Case Study 89

Title: The Time Eater

Author: N. J. Thalmayer

Designer: N. J. Thalmayer

Genre: Fantasy

Graphics: Step back from your monitor a few paces and look at this cover. What do you see? I see text that is legible (the author name), text that is barely legible (the title), two spots of red above the title, and otherwise a blob of red and blue hues.

Now come close. Seated before my monitor I now can make out the title, though still with a little difficulty, I can make out a bit of the series tagline, and I can see that the red spots are eyes that appear to be set in the sort of mask worn at a masquerade. The red in the background now resolves itself into blocks that may be buildings, and the gray-blue area behind and above the author name looks like the rear of a statue.

This is a dark cover—not dark in the sense of looking forbidding but dark in the sense of poor illumination. None of the graphical elements stand out well. The proof is that at a distance one hardly can tell what things are, and close up things aren’t much clearer. One thing that is noticeable close up is that the graphics have a pasted-on look.

The statue isn’t a statue. It’s the back side of the protagonist. She isn’t part of the red background. She wasn’t drawn as an integral part of that image. She was pasted on. You can tell by the thin, wavy line of white around her and by the fact that her features are distinct while the features of the background are slightly blurred.

The description of the book at Amazon begins this way: “Her hands were born to hold a sword.” Let’s set aside the inapt phrasing (hands aren’t “born”) and turn to the cover. It shows a sword on the woman’s back. It’s not being held in either hand. Her left hand is seen free to the left, her right hand apparently is extended in front of her.

The sword is on her back but with no visible means of support. There is no scabbard, no thong, no strap. It just floats. That suggests that just as she was pasted on the red background, the sword was pasted on her back.

Perhaps fortunately for the designer, this faux pas is hard to see, given how dark the cover is. You have to look at an enlarged version to realize that the sword belies the opening line of the description. If the cover had been drawn brightly, the pasted-on-ness of the sword and the woman would have been obvious.

What about the red eyes in the mask? I suppose it’s not supposed to be a mask, but what is the face that the eyes belong to? It’s hard to tell, and it’s hard to tell where in space we’re to understand the face to be. It isn’t an integral part of the background. It doesn’t seem to be either above the buildings or in front of them.

If it were above, you’d expect it to partly obscured by the towering structures, but it’s not. If it were in front of the buildings, you’d expect it to obscure parts of them, but it doesn’t. It seems unrelated to its setting and so seems gratuitous. The eyes are meant to be frightening, but you don’t get the sense that they frighten the woman.

Typography: Not surprisingly, the poor graphics are paired with poor typography. If the font choices (there are two fonts here) do anything well, they tell the viewer what the book is not. It’s not non-fiction, it’s not romance, it’s not a police procedural or a historical novel. It’s either fantasy (which it is) or science fiction or post-apocalyptic dystopian. Of those three, the fonts most closely fit the first category, given their runic design.

Consider first the title. Three things are wrong with the font: its color, its kerning, and the font itself.

Here we have another example of the violation of a cardinal rule: don’t use red text against a dark background. The designer must have sensed that something was amiss, because he used thin off-white lines around the letters so they would stand out against the black background. The trouble is that they don’t stand out enough. Bright white would have been better than red, as would yellow or the blue of the author name.

Most of the letters of the title abut one another, for no clear gain. When a font is peculiar in design, as here, it’s important to let each letter breathe, for maximum comprehension. Pushing letters against one another works against that.

Wider kerning would not have overcome an innate problem with this font: some of its letters are clumsily drawn. The M is the best example. The crossing middle strokes make it look like an X rather than an M. The E isn’t much better, since it can be mistaken at first glance for an F. It’s one thing to use a font that may evoke a genre; it’s something else to use one that works against legibility.

The same font is used for the subtitle, but without a surrounding rule. It works better here because the blue color pops against the near-black background and because the letters don’t touch one another. That said, the letters could be kerned better (look at the L-E combination), and the subtitle is too small.

The title and subtitle should be rearranged with both being set in a different, less cluttered font but one that still implies the genre. The title should be in a single line where its first line now is, and the subtitle should be placed in a single line under it. Assuming the title will be in upper- and lowercase, the subtitle should be in small caps, for contrast. The two elements should be distinguished further by color, perhaps white or yellow for the title and the blue of the author name for the subtitle.

The author name certainly is large enough. In fact, it’s too large, its large caps being larger than the letters of the title. It should be reset as uniform small caps (not large and small caps) and on one line. It still would be easily readable, if left in light blue. Its present font is fine for the genre, and, unlike the font used in the title and subtitle, it’s legible.

Overall: This cover fails on multiple fronts. The graphics have an amateurish, pasted-on look. Too many elements are too dark and too vague. The typography isn’t much better, aside from the author name. The title is in the wrong font and the wrong color, adding to the general murkiness of the cover, and the subtitle is misplaced and too small to read.

Case Study 88

Title: Lost Coast Rocket

Author: Joel Horn

Designer: Joel Horn

Genre: Young adult

Graphics: This cover is a lesson in bad design. Maybe something can be learned from it.

Let’s begin by noting the cover has anywhere from three to five distinct elements, starting with the background photo. The story takes place along California’s Lost Coast, an area not far below the Oregon border. The Usal Creek area in Mendocino County seems to be depicted.

On top of that landscape are plopped two to four other images. The most obvious one is of a girl, pointing northward with her right hand and scratching her head with her left. The scratching seems justified, because she too probably is wondering what she’s seeing.

She isn’t integrated into the photo. She isn’t on-site. Her image has been pasted in—and somewhat clumsily. You can see pixelated irregularities around the edges.

The remainder of the scene is formed from what seem to be three elements. It’s a little hard to say. There may be fewer, but I think the smoke, exhaust, and rocket are separate items. The multi-colored smoke might well be taken from a photo of a missile launch. The rocket certainly is a drawing; when the cover is seen at full size, there’s no doubt about that. The exhaust may be from the same drawing as the rocket, or it may be from an independent drawing.

Whatever the provenance of the several parts, the overall effect is one of hokeyness. A viewer instantly recognizes that this cover pretends to be something it isn’t and that the pretending isn’t the least bit sophisticated.

Typography: The title slants upward, perhaps to suggest a rocket launch, but then rockets are launched straight up, not at an acute angle. In partial compensation the text is placed in italics so that the words remain readable without having to cock one’s head.

Why wasn’t the same done with the subtitle? It too slants upward, but its text remains in roman and so not only is difficult to read but is out of sync with the title. The title font is unobjectionable, but the subtitle font is so ineffective that the designer seems to have added black outlines to the letters.

It would have been better to use the title font and to put the words of the subtitle in small caps, except that changing to the title’s font would have forced the subtitle to be even smaller, if it were to fit in the space provided. The only solution would be a compressed sans serif font.

All that presumes keeping the title as is, but it shouldn’t be kept as it. It should be brought down to Earth, so to speak, by removing the slant and removing the italics. Then the subtitle could be placed under it, in a single line if its new font is chosen prudently.

But what about that troublesome rocket? It’s larger than necessary. If reduced by a third, it wouldn’t intrude in the title and subtitle areas, as it does now. A smaller rocket would make more sense anyway, since the present size makes it look too close to the girl.

The author name is fine as is, except it is off-center and should be shifted leftward. The author name is in the same font as the title now is and as the subtitle should be, but, unlike the subtitle, it can remain in upper- and lowercase.

Mare Tranquillitatis translates as Sea of Tranquility. The rocket doesn’t suggest tranquility, and the beach far below doesn’t seem particularly tranquil either, so what kind of book is this? The cover would be helped by an indication of genre.

Overall: The graphics look cobbled together because in fact they were cobbled together. The designer may have delighted in producing a cover quickly, but, when later wearing his author hat, he likely wondered why he didn’t the sales he had thought he would see.

It’s almost a certainty that the cover hindered rather than helped sales. A look at other books in the genre would have alerted him to what buyers had come to expect in covers of these sorts of books.

Case Study 87

Title: Glimpses of Light

Editors: Jeanette O’Hagan and Nola L. Passmore

Designer: Jeanette O’Hagan

Genre: General fiction

Graphics: This is a collection of 26 disparate stories and poems. They don’t seem to have a common theme (the subtitle’s “imagination and hope” don’t constitute a theme), so it must have been hard to come up with a cover design that indicates what this book is about—so hard that it wasn’t done at all.

What we have instead is a cliché ocean scene. According to the book’s credits page, the photo was taken near Scawfell Island, which is off the coast of Queensland, Australia. Not that the location matters much, since the photo is indistinguishable from a thousand other photos of calm seas, distant ships, and pretty sunsets.

Perhaps the image was chosen to link to the last word in the title, “Light,” but the symbolism doesn’t work. This is a book about hope, and hope is a forward-looking thing. Hope is concerned with tomorrow, not with yesterday. You might expect a photo of a glorious sunrise, but this photo shows a sunset, which means the light soon will go out, and that’s the opposite of hope.

Whatever the motive for choosing the photo, the selection was made unimaginatively. Surely there must be other images that evoke hope without evoking instead countless similar covers.

When a designer ends up with graphics like these, stock needs to be taken. Something has gone wrong. Usually the problem is that the designer is an amateur trying to make a cover on the cheap, but sometimes professional designers let down their guard and produce something along these lines.

Even collections of unrelated items deserve covers that don’t look like they have come off an assembly line. It’s difficult to design a cover that fairly represents each of several separate contributions. That might be doable if there are only three or four items, but 26? At that point the designer has to go a different way.

Instead of trying to convey an abstract notion such as hope (which, if present in each of 26 contributions, must manifest itself in bewilderingly different ways), the designer should aim for a cover that intrigues, mystifies, or provokes—things placid waters can’t do. This may mean that the cover shouldn’t sport a nature photo at all.

Typography: The title, subtitle, and editors’ names all need revision. Let’s assume that the photo is retained. What can be done with the text?

The present title font is one of those fonts commonly thought to suggest a literary or artsy temperament. The thin lines and flourishes are thought to imply sensitivity or compassion or fineness of mind, and they may imply any or all of those things—or none of them.

Some people think that collections of short stories or poems are obligated to be titled in letters that bring to mind the Art Deco era or the Renaissance or some other time of imagined High Art, but that’s not true. Even collections ought to have titling that is clear and bold, even if also whimsical and delightful.

This cover would have been served better by a font with thicker letters and fewer curlicues. That isn’t to say that Helvetica would have been best. It wouldn’t have been; it would have failed at the other extreme. But the font used here looks weak, and it doesn’t stand out well from the uniformly-colored background. It might work as a chapter-title font on the interior of a book, but it doesn’t work well on a cover.

However the title is fixed, the fix won’t be complete until the letters’ color is changed. Even if the title were in thick letters, white letters won’t stand out well against the yellow background. They should be black.

The subtitle has two problems. Its capitalization is irregular, at least for its purpose. If it were a sentence, it would be fine, being capitalized only in the first word, but a title or subtitle needs either capitalization of every word other than articles, conjunctions, and prepositions or it needs to be set in all caps, which probably would have been the best solution here, to distinguish the subtitle from the title.

The subtitle is so long that it stretches too far across the cover, coming too close to the edges. To bring it in would require reducing the point size, but that would make the words less visible. That’s not the way to go.

One solution would be to use a new font or the same font in a condensed version. That still may not allow the letters’ size to be increased enough. The best choice might be to set the subtitle in two centered lines: “Stories and Poems/ of Imagination and Hope”. That would allow the present font to be maintained, even when made several points larger.

Like the title, the subtitle needs to be in a different color, since white doesn’t contrast sufficiently with this background. Black again would be the best choice, since the image has no other color, such as dark blue, to draw from.

The editors’ names have been placed on top of the mottled sea. This makes for difficulty in reading. The names are in yellow, which contrasts well with some parts of the water but not with other parts, since the water is reflecting a yellow sun. This is where white would have been a better choice.

Why are the editors’ names shifted to the left margin? Perhaps it was done to move the text away from the glint of the setting sun. Okay, but doing so throws the cover off balance, so there’s a negative in maintaining this placement. It’s a negative that may not be avoidable, given the choice of photo.

Using “Edited by” is necessary to indicate that these are editors, not authors, but those two words ought to be in all caps (to match the preferred revision of the subtitle), leaving only the editors’ names in upper- and lowercase.

Overall: A poor choice of photo leads to a poor choice of typography. The photo may be attractive in itself, but it has no obvious connection to the book’s contents. It seems to have been used because nothing better came to mind—a good reason to employ a professional designer.

This book includes more than twenty contributors. It would have been a tip of the hat to them to have arranged for a cover that doesn’t look so bland.

Case Study 85

Title: Olde Robin Hood

Author: Kate Danley

Designer: Story Wrappers

Genre: Fantasy

Graphics: The “Olde” of the title refers to legends about Robin Hood that predate the story that has come down to us. The author invites the reader to “discover the man behind the myth, as you meet the Olde Robin Hood.” That doesn’t mean this is either history or historical fiction. It’s a book that reimagines stories that are older than the one commonly known. Thus the designation as fantasy.

Does the cover indicate that? Not really, thought “Olde” carries a sense different from “Old.” At least we know the book isn’t about Robin Hood on Social Security. Still, it’s not clear that this is fantasy rather than something else.

The image is very busy, partly because its elements lie on more than one level. The backmost part consists of a mottled green base and extensive filigree. The filigree may be an artistic tour de force—it truly is well drawn—but there is so much of it that it overpowers the cover. This is an instance where half as much would be twice as effective.

Placed one level higher are the author name and title. More on those below.

At still a higher level is the arrow, which is the only three-dimensional object on the cover. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stand out well. The brown of the shaft is not well distinguished from other elements of the cover.

When the cover is first viewed at small size or from a distance, the arrow hardly is seen at all. The light-colored title catches the eye. It takes the viewer a moment to realize that within this jumble of angled shapes is a straight shape, and then it takes a further moment to realize, by moving the eyes to the upper end of the shape, that this is an arrow.

That’s a pity, because the arrow is well drawn and by rights ought to get more attention. But it has a further problem.

The shaft weaves in and out of the letters of the title, passing both above and below the E, behind the B, and across the H. This means some letters must be higher off the surface than others and must be considerably higher than the letters on which the shadow of the arrow falls.

Most viewers won’t perceive that irregularity, but they might sense, subconsciously, that something isn’t quite right about the arrow. Even if they don’t, the arrow’s greatest problem remains: it isn’t sufficiently prominent.

Typography: The title hardly can be faulted. It’s a piece of art in itself. Even if the font isn’t accurate to the period in which Robin Hood supposedly flourished, it looks as though it’s from his time. The shadows behind the letters raise them from the mottled surface, and, as I said, the arrow’s path makes it seem that the letters lie on different plains.

The letters at the upper left and lower right of the title have a distressed appearance. Only the large R and N seem free of encrustations. The variety gives the letters additional character (no pun intended). All in all, the title is effective.

The author name is in a modern font and, like the title, it rises above the background due to drop shadows. Whereas the shadows behind the letters of the title go in all directions, implying a light source straight out from the cover, the shadows for the author name all go to the upper right, indicating its light source is in the lower left. This is a lack of continuity that most people won’t see, but those who see it will take off a few points from the score.

The author name is set in a light blue-green that isn’t otherwise seen on the cover. It’s close to what is found elsewhere, but it’s not a match. That’s a discrepancy rather than a problem. The text’s color does make the author name easily visible, and it sits comfortably within a frame formed by the filigree.

That leaves the third textual element, which is missing entirely. The cover needs a tagline indicating genre or even a subtitle. This could be placed, in text smaller than the author name but in the same color, in a frame at the bottom center, where the densest ornament now resides.

Overall: This cover is done well, but parts of it are overdone. One gets a sense that the designer got carried away. Well, that’s better than having a cover that omits several necessary items—though this cover omits one, a genre indicator. If the filigree were less exuberant, and if the arrow were  more prominent, the cover would warrant no complaint.

Case Study 84

Title: The Toymaker

Author: Sergio Gomez

Designer: Teddi Black

Genre: Suspense

Graphics: Charlie McCarthy not only was the most famous dummy in American entertainment (Edgar Bergen was his ventriloquist) but seems to have been the prototype for scary dummies that appeared later. Charlie himself never was scary. He always dressed in a tuxedo and sported a monocle, but he had eyes and a smile that later, horror-movie dummies emulated.

Even though Charlie always was joking, it has been frightening variants of his visage that have come down to us in movies and, as here, on book covers. The Toymaker features a spruced-up dummy—not as elegant as Charlie but still, in jacket and bow tie, a sophisticated looking guy.

Three aspects of the dummy stand out: his leering eyes, his too-red lips, and the cracks on his forehead and neck. This is a dummy that has been in some sort of fight, and he has come away victorious, at least temporarily. He’s looking for another spat.

The tilt of the dummy’s head and the deep shadows clue us that this will be an uncomfortable read, which is just what a fan of suspense fiction wants, of course.

Only at expanded size does the image reveal shelves in a toy shop. It might have been good if the background were brighter so the venue would be more obvious. If we didn’t have the title before us, we’d be hard pressed to know where the story takes place.

Despite that inconvenience, this cover’s graphics are first rate.

Typography: The same can’t be said of the typography, or at least of some of it.

The title is well done. It looks like a sign that might hang outside a toy shop. Its cracked wooden texture is doubly appropriate, suggesting that this shop sells carved wooden toys and linking to the cracks in the dummy. The curve of the title follows the curve of the dummy’s head.

If the title has a weakness, it’s that it looks subdued. The center-left portion of the cover is so bright, with the light shining on the dummy’s face, that the title could use some lightening of its own.

