Case Study 102

Title: 5 Secrets of Story Structure

Author: K. M. Weiland

Designer: K. M. Weiland

Genre: Self-publishing

Graphics: The graphics are minimalistic: a background with a slight color gradient and parts of two pencils. That’s it.

Only the pencils can carry meaning (the background could have been any of a number of colors). What meaning do the pencils convey? Writing, certainly, but they don’t necessarily imply writing a novel, which is what this book is about.

Nowadays, few book writers write with pencils. Nearly all of their words are composed at keyboards. If the designer wanted a graphical element that indicated book writing, something other than pencils might have been more appropriate as leading viewers toward the theme of the book.

Beyond that, the book is about writing novels, so a generic image of a novel—at least an image that implies fiction rather than non-fiction—would have been a step up, yet even that wouldn’t quite do it.

The book focuses on how to structure a story, so an image that indicates structuring, organizing, or building might have been better still.

Typography: Each of the three typographical elements—title, subtitle, and author name—needs adjustment. Let’s start with the title, which is a mishmash: two colors, two fonts, and four sizes for just five words.

Each color is a poor choice. Neither pops well against this background, the red for the usual reason and the yellow because it’s too close in tone to the greenish background.

The oversized “5” is fine, and the large “Structure” is fine enough in terms of size, but it crowds the edges of the cover, and its letters are crammed together. Some of the letters actually touch one another. “Structure” should be in a more condensed font that could be set as tall but with adequate space between letters and away from the edges.

“Secrets of Story” comes in two sizes and two styles, roman and italics. If the italics were chosen for emphasis, it’s not clear why the preposition would be emphasized. It’s the least important word. Similarly, there is no obvious reason why “Story” should be smaller than the other words in the phrase: it’s no less important.

The italics should be removed entirely and the words put into a sans serif font, even if not the same sans serif font used for “5” and “Structure.”

As for using red in the title, that actually reduces clarity. It’s easy for the eye to go to the red first, resulting in “Secrets of Story 5 Structure.” Or the yellow text could be read by itself, since it’s much larger than the red text, making the title seem to be “5 Structure.” These problems could have been avoided by using a single color, such as black, for the title.

The subtitle needs a thicker font. If white is to be used against a light-colored background, the letters need weight, and fatter strokes will provide that.

The author name should not be in red but in black, like the revised title. Its font (which may or may not be the same one used for “Secrets of Story”: it’s hard to tell) is too thin-stroked and ought to be sans serif.

After those fixes, the author name needs to be moved in from the right edge of the cover. Although this book appears only as an ebook and not as a paperback, it should adhere to paperback conventions: keep in mind what might happen if the paperback is trimmed too tightly, with the right edge of the cover going the way of the blade. If graphics or text are too close to the edge for a paperback, they’re too close for an ebook too.

Overall: This short book’s cover likely was thrown together quickly by the author-designer. It’s understandable that she may not have thought it worthwhile to invest time or money in producing a more professional cover, but a few alterations (particularly to the text) could help the cover substantially.

Case Study 71

Title: The Best of Funds for Writers

Author: C. Hope Clark

Designer: My House of Design

Genre: Self-publishing

Graphics: You could squint and still tell that this is a non-fiction book and, likely, a self-help book. The graphical treatment is that obvious. Covers of fiction books almost never feature large, rectangular blocks of background color, as here. When they do, it’s almost always a design error, but with self-help books it’s almost always a design plus.

The central image, of a hand writing in a journal and of books stacked nearby, suggests writing or, at least, journaling. What it fails to suggest is that this is a collection of essays about how to earn money as a writer. The cover graphic includes no pecuniary element.

Given the style of the illustration, I could imagine a pecuniary element being represented by something like an overflowing piggy bank, a stack of gold coins or banded hundred-dollar bills, or an open checkbook. As it is now, the illustration could represent the act of writing and nothing more, and to me it suggests casual writing than writing for a livelihood.

Since it shows writing by hand rather than writing at a keyboard, the illustration is a step removed from the way people who write for money actually do their writing. Most of the book’s essays are about freelancing. Does any freelancer today get by with writing with a pencil? Not likely, so I think hands at a keyboard would have been more effective than a hand holding a pencil.

Thus the illustration has two weaknesses, attractive as it otherwise it. The action it shows implies informality rather than professionalism, and there is no indication of acquiring money being the object of the essays.

Typography: Just as the graphics fit a self-help book, so does the typography. There appear to be two sans serif fonts, one for the author name, volume indication, and the first three words of the title, the other for the remainder of the title.

All the words stand out well from the background, though the author name ought to have been in bold, the better to pop. It’s legible as it is, but the bottom of the cover could use more textual weight. The cover seems word-top-heavy.

