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 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 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.