The author name also should be lighter, to match the title, and it needs attention. It’s the right distance from the bottom, but it overlaps the dummy’s white collar, which makes a couple of the letters less readable than they ought to be. This could be fixed by darkening the lowest portion of the dummy, bringing up the black that otherwise is behind the author name.

The problems with the title and author name are almost insignificant. Not so with the genre tagline, “A Dark Suspense Novel.” It floats awkwardly, and it’s too small to be legible at thumbnail size. Where to put it? That will be determined largely by its revised size. It needs to be large enough to read—or it needs to be gone.

Assume the tagline is doubled in size. If left where it is, it would stretch so far left that it would cover the dummy’s mouth. That wouldn’t do. What then?

One possibility would be to put the tagline in the same font as the title and to curve it to fit beneath the title, with all the tagline’s letters being of uniform size. This might require the dummy’s head to be lowered a little, but that would intrude on the author name.

The solution would be to reduce the size of the head slightly (it would be equally scary if only 90 percent of its present size). That would give extra room for the text at both the top and bottom.

If that revision weren’t made—if the tagline weren’t moved beneath the tile (where it would best, I think)—a fallback solution would be to stack the words in three right-justified lines: “A Dark/ Suspense/ Novel”. Those three lines, kept in white, could be place about where the present tagline is.

As with the text that otherwise would go beneath the title, the font should be changed to all caps, not upper and lower caps as at present (the present format actually has the upper caps bolded, which is quite unnecessary). The revised tagline not only would be more legible, but it wouldn’t approach the dummy’s face as closely as it now does.

Overall: If it weren’t for the genre tagline, this cover would rate at least an A-. If the tagline were repositioned (preferably under the title), and if the title and author name were brightened, and if the latter had all its letters set against black or near-black, then this cover would deserve full marks.

Case Study 82

Title: The Book of Djinn

Author: P. K. Silverson

Designer: P. K. Silverson

Genre: Fantasy

Graphics: In Islamic mythology, a djinn is a spiritual creature that may be good or bad. Usually we see “djinn” anglicized as “genie” and think of a good genie in a lamp.

Adding a genie’s lamp might have been prudent for this cover. Doing so might have set the design on a course happier than the one taken. At least the genre would have been clear immediately. On the cover as it stands, one has to wonder. From the graphics alone, what is one to think? What genre comes to mind? Not a genie genre, in any case.

As it is, this cover’s design is wrong in every way. The title refers to “book” and to “djinn,” so you might expect to see a book or a genie or both, but the graphics don’t show—or even imply—either. The cat-like eyes don’t suggest a genie (if anything they suggest a cat), and nothing else on the cover suggests one.

Aside from the eyes and the blue background, the only other graphical element is lightning. Lightning normally isn’t associated with genies, at least not in popular imagination. When we think of a genie arising out of a lamp, he arises wreathed in smoke, not glowing in lightning.

The graphics have a pasted-on look, a sure indication that this is an amateur production. The eyes come too close to the edges, the red of the eyes clashes with the blue of the background, and the top and bottom of the cover are bounded with bars and lines that do nothing but distract.

Typography: The title has multiple faults. The smallest is that “of” should not be capitalized. As a rule, articles and prepositions should be lowercased, unless they begin a title.

A more serious fault is the color chosen for the title. The greenish cast prevents the words from standing out well against the blue. A bright yellow would have been better, yellow usually working well against blue. The designer apparently realized there was a legibility problem, for he added a black drop shadow to the letters, but that isn’t enough to rectify the poor color choice.

The author name has several problems. It too is in the wrong color. Just as bad, it is far too small. It ought to be in all caps at half again the size. Lastly, it should not be in italics, which should be reserved for emphasizing particular words. The proper way to emphasis an author name is to set it in a clean font at a large enough size. Italics not required.

Overall: This cover has graphical elements that serve no purpose, but the cover as a whole does serve a purpose. It is a reminder that most self-published authors should not try their hands at cover design. Such attempts habitually fall short. Sometimes, as here, they fail completely.

What good is a “free” cover design if it ends up being costly by driving buyers away? That is the worst kind of economy because it is counterproductive.

Case Study 81

Title: Saving Her Reputation

Author: Annie Boone

Designer: Vero Martinez

Genre: Romance

Graphics: This book is one in a series of at least ten that appear under the rubric of “A Kansas Mail Order Bride Story.” The covers are nearly identical in color palette, background scenery, and tone.

The only substantial change from one book to the next is the image of the young woman, yet even then there is commonality: a pensive look, a face in three-quarters profile, and make-up that would not have been seen on the nineteenth-century Kansas prairie.

The details of the background can be made out if one looks closely. There is enough to suggest a placid rural setting but not so much as to take attention away from the woman. The eye goes to the exquisite portraiture which itself has muted tones, though, on most of these covers, there is a dash of color—in this case, purple in the flowers in her hair, the same purple used for the title.

It is difficult to find much to fault on this cover or its companions. If anything, I would say that the heads of the women are too close to the top of the cover. The space above them should be half again as tall, for two reasons: the present spacing makes them looked cramped, and it makes the series tagline look cramped.

On some of the other books in the series, the women’s heads are so close to the top that the tagline is placed over their hair, quite unnecessarily.

Typography: Just as the illustrations are near clones from one book to the next, so the layout of the text is replicated.

At the bottom is the author name in a clear, legible font that is appropriate for the era. The letters are widely kerned—a common practice with author names, no matter what the genre—and the wide kerning helps distinguish the author name from the title. If the two were close to one another, with similar characters spacing, the eye might run the text of the title into the author name. That could happen despite an ornamental spacer, such as used here.

The series tagline is, appropriately, in the same font as the author name. Like it, it is in all caps. The letters are not as widely kerned, but one pair, the K-A, needs adjustment; the letters nearly touch.

On this cover the tagline and author name are in a brown tone. On some of the other covers they are in black. The black stands out more, but it also competes with the purple that is used throughout the series for the books’ titles. I think the brown works best.

The title is in a consistent font throughout the series, and it always is in purple, a color that stands out well against the tan backgrounds. The title words are set in two or three sizes—on this cover, three. Why is “her” so small, and why is it in italics?

Italics imply emphasis, so are we to understand that the protagonist is saving her own reputation in contradistinction to saving someone else’s? Likely not. I suspect the designer used italics just to make the word look “fancy,” but there hardly is a need for that.

And what about the small size? Like the italics, it draws undue emphasis to the least important word in the title. This miniaturization is used on other books in the series. On one cover, the article “a” is made so small that you’re likely to miss it entirely when first reading the title. It doesn’t help that the “a” is attached to the ornament, thus making it even harder to find. At least that problem isn’t on this cover, but the way “her” has been modified, in two ways, seems pointless.

Each cover includes the same large swirl between the title and author name. The ornament isn’t needed to separate the two textual elements. If the ornament weren’t there, no one would confuse the two: they are widely spaced, in different fonts, and in different colors.

The ornament is used to give the cover a further “feminine” sense. It does that, but maybe it overdoes it. The swirl is so large that it almost is intrusive. It draws too much attention to itself. A more modest swirl would have worked better.

Overall: My criticisms are few and minor because there isn’t much not to like about this cover. The design works for the individual book and for the series. Once a reader has seen any one of the books, she instantly will recognize others that belong to the series.

Case Study 80

Title: 1612

Author: Harald Johnson

Designer: Harold Johnson

Genre: Historical fiction

Graphics: This is the second book of a four-part series. Each book uses the same illustration of what Manhattan Island may have looked like in the seventeenth century. The only change, from book to book, is the color palette. This one is blue-gray. The others are brownish-tan, green, and red.

If the series tagline weren’t present, few people would know what the pictured island might be. Once a viewer sees the tagline, there is a small “Aha!” moment, but it passes quickly. The illustration is unexpected, but it tells us nothing other than that Manhattan once was wooded. Interest quickly fades.

If the illustration makes for a bland cover for one of these four books, it makes for a less than bland cover by the time one sees the other three covers. They clearly are knockoffs of one another.

Typography: Each book in the series has three textual elements: title, series tagline, and author name. For each book the title is nothing more than a four-digit year: 160916121625, and 1640. The numbers, in a rough-hewn font with a thin drop shadow, are eminently readable. The titles can be seen from across a room.

But what do the titles convey? They set the story’s period with specificity. When we move from the first book in the series to the second, we know we’re skipping three years, but what attraction is in that? The titles do make clear that the four books form a series, but the repeated illustration does that just as well. It would have been better to have for each book a “real” title, one that intrigues, sets up a problem, or mentions a character.

The series tagline, “The Manhattan Series,” is easy to read. It is a little too close to the top; it and the title should be moved down, with the title then being moved down a little more. (Not to worry: there is nothing in the illustration that will be harmed by that.)

The author name is in the same clean font as the tagline. The former is against a light color, so it properly is in black. The author name is against a dark color, so it properly is in white.

The cover verges on the monochromatic and doesn’t need to. I would put the title in maroon, not to make it stand out—its size insures that it will stand out regardless—but to give a little warmth and variation to an otherwise sterile cover.

Overall: Perhaps the author-designer felt tickled when he came up with the idea of using the same illustration on four covers and with the idea of using dates alone as titles. Sometimes what seems at one moment to be cleverness ends up not panning out.

Nothing on the cover indicates genre. This could be historical fiction, but it could be straight history too, or it could belong to some other genre. Perhaps a second tagline, indicating what sort of book this is, would have been useful.

Case Study 79

Title: Eulalie and Washerwoman

Author: Malcolm R. Campbell

Designer: Jack Stollery

Genre: Fantasy

Graphics: The illustration is set off in a box surrounded by thin rules. Below the box is a line of dingbats, and below that line is a box containing the author name. Wide borders, in aquamarine, are on the four sides. I have no idea why.

The illustration is complex and should be as large as possible, for visibility’s sake. It ought to occupy the whole of the cover. The only text outside the illustration is the author name, which could have been placed inside. That would make the multiple rules and dingbats gratuitous. Even now they serve no evident purpose.

As for the illustration, it’s hard to make out what the various objects are, even when the illustration is seen at maximum size at Amazon.

On the right is a crocodile and on the left what may be a dog. Trotting next to the woman is a cat—but is that a woman at all? She (or it) has no legs. Immediately behind her is a yellow, black, and blue object that I can’t make out. Sometimes it looks like a golf tee, at other times like a short Phillips screwdriver. No doubt it’s something else, but what?

On the pathway are the digits 41144. They apparently aren’t a zip code. The story takes place in Florida, and that zip code, in real life, is found in Kentucky. The woman (or whatever) is approaching a railroad crossing, but there is no sign of a train. The trees suggest a swamp, but do train tracks run through swamps?

The illustration is well done technically, but it’s a jumble. It gives no indication of what the story may be or even what the genre is. It could be fantasy (which is how the author describes it) or horror or thriller or something else.

Typography: A gradient seems to have been applied to the words of the title. The letters are brightest at the upper left and dimmest at the lower right. Even the brightest letters aren’t particularly bright. On the whole, the illustration is dark, so a brighter title would provide welcome contrast. It might look best in yellow.

The brightest element of the illustration is the crescent moon. To accommodate it, odd spacing has been used for the title. The space between the first two lines is greater than between the last two. It would have been better to switch “Eulalie” and the moon, putting the latter above the former but leaving space for the tagline.

The tagline should be set in all caps in a sans serif font. Its present size is about right. It should be placed at the top, above the repositioned moon. It and the author name can remain in white.

The author name, lying outside the illustration and in its own box, draws too much attention to itself. It should be set in the same font as the tagline and should be moved to where the tagline now is. This presumes that the illustration is enlarged to fill the whole of the cover.

Overall: On this cover, it’s easy to fix the text but not so easy to fix the illustration. The crocodile can be taken to indicate danger; it works as a symbol. The dog can be taken to represent loyalty; it also works symbolically. The number on the pathway means nothing to anyone who hasn’t read the book and therefore it does nothing to recommend the book to a buyer.

This may be an example of an author insisting that things that will become plain in the reading be shown on the cover. The impulse is understandable, but it needs to be sublimated. What has meaning to an author often will have no meaning to anyone who hasn’t seen the manuscript.

Case Study 78

Title: Death Is Only an Illusion

Author: J. Pelegrin

Designer: J. Pelegrin

Genre: Science fiction

Graphics: The spiral galaxy gives this away as either a science fiction novel or a non-fiction book on astronomy. The ambiguity is resolved by the text, but it shouldn’t have to rely on the text for a resolution. The ambiguity shouldn’t be present in the first place.

Most science fiction novels sport illustrations of space ships or protagonists in exotic uniforms or weird landscapes with multiple moons—all indicators of genre. This novel sports only a galaxy, plus what is seen to be a planet when the cover is viewed at its largest size.

When the cover is viewed at a small size, as here, the brownish object could be anything: the top of a skull, an oddly-colored French beret, a piece of caramel candy. There are insufficient indicators of genre.

As the bottom-most tagline indicates, this story is about “parallel worlds,” so the brown object, which is mostly obscured by the galaxy, must represent such a world. But if the galaxy obscures that world, aren’t the stars in the galaxy far smaller than the partly-hidden planet? Wouldn’t the planet be the largest thing in the universe? There is an astronomical disconnect.

Typography: This cover has four units of text—title, author name, and two taglines—set in three fonts. Each font is inappropriate to the science fiction genre, and each unit of text is hard to read.

The title is in a font that might be appropriate for a children’s book. Here it looks wildly out of place. It looks happy-go-lucky, but the reader of a novel about parallel worlds will expect a story that involves elements of suspense, technological wonder, and danger. This font suggests none of those.

Besides, its thin lines are hard to read against the speckled background of the galaxy. What is needed here is a font with thick lines and probably in a dark yellow, taking a tonal hint from the enormous planet.

The author name is far too small. It should be at least doubled in width and height, and it should be moved further from the top edge.

The tagline at the bottom needs a rewrite. It describes the book as “a fictional novel.” What other kind of novel is there—non-fiction? And then there is the idiosyncratic use of the definite article: “about the parallel worlds.”

The article should be omitted, so the entire tagline would read this way: “A Novel about Parallel Worlds.” That could fit well enough on one line; like the author name, which is in the same font, this tagline would need to be enlarged, though not as much. It and the author name can remain in white.

The other tagline in more problematic. First, it’s in yellow, the only strong color on the cover, yet it’s the least important textual element. Second, it’s in a font that doesn’t match either of the others. Third, it’s at an angle. The tilting adds nothing except difficulty in reading. Fourth, the tagline doesn’t make much sense. What does it mean to say that “fiction collides with reality”?

This tagline should be dropped entirely. It’s not worth trying to save.

Overall: This cover is unmistakably an amateur production. The implication to the prospective reader is that the text is an amateur production also. Such an implication will not boost sales.

This book hardly looks like other books in the science fiction genre. While there should not be slavish adherence to genre conventions, a designer needs to be aware of what works and what doesn’t work. He needs to understand readers’ expectations.

There is no need for science fiction novels to look like clones of one another (unfortunately, many of them do: a key fault of that genre), but any science fiction book needs to announce what it is, without reliance on help from the cover text.

Case Study 77

Title: The Inhabitants

Author: Kevin Flanders

Designer: Kevin Flanders

Genre: Horror

Graphics: This is the first book in a trio. The covers are identical, except for minor alterations. Different windows are lit, different silhouettes appear, the exterior of the house has Christmas decorations and icicles on the cover of the second volume and blood and icicles on the cover of the third. The color scheme changes slightly, but on each cover the house is seen at night, with the moon giving background light.

This is an inexpensive way to produce three covers at not much more than the cost of one. The savings must have been minimal, though, since this is an author-designed production, and the image of the house probably was obtained at little or no cost. The only real cost was the time used in manipulating the illustration.

The three stories concern a haunted house in which mass deaths occurred years ago. The house later was turned into apartments, and the stories are about how renters deal with one another and with malign forces surrounding them. Apparently not a few of the renters are malign themselves.

From one volume to the next the inhabitants change (perhaps the ghosts recur from story to story), and the three covers signify that by showing lights and silhouettes in different windows. The first volume’s cover shows two silhouettes at windows on the ground floor. The men seem to be peering out the windows The third volume shows only the upper parts of two silhouettes on the top floor. Those people seem to be trying to claw their way out. Below them, blood streams down the exterior wall.

All in all, this is a simple but effective arrangement, but it has limitations. The third volume, with the blood, clearly marks itself out as horror. This first volume doesn’t. There is nothing horrific on this cover, but there is a sense of spookiness, given the silhouettes and the darkness. This cover might belong to a thriller or a suspense story as easily as to a horror story.

Typography: There are but two textual elements, the title and the author name. They are in the same font and the same blue.

The font is not inappropriate for the genre. It has a reverse glow, with the interior of the letters being brighter than their outlines. Oddly, in the title the letter I is smaller than any of the other letters, but in the author name that letter is the same size as the others. This is especially disconcerting in that the first letter of the main word of the title is an I. If this was done purposefully by the designer, he should undo it. It serves no purpose.

That is a small problem. A bigger problem is the color used. Blue is exquisitely wrong here because it fails to stand out. The entire cover has a blue cast to it, so the text makes blue on blue. This would have been the place for a distinctive color, such as yellow for the title. (I would use white for the author name.)

The title consists of two words, the short “The” and the long “Inhabitants.” It’s not easy to put them on one line. That would be adding four units, counting the space, and “Inhabitants” already looks cramped. One could resolve this by changing to a more compressed font, but an easier solution is to change the title.

