Case Study 67

Title: Uncover

Author: Amanda Linehan

Designer: Amanda Lineham

Genre: Young adult, suspense

Graphics: The background image is a forest scene, obtained from a stock photo company. What we see represents less than half of the original photo which, when seen as a whole, has a brighter feel. The portion used on the cover is darker. It shows a few rays of sunlight coming in from the left, but otherwise there is what some might consider a sense of gloom.

The story is written for teenagers. After her best friend is killed in a car accident, the heroine, according to the book’s description, finds “herself trapped in the dark, making all the wrong moves. In order to reclaim her freedom, she must find a way out of the darkness.”

Well, the cover has plenty of darkness, even though the photo was taken in the daytime, but does it convey a sense of being trapped or of having lost one’s freedom? Not really. It’s a lovely forest scene, but it could represent many things—or nothing much at all. To some it might have a sense of foreboding, to others a sense of delight at a new day.

If one already knows that the story involves a protagonist who feels trapped and unfree, then the image works, to a degree. But it should work without otherwise knowing what the plot is. The image should point to the plot, not the plot to the image.

Beyond that, the forest scene gives no indication of genre. Yes, this might be a place through which someone runs in fear. It equally might be a place where a thru-hiker spent the night, as explained in his how-I-hiked-the-Appalachian Trail memoir. It might be any of a number of things, since it doesn’t specify genre.

When self-published authors design their own covers—and this is especially true for works of fiction—they often, as here, select photos or illustrations that remind them of scenes in their books. To them, the images fit, but the fit won’t be obvious to prospective readers who otherwise don’t know what the books are about.

The lack of genre-sense in graphics can be overcome, in part, by using a tagline that makes the genre clear, but such a tagline should be supplementary to genre-explicit graphics, not in substitution for them.

Typography: The title, “Uncover,” covers too much space. It comes too near the left and right edges, thus running the risk of having its right end snipped off if the paperback version is trimmed too closely—something that happens with distressing frequency at printers. The letters of the title have been too widely kerned and should be moved closer together, with the spaces between them being reduced by one-third.

The letters seem to have a light glow or haze added to them, perhaps to give an ethereal sense. Whatever the intention, the glow or haze makes the letters stand out less from the background, not more, and so should be eliminated on that ground alone.

There is another reason they should go: they conflict with the rays of sunlight coming in from the left and with the gentle lightening in the background. The foreground is darker than the background, and it should be kept that way. The glow or haze brings unneeded light to the text and thus to the foreground.

Like the title, the author name is spread too widely and should be brought in. It is in the same font as the title but should be in a plainer, sans serif font, so the title will stand out more. The new font should have thicker strokes, since the current font struggles against the busy, if dark, forest duff.

The most problematic text is the tagline at the top. It is too near the top, is set on too many lines, is in the wrong font, is too small, and includes unnecessary punctuation.

I would set the text in two lines: “What She Went Looking for/ Isn’t What She Found”. This makes the reading easier and keeps the two parts of the sentence together, each on a separate line. Notice that I have omitted the ellipsis, which adds nothing. I even have omitted a period at the end of what normally would be considered a sentence that requires one. Here, the sentence acts more like a headline and so should not have concluding punctuation.

By resetting the tagline this way—reducing it from four lines to two—half the space is freed up. The tagline can be moved away from the top by putting its new first line where the present third line is. In the process, it should be put in the same sans serif font as the author name, and it should be doubled in height. This would leave it a little smaller than the author name, which is appropriate.

Being smaller and being set against a busier part of the image than is the author name, the subtitle may need to be bolded to stand out sufficiently. At its present size, and with its present font, it is illegible at thumbnail size.

Overall: This cover is pretty, but its graphics fail to explain what the book is about. The book even could be mistaken for non-fiction. The solution lies in using an image that indicates genre. This is all the more important when a book’s title is ambiguous, as here. “Uncover” could suggest many things to many readers. Their thoughts need to be focused, instantly, by graphics that point the way.

Case Study 63

Title: Twelve Feet Down

Author: John Penteros

Designer: Christian Fuenfhausen

Genre: Young adult

Graphics: I admit I’m not sure of this book’s genre. Its protagonist is a thirteen-year-old who lost his leg and his father in a car accident. The author’s niece wrote a review of the book and said she liked the story, so perhaps young adult is the correct categorization.

However that may be, the illustration shows key elements of the story.

