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 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 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 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 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 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 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.