Case Study 68

Title: Letters from a Young Poet

Author: Michael Molyneux

Designer: Shanti arts Design

Genre: Travel, memoir

Graphics: I mistook this book’s genre immediately—and twice. At first I presumed this to be a book of poems, given its graphical style. (More on that below.) Then I realized that the title promises letters rather than poems, so I thought it was about a young man’s struggles to become a successful poet: a poetic coming-of-age story.

It is neither of these. It consists of more than seventy short recountings of things and people the author experienced as he traveled solo through Latin America. I never would have gathered that, had I not looked at the first few pages of text.

The indistinct painting shows a doorway into a garden. On the wall is a guitar, on the walls some paintings, and at the sides two chairs. The style is Impressionistic, and that’s not conducive to clarity at small sizes. At thumbnail size, most elements of the painting are indecipherable. The chairs and guitar can be made out but not much more.

The scene does have a Latin American look to it, so in that degree it’s appropriate for a travel memoir that takes place far south of the border, but the scene doesn’t necessarily suggest travel in and through Latin America. It doesn’t suggest interacting with people met on the journey—something, from the table of contents, that seems to be a big part of the retelling.

I mentioned that I at first thought this to be a book of poetry. That’s because many such books—not just those produced by indie authors but also those produced by smaller traditional publishers—are laid out as this one is: a boxed, artsy image, chosen seemingly because it’s pretty, not because it relates to any particular poem, with the box taking up less than half the real estate of the cover, the remainder being the title and author name in a nondescript font, with everything on a background of a single, solid color.

Perhaps people and firms that produce poetry books have tended to use a common template. If so, they would do well to discard it. Other genres have template-like covers. Many science fiction books or police procedurals look like close cousins of one another, but those templates at least speak to the respective genres. The imagined poetry template doesn’t.

The artwork seems like an afterthought, something to take up space so the cover isn’t reduced to two lines of type, as this cover would be if the image were deleted.

As I say, that’s for poetry books, but this isn’t a poetry book. It just looks like one. I suspect others who have come across the kind of poetry books I have seen will have the same reaction. They will think they will find poetry and so either will pass up the book (because they aren’t looking for poetry) or will purchase it and become disappointed (because they are looking for poetry).

Typography: It’s hard to say what should be done about the uninspiring font used for the title and author name. As a start, there should be two fonts, a serif font for the title and a sans serif for the author name. The latter should be in all caps, not upper and lower caps, as the title presently is.

The title should be in a font with some hint of movement or even place, and it should be set in upper- and lowercase letters. The book is about traveling in Latin America, so a font with a few flourishes might be appropriate for the title, which could use a little verve.

The author name is too small, and the title is far too small. If the image is kept boxed, it could be raised to provide space at the bottom (but not too near the bottom!) for the author name. The author name and box should be centered, there being no particular reason to have them off to the right.

Moving the author name would leave room at the top for the title, which should be centered in two lines: “Letters from/ a Young Poet”. The font should be about twice the present height.

These adjustments would help, but the predominant element of the cover would remain what it is: not the text and not even the image but the mass of color in the background. The way around this is to get rid of the background by making the image extend over the whole of the cover. If that were done, the text would have to be arranged other than as proposed above.

In that revision, I would place the title in two lines at the bottom, across the flagstones, and would put it in a thick-lined font and in black. The author name I would put atop the lintel at the top. It also would be in black.

Overall: I mention alternate reworkings of the cover because I see no completely satisfactory solution, at least so long as the image is retained. It doesn’t work in its present small size, and it will remain with deficiencies even if made full size.

Having the image take up the whole of the cover may be the better way to go; at least it gets rid of the overpowering dark-red background, and it also might prevent people from jumping to the wrong conclusions that I jumped to.

Case Study 64

Title: The Dirtbag Handbook

Author: Vanessa Runs

Designer: Y42K Publishing

Genre: Travel

Graphics: The author, her husband, and their pets live in a 22-foot long RV and have traveled the country spending less than $20,000 annually, all expenses included. This is the story of how they were able to do that and how others can follow their example.

Not surprisingly, the RV is the center of focus for the cover. Here we see the rear of the vehicle. At full size the photo shows clearly that the RV is pasted with innumerable stickers. Some are of places visited, such as Zion National Park, while many seem to have little to do with travel per se.

Even at full size, it’s hard to make out most of the stickers. At smaller sizes, as here, it’s impossible, and the rear of the RV could be mistaken for a vehicle that was damaged in a severe sandstorm.

It’s a pity the stickers aren’t fewer and larger. The designer could have airbrushed out most of the actual stickers and overlain a few easily-read substitutes, such “Nomads on Board” (to mimic the actual “Baby on Board” sticker at the top of the RV’s rear). As it is, the stickers are so plentiful that they make it hard to make out the lines of the mountain bike that hangs off the rear of the rear.

Sometimes, particularly for non-fiction books, it’s desirable to use photos of the author or the author’s possessions. Sometimes not. This is one of the not times. The RV is just too cluttered for clarity. It’s also too static. The book is about travel, a term that suggests motion, but there is no sense of motion here.