Why not simply “Inhabitants”? Dropping the definite article gives more focus, and a slightly different sense, to the chief word, and it would have the happy effect of removing the ill-fitting article. Even with that change, along with the change in color, the lone remaining word would need attention. It’s too wide and needs to be compressed slightly, so that there would be about half again as much space on either side.

The author name should be where it is (though slightly raised) but in a sans serif font. The title’s font is so distinctive that it shouldn’t be used elsewhere on the cover. Once is enough.

The cover needs one more textual element, either a subtitle or a tagline. Using the house’s address, the subtitle might read “Horror at 99 Deepwoods Drive.” That tells the genre, and it indicates that the house itself is important to the story. A tagline could be something like “A Tale of Residential Horror” or “Renters Check in But They Don’t Check Out”—something to make clear what sort of book this is.

Overall: The illustration is simple but effective, but it is more effective in the second and third volumes of the trio than in this first volume. It needs assistance in the form of a subtitle or tagline that specifies the genre, and it needs text that more readily stands out from the image.

Case Study 75

Title: The Buckeye

Author: Troy Allen

Designer: Mariah Sinclair

Genre: Historical fiction

Graphics: The graphics are particularly well done. There are three focal points: the title, the B-24 bomber, and the curled, dried buckeye leaf. (I gather that the bomber in the story is nicknamed The Buckeye.)

After those, two other things catch the eye.

First is the buckeye seed that is above the title. It looks much like an acorn. The real-life seed, when separated from its cap, has the look of a male deer’s eye: thus the eye of a buck.

I admit I’m of two minds regarding this particular rendition.

The seed occupies what otherwise would be empty space, and that’s good. It brings burnt orange coloration to the left side of the cover, and that also is good. To the knowing, it indicates that the leaf comes from a buckeye tree, and that is yet another good thing.

But the seed is not easy to make out at thumbnail. It might have been better to show the seed next to its upturned cap or to show it enlarged. Or both.

The next thing to catch the eye is the pale journal paper. When the cover is shown small, it’s hard to make out that this is paper. It simply looks like a mottled surface. But when the cover is enlarged, faded handwriting can be made out—plus a water stain at the lower right.

If the handwriting were about twice its current strength, it still would look faded, but it would be able to be discerned no matter how small the cover might be viewed. Any enlargement, though, should not be at the expense of the legibility of the subtitle or author name, each of which should be fine if revised as suggested below.

Typography: What immediately catches the eye is the elegant presentation of the title. The font is Corvinus, which was released in 1934, making it perfect for this World War II story. It not only hearkens back to the period, but it actually was from the period.

If anything, I would like to see the title a little brighter. The font is a tricky one, with dark and light elements abutting one another, with the light elements appearing wider than the dark even though they’re not. The words have a subdued feel, and the light elements are a little difficult to make out against the beige journal page.

One way around this would be to leave the text as it is and lighten up the page, bringing it a third of the way from what it is to the white that it presumably once was. Another way would be to remove some of the gray in the light green elements of the letters, making them greener.

The subtitle, “A World War II Novel,” tells us two things: this is a novel, and it’s a novel based in a particular historical period. Of course, we likely would surmise that already, having seen the bomber even before taking in the title. The only fault of the subtitle is its size. If the font came in a condensed variant, I would use it instead; that would allow the text to be boosted by a few points.

The same font is used for the author name as for the subtitle. Note that the letters are kerned widely, a common technique that works especially well on period pieces, as here. But here the wide kerning ends up counterproductive because the added width prevents the author name from being as large as it should be.

If the letters were kerned normally, and if the text were allowed to extend slightly further to the right than it now does (but not to the very edge of the journal paper), the author name could be considerably larger. It would give the author more credit, and it would balance out the title somewhat. As it stands, the author name and subtitle seem scrunched by the title.

Overall: This is a fine, professional-looking cover. Not only is each element appropriate to the story and period, but each, clearly, has been crafted with care.

The changes I propose are minor. They would change this from a cover that pleases any viewer to one to which viewers would say “Ahh!” If the average self-published book had a cover this nicely done, self-publishing as a whole would have its reputation raised considerably.

Case Study 74

Title: Shanghaied

Author: Carey Fessler

Designer: Carey Fessler

Genre: Children’s fiction

Graphics: The story is about two twelve-year-olds trapped on a submarine the crew members of which were turned into mutants through a “radioactive incident.” Do the cover graphics suggest that? Only in part, I’d say.

The main image, in the central box, shows the boy and girl. She is looking through the periscope. He seems to be startled by something he learned from the instrumentation. Thus tension is shown, but there is no hint of anyone else being aboard the submarine, let alone mutants, and there is no indication that the kids have been shanghaied.

Nevertheless, the illustration is well done: her face is larger, being closer to the viewer, but his face is more brightly lit; they end up with equal prominence. The scene is highly detailed, down to the radar screen and the other monitors. By comparison, the image of the exterior of the submarine suffers.

First of all, is this the submarine they’re on, or is it an enemy’s submarine? Its contours are strangely bulbous, and what’s that coming out of it? No doubt it’s a torpedo, but, when the cover is seen at small size, it looks like a green pencil with a dark brown eraser. Even when enlarged, it hardly seems shaped like a regular torpedo.

The images compete against one another—and not successfully. The better image shows the protagonists. It should have been the sole image, though redrawn to occupy all of the cover. If that were done, there would be room to insert a menacing presence in a shadowy area toward the rear of where the kids are standing: a mere hint of a mutant would do.

Imagine if the boxed illustration were removed and all that remained were the torpedo-shooting submarine on a background of blue. That would make for a dull cover and not one likely to catch a child’s eye. Then imagine the boxed illustration taking up the whole space. What ten-year-old could resist?

As it stands, the cover indicates the genre well enough. This isn’t a history of World War II submarine warfare. It’s a pre-teen thriller. The boxed illustration looks the part; the submarine, not so much.

Typography: The title is fine. The same word has been used as the title of lots of books. Its presentation here is at once easy to read yet not dull. The characters in this font sit at different positions relative to the base line, and that works well for the kind of book this is.

If the graphics were reconfigured as proposed, with a revision of the boxed illustration taking up all the cover, the illustrator would need to include an un-busy area at the top where the title could reside without conflicting with fine detail.

That same area should hold the subtitle. Now, the subtitle is placed indiscriminately atop the illustration and in letters that are partially transparent. The words “from the” are far too small. Perhaps the designer thought that making them the size of the other words would make the subtitle too long for the interior of the box. Maybe so, but that should have been a clue that something was amiss with the original placement.

Even in the current scheme the subtitle should be moved to beneath the title. The submarine could be shrunk (it doesn’t have to be as large as it is), and the title could be compressed vertically. Those adjustment would provide uncramped room for the subtitle, which should be set in one line with all characters the same height, except that the font shouldn’t be the one used for the title. It should be the one used for the author name. That way, the subtitle would be maximally distinct from the title.

As for the author name, it’s fine as it is, though it should be in white, like the rest of the text. If the boxed illustration is enlarged to cover the whole cover, it may be necessary to change the color of the author name—and perhaps the color of the title and subtitle. That would be determined mainly by the new background color.

If several alternate colors would seem to work, the designer should choose one that picks up a color in the illustration, such as yellow or gold from the girl’s hair—but not pink from the back side of the boy’s pants. (And why are his pants that color anyway?)

Overall: I suspect this cover’s main weakness, the attempt to use two illustrations at once, arose from the designer’s desire to convey as much of the story as possible. That is a temptation that usually must be resisted.

Designers often acquiesce to authors’ request for covers to include multiple items that represent multiple parts of the story. Often, those things have meaning only to the authors; they can’t mean anything to the readers until the readers have read the books.

At other times, such as here, designers want to include things that will make sense to prospective readers (in this case, the submarine), but those things aren’t necessary to convey the sense of the book. They just end up cluttering the cover.

Case Study 73

Title: Storm Coming

Author: Jack W. Lewis

Designer: Jack W. Lewis

Genre: Historical fiction

Graphics: The story takes place during the Civil War in the part of Virginia that would become the new state of West Virginia. Is it clear, at first glance, that this is a Civil War book? Not really.

The illustration is indistinct. Its provenance isn’t given in the credits. It appears to be a watercolor and may look fine when seen full size, but at cover size (even a large cover size) its lines are blurry and its colors are muddy. The lack of distinction is enough that this could be a Union soldier, or he could be a soldier in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. It’s hard to tell.

The rider and horse are at rest. There is no motion in the image and nothing to suggest it is wartime. The same posture of rider and mount could be from a time of peace. Nothing in the background suggests battle either, but then the background is so blurred that it really suggests nothing much at all.

One might expect that the image would relate to the book’s title, Storm Coming, but, if anything, the sky appears calm. There are no roiling clouds or anything else to give a sense of impending troubles.

All in all, it’s a pretty image, but it’s not a successful image for this cover—or perhaps for any cover, given how difficult it is to make out details of the picture.

Typography: However ineffective the imagery, the typography is more so.

The title and author name are set in blue boxes, top and bottom. The top box is solid, the bottom box partly transparent. Such boxes, whether solid or not, almost invariably are signs of an amateur production. It takes considerable skill for a designer to use text boxes and get away with it. On this cover the boxes don’t work well.

The boxes pick up a light blue color that appears in the image, but they take up so much real estate that the light blue becomes the predominant color of the whole cover and draws too much attention to itself. If the boxes were to be retained, it would be better to select a dark color from the image; that would have the effect of making the sky pop better. Better yet would be not to have the boxes at all.

That the boxes were felt necessary is a sign that there is something wrong with the image. For fiction, normally the image should occupy the whole of the cover, and the image should be so made that it easily accommodates text. This image isn’t conducive to text: thus the unfortunate boxes.

The title font is weak: thin strokes and italics. For a book about war, the title needs to be strong, even masculine. This font seems feminine. It just isn’t appropriate.

The font used for the author name would have been better for the title. If that switch were made, the author name should be set in small caps, possibly in the same font (if it includes a small caps version), otherwise in a sans serif font. Assuming the bottom box is omitted, probably a sans serif font would be preferred, since serifs could be lost against a busy background.

As for color, and assuming both boxes are dropped, black would suffice for the title and maybe for the author name. The former would be set against the white and gold background, so it would be readable easily, while the latter would be against a darker, busier part of the image.

Would black work there? It’s hard to tell, since the blue box now obscures that part of the image. It might be necessary to lighten that portion if black text is used, or it might make sense to darken it and set the author name in white.

The subtitle is set in a reddish band that lies across the lower part of the image. The band is translucent, so the image partly shows through. The subtitle reads “A Novel of the Civil War in western Virginia.” It is in white italics (why italics?) and can be read only with difficulty. It sits atop an important part of the image, the horse’s legs, and ought to be either lower or higher. It probably would look best immediately under the title.

Like the title, it should be changed from white to black, and it certainly should not be in italics. I would put the subtitle in the same sans serif font as the author name and in all caps, thus allowing only the title to be in a serif font and in upper- and lowercase.

Overall: This cover unmistakably is home grown. No doubt the author-designer was happy with how it turned out. It seemed good enough to him, but most self-published authors are not good judges of cover treatments. Their artistic standards often don’t keep pace with their literary standards.

They may realize, while writing their text, that they need the services of professional editors (most writers do), but they fail to realize that their covers also need professional attention. A do-it-yourself cover may save money or even time, but almost always it will lose customers.

Case Study 72

Title: Garden of Fiends

Editor: Mark Matthews

Designer: Zach McCain

Genre: Horror

Graphics: This is a collection of eight fictional stories about addiction to drugs and drink. The book’s purpose is to warn of the dangers of addiction and to show hope for recovery.

The genre is horror. How well does the cover suggest the genre? Pretty well, I’d say, since it sports an image not unlike those painted by Hieronymus Bosch. We see a disembodied head that has mouth agape and eyes aflame (in the worst sense of eyes being aflame).

When seen at small size, portions of the image are hard to make out. Are those swords piercing the neck? On closer inspection, they’re seen to be hypodermic needles. And what’s in the mouth—or coming out of the mouth? Some items are hard to identify. It turns out that some are medicinal capsules.

The background to the image is a sickly green, an appropriate color under the circumstances. The background is lighter at the top, darker at the bottom, and it’s splotchy. That gives it interest—far better than having just one, solid color—but it means that small items at the bottom, which are dark themselves, don’t stand out well.

One of the hallmarks of Bosch’s paintings was their precision and clarity. That fifteenth-century artist succeeded in making even the smallest objects in his paintings comprehensible in their appearance, if not in their meaning. This image doesn’t pull that off, the small objects at the bottom looking like an undifferentiated jumble.

Still, the overall effect works. This is a “horrible” image (particularly the eyes) because the book’s subject is horrible: the horror of mind and body being destroyed by addiction.

Typography: There are three typographical components: title, subtitle, and list of authors. Given the prominence of the head, the title seems too small by comparison. It doesn’t stand out enough. A more compressed font, with thicker lines, would have been better.

The distressed effect given to the present font (and to all the text) is a good one, but it does make each letter harder to read than it otherwise would be. How to compensate?

The title is in green. While the font for the title ought to be changed, a font change alone may not be enough to make the title stand out sufficiently from the background. We now see green on yellow-green. To give the title the attention it deserves, it may be necessary to change the revised text to black. The distressed effect could be kept, its negatives being canceled out by the black of the lettering.

The names of the eight contributors are in deep red. Despite being so much smaller than the title, the names stand out better, but they do suffer from a busy background.

The names appear on four lines, with the spacing between the lines being irregular: there is less space between the second and third lines than between the other pairs. The spacings should be made equal, and they should be made smaller, about half the size they now are.

That would move the names a little further from the busiest part of the image, but they still would be competing against the background. It might be prudent to return to the image and lighten its upper half, making a more pronounced gradient beginning just above the skull. This would have the happy effect of helping the title too.

Lastly, the ornament that separates the top line of names from the subtitle should be removed. It serves no purpose. Blank space works just as well.

The subtitle is the least legible text. It is in red, like the author names, but, unlike them, it’s not bolded, perhaps to distinguish it from them. That could be achieved as well, and the subtitle could be made easier to read, if it, like the title, were put in black.

Note that all the text has been squared up, left and right, except for the subtitle, which is indented on both sides. This helps mark off the subtitle from the names beneath it. Also helping is the wide kerning of the subtitle. (Speaking of kerning, some of the names have problems with letter pairs.)

Overall: The cover’s feel is one of off-putting-ness, and that’s appropriate. It’s an ugly cover, in a good sense: the stories deal with ugly realities expressed fictionally, and the cover indicates what the reader will find inside.

The lower part of the image is indistinct; it could use Boschian attention. The text can be made more prominent and easier to read. The changes needed would be minimal.

Case Study 70

Title: Harps Upon the Willows

Author: M. B. Gibson

Designer: Panagiotis Lampridis

Genre: Historical fiction

Graphics: This story takes place in County Tipperary in 1766. The Irish venue isn’t clear from the cover image, which could be taken for many other places.

The building may be the seat of the town’s government, given its bell tower. While the first thing to catch the eye is the building, what then catches the eye are the scaffolds. Without them the image would just be an image of an old building, but with them the image begins to tell a story.

The cover is in black and white, with brown tones for the scaffolds and the building off to the right of the main building. This implies that the original photo was in color with the color then drained from most of it. The overall effect is one of dreariness. There is no bright, uplifting element in the image, and that may be precisely the sense of the book.

I mention what catches the eye first, but in that regard I refer only to the image. What actually catches the eye is the lone area of color, the seal in the lower left.

The small text indicates that this book was the winner in the literary fiction division of the Kindle Book Awards. That may sound like an official, Amazon-sponsored contest, but it’s not. It’s one of those contests where authors pay a submission fee and hope to be awarded a seal like this one.

The seal itself looks impressive, but it mars the cover. The seal would look fine on the back of the paperback version and in advertising, but it throws the cover off. It obscures part of the building and, worse, completely overshadows the building—and that scaffolds too. It largely destroys the aura the image otherwise would convey.

Besides, the seal is just too small to read. At thumbnail size one barely can make out the award year, 2018. Everything else is in microscopic text. Even at the Amazon sales page for the book the seal is illegible, until one clicks on the cover and sees the largest cover image.

What this means in practice is that the seal, as seen here, tells the viewer nothing other than that the book received some sort of award. That isn’t enough consolation for throwing off the cover.

Typography: The five lines of text come in four distinct fonts. The author name and series tagline are in one font, with the latter in a bolded version. Each of those lines is set against a background that has light-colored areas, and in those areas the thin-stroked font is difficult to read. The designer may have thought that this font evoked the era of the story, and that may be so, but timeline verisimilitude should take back seat to legibility. A font with thicker strokes should have been selected.

The title comes in three lines, each with its own font, with each font wildly distinct from the others. The main word, “Harps,” is read easily even though it is in white against a whitish background. What saves it—and the two following lines—is a drop shadow. The font itself looks like it might have used in the credits for a 1940s motion picture produced by Darryl F. Zanuck.

The final word of the title, “Willows,” is in a markedly different font. Whereas the font used for “Harps” has interior spaces, the one used for “Willows” is solid, and it’s solid gray. It’s as though the two words are unrelated.

Between them are sandwiched “Upon the,” rendered in italics, with the descender of the P falling behind the first L in “Willows.” That small three-dimensional effect is well done, but, when seen at a distance, “Upon the” seem cramped between the other two lines. These words, like “Harps,” are in white, which makes one wonder all the more why “Willows” isn’t.

All four words of the title should have been given a muted color, something more pronounced than the vague brown of the scaffold. These words need to stand out more than they do, and they need to do that without relying on the artificial respiration of drop shadows. The cover could use a little color—nothing garish, such as the seal (which should be removed) but enough to draw attention to the title.