Besides, the author name is a key element of a cover, and the author deserves proper credit. Many self-published writers, being otherwise little known, shy away from making their names big and bold. “No one will know my name anyway,” they think.

Humility is a virtue, but there is no good reason to downplay the author name when the object of the cover is to sell the book. If the author name is in sufficiently large and eye-catching letters, its very prominence will suggest to the buyer that this must be a writer of note, one he ought to have heard of already.

I have seen covers where all the text is well presented except for the author name, which is hidden in small text in a corner, as though the author were ashamed of having written the book. That hardly is the impression an author should want to give. That isn’t the impression given by this cover, but the author name nevertheless could use more oomph.

Each time I read the second half of the title, “Funds for Writers,” I get thrown off by the final S being in white. I read the words as “Funds for Writer,” and then I catch myself. I see no good reason for that letter and the swirl leading to the nib to be anything but black. After all, who writes in white ink?

Perhaps the S was put in white to balance the white of “for,” but is there a good reason to have that preposition in white rather than black? Not that I can see. Stand back from the screen and look at the title again.

The two words that stand out most are “Funds” and “Writer” (not “Writers”), precisely because they’re black. The “for” almost drops out of the picture, leaving the main part of the title to be seen as “Funds Writer,” which doesn’t make much sense.

Overall: This is a cover appropriate to the genre. Its weaknesses are not major. The deficiencies with the typography can be rectified easily. The deficiencies with the illustration would require more work to overcome, the main problem being that the cover doesn’t imply earning money. That’s not a killer, since the title itself supplies that information, but it would have been better had the title and illustration worked in closer harmony.

Case Study 59

Title: 14 Steps to Self-Publishing a Book

Author: Mike Kowis

Designer: Octagon Lab

Genre: Self-publishing

Graphics: I tried to count and came up with about three times fourteen steps in the illustration, each step being a book. It would have been nice if the designer had been able to match the number of steps to the number in the title.

Perhaps he used a stock illustration and felt constrained, though it seems he easily enough could have trimmed the illustration at the man standing furthest to the right. That man happens to be standing on the fourteenth step (or book). A snip of the graphical scissors would have made for a perfect numerical match.

Even without numerical accuracy, the illustration is on point. This book is about publishing your own book, and the author tells you how to do that in fourteen steps—thus an illustration that shows books as steps is just right.

If the illustration were modified as I propose, it could be moved up slightly from the bottom and in slightly from the right. As presently positioned it is cut off without obvious purpose. Despite that, the illustration works well.

It does have two minor drawbacks. One is the wall behind the steps. The transition to the upper part of the cover is too abrupt. I would feather the wall, making it a gradient that fades out at the level of the top step. The other drawback is the overall subdued colors of the illustration. Perhaps the designer could brighten up the people or even some of the books.

Typography: The title font is clean, as one expects for a how-to book, and all the words are legible, even at thumbnail size, but why are the words in three colors (red, gray, black) and five sizes? To my eye, the most grating thing is the size differential between “Steps” and “Book.” They appear to be in the same font and ought to be at the same size, particularly since both are black and bold, but “Book” is notably bigger.

It may be harder to tell, but “to” and “a” also are in different sizes. That makes four mismatched words. I would make “Steps,” “Book,” “to,” and “a” all the same size and in the same font. I would remove the bolding because those words otherwise overpower the key title words, “Self-Publishing.”

If the four lesser words are made uniform, the lines will be of unequal length, given the differing number of characters. I would kern the bottom line wider, to match the length of the two lines above it.

Those key words, “Self-Publishing,” are fine as they stand. So is the oversized top line, but I would put “14” and “Self-Publishing” in a brighter red. This cover looks faded compared to most how-to books, which commonly have bold colors. There should be hints of boldness here.

The final bit of text is the author name, which has two problems: it’s too small, and “Esq.” should be jettisoned.

What does being an attorney have to do with teaching self-publishing? Nothing. (I can affirm that because, long ago, I practiced law.) If “Esq.” were removed, there would be plenty of room to enlarge the author name, which should be set in all caps to match the rest of the lettering.

Overall: As it stands, this is a good cover, but it easily could be refashioned into being a top-rate cover. I would give it a B in its present condition. It wouldn’t take much for it to earn an A.

Case Study 50

Title: Fiction in a Weekend

Authors: Michael Ashley and Alicia Dunams

Designer: Book Cover World

Genre: Self-publishing

Graphics: This book is a lead magnet. It’s designed to get you to a website through which you can sign up for a course on novel writing. The authors have a similar course for non-fiction writing. They hold themselves out to be experts in getting books written. Does the cover convey such expertise?

The graphics are minimalistic. The background is a lightly patterned pastel blue. The pattern is so light that it’s visible only when the cover is seen at expanded size. Otherwise the art consists of a clip-art style illustration: laptop, coffee mug, phone, pen and paper, disembodied arms.