The RV is shown in a bubble of landscape. Bushes and dirt can be made out, but not much more. The color of the dirt is continued onto the rest of the cover, forming its background. I can’t tell whether this background is a true photo of the dirt or merely a stock texture that imitates dirt. Either way, it makes for easy contrast for the text. It also makes for a background that overpowers the image of the RV, which takes up only about a third of the total area of the cover.

Typography: Like Caesar’s Gaul, the text here is divided into three parts: title, subtitle, and author name. All three parts are in the same font, and it’s a dull one. It might be adequate for the subtitle and author name, but, for variety, a different font should have been chosen for the title, preferably one with mild serifs, a font that hints at motion.

The font used here not only lacks interest but it lacks good kerning. Notice how the T and B in “Dirtbag” nearly touch one another, while the I in that word is separated by four times as much space from the D and R. This appears to be a problem arising with the B, which elsewhere also plays unhappily with its neighbors. Some fonts are like that, their designers having drawn one or more letters imprecisely.

All of the text seems to be slapped atop the background. None of it seems part of the imagery. Ideally, cover text should seem integral with the graphics, but that hasn’t happened here. It’s as though the graphics were completed and then the cover was run through an inkjet printer to apply the words.

Overall: The image of the RV has weaknesses, but it has a countervailing sense of verisimilitude. This is the author’s actual vehicle, and the reader supposes the book will be WYSIWYG in terms of storyline: what you see is what you get.

Since the design firm specializes in books about running, I presume the author is using a pseudonym, at least for her surname. If her name amounts to “that Vanessa who runs,” then it’s unfortunate that this cover doesn’t express as much motion as her name does.

Case Study 49

Title: From Ocean to Ocean

Author: Jerome J. Murif

Designer: Sylvain Eliade

Genre: Travel, memoir

Graphics: In 1897 Jerome J. Murif bicycled across Australia, from south to north, from Adelaide to Port Darwin, in 74 days, without sponsorship or support and without benefit of paved roads or even many dirt roads. This is his account of his trip. It’s just, therefore, that the cover include a photo of him and his bicycle.

Inasmuch as Murif disappeared from history the year after his ride, it’s not surprising that there must be few photos of him. He was a loner who wanted to do something big, did it, and then was forgotten. Fortunately the editor, who also is the cover designer, found a photo that, nearly a century-and-a-quarter later, catches the eye because to us it seems a period piece. Murif stands stiffly by his steed, looking not at the camera but seemingly into the distance. His bicycle, a little surprisingly, looks like many hardtails we see today.

Murif’s right arm is cut off by the left edge of the cover, and the bicycle’s front tire nearly touches the right edge. Perhaps the designer was trying to make the image as tall as possible and so sacrificed airiness, but the photo gives the impression of having been carelessly cropped. Had the photo been reduced slightly, with the complete arm visible and the tire further from the edge, that impression would have been obviated.

The photo takes up something less than half the cover and is cut off diagonally. Above it is a line drawing, not a direct taking from the photo (the rider’s hand is positioned differently, for example) but clearly a representation of a similar scene. The drawing occupies space but otherwise adds little; it might have been better had it been a depiction of Murif riding. The main problem is that the drawing draws the eye away from the photo and away from the text.

The original photo must have been in black and white, given the era, but on the cover it and everything else is in sepia tones. This gives an old-timey feel but also makes for a bland cover. It might have been interesting to try a few color highlights on the bicycle, thereby drawing additional attention to it, or perhaps it would have been enough to add color to some of the text.

I am unable to discern what the opening in the wall, above the bicycle, might be. I would have airbrushed it out. The hole does nothing but distract. At thumbnail size it looks like a rectangular splotch, and at the cover’s maximum size online it still is a puzzle. Perhaps the text explains what it is, but a viewer shouldn’t have to read a book to understand elements of the cover.

Typography: Everything on the cover is pushed to the left: the rider, the title, the subtitle, and author name. The only exception is the date of original publication, which ought not to be on the cover at all. The text should be centered, to contrast with the leftward emphasis of the photo.

At least the title should be in a color aside from its present brown. Deep red would do. The title is in a font that suggests handwriting, and that’s fine, but the subtitle is in italics, which is not fine. It should be in roman, and it could stand shortening.

Australia is known to be a continent, so there is little purpose in labeling it as such, and the opening words of the subtitle, “An account of,” are unnecessary. The subtitle could be reduced to this: “The First Ride Across Australia, from Adelaide to Port Darwin.”

Although the wordcount would be reduced this way, the text size should be increased; there will be room for that, even if the subtitle is refashioned into two lines rather than three.

Notice my addition of a comma. With the comma, the subtitle implies that this was the first ride across any part of Australia and that it happened to be from Adelaide to Port Darwin. Without the comma, the subtitle implies that this was the first ride from Adelaide to Port Darwin but that there may have been earlier rides across Australia between two other cities.