Overall: In many ways this is an attractive cover, or at least it would have to be called that if not for the intrusive seal. It’s understandable that an author would want to tout the winning of an award, even if it’s a pay-for-hire award, but touting usually is best proclaimed elsewhere than on the front cover, particularly if the touting ends up distracting from an otherwise carefully composed image.

Case Study 69

Title: The Etruscan Mysteries

Author: Darren Foulk

Designer: Alexandra Brandt

Genre: Adventure, fantasy

Graphics: This appears to be the first book of an intended series. It takes place in the eighteenth century and, according to the book description at Amazon, is  partly a travelogue, partly a historical novel, and includes elements of  fantasy and even horror. The author seems to have combined multiple genres. The cover illustration suggests at least some of them.

The upper half of the cover is in deep red tones. It shows the silhouette of a man in a cape, presumably the protagonist. He is standing partway up steps that lead to an Indiana Jones-style gaping mouth carved into what might be the entrance to a cave. The mouth is aglow, and above the entrance are flaring nostrils and equally glowing eyes.

The spookiness factor is clear, but the image itself is muddy. Of the three partitions of the cover—image, series frame, and title and author frame—the image is the part that stands out least, even though it is largest. That’s because it’s too dark.

One understands the designer’s desire to maximize tension, but it has come at the expense of giving the image its proper due. The cave is so dark that the silhouette doesn’t stand out sufficiently, even the part of it in front of the glowing mouth.

I would lighten all the elements of the image, other than the silhouette, which of course should remain black. The image would retain an impression of darkness without actually being dark. By being lighter, it would show off its details better, particularly encrustations on the rocky face that give the rock the appearance of a face. At the current small size it’s hard to tell, but the rock actually shows cheeks. They would show up better if the image were lighter.

Typography: The title and author name are in the same font, with the exception of “The.” The text is easily read, but the letters are not well kerned. This is more obvious in the title than in the author name, which has wide kerning.

There are few pairs of letters in the title with equal spacing, or so it seems. Look at the final E and S: they actually touch one another. There is more space between the I and the E than between the R and the I. On the top line, the E-T combination is tighter than the T-R combination. Similarly for the C-A and A-N combinations.

The author name doesn’t line up squarely under the title. It’s a little too wide. It’s also a little too close to the bottom. On the other hand, the first word of the title, “The,” appears in the font used for the series information. That’s fine, but it seems cramped, lying too close to the blue partition.

These problems could be resolved if the title were reduced in height by about a third. It’s larger than it needs to be for legibility, and a reduction in its size would help focus attention on the image. Once the title is made smaller, its letters would have more room to stretch out and breathe, and the author name and “The” could be spaced further from their respective edges.

The series information, which appears in the blue area, is illegible at thumbnail size. The font looks as though it belongs to the eighteenth century, which is good, but it is hard to read, which is not good. Perhaps it could be compressed horizontally so that its size could be boosted a few points.

To achieve that happily, it might be necessary to enlarge the blue area, which could be done at the expense of the area below if the title were made more compact.

Overall: This cover is not far from being first-rate. Each element is fine in substance, but each needs work. This is true especially of the image, which ought to be the focal point of the cover but isn’t, partly because of its dull tones but partly because of the too-large title, which draws attention away from the image.

Case Study 67

Title: Uncover

Author: Amanda Linehan

Designer: Amanda Lineham

Genre: Young adult, suspense

Graphics: The background image is a forest scene, obtained from a stock photo company. What we see represents less than half of the original photo which, when seen as a whole, has a brighter feel. The portion used on the cover is darker. It shows a few rays of sunlight coming in from the left, but otherwise there is what some might consider a sense of gloom.

The story is written for teenagers. After her best friend is killed in a car accident, the heroine, according to the book’s description, finds “herself trapped in the dark, making all the wrong moves. In order to reclaim her freedom, she must find a way out of the darkness.”

Well, the cover has plenty of darkness, even though the photo was taken in the daytime, but does it convey a sense of being trapped or of having lost one’s freedom? Not really. It’s a lovely forest scene, but it could represent many things—or nothing much at all. To some it might have a sense of foreboding, to others a sense of delight at a new day.

If one already knows that the story involves a protagonist who feels trapped and unfree, then the image works, to a degree. But it should work without otherwise knowing what the plot is. The image should point to the plot, not the plot to the image.

Beyond that, the forest scene gives no indication of genre. Yes, this might be a place through which someone runs in fear. It equally might be a place where a thru-hiker spent the night, as explained in his how-I-hiked-the-Appalachian Trail memoir. It might be any of a number of things, since it doesn’t specify genre.

When self-published authors design their own covers—and this is especially true for works of fiction—they often, as here, select photos or illustrations that remind them of scenes in their books. To them, the images fit, but the fit won’t be obvious to prospective readers who otherwise don’t know what the books are about.

The lack of genre-sense in graphics can be overcome, in part, by using a tagline that makes the genre clear, but such a tagline should be supplementary to genre-explicit graphics, not in substitution for them.

Typography: The title, “Uncover,” covers too much space. It comes too near the left and right edges, thus running the risk of having its right end snipped off if the paperback version is trimmed too closely—something that happens with distressing frequency at printers. The letters of the title have been too widely kerned and should be moved closer together, with the spaces between them being reduced by one-third.

The letters seem to have a light glow or haze added to them, perhaps to give an ethereal sense. Whatever the intention, the glow or haze makes the letters stand out less from the background, not more, and so should be eliminated on that ground alone.

There is another reason they should go: they conflict with the rays of sunlight coming in from the left and with the gentle lightening in the background. The foreground is darker than the background, and it should be kept that way. The glow or haze brings unneeded light to the text and thus to the foreground.

Like the title, the author name is spread too widely and should be brought in. It is in the same font as the title but should be in a plainer, sans serif font, so the title will stand out more. The new font should have thicker strokes, since the current font struggles against the busy, if dark, forest duff.

The most problematic text is the tagline at the top. It is too near the top, is set on too many lines, is in the wrong font, is too small, and includes unnecessary punctuation.

I would set the text in two lines: “What She Went Looking for/ Isn’t What She Found”. This makes the reading easier and keeps the two parts of the sentence together, each on a separate line. Notice that I have omitted the ellipsis, which adds nothing. I even have omitted a period at the end of what normally would be considered a sentence that requires one. Here, the sentence acts more like a headline and so should not have concluding punctuation.

By resetting the tagline this way—reducing it from four lines to two—half the space is freed up. The tagline can be moved away from the top by putting its new first line where the present third line is. In the process, it should be put in the same sans serif font as the author name, and it should be doubled in height. This would leave it a little smaller than the author name, which is appropriate.

Being smaller and being set against a busier part of the image than is the author name, the subtitle may need to be bolded to stand out sufficiently. At its present size, and with its present font, it is illegible at thumbnail size.

Overall: This cover is pretty, but its graphics fail to explain what the book is about. The book even could be mistaken for non-fiction. The solution lies in using an image that indicates genre. This is all the more important when a book’s title is ambiguous, as here. “Uncover” could suggest many things to many readers. Their thoughts need to be focused, instantly, by graphics that point the way.

Case Study 65

Title: Babylon’s Downfall

Author: M. J. Logue

Designer: Rosemary Tree Press

Genre: Historical fiction

Graphics: This novel is based on a military campaign that occurred during England’s Civil War (1642-1651). Can you tell that from the cover? I can’t either.

The bottom of the cover shows a rider in silhouette. He’s brandishing a torn flag. Perhaps he’s escaping from a lost battle, one of the few survivors. Behind him is a lowering sky. Above him is—what? The clouds behind him are gray, and above them are clouds that are blue, but above those clouds? I enlarged the image to try to make out the rest of the cover, and still I failed.

At the top center and top right are sprigs from bushes. They seem to be taken from photographs. Below them the cover appears to be painted in, down to the level of the blue clouds. This is an odd procedure, having photographic realism at top and bottom separated by an un-photographic and painted-on middle.

Running from the upper left to the center are the hilt and part of the blade of a sword, but they end in something that I can’t make out. Whatever it is doesn’t seem to be a scabbard or a gloved hand or a helmet, but it looks metallic. If a viewer has to squint at part of an image and still can’t make it out, the problem likely is with the image rather than with the viewer.

Nothing graphical suggests either ancient Babylon or a modern (even seventeenth-century) variant of it. When the downfall of a city or empire is mentioned, you expect to see ruins or buildings in flames or falling towers—at least some evidence of destruction—but all we have here is a lone, distant rider, a few hints at foliage, and a cartoonish sword.

Nothing about the cover’s look hints at the book’s genre. The sword and rider might imply historical fiction, but they equally might imply true history or a fantasy novel or even a thriller.

Typography: The absence of a genre indication in the graphics means that one ought to be supplied by way of the text. What’s needed is a tagline that accomplishes that, but there is no tagline. All we have are title and author name. A tagline as bland as “A Historical Novel” would help, though something more explicit, such as “A Story Set in England’s Civil War” or “A 1644 Military Tale” would be better.

The same mushy font is used for the title and author name, the main distinction being that in the title the letters are outlined in black, a silent acknowledgment that the letters otherwise wouldn’t be legible against the muddled background. The letters aren’t particularly legible even with the outlining.

All the text is white, but parts of the background are white too. This makes some letters nearly disappear. Notice how the G in the author name becomes indistinct. The L and O in “Babylon” would have been lost entirely without the black lines around them. For clarity’s sake the title should have been in a different color, perhaps  yellow-brown, though that tone appears nowhere else in the image.

The two words of the title are not quite centered above one another, and they are shifted too far to the right. The “air” on the left is more than twice that on the right.

Worse, the title letters are in three sizes. The B in “Babylon” is so large that it draws undue attention to itself. The remaining letters of that word are so relatively small that they receive too little attention. Despite the oversized B, it’s the second word of the title that capture’s one eye. There is no obvious reason why it should, and so it would have been better if all the title letters had been the same size.

The author name is legible enough, but there is no space between the initials. The author is British, and omitting the space between initials in a person’s name is a British typographic custom, but it’s not a custom in American typography, and to Americans the absence of a space looks like an oversight.

For the sake of American readers, the space should have been included; after all, it’s likely that there will be more purchasers in the U.S. than in Britain, not just because the U.S. is more populous but because, in absolute numbers, there probably are more Americans than Britons who are interested in seventeenth-century British history.

Overall: This may be enticing historical fiction, but few potential readers will find out. They won’t get past the cover to the opening text. They won’t discover whether this is a story they are attracted to, if they find the cover off-putting.

Case Study 63

Title: Twelve Feet Down

Author: John Penteros

Designer: Christian Fuenfhausen

Genre: Young adult

Graphics: I admit I’m not sure of this book’s genre. Its protagonist is a thirteen-year-old who lost his leg and his father in a car accident. The author’s niece wrote a review of the book and said she liked the story, so perhaps young adult is the correct categorization.

However that may be, the illustration shows key elements of the story.

Even though it isn’t the most prominent thing on the cover, the prosthetic leg is what captures one’s attention first. The backhoe’s bucket is full of dirt. It pulled up a scraggly root. Did it just unearth this prosthesis too? Does the leg remain attached to a body hidden in the dirt, thus implying that this is a murder mystery or a thriller? Or was the replacement leg somehow lost or buried by the protagonist, who now has it dug up?

There is a scary look to the image—but also a humorous look. Which gives the right sense to the story? It’s hard to say. We can’t tell from the image alone what the book’s genre is, and that’s a failing. Even after reading the book’s description I can’t tell for sure.

That said, the image nevertheless is arresting. We see only the business end of the backhoe, which has been painted in camouflage. The descending root and crumbling dirt slightly obscure parts of the title. There is a sense of motion. The backhoe is rendered almost photographically; its shadow raises it out from the surface of the cover.

These are effective if subtle elements. Even though the graphics fail to identify genre, they do proclaim cleverness and even whimsy.

Typography: The text forms a square that occupies slightly less than half the cover. Well, not quite a square. While the three lines of the title are the same length, the author name is slightly wider. I would have moved its end inward a little, to line up with the text above. Then I would have moved the whole block of text a little leftward. As it stands, it’s off center, the left-hand margin being one-and-a-third times as wide as the right-hand margin.

The author name seems too close to the bottom. How to fix that?

If the whole block of text were raised, “Twelve” would be largely hidden by the backhoe’s bucket. If the backhoe were raised to accommodate the text block, part of the backhoe’s arm would be lost. One solution would be to compress the three title lines vertically by about a tenth. The words would remain as legible as they are now, but the author name would be given as much space below it as it would have to its sides.

The distressed look of the words works well with the backhoe. To me the white text looks like old, worn lettering on an asphalt street. The dirt-brown of the author name, though, seems less prominent than it ought to be. I’d have chosen a greenish hue from the arm of the backhoe, thus putting that tone toward the top and at the bottom of the cover, for balance. But one couldn’t say the present coloration is wrong.

Perhaps the designer left off a genre indicator because there isn’t any obvious place to put it. It can’t go at the top without overlaying the backhoe. One wants to see it beneath the title, but that would make three textual elements—title, tagline, author name—stacked atop one another, and that would look heavy, and it might be difficult to move from one to the next smoothly.

I can propose no good solution for the placement of such a tagline (tiny text in one of the upper corners would look terrible), so perhaps all one can do is hope the intriguing image induces people to go to the book’s description page to learn what it’s about.

Overall: This is a good cover, despite a few limitations. The more I look at it, the more I think that, even though the illustration is eye-catching, what catches my eye yet more insistently is the bold title. Those three words balance off the mechanical top half of the cover and make a prospective buyer wonder what might be found in a hole a dozen feet deep.

Case Study 62

Title: Basically Good People

Author: Will Martin

Designer: Paper and Sage

Genre: Humor

Graphics: This is an anthology of seven stories involving a uniform cast of characters. The setting is a fictitious small town in Missouri. The author says these “linked stories [are] reminiscent of the unforgettable characters and sense of place portrayed in stories by Fannie Flagg and Garrison Keillor.” Does the illustration indicate that?

Hard to say. It does show what must be a small town—the street appears to be dirt rather than asphalt—with a blue Ford pickup that seems to be parked within an intersection. Maybe that’s to suggest the humorous angle.

The only reason I know this book belongs in the humor genre is that I consulted the book description at Amazon. I otherwise couldn’t tell. The illustration doesn’t clearly indicate the genre. There is no action (there are no people), nothing threatening (such as a looming storm), nothing particularly odd. One might dismiss some genres, such as thriller and horror, but then one is at something of a loss.

Typography: The author name, in a black sans serif font set against the light-brown street, is read easily, no matter how small the cover image, but it looks almost too stark for the scene. I would have looked for a sans serif font that had a little curvature to the letters.

The title clearly is hand drawn—but why? The word “Good” is bolded, or at least its last three letters seem to be, even the lazy D, but again—why? All the letters are capitalized, except for the I, but (once more)—why?

I can’t avoid the impression that considerable care was taken with this cover, but then the time ran out, and the designer used a marker pen that happened to be handy. I’m sure that’s not how the title was produced, but to me it looks like a rush job, even though I suppose the designer took pains to effect this look.

Certainly the title is readable, even though it’s blue on blue, but I would have tried another color, one taken perhaps from part of one of the buildings—but not the lighter shades of red.

There already is plenty of blue in the illustration: not just the sky, which takes up more than half the space, but the pickup, which is the most prominent element, and the cornice of the yellow building. Perhaps a burnt orange, as seen at the lower corner of the yellow building, would work.

Since this is not just a book of humor but an anthology, some reference to those facts should have been included, particularly since the illustration doesn’t indicate the genre clearly. A tagline could be set beneath the title, something like “A Lighthearted Rural Anthology.”

Overall: Despite the several problems mentioned above, this is an attractive cover. Its artistic style is uncommon, having an almost Impressionistic sense. At a time when many cover illustrations seem to have been done by the same hand, even when they haven’t been, it’s refreshing to come across a pleasant design, even one that could use further attention.

Case Study 61

Title: The Stationmaster’s Cottage

Author: Phillipa Nefri Clark

Designer: Steam Power Studios

Genre: Romance

Graphics: It is not often one comes across a book cover that actually looks three-dimensional. Oh, there are plenty of fantasy or thriller covers that have three-dimensional aspects, but this cover has the three-dimensionality of a photograph. That’s a rare thing.

The image lies in three layers too. The furthest back appears to be a table or a something that looks more rocky than wooden. The middle layer is the parchment, rolled at the top and bottom and burned on the edges. The parchment’s shadow suggests that it floats an inch off the surface.

Then there are the modern additions: photograph, key, rings, ribbon. The ribbon ties the rings together and itself is sandwiched between the photo and the key. Somehow, it is implied, these things are connected with one another. The building in the photo must be the cottage in the title. The key? It doesn’t look like a house key, so it might belong to another building—perhaps the station itself.

In terms of symbolism and place, this cover excels. The keys make it clear it’s a romance. The old-timey look to the parchment, key, and cottage suggest that, even if the action takes place chiefly in the present, an earlier era is part of the story. The graphics alone make this a book that even a non-reader of romance novels likely would open.

Typography: The cover has only two textual elements, the title and the author name. The first thing that might pop into a viewer’s mind is that the title couldn’t have been set in a standard font. Given its flowing swirls, it had to be hand drawn—or was it? Look at the letters carefully. Each E is exactly the same. Likewise each T, O, and A. Real handwriting can’t produce such uniformity.

