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 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 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 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 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.