In the title, the preposition “To” should be changed to lowercase. Small words, such as prepositions and articles, should be lowercased unless they begin a title or sentence.

The author name is far too small. One almost has to hunt for it. It should be in all caps (not large and small caps), enlarged to at least twice its present height. It might look good if the letters were widely kerned, a common attribute given to author names. As mentioned above, the publication date, 1897, should be deleted.

Overall: This cover’s biggest problem is the gratuitous line drawing in the background. It provides no information not already provided by the photo of the bicycle, and it obscures the text.

The text itself needs reworking; it needs concision. This is as true for the cover of a book as for its interior text. An author always should be asking himself whether something can be stricken out. Usually, less is more.

Case Study 38

Title: Cruising the Mediterranean

Authors: Al & Sunny Lockwood

Designer: Wallman Design

Genre: Travel, memoir

Graphics: In the opening pages one of the co-authors notes her fascination with Venice, which becomes the focus of a journey she and her husband make. It is fitting, then, that the cover features Venice. The silhouette of the city’s skyline is not architecturally accurate, but it’s enough, when coupled with the water, to suggest La Serenissima.

If this view of Venice is understood to be from the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, there is a mild falsification: gondolas restrict themselves to the narrow canals of Venice; they don’t venture into the open water as do the vaporettos. But little matter. The prospective reader gets the message.

The only colors on this cover are shades of blue, black, and white. The skyline is in a blue so dark that it almost is black. The gondola and gondolier are in solid black. It would have been good to have a more marked contrast. When graphic elements are so close in color the variance may be taken as an oversight by the designer.

I would have made the skyline lighter and its reflection lighter still (and somewhat rippled), and I would have added hints of other colors, such as a few spots of yellow to imply illuminated windows in several of the buildings.

The tagline—it isn’t phrased as a subtitle—is in a light blue area near the bottom of the cover. There seems no good reason to segregate this area, other than to provide a light background for the text. It would have been better to extend the water.

The author names are in a dark-blue band at the bottom. As with the area immediately above it, the band serves no purpose except to provide a background, in this case dark, for the text. The cover would look more uniform is this band also were removed and replaced with an extension of the water.

Typography: The title itself is slightly misleading, since four of the eighteen chapters (not counting those about trip preparation) are concerned with touring Amsterdam, which, of course, is not in the Mediterranean. Had I been asked about titling, I might have suggested the simpler Cruising or Cruising North and South—something like that.

As far as the title’s text goes, the serif font is a little hard to read when viewed at thumbnail size, and the words stretch too far across the cover. I would place the title in three lines and change the font to one that subtly suggests motion (as in cruising). There is so much water in the lower part of the cover that the skyline can be lowered considerably, giving plenty of space for much-larger title words.

I would skip all caps and gone with upper- and lowercase, to give more legibility and variety to the two long words, and I would use a color other than white for the title—perhaps the same yellow as used in the windows.

At the bottom, as a contrast, I would place the author names in all caps (small caps, really) and perhaps kern them widely, to give that text airiness. I would put the names in bright white.

What to do about the long tagline?

It reads like a sales blurb (“this travel memoir takes readers on the trip of a lifetime”), so I would relegate it to the back cover of the paperback version and maybe to the interior of the ebook version, or I might leave it out of the ebook version entirely and use it just for the book description at Amazon.

In place of the long tagline it might be sufficient to highlight, in a teasing fashion, the locales, thus having something like this: “Amsterdam—Venice—Athens—Santorini—Ephesus—Istanbul.” Letting buyers know where the authors traveled is enough for the cover.

Overall: This cover needs fixes, but they are easy to implement. The mistakes are ones common to indie books, and by correcting them this book can appear to be more than an indie project.

Case Study 8

Title: Italy Travels & Adventures

Author: Steven J. Craig

Designer: JD Smith

Genres: Travel

Graphics: The cover photograph is lovely—it reminds me of many side streets I’ve ventured down in Italy—but I can’t fathom why the upper center was faded out to such a bright white. Perhaps the designer thought that was necessary to make the red title stand out. But maybe not, since “travel & adventures” has a bit of the background still visible.

Typography: The subtitle sits too close to the bottom. The three lines should be raised about half the height of the characters. The subtitle is legible enough, but I would have insisted on using the Oxford comma (after “Terre”) to eliminate possible confusion. Making the font bold would make the text more easily read at thumbnail size.

The author’s name cramps the title. It should be raised slightly and, like the subtitle, could stand to be in bold, chiefly because it rests on a busy background. There doesn’t seem to be much choice but to use black here: red would confuse the author name with the title, and white would make it disappear into the background.

“Italy” is sized well, but the remainder of the title, “travel & adventures,” is too small. There is plenty of room to increase those words. They should be enlarged until “adventures” is the same width as “Italy.” That would make this part of the title look more like a title than a subtitle.

Overall: There is little to fault in this cover. It is the sort of professional design that is within the grasp of some amateurs. Everything is determined by the photo. If that were in hand, not a few amateurs could do as well with the text—and some of them even would remember to use the Oxford comma!