However the title was made, one has to say it looks almost perfect—not quite, but almost. The grand swirl at the top crosses the final S in “Stationmaster’s,” somewhat obscuring that letter. Despite that, the word is legible. The whole title is legible, even at thumbnail size.

The same can’t be said of the author name. Parts of several letters are hidden behind the photo and ribbon, for no obvious purpose.

The ribbon ought to have been moved up and to the right a smidgen to give air to the A and the K, and the photo should have been rotated slightly to reveal the L and I. When the image is at full size, all those letters are clear, but when it’s at a small size they aren’t.

Overall: This is close to being an errorless cover.

If the rings weren’t present, the genre wouldn’t be clear, and a tagline would have been necessary. I suppose someone might wish for a more explicit indication of the genre, but I wouldn’t call the cover’s subtle way to be a problem.

Really, the only weakness—and it is a small one—is the obscuring of a few letters.

Case Study 57

Title: Sparks

Authors: Matthew Cash and E. M. Dehaney

Designer: Matt Hill

Genre: Horror

Graphics: This is an anthology of fifteen stories, each having something to do with electricity and most of them being in the horror genre, though others qualify as science fiction or fantasy.

The illustration makes it doubly clear that this book involves things electrical. Not only are there high-tension electrical transmission towers, but the towers are being stuck by bolts of lightning. It’s a double whammy.

On closer inspection it becomes evident that, while the towers may have been taken from an actual photograph, the lightning bolts have been drawn in—not, one suspects, because the designer couldn’t find images of towers being struck by lightning (those are easily found) but because he wanted the lightning to illuminate not just the towers but the title.

This works effectively: we see a shaft of lightning sizzling down the right side of the A, and the only true sparks on the cover fall not so much from a struck tower as from the struck letter.

The cover image is well balanced, with bright lightning in the upper-left quadrant and a near-black tower in the upper- and lower-right quadrants. There is enough dark landscape at the bottom for the author names and a tagline, though there isn’t as useful a spot for the subtitle. Despite that inconvenience, the visuals are effective.

Typography: The textual treatment is quite fine. The lone title word, “Sparks,” stands out well, even though its color isn’t bright. The letters have been given a mottled appearance that makes them more interesting than they would have been if shown plain. It’s as though they have been pitted by repeated lightning strikes. The most concentrated mottling is on the right arm of the A, now under electrical attack.

The subtitle is not as legible as the title. It picks up its color from the background sky, and in some spots it is hard to read against the clouds. Perhaps the words’ color could have been more saturated.

However that may be, the subtitle gives a sense of what the book is about, and such a sense needs to be given because the one-word title, standing on its own, could work on a multiplicity of genres. A book titled Sparks could be, as here, a horror story, or it could be a romance, or the story of a dog named Sparks, or a biography of Alessandro Volta.

But does “An Electric Anthology” say enough? The one thing it says clearly is that this book is an anthology. The ambiguous “Electric” leads one to suspect that the anthology consists of works of fiction rather than non-fiction, as in “I Sing the Body Electric” (title of a short story collection by Ray Bradbury and, before that, of a poem by Walt Whitman).

But “Electric” isn’t enough to convey to us the book’s genre. That could be done by adding a tagline at the top of the cover or, in the same place, a short blurb from a well-known writer of horror stories. Imagine something like “‘Shocking horror stories.’ —Stephen King” (though probably a lesser-known author would have to suffice).

The names of the co-authors and co-editors stand out sufficiently from the dark backdrop. The line above their names, “Compiled and Edited by,” may be necessary to head off the mistaken idea that this is an anthology of works written only by them. If so, this becomes an exception to the rule of not using “by” when referring to an author.

In almost all cases it’s obvious that a name on a cover is the name of the author. Prefixing “by” does nothing but tell the reader that the author is an amateur (the designer likewise). On this cover, though, the use of “by” is justified and even helpful, as part of a phrase that explains who’s who.

Overall: This cover has many strengths and almost no weaknesses. I would give it an A-.

Case Study 55

Title: New York Orphan

Author: Rosemary J. Kind

Designer: Magic Owl Design

Genre: Historical fiction

Graphics: This book is about an Irish immigrant boy whose parents die while fleeing the potato famine. In pre-Civil War America he is put on a train, relocated westward, and shuffled off to a status little better than slavery. How much of this does the cover convey?

The graphics consist of three photographic images. The most arresting is the lower one, which takes up about half the cover.

A dirty-faced boy peers through a hole in a gunny sack, the quintessential repository of grain or potatoes on nineteenth-century farms. The fingers of his right hand enlarge the opening, and his eyes seem filled with inquisitiveness and apprehension. This image works well with the book’s theme because it shows the orphan of the title, his dirtiness suggesting a difficult and unhappy childhood.

What about the other photos?

The locomotive sets the time frame. Clearly this isn’t a twentieth-century story. It takes place much earlier. But if we don’t know the gist of the story—that children were transported long distances by train, to get them away from overcrowded orphanages in New York and other port cities—would it have meaning for us? I don’t think so, unless there were a subtitle that made reference to the train. I would have left this photo off.

Similarly for the third photo. It takes a moment to realize that this building (which is a grain repository, according to a sign that can be read only when the cover is enlarged) must be at a pier because immediately behind it we see the rigging of a sailing ship. The building on its own doesn’t tell us the story’s era—such buildings existed well into the last century—but the partial image of the ship would, if we could make it out easily.

I suppose the third photo is meant to suggest immigrants’ voyages, but, as with the photo of the locomotive, it doesn’t do that unless one already knows something of the story. Thus I would omit this photo also.

That would leave only the photo of the boy, but that is how it should be. It far and away is the focal point, and the eye shouldn’t be drawn away to other images.

A viewer can’t tell whether the boy’s image, before being cropped, included other material above or below what we see. If it did, there may be room for the text atop additional portions of the gunny-sack. If not, a good designer could make graphical transitions above and below what we now see.

Typography: The cover has but two textual elements, the title and the author name. They are in the same spare font, which works well for the historical period. Assuming the reconfiguration of the images as mentioned above, so that the gunny sack is extended above and below the current image, the text would overlay the gunny sack.

That likely would require that the author name be set in bold because the sack alternates light and dark areas and thus the present thinner letters might not stand out well enough against parts of the new image. The title probably can be kept as it is, since its size is much larger, but its letters may need to be bolded also.

Two things are missing from the cover, an indication of genre and a tagline suggesting elements of the story.

The former can be handled by adding something as simple as “A Historical Novel.” Without such an indication, one could take the book to be social history, since it otherwise looks like books of that sort.

(In fact, even as the cover now stands, it reminds me of the cover of James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the Ballantine edition of which featured a pensive and impoverished Appalachian child on the cover.)

A genre indicator is needed, but this cover needs something more. It needs a tagline that hints at the flight from famine, the forced train ride, and the immigrant boy’s struggles while living in near-servitude. Such a tagline should be put at the top of the cover, while the genre indicator should be put below the title.

Overall: The upper two photos try to convey elements of the storyline, but they don’t succeed because their significance can’t be known until the viewer is told something the cover remains silent about. That silence could be overcome through a judicious tagline, but the image of the boy is so powerful that I would focus the entire cover on him, leaving off the other, distracting photos.

The storyline still would need a bit of explication, and the genre would need to be made clear, but the result would be a cover that would fascinate anyone who looked at it.

Case Study 54

Title: The Lover’s Portrait

Author: Jennifer S. Alderson

Designer: GoOnWrite

Genre: Mystery

Graphics: Let’s start with the background, which appears to be wallpaper with off-white elements set against black. The lower part of the wallpaper has been darkened to accommodate the author name.

What sort of wall would use such wallpaper? Not likely a museum, where walls usually are in neutral tones so as not to draw attention away from the artwork that is hung on or placed before them. Not likely a home either, since the overall weight of the wallpaper is dark, even uninviting. And not likely an office, for similar reasons.

Thus I fail to grasp which venue is intended by the background. The only time I have seen wallpaper remotely similar has been in the restrooms of hotels with lobbies decorated in Nouveau Garish. I’m quite sure that is not what the designer intended to bring to our minds.

Let’s move outward, to the picture frame. This is the key element of the cover.

Even though the frame is filled, it isn’t filled with a painting. Words are within the frame, but we realize the frame actually is empty and signifies lost or stolen art. Unfortunately, the edges of the frame are hard to distinguish from the dark and busy background. That reduces the three-dimensional effect of the frame.

The frame sits so close to the left and right borders that it doesn’t pop enough from the background. Perhaps the designer wanted to maximize the frame’s interior real estate—a worthy goal, but I would reduce the size of the frame by about a fifth. That would put some air around it, and it still would leave plenty of room for interior text.

It would have been better if the background had been simpler. For interest’s sake, it still could feature a gradient: lighter to darker, working downward. A less fussy background would give even more emphasis to the frame and its emptiness.

Typography: Four colors are used for the text: white, black, red, and gold. That is about two colors too many. With so many colors, no one color stands out. Let’s start at the top.

The book’s first tagline is “One painting. Two claimants. Three murders.” Ah, a murder mystery—at least that and maybe something more. Except you hardly can read these words, which are very small and are set against that busy background.

If the frame were made smaller, as suggested above, it could be lowered, allowing room for three centered lines of text at the top, with each line of text about twice as tall as what we see here. Probably the text would need to be bolded, to stand out better against the background (assuming the background stays as it is).

The title is set in a stencil font—but why? If the missing artwork were packed in a wooden crate, one might expect lettering on the crate to be stenciled, but there is no crate here. What we see are a wall and a picture frame. The stenciling seems gratuitous. Given the title, which suggests romance, I would propose a font with notable serifs and perhaps a flowing initial L.

The book’s genre tagline, “An Art Mystery,” lets us know what to expect. It’s helpful for the prospective buyer, but the use of red draws too much attention to it. Of all the text on the cover, it’s the least important. The other tagline, not this one, provides a hint of action; this one provides categorization. That’s important, but it’s not as important, so I would have put this line in black.

To my eye, the most prominent textual element isn’t the title, large and unusual though it is, but the author name, which is just as large and, with its gold lettering placed against black, incapable of being overlooked.

The author name would look better and more professional if it were on one line, in a sans serif font (leave the serifs to the title: all the other text should be sans serif), in all caps, and in a condensed version set bold. Aim for a height equal to the lowercase letters presently used. Lastly, I would change the author name to white, leaving gold for just the frame.

Overall: In terms of what this cover says, it’s fine. It has an intriguing title, the obligatory author name, and two taglines which, in combination, make clear what sort of book this is. The coloration and arrangement of the text need work, and further work needs to be done on the background image.

All that said, the concept is good: an empty frame implies missing art, and that’s what the story hinges on.

Case Study 51

Title: The Moonstone

Author: Evelyne Contant

Designer: Boudesign

Genre: Fantasy

Graphics: Remove the text and filigree from the cover—then what do you have? A pendant suspended in space, against a hazy background. What genre does this imply? Probably none. It could imply fantasy, the genre this novel actually belongs to, but it could imply several other genres of fiction and might even imply a non-fiction genre, such as gemstone making. In other words, the cover doesn’t succeed in announcing what kind of book this is.

The most prominent part of the image isn’t the moonstone and isn’t its case or its chain. It’s the glow in the background, which draws attention to itself without setting off the pendant adequately.

And what about the chain? It disappears under the design that separates the image from the title. It would have been more effective if the chain had disappeared off the top of the cover, perhaps becoming progressively attenuated as it did so.

The moonstone itself fails to stand out against the background or even from its case. The background “haze” should have been a different color, less bright and less quick to fade into the black that occupies too much of the cover.

The strongest graphical elements are the four filigrees. Usually such devices act as partial frames, focusing attention on an object at their center, but here the three large filigrees seem to float aimlessly, while the fourth one, under the title, has no clear purpose except to indicate that the title isn’t the chain—a mistake few people are likely to make.

All four filigrees should be removed. By doing so, more space would be available for enlarging the pendant image and enlarging and rearranging the text.

Typography: Almost always the title is the largest text on a cover. The most common exception occurs where the author is famous and his name is enough to effect sales. Look at novels displayed at airport book stores. You’ll see that the ones in the eye-level racks sport tremendously large author names, with titles given secondary status.

But those are exceptions. On most covers, the largest text is found in the title.

Nt here. It may seem that “Enchantment” is the title, but actually it’s the series title. There are three books in the series, and this is the first. Its title isn’t “Enchantment” but “The Moonstone,” something that doesn’t become apparent until you look at the book’s sales page.

It would have been better to make “The Moonstone” large and “Enchantment” smaller and better yet to make it clear that “Enchantment” is the title of the series, using a line such as this: “Book 1 in the Enchantment Series.”

The author name is illegible at thumbnail size. Even at the sales page at Amazon it can’t be deciphered. You have to click on the cover to bring up a still larger image.

The author name ought to be as large as the present title. Since the title font is artistic, the font for the author name should be simple, preferably sans serif, and the text should be set in all caps, perhaps with the letters widely kerned. The new font should not have thick lines because the title font itself has lines that are not thick.

Overall: This cover may have taken the designer a fair amount of time to put together, but it gives the unfortunate impression of being slapdash. The four filigree elements, in particular, look as though they were pasted on quickly, with little thought about their purpose and how they might draw undue attention to themselves.

The cover’s greatest failing is not making clear the genre. To some it will say fantasy, but to others it will say romance or science fiction or something else. Someone might even mistake it for Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, the first widely-read detective novel.

This kind of oversight—not making genre clear—can be deadly for sales. If someone is looking for a fantasy novel but thinks this book falls into a different category, a sale will be lost.

Case Study 48

Title: James and the Rainy Day

Author: Philip Blows

Designer: Gareth Lucas

Genre: Children’s fiction

Graphics: It’s hard to find fault with this delightful image. Although one might expect rain to suggest disappointment or sadness, it’s clear that the weather is unable to ruin this boy’s bright spirits—or even those of the two birds, who seem to be smiling also.

Of course, the boy is wildly out of proportion to his ship. In real life he hardly would stand above its railing, and the sail would be above his head. No matter. This is a children’s book, and verisimilitude isn’t expected. What is expected is an attractive image that invokes wonder, and that’s what this image does.

If there is an incongruity that might be caught by a young reader, it might be that on this rainy day the rain seems far in the background. None of it is hitting the boy or the ship. Perhaps that’s part of the storyline, but I wonder if the “Rainy” part of the title might be more effective if splatters covered the whole scene.

Typography: The title and author name seem to be hand drawn. If so, this is a cover on which hand-drawn lettering works. The title is on a billowing sail. I wish the letters had been shaped more to indicate the billowing, being worked more into the bulging shape of the sail.

The only problematic part of the title is the coloration. The lettering, here and on the author name, is the only dull thing on the cover. Perhaps red, taken from the boy’s bandana, might have worked for the title. It certainly would stand out better. Even solid black would be an improvement. The gray just seems too subdued.

A similar comment can be made regarding the coloration of the author name. Instead of red, perhaps it could be in a blue taken from the boy’s pants.

The “O” in “Blows” is filled in. There is no doughnut hole. This parallels the treatment of “A” in the title, but the solid “O,” being hand-drawn, might be taken to be an error in drawing, as though the artist’s pen leaked.

What about “by” before the author name? Almost always this is a mistake and a mark of an amateur effort. (You never see “by” in books from the Big 5 publishers.) In this case, though, I’d give “by” a pass because the young reader might misread the author name otherwise.

He might read “Philip Blows” not as a first name and surname but as part of a sentence, as in “Philip blows up the balloon.” If he takes the surname as a verb, even momentarily, that is an indication that the cover needs adjustment, and the usually improper “by” may be just the trick.

Overall: If this cover were made before the plot of the book even were thought out, on its own it could inspire a storyline. It’s that attractive. The suggested changes are minor. The cover works as it is, even if it could work a little better with a tweak here and a tweak there.

Case Study 46

Title: Tale of the Music-Thief

Author: Earl T. Roske

Designer: Aubrey Watt

Genre: Fantasy

Graphics: I admit a bias. What attracted me to this cover was the lute. I play a similar-looking instrument, the baroque mandolino, and I pay attention when I see such instruments portrayed in art. Here the lute draws the eye even more than does the young woman, but both are nearly overpowered by the red glow of the forest.

The chief source of light is in the distance, but the lute doesn’t appear in shadow, as one might expect, but clearly has a separate light source highlighting it. And then there is a third light source, the glow around the crystal at the bottom. What does that represent?

I would leave out the crystal, even if that item appears in the story and plays a significant role. None of that can be known by a prospective purchaser, so for him the crystal and its glow add nothing. Likewise with the green framing at the top and bottom. The framing serves no obvious purpose, and it clashes in color with the red of the forest.

With those items removed, the title can be lowered, revealing more of the main part of the image. Similarly, the author name can be raised slightly, giving a little air between it and the woman’s head.

Typography: There seem to be two distinct fonts here, one used for the author name and the words “of the,” the other used for the remainder of the title, but even that remainder shows up in two variations. Notice how the letters in “Thief” differ in their strokes from those in “Tale” and “Music.” Each letter in “Thief” has an elongated serif—but why? That variant adds nothing to legibility.

It isn’t obvious why “of the” appears in a font slightly different from the rest of the title. Those little words are in off-white rather than the gold of the other three title words, and they aren’t centered vertically between “Tale” and “Music.” 

A final mystery is why the title includes a hyphen. You don’t see a hyphen in such terms as “car thief” or “jewel thief,” so why here? The hyphen is another gratuitous element.

The entire title should be in one font and in just one variant of that font (the one with fewer filigrees), while the author name shouldn’t be in its present font, which is too similar to the other one, but in a sans serif font and in a lighter tone, closer to white, in order to make the author name stand out more from the background.

