the June 2017 competition. The designer was the author, Shawn P. Flynn. Friedlander gave two sentences as comment: “Ah, who doesn’t love cats? This amateur cover makes it clear what you will find inside.”

I suppose that could be taken two ways, regarding “what you will find inside.” It could be taken to mean that inside you will find stuff about this particular kitty, or it might be taken to mean that inside you will find writing as amateurish as the cover design. The author took it the second way, but I think most people would take Friedlander’s comment the first way. After all, the book is about a cat “Who Rescued Me After I Rescued Him.” The subtitle pretty much explains “what you will find inside.”

The author was dissatisfied with Friedlander’s short remark and wrote a comment at The Book Designer:

“Thanks for your comments about The Kitty Who Rescued Me After I Rescued Him. We actually field tested several cover concepts, and this was the one that was preferred by the overwhelming majority of participants across all testing platforms (mostly cat lovers). It was designed to have a similar look and feel to James Bowen’s bestseller A Street Cat Named Bob, published by St. Martin’s Press.

“As for the interior, we designed it after reviewing your templates. So, one could argue that even you helped to design the book. Amy Collins [author of a book on self-publishing] also provided feedback on both the cover design and the interior. Judging from the reviews on Amazon (currently 4.9 out of 5 stars) and the other favorable reviews received, target readers have been delighted with the book! But, what do I know, right, heck, you’re The Book Designer.

“Thanks again for your comments, Joel, and I hope you are having a great day!”

Friedlander replied more diplomatically than I might have been inclined to:

“Shawn, I’m glad you ‘field tested’ your cover and that your book is well reviewed. It’s not uncommon to find books that are selling well despite bad or ineffective covers. (Although one wonders how much better they would be selling with great covers!) As long as your target market has no objection to an obviously amateur book production, what’s to worry?”

Friedlander didn’t back down. He was firm yet polite: “Your cover seems to be working? Great! But it’s still a bad cover.”

Flynn, not knowing when to stop, wrote another comment:

“Joel, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to recognize that you can’t make the comment ‘amateur book production’ without having evaluated any other part of the book including the spine, back cover, copyright page, rest of the interior, or even reading the story (although I expect now you’ll say that you did). You remind me of a cliché and lose all credibility as a result.

“I see, however, that you typically select one person each month to be an opinion to. And judging from the language at the top of this page about ‘constructive criticism’ and then not providing any constructive suggestions, you clearly are attempting to simply create controversy with your comments. You obviously don’t understand how constructive criticism is defined. It is unfortunate that you feel the need to be such an opinion to visitors of your website. I hope you feel better about yourself now.

“But, I get it, because I didn’t pay you to create my cover or participate in the process, it must be an amateur production. I find it particularly revealing that you did not address my comment that the interior is based on one of your templates. As such, my ‘amateur book production’ must make use of an amateur book template. Therefore, your readers should note that you are selling book templates that are of amateur quality.

“You know what they say about opinions, Joel, and apparently you are just one big opinion!”

Let’s take this paragraph by paragraph.

The monthly cover design contest is a contest about cover design, not about a book’s interior layout. (If it were about interior layout, it’s hard to see how evaluating the copyright page would be an important part of that.) Nor does one need to read the story to judge the cover.

I will say this, having looked through part of the book: the copyright page is handsomely designed. It looks quite professional, as does the table of contents. But the actual contents do not. Amazon lists this paperback as having 102 pages, but the pages are double-spaced, giving them an odd look. Flynn claims that the layout was “based on one of [Friedlander’s] templates,” but apparently no template by Friedlander was purchased or used (none of them feature double-spacing).

As for Flynn’s second paragraph, he accuses Friedlander of “attempting to simply create controversy” with his comments, but it seems evident that Friedlander tried to do precisely the opposite by saying little about a cover he considered to be poorly-executed.

In his third paragraph, Flynn accuses Friedlander of panning his cover because there was no backsheesh. Friedlander must have called the cover amateur only because he saw no money coming his way. “[M]y ‘amateur book production’ must make use of an amateur book template,” pouted Flynn—a template that may have inspired him though he didn’t purchase it.

In this exchange Flynn did everything wrong. His remarks—and his attitude—should be a lesson for authors who design their own covers. The odds are that such covers will have problems that the author-designers will be unconscious of. They might be taken aback by a reviewer’s comments, even when those comments are phrased kindly, as were Friedlander’s in this case.

When that happens, it usually is good to remember the admonition “mum’s the word!”