Case Study 43

Title: A Whitewashed Tomb

Author: Rebecca Loomis

Designer: Rebecca Loomis

Genre: Dystopian fiction

Graphics: The background graphic seems to be a photo taken at Antelope Canyon in Arizona. In itself it’s a lovely image, but what does it have to do with a dystopian theme? The opening pages of the book refer to gray, sterile surroundings. This photo suggests something quite different.

Much the same can be said of the white silhouette. It’s clear enough that the protagonist is a woman, so the silhouette serves at least that purpose, but the title leads us to imagine that the cover would show a white tomb rather than a white silhouette. And what does the overlay imply, the silhouette placed over particolored rocks? How do the two images go together? They clash more than they cooperate.

Each of the graphical elements, the three-dimensional rocks and the two-dimensional silhouette, is fine in itself, but they don’t work together, and they don’t work to tell us what this book is about or what its genre is. Most dystopian novels signify their genre by having covers in which grays and deep blues predominate. Such colors are absent here. Such covers usually feature architectural elements that suggest post-disaster ruins or a partial recovery from disaster. Again, this cover has nothing of the sort.

I suspect this is a case of a do-it-yourself author-designer juxtaposing images she likes even though they do little to advance an understanding of what the book is about. This is a common fallback position for authors on a budget, but it’s an example of false economy.

There are countless pre-made covers available in the dystopian genre, many of them with images of young women. Such covers can be purchased for as little as $100. Assume the author of this book bought such a cover.

She has set her ebook price so that her royalty from Amazon will be nearly $5. A more genre-obvious cover certainly would yield additional sales. She would need to sell only 20 additional copies to recover her investment in a more appropriate design. It’s likely that a cover that fairly screams the genre would result in far more additional sales than that.

This book has received favorable reviews, but it hasn’t sold widely. I suggest that the author redo the cover and relaunch the book. Almost certainly she will recoup enough to pay for a cover that clearly signals the genre, and she might luck out and see far more sales than she has seen so far.

Typography: Given the graphical problems, and assuming the author doesn’t seek out a professional designer, this cover could use a tagline that indicates its genre, such as “A Dystopian Novel.” If such a tagline were added, I’d put it where the author name now is and would move the author name to the top. But that’s a workaround and only a partial one. There’s only so much that text can do if the image is off.

The author name is far too small. It ought to be doubled in size, with the color changed to a brighter white so the name will stand out better against a rocky background that itself has light tones.

First-time authors (the author identifies herself as such) often are over-modest, putting their names in letters as small as their (soon-to-develop) reputations. That’s a mistake. Their names should be as large as those of well-known writers, even if not as large as those of truly famous writers whose books sell precisely because of their names and not because of their titles.

On this cover, the title is more troublesome than the author name. The font is uniform, but the coloration is not. There actually are three colors, with “A” being darker than “Whitewashed.” The only word that stands out well is “Tomb” because it is black against white, but its letters are decidedly smaller than those of the other title words, for no obvious reason. I would make “Tomb” the largest word of all, even over-sized, perhaps stretching it to be as wide as “Whitewashed.”

But what to do about “Whitewashed”? The word itself suggests that it should appear in white or white’s opposite, black. As it is, the word is in a reddish color that is too much like portions of the image: precisely the wrong choice.

If the silhouette is to be preserved, I would make it smaller and move it lower so that it’s beneath the title, and I would put all three title words in white, moving them up a little. As mentioned above, I would make “Tomb” much larger, but I would keep the other words at their present size. This would not be a complete fix for the cover, but at least it would make the textual elements legible and more prominent.

Overall: A few decades ago, an author could get by with a cover that didn’t clearly identify the genre and that had graphical elements that gave little hint about the storyline. That no longer is the case, the competition having become so great.

There must be tens of thousands of books within just the dystopian genre. A designer need not be slavish in preparing a cover that prospective buyers immediately will recognize as belonging to that segment, but certain conventions need to be kept in mind if a book is to have prospects of decent sales.

Case Study 30

Title: Catalyst

Author: Kristin Smith

Designer: Marya Heidel

Genre: Young adult, dystopian fiction

Graphics: The finely done illustration tells us several things at once. The protagonist is a teenaged girl. The book has something to do with her coming of age or maturing (the butterfly), and there is a scientific or genetic element to the story (the DNA strands).

The girl looks weary and wary. As it happens, she is one of only two students at her school who aren’t genetically modified. Everyone else is “perfect,” and that discrepancy is what the story hinges on. She is “odd girl out,” so to speak.

If the illustration has a weakness it is the disparity between the precision of the girl’s face and the haziness of the DNA strands and, less so, the butterfly. At thumbnail size the DNA looks like a blur, and the wings of the butterfly could be mistaken for two spheres or planets. It’s important for designers to keep in mind that, except on shelves of bookstores, book covers nowadays are seen first at thumbnail size, so each element has to be discernible even when small.

Typography: The title font is an unusual one. There is nothing particularly objectionable about it—it is legible enough—but it doesn’t suggest the genre. It might be just right for a book set in the Medieval era, given the font’s rough-hewn look, but it doesn’t seem to add anything here. Nevertheless, it has no real drawback (except see below).

The author name is in letters that are too thin, and they shouldn’t be in large and small caps. The same font could be used if it were in bold and all the letters the same height.

The series tagline, “The Deception Game, Book One,” is where one would expect a subtitle to be. It is so small as to be illegible even when the cover is seen at larger than thumbnail size. I would have put this tagline at the top in letters at least twice as tall. Again, there is the problem of using large and small caps.

There is a second tagline, “Perfection is Everything.” Where to put this? Before putting it anywhere, its size also should be increased substantially, and the period should be dropped, even though the tagline forms a complete sentence. Perhaps this tagline could be considered the subtitle and be placed immediately under the title, but that would bring back a spacing problem: to fit there, the text would have to be kept small.

The problem is with the descender to the Y. If the title were in all caps, there would be no descender, and the tagline/subtitle could stretch the full length of the title, allowing it to appear much larger.

As another alternative, the tagline/subtitle might be placed beneath the series tagline at the top, with its letters widely kerned to help distinguish the two lines from one another. Such a placement might necessitate lowering the girl’s face so the two lines of text don’t cover too much of her forehead.

Overall: This cover’s strength is the girl’s face, its weakness the size and placement of the text. At least the genre is plain enough. The cover makes it clear that this book is aimed at a young-adult audience and that it has something to do with the unexpected or the bizarre. Even as it stands, the cover deserves a solid B.