Beyond all that, the three main title words should be reduced in size. They don’t need to be this large to be read, and in square inches they occupy more space than do the main elements of the graphics, the woman and the lute. While that size change is being made, “of the” should be boosted a couple of points.

Overall: The illustration is good, but it is surrounded by extraneous objects (the crystal and the framing) and cramped by text that is too close and too large. Despite these problems, the cover conveys the genre well enough.

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 40

Title: The Zero Hour

Author: Ryan Schow

Designer: Deranged Doctor Design

Genre: Thriller, young adult

Graphics: This is one of seven books in a post-apocalypse series. The covers follow a pattern: somber colors (brown and gray predominate) with a few highlights, a usually distant shot of a damaged cityscape, an industrial look to the featured parts of the illustration, and carefully drawn architectural details, such as the girders on the bridge in this cover.

The author name always appears at the top, the title and series tagline always low, and the bottom of the cover always features a V-shaped area of metallic parts with a globe in the center.

These elements, or ones much like them, are common to the genre. At a glance a reader knows this is neither a cozy romance nor a self-help guide to carpentry. What isn’t clear is the niche audience to which these books are marketed, in this case older teenagers and early twenty-somethings.

That becomes evident from reading the opening pages, where the heroine is said to be eighteen and her thoughts and language echo those of her real-life cohort. This isn’t to say all the characters are of her age, but the book’s intended audience seems fairly clear.

An older fan of post-apocalyptic novels might set the book aside on discovering the ages of the main characters, but that won’t happen until the cover is gotten past and some of the text is read, which is to say that the cover will have succeeded in its chief task: getting people past it. In terms of marketing, the covers in this series likely are effective.

A persnickety observer might see a few incongruous notes in this cover and some of the others. For example, here the main element is a bridge. Its underpinnings and distant towers already appear rickety, yet its lights remain on. One might expect that electrical connections to the bridge would be the first to go in a disaster, but by leaving the lights on the designer has provided dozens of small highlights that make the shadows all the more effective.

Typography: I have mentioned the regularity of text placement among the seven books. Let’s consider the three elements of each of the covers: title, subtitle, author name.

The title is in a quasi-steampunk font that evokes the 1920s. Notice the high bar on the E, a common sight in lettering of that era. Here the letters are heavily textured, yet that doesn’t make them hard to read. It isn’t so much that they are three-dimensional, though the edges are lightly rounded, but that they look distressed or damaged by fire or projectiles. They imply war. That implication fits perfectly with the subtitle, The Last War Series: Book 2.

The subtitle’s letters are barely a fourth as tall as the letters of the title, yet they are legible. The designer has placed them against a lightly-textured but dark background. They stand out easily, and they are in the same font as the title.

Only with the author name do I have a quibble. Its font has prominent serifs—notice particularly the foot of the R—and doesn’t evoke either the 1920s or disaster.

The letters are legible, being set in a light gray against an almost black sky, but if the author name alone were seen on a cover-in-progress, one might expect the book to be revealed as a romance or literary fiction rather than as a thriller. I wouldn’t call this a poor choice of font, but I would have looked for something else.

Overall: That is a small quibble indeed. I suspect few people will see the slight disconnect between the font for the author name and the remainder of the cover, which, taken overall, has to be considered a success.

The thing that almost compels success in such a cover is the designer’s insistence on keeping to genre. True, there are hundreds of thriller covers that look like this one. There may be thousands. But each makes clear, at first glance, the genre.

In this series of seven, the author has been served well by his designer.

Case Study 35

Title: Double Edged Blade

Author: Blake Banner

Designer: Ebook Launch

Genre: Thriller

Graphics: As the tagline at the bottom indicates, this book is part of a series—at least seven titles so far. Each cover is in the same style, with the same layout of textual elements.

The graphics here hardly can be faulted. In the background is a scarred, textured surface that suggests confusion or disarray. The chief image is of a man, presumably the protagonist, holding a gun. I have two quibbles about him.

First, his left shoulder precisely meets the right margin of the cover. It’s the precision that bothers me. I’d have preferred either that the shoulder were made to extend beyond the cover or that it were given a little space from the cover, at least as much as the barrel of the gun is in from the left margin.

But even the gun is too close to the margin, I think. I suppose the designer wanted to maximize space for the smaller, interior image. I understand that, but the larger image seems cramped because it abuts the two margins.

That’s quibble No. 1. Quibble No. 2 concerns the man’s face. When I first saw the image, at thumbnail size, I thought the man was facing away from the viewer. It took me a moment to see the reflection on his right cheek and forehead. I would have asked the designer to lighten the man’s face somewhat (and perhaps the gun also), while keeping the remainder of his body as nearly a silhouette.

From the main image alone we understand that this is a thriller. It’s the interior image that provides us further information, and it makes this a double-message cover.

Half a dozen men are shown, holding weapons in what perhaps is the Arizona desert (clue: the saguaro cactus, which the man next to it imitates by holding up his arms). These men are the bad guys. They are heavily armed, while the hero has only a handgun. Thus the cover tells us that the hero is up against long odds.

Typography: In each book in the series, the positioning of text is as in this cover. Here the author name is in black, and the letters are kerned outward. I would have left a little more space between the author name and the man’s head and a little more above the author name. That could have been accomplished by moving the main image down slightly.

The title is in two lines. In each book of the series the word in the bottom line is much larger than the word or words in the upper line. The bottom line always is a noun, the upper line a descriptor. This puts emphasis on the most important word in the title.

Note how the designer flipped color tones, almost producing a photographic-negative effect, where text goes from being over the man’s body to being over the background. This gives a sense of motion or tension without making the text difficult to read. This technique has to be used with care. I have seen other covers where the flipping of tones made the text nearly indecipherable.

At the bottom is the series tagline. Usually series taglines include sequence numbering: “Book 1,” “Book 2,” and so on. Here only the name of the series is given. This may be smart marketing. Looking at a single cover, you can’t tell whether the book is the first or last in the series.

I presume the volumes don’t build on one another, so there isn’t a reason to read the books in any particular order. The author will be happy for a new reader to take up any of the books—whichever cover appeals to him most—and hopes that the purchase of one title will lead to the purchase of others in the series, in any order.

Overall: This is an effective color, from its gold/brown palette to its clever use of exterior and interior images. Few prospective purchasers will notice the imperfections I point out.

Once a cover treatment reaches the ninetieth percentile, so to speak, an author rightly can be satisfied. Small improvements can be made, but few people will notice them, and their absence likely will result in almost no diminution of sales. At this level of artistry imperfections are noted more for art’s sake than for sales’ sake.

Case Study 34

Title: His Perfect Love

Author: Sharon K. Connell

Designer: Sharon K. Connell

Genre: Religious fiction

Graphics: From the description at Amazon, this book seems to be part mystery, part thriller, part religious reflection. Having uncovered a troubling secret, the protagonist is on the run, both from her pursuer and from God. Will she elude the one and return to the other?

If that is a fair precís of the book, one might ask why none of it suggested by the cover photo. The photo itself is nice—but perhaps for a book about wildlife. Nothing in the image leads a prospective buyer to think a woman is running scared and that problems external and internal need to be resolved if the story is to have a happy ending.

Another failure of the image is that it tells us nothing about the book’s genre. The snowy egret and its watery background don’t imply “thriller” or “religion.” They don’t even imply “fiction.” They imply little more than “pretty.”

A common mistake among indie authors who design their own covers is that they take images that appeal to them, for whatever reasons, and think the images must appeal to others and that that will be enough. It won’t be. The images indeed may appeal to others, as mere images, but they fail to do what cover images are supposed to do, which is to let readers know what the books are about.

Typography: This cover seems to use but a single font, in two variants: roman for the author name and italics for the title. In both forms it is a thin font that doesn’t play well with background images. The designer realized this and added black drop shadows. If drop shadows are needed, that usually is a sign that the wrong font has been chosen. Drop shadows are used to compensate, at least in part, for typographic design flaws.

This cover offers adequate room for placing the title over the greenish water. The words don’t need to obscure a visual element. This allows leeway in choosing text color. In this case, I would not have used white for the title because the bird should be kept as the chief draw of the eye. To put white text next to the white bird makes the bird stand out less. Given the background color, perhaps a bright yellow would have worked.

As for the title text itself, it should not be in italics, which normally should be reserved for emphasis. The font should be changed to a serif font that has thicker strokes. Two variants could be considered: the normal and the condensed.

If a condensed font were used (but one with thicker strokes), the entire title could be placed on one line, so long as the words didn’t come too close to the left and right margins. (Always keep in mind how paperbacks are trimmed: usually a little more than you’d like.)

If the condensed variant doesn’t seem to work, the normal variant of the font could be used if the three words of the title were stacked and made flush left.

The author name is more of a problem since it rests atop a variegated background.

First of all, the name should be centered, not shunted off to the right. Second, it might have to remain in white to contrast with a relatively busy backdrop. It’s far enough from the bird that white lettering here won’t detract from the avian image.

If the title is put in upper- and lowercase letters, the author name would look best in small caps, assuming the font has a small caps variant. Many fonts don’t. Their regular caps aren’t intended to be used except as the first letters of words. Small caps and regular caps are shaped and kerned differently, though the differences may be subtle, such as slightly shorter legs or serifs for small caps.

Overall: This cover fails to let readers know what the book is about, and thus it fails the most important test. Not only doesn’t it suggest genre, it doesn’t even suggest fiction rather than non-fiction. This could be a novel with religious components (which it is) or a series of straight religious reflections (which it isn’t), but it’s hard to tell from the cover alone.

Case Study 33

Title: The Abominable Mr. Darcy

Author: J. Dawn King

Designer: JD Smith Design

Genre: Romance

Graphics: The Mr. Darcy who is abominable is, of course, the character from Pride and Prejudice. As in the original, here he is the love interest of Elizabeth Bennet. She is joined by others from the 1813 novel. This book takes Janes Austen’s characters in its own directions.

Thus this book is a period-piece romance (and fan fiction). How to convey that graphically? What better than a partial image of Mr. Darcy? That’s what we have: just enough of his clothing to suggest the period and his relative wealth, though some might say that they have seen footmen as well attired.

However that may be, this cover’s image works, though it isn’t clear what the jumble behind Mr. Darcy’s shoulder might be. To me the jumble looks like boulders. To someone else it may look like ruins of a fine house or church. I think I would have preferred a distant aspect of a building, the further to suggest the era, but that’s a quibble.

Typography: The author has written nine novels based on the Pride and Prejudice characters. Four of them include “Mr. Darcy” in the title, so they seem to be variants on a theme. All of them have as their largest text the name of the author, not the title of the book. This is contrary to the usual convention for books, but it’s common for series, particularly when the author is well known.

So far as I can gather from the rankings at Amazon, the author isn’t widely known to the general public, but she may be well known to a niche. That may be why her designer chose to highlight her name rather than the titles of the several books. Another reason may be that romance novels don’t tend toward novelty, especially those in a series. They often are close variants on one another, and readers buy them not so much for deep and well-delineated plot lines but for leisure reading.

To these readers the important thing is to get that next book by a favorite author, the story itself being of secondary concern. We see this with Stephen King and John Grisham, for example. The most prominent text on their covers always is their names. Titles take second place. Fans of King or Grisham buy their books regardless of storyline. So it is with some romance writers.

We find the title, The Abominable Mr. Darcy, in small letters at the bottom of the cover—small but legible enough since the thin white letters are laid atop solid black. The author name is in a light blue that would be too faint if the name were in letters as small as the title, but the name is so large that nearly any color would stand out sufficiently.

The only other text on the cover is the series tagline, “A Pride and Prejudice Variation.” On each book in the series this text is placed at the top between two thin rules. On this cover the tagline is legible and obscures nothing. On some of the others it doesn’t stand out well against a busy or light background, or it obscures a character’s face.

Overall: Romance is one of those genres that has distinct sub-genres, one being Regency romance, which is what this book and the others in the series fall into. The partial image of the man immediately suggests such a time frame, and a reader’s guess as to the era is reinforced by the tagline.

Anyone familiar with Pride and Prejudice will see elements of the cover come together immediately. A stranger to Jane Austen might be unsure of this book’s genre, but little matter: someone unfamiliar with Austen wouldn’t be attracted to this book regardless.

Case Study 32

Title: The Blood of Princes

Author: Derek Birks

Designer: Katie Birks

Genre: Historical novel

Graphics: This story centers around the disappearance of Edward V and his brother Richard, Duke of York. In 1483, at the death of their father, Edward IV, the boys were lodged in London Tower and disappeared from history. Their uncle, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, became king. It commonly is assumed that Richard had the boys, ages 12 and 9, murdered. This justifies the bloody crown on this book’s cover, though one might argue that two crowns should be depicted.

The crown isn’t the only thing bloodied here. Below the crown is a large splotch of blood, and several letters of the title drip with blood. The last word of the title, Princes, is the same color as the blood, but it’s not clear whether this implies that each letter of that word has been dipped in blood or simply that the letters were colored red from the start, even though the other words of the title are black.

If the graphic has a problem, it’s that the blood, which seems to be flowing at least over the letters, is rust colored rather than blood red. The crown looks rusted rather than bloodied. However that may be, there is so much blood that it seems to be overkill (no pun intended). I think the effect would have been more striking had there been less and redder blood, confined to the crown and a few drops falling off it.

At the margins of the cover are metallic-looking vines. It’s not clear what their purpose is. The cover would lose nothing by losing them.

Typography: The chief words of the cover, Blood and Princes, are partly obscured by copious blood. I would have reduced or eliminated blood on the letters. At least I would have kept all four words of the title black. With Princes in dark red, the word competes with the crown for attention. The auxiliary words, The and of, are a little small. Each should be centered over the other words. Having The off-centered serves no obvious purpose.

As with the title, I would have kept the author name in black. As it stands, it’s kerned too widely. The paperback version risks having the author name too near the edges, if the trimming is too generous.

This is the second volume in a series. Why no mention of that? Instead of the big splotch of blood at the bottom, a tagline could have been added: “Book 2 of the Craft of Kings Series.”

Even if all these changes were made, the cover still would look a little bland. Perhaps the title needs to be in royal gold rather than black. That would make the title stand out more, and it would add a dash of color that would contrast nicely with the somber tone of the rest of the cover (even if the blood were recolored to look more like blood than rust).

Overall: The basic elements are appropriate for the story. They just need to be tweaked. To attract those who are attracted to historical novels, perhaps the designer could add, just beneath the title, a phrase such as “A Historical Novel.” That would help readers understand the precise genre. Even without that addition, the cover works, but it could work more effectively with a few changes.

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.

Case Study 29

Title: Lost and Forgotten

Author: Maurice Barkley

Designer: Ivan Zanchetta

Genre: Thriller

Graphics: This is an especially well done cover. Let me begin by pointing out something that makes it “work”: the dark area at the bottom. The designer prudently didn’t try to fill the whole space with a complex image. He left room at the bottom for the title, which stands out nicely. Imagine if the whole cover were as complex in detail as the locomotive. How could text be placed atop the image without obscuring a key part of it or without the text becoming hard to read?

The story takes place chiefly in the present, but showing a Nazi train and plane, even if only referring to the backstory, immediately suggests to the reader a tie to the past. I do have one question and one quibble.

Did locomotives of the 1940s have bells at the front, to warn of the train’s approach? Maybe they did, but, given the size and presumed loudness of this locomotive, it seems that a bell hardly could be heard above the clatter of the wheels and the roar of the engine.

The quibble concerns the lightning bolt that seems to be striking the bell. Perhaps the lightning is intended to be in the distant background, as at the upper left, and perhaps the bell just happens to be obscuring lightning that is far behind it, but it almost looks as if the illustrator is trying to convey a message by having lightning hit the bell. (If so, it would be a remarkably small bolt.)

Typography: A single font is used on this cover. It reminds me of James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, a story that takes place in the 1930s (even though I can’t locate a cover of that book that uses this font). In other words, this font evokes a period, and the period it evokes is the 1930s through the end of World War II, so it is quite appropriate here.

As I said, the designer prudently left lots of dark room at the bottom for the title to pop. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about the top of the image and the author name, which is in thinner letters and against a less-contrasting background.

I would have put the author name in bold but kept it at the same size. The bottom of the text rests against the plane’s propeller and the locomotive’s smoke, so I would have pulled the image down slightly. I wouldn’t have done the simpler thing of raising the author name because that would have placed it too close to the top.

What about the tagline, “Book One—Discovery”? It isn’t clear how to interpret this. Is Lost and Forgotten the first book in a series called Discovery, or is Discovery the first book in a series called Lost and Forgotten?

I presume the former, since it would be strange to have the real title, Discovery, in such small text and the series title, Lost and Forgotten, looking like a title. If my presumption is correct, then I would have reworded the tagline to read “Book One in the Discovery Series,” or something like that.

The one element I would drop from the cover is the rule separating the title from the tagline. It’s unnecessary, since no one will read the tagline as part of the title, and it also conflicts graphically with the rest of the image. It’s the kind of rule one might find on a science fiction cover: galaxy-like, it’s more prominent in the center and fades at the two sides. Even in color tone it doesn’t match anything else on the cover.

Overall: Despite a few reservations, this cover must be counted a success. I suspect few aficionados of the thriller genre would pass this book by if they saw it on a bookstore shelf. The well-done illustration is enough to attract even people whose preferences lie with other genres.

Case Study 28

Title: Wasted

Author: John Byrne Barry

Designer: John Byrne Barry

Genre: Mystery

Graphics: The description at Amazon describes this book as “part mystery, part love triangle, part midlife crisis, and part political satire,” but that’s not what the cover says, at least not if you look at the graphics and don’t bother to read the smaller words.

