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 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.