Again, the cover must be seen at its maximum online size, such as when clicked on at the book’s sales page at Amazon, for another element to be seen: the laptop screen shows a two-page spread the righthand page of which is labeled with the name of the book, Fiction in a Weekend.

This would have been a cute technique had it been visible at thumbnail size, which is the size at which people first will see the cover. They won’t visit the book’s sales page unless the cover already has done its job, at which point the words on the laptop will be superfluous.

Typography: All the text on the cover, even the smallest, seems backed by a light glow, an analogue of a drop shadow. The glow has the same purpose as a drop shadow: to make text distinguishable from its background. If, as here, all the text needs help to pop from the background, that means there is a problem either with the background or with the text. If the background had been lighter, such as pale yellow, the glow wouldn’t be needed.

The lines of text alternate between red and black, with the red standing out more because it clashes with the blue background. Since the red stands out more, the lines of text in red catch the eye better. That’s fine for the first word of the title, and it’s fine for the third line of the subtitle since “and market yourself” is a key promise by the authors, but it’s not fine for the first two words of the subtitle, “How to.” Why emphasize them? And why emphasize the authors’ website address, which is given on the bottom-most line of the cover?

There are two extraneous bits of text. The website address is one of them. It ought to be on the back cover of the paperback edition and on a “Contact Us” page in both the electronic and paperback editions. It doesn’t belong on the cover—and, for years now, website addresses have not needed the prefix “www,” which ought to be dropped.

The other bit of extraneous text is the trademark symbol attached to the last word of the title. It serves no legitimate purpose, either graphical or legal. The symbol used is for unregistered trademarks. As a rule, titles of single books can’t be trademarked, though series titles can be.

This is a stand-alone book (the authors don’t have a companion volume for non-fiction), so it would seem that its title wouldn’t be eligible for trademark protection even if that protection were applied for formally. Conclusion: omit the trademark symbol.

I see a problem with the subtitle that likely eluded the authors. The last six words can be read as “[how to] market yourself as a debut author.” Why would anyone want to market himself as that? Why would he want to emphasize that this is his first book? That isn’t something first-time authors shout from the housetops, at least not toward prospective buyers.

They indeed may shout the happy news of first publication to their family and friends, but they don’t advertise their freshman status to the public at large because that would do nothing to help sales.

I know, I know. What the authors of this book meant was something like this: “As a debut author, here is how you can market your book” or “Book marketing tips for the debut author.” But that’s now how the subtitle reads to me and probably not how it reads to others.

On the whole, all the cover text looks small, aside from “Fiction.” The line spacing in the subtitle is wide, so there is plenty of room for taller text, though that would necessitate a more condensed font. Similarly, the author names ought to be nearly doubled in height. There will be room for that when the website address is removed and the names are put on two lines.

I would put the author names in red and would make all four lines of the subtitle black. The title should be all in red, thus making a color balance between it and the author names.

Overall: This book promotes book writing, not cover design, but it needs high-quality graphics to suggest the authors’ expertise as authors. It doesn’t have such graphics. What it has, even if done bespoke, looks like the clip art that is bundled with hundreds of programs. There is no sense of graphic originality. Much the same can be said of the typography.

When a book touts its authors as experts, it needs an expert look, something this cover lacks.

Case Study 2

Title: The Little Blue Book for Authors

Author: Gisela Hausmann

Designer: Gisela Hausmann

Genre: Self-publishing

Graphics: The background is solid blue overlaid with the pound sign—for no obvious reason. Non-fiction books often do well with solid backgrounds, provided the backgrounds remain uncluttered. The old-fashioned typewriter, which incongruously features an emoji, is just a two-dimensional illustration and not a very well done one at that. A photo of a dusty Remington would have worked better and would have relieved the cover’s flatness.

Typography: The subtitle, 53 Do’s and Don’ts Nobody is Telling You, stands out more than the title, which is set in a childish font atop the number “53” (why does that number appear twice?). The title should have been twice as large as it is, with the lines more closely spaced. The title and author name are in a yellowish, but not strong yellow, hue that isn’t sufficiently distinct from the off-white of the subtitle and tagline.

The author is touted as an “Amazon Top Reviewer,” which doesn’t seem a particularly high or relevant credential. Better to have said nothing—and definitely better to have left off “by,” which is never necessary. It’s one of the telltale marks of an amateur designer. Authors are identified sufficiently just by having their names at the top or bottom. (If a name appears on a book cover, everyone will presume it’s the name of the author. What else would it be?)

Overall: Self-publishing is a popular topic. Authors of self-publishing books hold themselves out to be experts: “I know how to do this right, so follow my advice.” This means these authors need to prove their bona fides immediately, with the cover. It’s more important for them than for authors of most other non-fiction books. This cover fails to do that.