If you do read the smaller words, you see “mystery” once and “murder” twice. That should be enough to tell you the book is a murder mystery, but what if you don’t read the words (which are not particularly large) but just notice the graphics? You likely will think this is a work of non-fiction, something about recycling, because what does catch your eye implies that.

The largest graphic element is the recycling symbol. It’s ubiquitous in our society. Whenever we see it, we think of garbage, sanitation, and the like. That will be the first impression here, unless other cover elements immediately counter that impression—but they don’t. They reinforce it.

The next most prominent element is the black circle in which the recycling symbol is positioned, and the other most prominent element is the green background. Taken together, these three elements suggest not a murder mystery but an environmental handbook.

That suggestion is all the stronger with the one-word title, which many may read simply as Waste rather than as Wasted. Drop out all the smaller text, but leave the author name, and you’d think this book might be a complaint about pollution or over-consumption, and that’s a problem, at least for the author.

Some prospective readers will take one glance and move on, misunderstanding the book’s genre. Thus, instead of helping sales, the cover may hinder sales.

Typography: There appear to be two fonts here, one for the three words within the circle, another for everything else. In its plain form, in the bottom-most text, the font appears weak because its lines are thin. In its bold form, as in the title and author name, the font is legible. I’d have kept this font only for the title and author name and would have used a sans serif font for the remaining text, including the words in the circle.

As for those words, why do they have periods after them? They aren’t sentences and wouldn’t make sense as sentences. Given the stark nature of the recycle symbol, the three words probably would look better in all caps. With upper- and lowercase they don’t stand out enough.

The subtitle is far too small. It disappears at thumbnail size, as does the series tagline at the top (“a ‘green noir’ mystery”). If this text were in a condensed sans serif font—that is, the condensed version of the sans serif font that should be used everywhere but for the title and author name—it could be twice as tall. As it stands, there is too much discrepancy between it and the title, and one may wonder whether it really is a subtitle or something else.

I mentioned the last line of text, which is the title of another book by the author. Is that book well known? Will someone looking at this cover say, “Oh, sure. I remember Bones in the Wash!” I suspect not.

This line and the line above it (“author of”) should go on the back cover of the paperback version and on the inside of the digital version. Unless this prior book is likely to be known, mentioning it here is little better than saying “this author has written another book,” which isn’t much of a selling point for the present book.

Overall: In part this book is a satire, so it is proper for the cover to include satirical elements. The three words in the circle (“murder, betrayal, aluminum”) are satirical because no one expects the third word. There is a tongue-in-cheek quality here, but it largely is lost because the graphics suggest a non-fiction genre.

This cover is a good example of cleverness getting in the way of the message.

Case Study 27

Title: Old Habits

Author: Ben Trebilcook

Designer: Ant Gardner

Genre: Mystery

Graphics: It is probably fair to say that this cover’s graphics did not require much time to produce. All we have are a stylized hand grenade and a blue background overlaid with a few white and black speckles. If the image tells us anything, it tells us this is a war story—except that it’s not. It’s a crime story, a mystery, even if it has wartime segments.

The graphics are so simple that they look simplistic rather than subtle or clever. They looked hurried rather than carefully prepared, and that likely will lead prospective buyers to suspect that the inside text also will seem hurried rather than carefully prepared.

To some people, particularly authors, this may seem an unfair inference, but buyers really do prejudge a book’s words by its cover. If a cover looks slapdash or amateurish, buyers will suppose that the words likewise will be slapdash or amateurish, so many of them won’t investigate further and will move on to some other prospective purchase. If this happens with every second viewer of the cover, then the author has seen his income from the book halved.

Typography: At first glance the title and author name seem to be in the same font, but they aren’t. The curves of the letters in the author name aren’t true curves but a series of angled strokes. The font used for the author name isn’t objectionable in itself, but it should be the same font as in the title or a font clearly distinct from it.

The chief problem with the title font is dullness. Here was a chance to choose a font that suggests motion or tension, at least something to contrast with the uninteresting background. On the other hand, if the text’s background were more interesting than a silhouetted hand grenade, this title font would have been fine.

Perhaps the largest textual problem is that this cover needs a tagline to indicate the genre, since the image fails to do that adequately—perhaps something using the protagonist’s name, such as “A Joe Brady Mystery.”

Overall: At Amazon this book has four reviews, all five stars. If the book had a better cover—one that intrigued while indicating the genre—it might have received several times as many laudatory reviews, not to mention several times as many sales.

However fine a book’s writing, the writing won’t be seen unless readers are attracted to the cover and then get past the cover to the text. A cover can be a door one wants to open or a door one wants to pass by.

Case Study 25

Title: Islandia: The Lost Colony

Author: C. J. Klinger

Designer: James Wintel

Genre: Science Fiction

Graphics: The cover features an eighteenth-century-style ship sailing beneath a mountainous island atop which is a futuristic city. A close view of the cover shows fine detail, particularly on the ship. Sailors on deck can be distinguished from one another, the rigging and sails are well executed, and even the crow’s nest is finely delineated.

The remainder of the scene sports less detail. Neighboring islands are in shadow, and the city seems drawn in a different artistic style; its lines are more suggestive than definitive.

On the whole, the illustration must be labeled as first rate, but it has one deficiency. At thumbnail size the city is indistinguishable as such. The viewer can make out the island and the glow around it, but it isn’t clear what sits on the island. It very well could be trees.

If that is what the viewer thinks he sees, then the cover no longer indicates science fiction. It fails to indicate the genre and may suggest a different genre, such as historical fiction.

I would have suggested that the designer rework the cityscape, removing most of the buildings and leaving just a few isolated structures that could be recognized immediately as buildings.

The finer the illustration, the more professional a cover looks, but the illustration also has another task: to indicate to the prospective buyer the book’s genre. Sometimes designers put so much effort into producing a lovely cover, as this one, that they overlook marketing considerations—or think that the professionalism of their work somehow can render the marketing part nugatory.

Typography: This is the first volume in a series. It could have used a tagline to that effect. If the tagline included an indication of the genre, the problem with the illustration might have been overcome—perhaps something along the lines of “Book 1 of the Distant Stars Trilogy.”

As for the text, it’s clear and says what needs to be said, though the subtitle is so much smaller than the title that one almost wonders whether it’s a subtitle or something else. I would have reduced the height of the title a little and doubled the height of the subtitle, which, at the current size, is hard to make out in the thumbnail.

Overall: Although this cover could stand a few tweaks, there is no mistaking that it’s been designed professionally. The professionalism suggests to the prospective buyer that the story is written professionally.

At least the prospective buyer is likely to click on the thumbnail and read the opening words of the book. If he does that, the cover has accomplished its chief purpose: it is a door that has been opened. At that point, the author’s words have to do the selling.

Case Study 23

Title: Gentleman with a Loaded Gun

Author: Emmanuel Obi, Jr.

Designer: Emmanuel Obi, Jr.

Genre: Thriller

Graphics: The first problem is that this is a floating cover, the fault of using a white background. At thumbnail size the illustration and text seem unanchored. Fortunately, at the Amazon sales page a thin rule and slight drop shadow have been added, giving the cover boundaries.

The only graphic is a silhouette of a man in a trench coat. Is he walking toward us or away from us? It’s impossible to say. His feet are in a line, making him look like he has but one leg, and we can’t tell which way his feet are pointing.

The title tells us that he has a loaded gun, but there is no hint of a gun in the silhouette. Perhaps he has a concealed carry permit, but it would have been better to show him holding a gun in a slightly extended arm.

Typography: When I first saw the cover, I presumed the author was Bruce Howard and wondered why the double-volume notice was placed directly under his name. Then I realized that Bruce Howard is the protagonist and that the author name is at the top in small letters.

Let’s begin with the font. It’s the kind one might have found on theatre marquees decades ago, but here it does little but make for difficult reading. If it’s meant to evoke a certain era, it fails. Only the man’s hat suggests that the stories take place no later than the 1950s. It would have been better to use a more legible font.

The protagonist’s name is much larger than the title. If the protagonist were famous—say, Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe—that might make sense, but few readers ever have heard of Bruce Howard. With rare exceptions, the title should be the largest text on a cover, with the author name next largest. Here the author name is the smallest, which is why I thought the protagonist’s name was the author name.

Instead of “Vol 1 & 2” (notice the lack of a period), I would have used “Books 1 & 2,” which is the more common formulation and gets around the problem of using an abbreviation. I would have put the series information at the bottom, something like this: “Books 1 & 2 of the Bruce Howard Series.”

Back to the author’s name. It has an underline, which serves no purpose, and “Jr” should be followed by a period. The font needs to be boosted several points, but first there needs to be a new font, one for the author name and series information, another for the title.

Overall: No prospective buyer will suspect that this cover was designed by a professional, and surely others will have the confusion I had with the protagonist’s name being taken for the author name.

The few reviews the book has garnered praise it for its prose, but how many will see the prose if they can’t get past a cover that looks amateurish to them? A cover should be like a door that invites one to open it, not a door from which people shy away.

Case Study 21

Title: The Dark Sacrifice

Author: Jay Bower

Designer: MibleArt Design

Genre: Horror

Graphics: There is an element of spookiness in the photo, a function of the camera angle, the distortion of the trees, and the black-and-white palette. But does the photo suggest “horror”? Apparently not in the mind of the author, who added a tagline that says “A Horror Novel.” Such a tagline wouldn’t be needed if the cover image clearly indicated the genre.

The book opens with this line: “Ten-year-old Todd lay motionless on the bloodstained sacred altar.” Immediately the reader connects the title to the story. Why wasn’t the cover image chosen to match? An image of a bloody altar—say, a rustic one made of massive rocks—not only would have matched the title but would have made clear the genre. There would have been no need for the tagline, as least not as written.

Typography: Step back from the monitor and look at this cover. Which text stands out the most? Right: the author name. It’s white against dark gray, and so the contrast is strong. It can be seen from a distance.

Now look at the title and subtitle. The chief reason they don’t stand out as much isn’t the choice of font or even the text size. It’s the color. This is another example of red text against a dark background. Usually the offending background is dark blue, but gray can be as poor a choice, as here. I presume the designer chose red for the title and subtitle because this is a horror story, and horror implies blood, right? But symbolism shouldn’t outweigh legibility.

Now consider the title. How many words does it have? At first glance it appears to have two: Dark Sacrifice. But look carefully to find the tiny The that is only as tall as the strokes of the other letters are thick. Why this great disparity in size? It would have been better to make The the same size as the other letters. There is plenty of room for it on the first line.

Better yet, though, would be dropping The entirely. It isn’t needed. It adds nothing. When titling a book, as when writing its text, one should strive to eliminate words that aren’t doing productive work, and in this title the article adds nothing.

Now let’s look at how the title lettering is used. The letters are maneuvered behind and in front of the trees’ branches and trunks. Any particular branch passes behind some letters and in front of others, almost suggesting an attempt to mimic an M. C. Escher illustration. The result is that the letters look blotchy and so are somewhat difficult to read at thumbnail size.

Overall: It would not have taken much to make this a strong cover: a different color for the title and subtitle text, the elimination of a word, and the use of an image that doesn’t settle for “spooky” but says “horror.”

Case Study 20

Title: End of the Wild

Author: Jason Taylor

Designer: Cakamura Studios

Genre: Fantasy

Graphics: This is a story about a young couple that finds itself shipwrecked on an island off the British Columbia coast. The island is populated by “legendary creatures” from native mythology. Does the cover convey that?

Not really. There is no indication, in the image, of shipwreck or island or strange creatures. (The tree-studded background could be part of a long, continental coast rather than an island.)

When I first saw the cover, I thought the book was a non-fiction account of a sailing adventure. In fact, the sailboat at rest in calm water is deceptive, because there is no such scene in the book. The very first paragraph has the boat’s hull breached by rocks, and within a few paragraph the boat sinks and the man and woman find themselves on the shore.

I suspect this was a case of the designer finding a pretty photo and settling for it. It’s easy to imagine how an illustrator might have worked up those initial paragraphs into a compelling cover, but perhaps the author was on a tight budget and couldn’t afford an illustrator.

Typography: Not a few outdoor-adventure books use thin fonts, such as Helvetica, with widely-spaced letters, as here. Nothing wrong with that, though nothing innovative either.

The title is legible enough, but the author’s first name gets lost in the mist on the hillside. It’s hard to say how to fix that problem while keeping the image.

Perhaps the first name could have been stacked atop the surname, thus making almost all the text flush right. (If the title lines were closer together, even the first word could have its own line, without forcing the last word of the title onto the light-colored water.)

Overall: The biggest problem with this cover is that it doesn’t suggest the genre. For that matter, it doesn’t even suggest that this is a novel.

Case Study 16

Title: Forest Child

Author: Heather Day Gilbert

Designer: Seedlings Design Studio

Genre: Historical Fiction

Graphics: This is the second book in a series built around Viking explorations. The protagonist, Freydis, is the illegitimate daughter (“forest child”) of Erik the Red and half-sister to Leif Erikson—all three actual historical figures. In a legendary account Freydis is pictured as braver than many of the men she explored with, and the book is written on that premise.

In the cover image we see Freydis depicted as a young woman, her face showing quiet determination. Her hair, appropriately, is red (her father got his moniker from the color of his hair and beard). We see arrows poking out from a quiver, thus a hunting or military connection, and in the background, partly obscured in mist, are trees—an implication of “forest child.”

The image thus presents several elements of the historical character and the fictional character, something not commonly done well on book covers. As in most such covers, the protagonist looks twenty-first century (Vikings didn’t sport sculpted eyebrows, and is that a hint of lip gloss one sees?), but that concession to commercialism doesn’t detract from the overall effect.

Typography: Two fonts are used, one for the title and author name, the other for the tagline. The author name is set in a bar at the bottom of the cover. Often such bars conflict with the associated image, but here, because of the multiple horizontal lines and the gray and brown colors, the bar seems to work. The kerning doesn’t quite work. Notice that the T and H in “Heather” are touching.

The font used for the title and author name has an embossed, three-dimensional look. That’s not necessarily bad, but it isn’t necessary, given the effective three-dimensionality of the image. Such fonts aren’t uniform in coloration; slight alterations in tone are needed to suggest the third dimension. That sometimes is problematic, since a secondary tone might be lost in the background, thus making the font look slightly broken. I would have used a simpler, flat font here.

The bigger problem is with the tagline. It is illegible at thumbnail size and almost illegible even at Amazon’s sale page for the book. I’d have reworded the tagline slightly: “Vikings of the New World Saga Book 2″—which actually is how it is at Amazon. That would have saved nine characters and spaces, allowing the font size to be boosted by a couple of points.

As it is, the tagline is too close to the protagonist’s head. Since a larger font would make the tagline closer still, I’d add more free space above her head, making that area about twice as tall as it now is. This could be done by shrinking her image slightly and by moving it a bit lower.

Overall: This cover has to be rated a success, despite minor flaws with the typography. Even at thumbnail size it says “professional,” which is precisely what any author should want.

Case Study 15

Title: Fate

Author: Maya Mirza-Gill

Designer: Maya Mirza-Gill

Genre: Young adult

Graphics: This is the third book in a trilogy. The others have similar covers: a silhouetted figure and lightning. Perhaps the author/designer felt obligated to keep the style uniform, once the first volume was published. That’s understandable, but it would have been better to have turned to a professional for the later volumes. As it is, this one has the least intelligible image, which, unfortunately, is cut off at the top and bottom by large black swaths.

Typography: The title has a drop shadow to make it stand out, an indication that the wrong font was chosen—but at least the color is correct. There seems to be a single font used on the cover. It would be better for the title to be in one font—say, a serif font, as here—and the rest of the text to be in a sans serif font.

The biggest problem with the text is that it isn’t big enough. At thumbnail size everything except the title is illegible, and even that is too small.

The tagline, which hugs the bottom and is oddly divided, actually has nothing to do with this book. It’s praise of the first volume in the series. That kind of thing “works” only if the one giving the praise is famous, but that isn’t the case here.

Overall: Stand back from the monitor a bit and look at this cover. It’s hard to distinguish anything, other than the title word.

A cover is a book’s most important marketing tool, and this is truer for ebooks than for print books. An ebook cover needs to catch a buyer’s eye in seconds, or it won’t catch it at all. There is nothing catchy here, and, for Fate, that may have proved fatal.

Case Study 14

Title: Sacred River

Author: Debu Majumdar

Designer: Evolution Design

Genre: General fiction

Graphics: This novel tells the story of a journey along the Ganges, so it is natural that a photo of the river would be the main graphical element, but this photo fails. If you remove the text from the cover, it’s not clear whether the water is a river, part of the ocean, or perhaps even a lake. In any case, nothing about it says “Ganges.” It would have been better to use no river image than this one.

Typography: Except for “A Novel,” all of the white text has a drop shadow behind it—and with reason. White text against white or light blue is difficult to read, and the drop shadows don’t resolve the problem. Solid black would have been better, assuming this photo was retained.

There seem to be three different fonts: one for the title, one for “A Novel” (why does the least important text get a font of its own?), and one for the subtitle, tagline, and author name. As a rule, a cover should use one or two fonts, and there is no clear need to break that rule with this cover.

The tagline wastes an opportunity. It ought to say something about the hero’s adventure, but it tries to speak to the reader directly: “An adventure through India that will touch your soul.” Then it adds, “Compelling and powerful”—which adds nothing. Such fog words don’t clarify; they obscure, and they ought to be omitted.

The tagline is the place where a book—particularly a novel—should demonstrate intrigue. It should make the prospective buyer wonder what the book is about while inducing him to lay down money for it. It should say something about the protagonist, but this tagline only hints that there is a protagonist.

Overall: The opening paragraphs of the book give the reader a murder, the quick, accidental death of the murderer, and an unbroken numerical code. That’s a promising opening, but you never would suspect this book to have such action at the get-go, at least not from the cover.

The designer seems to be someone whose work chiefly is with designing websites. This would have been a good instance to be strict with oneself and to have used a designer experienced in designing book covers.

Case Study 13

Title: Through the Barricades

Author: Denise Deegan

Designer: Lawston Design

Genre: Children’s fiction

Graphics: The story is set during World War I, so the background of the image is appropriate, though it’s difficult to make out at thumbnail size or even at the size used here. Only at full size can one tell that the young woman stands in front of a front-line trench and that soldiers are at the top of it. Apparently she is a nurse: she wears an apron with a red cross on it, but the haziness of that part of the image and the overlay of text make it a bit hard to see that she in fact is wearing an apron.

I understand why authors like to put “seals of approval” on their covers, but often, like here, it’s hard to make those work with the rest of the graphics. Certainly I’d include a seal testifying that a book won the Newberry Medal or even one of that award’s three honorable mentions, but most seals, as with the Spark Award, don’t have remotely the same cachet, and I wonder whether using them compensates enough for the intrusion they make on the cover.

Typography: Start with the author name. Here is a good use of red text. As I have said in earlier case studies, and as I no doubt will say in future ones, red text demands a light background, from white through beige to tones of yellow, as here. Too many author-designers, and even some professional designers, place red text against a dark background (often blue), but in such a case the red doesn’t pop. Here it does.

The title font is less interesting than the author-name font. Its greatest problem is that its thin lines don’t stand out enough against parts of the image, particularly the dark area with the pendant. The author name works fine with thin letters because there is nothing behind it. Here thicker letters were needed.

The blurb from author Hazel Gaynor is weak tea: “a thoroughly compelling book.” Those words carry almost no meaning. Surely they could have come up with something that either gives a sense of what the book is about or somehow singles it out from the author’s other books. Since this blurb adds nothing, it should have been left out.

Overall: The strength of this cover is in the young woman’s face: determined, perhaps already knowing too much, perhaps soon to find the war too much for herself. It’s the face that carries the day, but the rest of the cover is fairly good too.

Case Study 12

Title: M.I.A.

Author: A. L. Davroe

Designer: Cover Quill

Genre: Thriller

Graphics: The strongest part of this cover is the image: dead arm on dead leaves, all in blue-gray tones. The arm seems totally relaxed, without weight, and, in its paleness, without blood, as cold as the carpet of leaves.

Typography: There are three typographical elements here: one good, one questionable, and one bad. Let’s start with the bad. The ornaments in the upper corners serve no useful purpose; worse, they undermine the somberness of the cover. The image is of death, but the ornaments are light, swirly, even exuberant, and instead of highlighting the title they compete with it. They should be omitted entirely, allowing the title to be larger.

What about the title? It’s in a peculiar font for no apparent reason. The wide serifs don’t contrast well with the bed of leaves. It would have been better to use a chunkier font, whether sans serif or one with modest serifs. As for the font used elsewhere, it’s fine, at least for the author name. For the tagline it should have been semi-bold, to stand out better against the background.

And what about the tagline? It could have been tightened up to read: “Only the dead know where the missing go.” That would eliminate the question mark and the ellipsis.

Overall: A good cover, on the whole. The strong image partly makes up for typographical weaknesses. The author used a professional designer but may have deferred too readily to the designer’s judgment. It’s usually good, and often necessary, for an author to second guess a designer. That would have helped here.

Case Study 11

Title: A Sidekick’s Tale

Author: Elisabeth Grace Foley

Designer: Seedlings Design Studio

Genre: Historical fiction

Graphics: In Death Valley, at the intersection of two far-from-civilization dirt roads, is Teakettle Junction. The wooden directional sign there is adorned with dozens of battered teakettles placed by passersby. The teakettles and the sign give the site a Wild West flair. Similarly with this book’s cover.

Here the sign has four direction arrows. Instead of naming destinations they give the title and author. Hung on the sign are three items symbolic of the story’s era and plot: a rifle, a cowboy hat, and a wedding ring. The latter is a bit hard to make out, even though its size is grossly exaggerated. Th silver and white of the ring are too similar to the pale blue of the sky and the white of the clouds.

In the background are galloping horses pulling a wagon, a windmill, barbed-wire fencing, and five inappropriate birds. I call the birds inappropriate not because they’re there but because they seem to be seagulls, not the hawks or vultures one would expect to find in an end-of-the-nineteenth-century story set on the plains.

But that’s a minor point. All in all, the illustration is clever and conveys what it needs to convey. Aside from changing the birds, I would have saturated the colors more—particularly the sky—and would have made the rifle larger, to match the hat in relative size. (The ring would have to remain large; if it were reduced to its true size, relative to the hat and rifle, it would be invisible.)

Typography: There is but one font, used for both the title and the author name. It works well and suggests the locale and era. Many fonts that try to do the same overdo themselves. They end up looking like caricatures rather than authentic representations of a certain time and place. Not so with this font.

The author name is long. That could make placement difficult, but here there is no problem. Her name is legible (and it even sounds like a name from the era in which the story takes place).

The only thing missing, in terms of words, is a tagline. One easily could be placed at the top, if the sign were lowered slightly and if the two birds at the top were removed. The book description at Amazon says A Sidekick’s Tale is “a hilarious tangle involving an emerald ring, a fearsome aunt, a scheming suitor, and a team of runaway mules.” A compressed version of that would work well as a tagline, and it would confirm that this Wild West story is humorous and fun.

Overall: This is an effective cover. I read the first few pages of the book to see whether the cover gives a true sense of the story, and it does. Many covers fail that simple test, leaving some buyers regretful. They think We’re Having Grandma for Dinner is about happy multigenerational relationships only to discover it’s a culinary horror story. No danger of that with A Sidekick’s Tale.

Case Study 10

Title: The Legacy: Dax

Author: G. G. Atcheson

Designer: Yanik Dallaire

Genre: Science fiction

Graphics: This cover was designed by the author’s son, as were the covers of the three other books in the series. Of the four covers, this is the least satisfactory in terms of graphics.

The entire page is surrounded by what at first seems to be a black border but on inspection turns out to be an image of a star field. If a cover is chiefly white or a very light pastel, it may be necessary to use a thin black border so the cover won’t appear to be floating when viewed at thumbnail size at Amazon. But when a cover’s background is as vividly colored as this one, a border is superfluous; if it does anything, it draws attention away from the main image, which is not desirable.

As for the main image, consisting of planets and moons, one can say that it fits the genre well, but the spacecraft appears to be plastered atop an otherwise complete picture. The water, the sky, and the celestial bodies all have a slight indistinctness to them, a little haziness, but the spacecraft is sharp in its outline and details. Perhaps it was part of the original image; perhaps it was overlaid later. Whichever the case, it looks like an afterthought.

Typography: Let’s start with the title. This is the prequel in a series of four books. Each is titled The Legacy. In the author’s use, after a colon comes the distinguishing part of the title: FateDestinyDoom, and, here, Dax. Thus we have The Legacy:Dax. (I can’t tell what Dax means, but it’s not in parallel with the three other terms.)

On each of the covers the distinguishing word is small, while the common part, The Legacy, is large. When the covers are set next to one another, as at the author page at Amazon, it seems that the books have the same title or that one book was given several different covers.

It would be better to name the books something like Fate: Book 1 of The LegacyDestiny: Book 2 of The LegacyDoom: Book 3 of The Legacy, and Dax: Prequel to The Legacy. That kind of thing. The single word before the colon should be larger than the rest of the title and should be on its own line, and, of course, the colon itself wouldn’t appear. This arrangement would indicate that the books are part of a series while emphasizing the chief word.

So much for the words themselves. Now let’s look at their presentation.

There are four fonts, three for the three words of the title and another for the author name. There seldom is a need for more than two fonts on a cover, and this cover certainly doesn’t need four. Even the article (The) gets it own font, for no evident reason. At least it appears undisturbed. The biggest word in the title, Legacy, is in a distressed style, with a white drop shadow added, to give a sense of three-dimensionality. Even this isn’t done well, since the white appears at the left of some letters and at the right of others.

The distinguishing word of the title, Dax, is in an entirely unrelated font. It has a rock-like pattern the color of which is similar to the shadow cast by the spacecraft. Legibility is diminished further by having the bottom parts of the letters hidden in the water.

The font used for the author’s name is unremarkable, but her name also has a white drop shadow. In this case, the light comes from neither side but from the top, so there is an inconsistency with the main title word (which has an internal inconsistency, as mentioned above).

The reason for the drop shadow for the author’s name is that the name hardly would be legible against the multi-colored background. This suggests a wrong choice of font. A thicker but compressed font, with verticals about three times as thick, would be legible without the help of a drop shadow.

Overall: This cover has the hallmarks of an amateur production: poor typography, awkward wording, inconsistent graphics. If the black border were eliminated, the wording altered as suggested above, and the fonts fixed, the cover could rate a grade of B, despite shortcomings in the graphics.

Case Study 9

Title: Gods Themselves

Author: Catherine Griffin

Designer: Deranged Doctor Design

Genres: Fantasy

Graphics: Each time I return to this cover, I have a sense that the top has been sliced away. It’s not so much that only half the compass appears. I think it’s that the filigree at the corners seems cut off. If the outer borders of those decorations were visible, then having part of the compass outside the frame wouldn’t be a problem. As it stands, the cover looks as though it’s the victim of someone who was inexpert in using the cropping tool.

That’s the only complaint I can levy against the graphics, which otherwise are quite fine. I mentioned in Case Study 5 that silhouettes are problematic because they usually fail to display action. Here they work, even though there is only a hint of action, with the man looking taut as though caught unawares, and the woman’s hair blowing in the breeze. They’re watching the pterosaur. The man’s hand is clenched. From his top hat we can take it that this story is set before 1870 or so, which means The Wizard of Oz hadn’t yet been written. If it had been, no doubt the man would be saying to the woman, “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.”

The top hat, the compass, and the etching that lightly overlays the sky tells us that this is a steampunk novel. The pterosaur tells us that it has something to do with time travel. The silhouette suggests mystery or the unknown. All in all, a good use of symbolism.

Typography: The author’s name is set in a bar that lies atop the image and obscures the maze-like elements at the lower corners. The design of the bar doesn’t match the design of the rest of the cover, nor does its color come from the same palette. It would have been easy to work in a rectangle where her name would have seemed part of the whole rather than in conflict with the whole.

As for the font used for the author’s name, it has fairly strong serifs, and, while a sans serif font may not have been called for, given the era in which the story is set (Helvetica, for example, was released in 1957), I would have chosen a font with smaller serifs.

The font for the main title is unobjectionable, and the nesting of the two words works well. It’s difficult to know just how to place the words of a title when one is short and the other long, but the designer pulled it off here. But she and the author neglected one or two things: a subtitle and/or a tagline—probably the latter. As descriptive as the illustration is, it would have been helpful to have a few words that give a sense of what the reader might expect to find.

Overall: Despite a few weaknesses in design, this is a book I would have picked up had I come across it in a book store—even though it’s not a genre I otherwise have interest in. That makes me suspect that those who do like steampunk or fantasy stories would be inclined to do more than just pick up the book.

Case Study 7

Title: The Space Between

Author: Rachel Sanderson

Designer: Zoella Rose Designs

Genre: Young adult

Graphics: At first it’s hard to tell what the image is, at least at thumbnail size. At full size it’s clear that we’re looking across a plain at a distant ridge, with roiling clouds above and ground fog below.

If the image is supposed to evoke “space between,” it doesn’t quite work since the fog obscures the space between the woman and the ridge. It would have been better to choose an image that shows a large, flat, unobscured plain with hills and clouds in the distance.

Suggestion: a wintertime shot of Death Valley’s famous Racetrack playa, looking south to north at the Grandstand outcropping of rocks at the far end. In such a photo there would be no fog, yet in winter there often are roiling clouds over Death Valley.

As on far too many covers, here the protagonist (I presume that’s who it is) has her back to us. This might be a case where it makes sense, since she’s looking across a void. Nevertheless, rear views (and views of rears) have become cliché. There no longer is anything catchy about them.

On close inspection it looks like the image of the woman was pasted onto the background. Yes, there is a hint of shadow behind her, and it goes in the right direction, given that the light is coming from in front of her. But she doesn’t look like part of the scene. Perhaps she would have, had there been footprints behind her on the wet grass.

Typography: The tagline at the top (virtually invisible in this image) says this book was “shortlisted for the 2016 Ampersand Prize.” That’s nice, but it’s not really a selling point. It would have been better to include a subtitle or a tagline that explains what the story is about.

In fact, is it a story? From the title alone, one might imagine something to do with physics or geography. There isn’t even the customary notice that this book is “a novel.”

The font for the author name is fine, and the letters are well spaced, but they shouldn’t be black. Perhaps a light blue, taken from the lightest tone of the woman’s denims, or perhaps just plain ol’ white. The black is just too hard to read against the darkness of the ground.

The title text is bad in two ways. The font is too thin for the image, and its colors (three of them) are poor: light blue for “space,” medium blue for “the,” and dark blue for “between,” all of them partly transparent, for no obvious reason—and why is the article tucked into “space”?

This cover needs a font with short serifs or no serifs and with thick verticals, and all three words should be a uniform color with no transparency. But which color?

White would seem to be contraindicated since the clouds have much white in them. So maybe black. As it is, “between” stands out reasonably well, and it would stand out even better if it were solid black. If the first two words were put on one line, and if all three title words were in uppercase, they could rest not far above the ridge, thereby giving more emphasis to the notion of distance.

Overall: To do this novel justice, it probably would have been necessary to fight the impulse to use a long-distance background image. Such images make it too easy for a designer to take shortcuts, and they’re overused. However that may be, there really was no excuse for the title treatment. The intent may have been to make the words look mysterious, but the result was to make them look hard to read.

Case Study 5

Title: Deadfall

Author: Thurston Bassett

Designer: Pulp Studio

Genres: Post-apocalyptic, thriller

Graphics: The red background doesn’t much look like a sky, but that clearly is what it is, and no one will be confused by it. Red is better than blue here because it gives a sense of anxiety rather than calm.

What about the silhouette? Usually silhouettes work poorly because they don’t convey action well. Here the action is clear enough: a body is falling. Given its size relative to the cityscape, we assume the body is much closer to us than are the buildings, and we are left to imagine the origin of the fall: from a nearby building just out of sight or from a plane or helicopter? It could be any of those. At least there is no mistaking the idea that the woman will be dead in a few seconds.

What the illustration lacks is any connection to the tagline. Nothing in the image says “post-humans.”

Typography: Let’s start with the author name: white against black. You can’t ask for anything more legible. Nothing to criticize here, but the title and tagline could use a little help.

Usually inverted letters cause more trouble than they’re worth (trying to be cute usually does), but here the inverted A works well because it looks like an arrow or funnel pointing downward, the same direction the body is falling. If there is a failing with the title, it’s that it’s pushing too close to the edges of the cover. It should be about twice as far in on the left and right. Given that the author name is the brightest text and so attracts the eye more than it should, as compared to the title, I’d recommend a brighter yellowish tone for the title.

The tagline is a little hard to read. It should be the same height as the author name, and there should be more space between it and the title, which should be moved down about a third of the way to the present position of the falling body, which in turn should be moved down a little. That in turn probably would necessitate the cityscape being moved down too, but there’s plenty of room for that without altering the position of the author name.

Overall: This is a competently done cover. There is nothing remarkable about it: nothing remarkably good but nothing remarkably bad either. The thing that stands out most is the inverted letter, a fairly common technique in thrillers and similar genres. The cover could have worked as well (maybe even better) if the genre were detective story (“who threw the woman off the balcony?”) or something else.

Case Study 1

Title: Valley of the Kings

Author: Terrance Coffey

Designer: Damonza

Genre: Historical fiction

Graphics: The illustration is very fine and looks particularly good at full size. Note how the eye is drawn to the gold medallion, on which a shaft of light plays. The background is an inscribed wall. It has some three-dimensionality, but the medallion seems to rise out of the surface.

The illustration, particularly the medallion, immediately identifies the era: there is almost no need for the subtitle. The gold works well against the aquamarine behind it. A lesser designer might have chosen gray or—gag—a reddish hue. Neither would have allowed the gold to stand out as it does here.

Typography: At thumbnail size the author name and subtitle look wispy. The font works well for the title but not so well at the smaller sizes. A narrow and bolded version might have worked better there. The tagline “a novel” is almost invisible. Even in the full-size image at Amazon those words are too small. They should have been the size of the subtitle, which does a good job of telling the reader that this is a historical novel without directly saying so, although I must admit the possibility of confusion: I have on my shelf another book titled Valley of the Kings. It’s about a famous Egyptian burial ground with that name.

Overall: This cover, though it has imperfections, clearly is the work of a professional. You just don’t see this quality coming from amateurs, but it would have been helpful if an amateur (such as the author) had commented that the smaller text wasn’t as legible as it could have been. Sometimes professional designers overlook such things, perhaps because they’re too involved with the project.

Addendum: The medallion shows a seated Nefertiti, wife of pharaoh Akhenaten. She died around 1330 B.C., at age 40, outliving her husband by a few months. She may have ruled in her own right and was succeeded by Tuthankamun, the famous boy-pharaoh, who died at age 18 after reigning nine years.