Even though it isn’t the most prominent thing on the cover, the prosthetic leg is what captures one’s attention first. The backhoe’s bucket is full of dirt. It pulled up a scraggly root. Did it just unearth this prosthesis too? Does the leg remain attached to a body hidden in the dirt, thus implying that this is a murder mystery or a thriller? Or was the replacement leg somehow lost or buried by the protagonist, who now has it dug up?

There is a scary look to the image—but also a humorous look. Which gives the right sense to the story? It’s hard to say. We can’t tell from the image alone what the book’s genre is, and that’s a failing. Even after reading the book’s description I can’t tell for sure.

That said, the image nevertheless is arresting. We see only the business end of the backhoe, which has been painted in camouflage. The descending root and crumbling dirt slightly obscure parts of the title. There is a sense of motion. The backhoe is rendered almost photographically; its shadow raises it out from the surface of the cover.

These are effective if subtle elements. Even though the graphics fail to identify genre, they do proclaim cleverness and even whimsy.

Typography: The text forms a square that occupies slightly less than half the cover. Well, not quite a square. While the three lines of the title are the same length, the author name is slightly wider. I would have moved its end inward a little, to line up with the text above. Then I would have moved the whole block of text a little leftward. As it stands, it’s off center, the left-hand margin being one-and-a-third times as wide as the right-hand margin.

The author name seems too close to the bottom. How to fix that?

If the whole block of text were raised, “Twelve” would be largely hidden by the backhoe’s bucket. If the backhoe were raised to accommodate the text block, part of the backhoe’s arm would be lost. One solution would be to compress the three title lines vertically by about a tenth. The words would remain as legible as they are now, but the author name would be given as much space below it as it would have to its sides.

The distressed look of the words works well with the backhoe. To me the white text looks like old, worn lettering on an asphalt street. The dirt-brown of the author name, though, seems less prominent than it ought to be. I’d have chosen a greenish hue from the arm of the backhoe, thus putting that tone toward the top and at the bottom of the cover, for balance. But one couldn’t say the present coloration is wrong.

Perhaps the designer left off a genre indicator because there isn’t any obvious place to put it. It can’t go at the top without overlaying the backhoe. One wants to see it beneath the title, but that would make three textual elements—title, tagline, author name—stacked atop one another, and that would look heavy, and it might be difficult to move from one to the next smoothly.

I can propose no good solution for the placement of such a tagline (tiny text in one of the upper corners would look terrible), so perhaps all one can do is hope the intriguing image induces people to go to the book’s description page to learn what it’s about.

Overall: This is a good cover, despite a few limitations. The more I look at it, the more I think that, even though the illustration is eye-catching, what catches my eye yet more insistently is the bold title. Those three words balance off the mechanical top half of the cover and make a prospective buyer wonder what might be found in a hole a dozen feet deep.

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 30

Title: Catalyst

Author: Kristin Smith

Designer: Marya Heidel

Genre: Young adult, dystopian fiction

Graphics: The finely done illustration tells us several things at once. The protagonist is a teenaged girl. The book has something to do with her coming of age or maturing (the butterfly), and there is a scientific or genetic element to the story (the DNA strands).

The girl looks weary and wary. As it happens, she is one of only two students at her school who aren’t genetically modified. Everyone else is “perfect,” and that discrepancy is what the story hinges on. She is “odd girl out,” so to speak.

If the illustration has a weakness it is the disparity between the precision of the girl’s face and the haziness of the DNA strands and, less so, the butterfly. At thumbnail size the DNA looks like a blur, and the wings of the butterfly could be mistaken for two spheres or planets. It’s important for designers to keep in mind that, except on shelves of bookstores, book covers nowadays are seen first at thumbnail size, so each element has to be discernible even when small.

Typography: The title font is an unusual one. There is nothing particularly objectionable about it—it is legible enough—but it doesn’t suggest the genre. It might be just right for a book set in the Medieval era, given the font’s rough-hewn look, but it doesn’t seem to add anything here. Nevertheless, it has no real drawback (except see below).

The author name is in letters that are too thin, and they shouldn’t be in large and small caps. The same font could be used if it were in bold and all the letters the same height.

The series tagline, “The Deception Game, Book One,” is where one would expect a subtitle to be. It is so small as to be illegible even when the cover is seen at larger than thumbnail size. I would have put this tagline at the top in letters at least twice as tall. Again, there is the problem of using large and small caps.

There is a second tagline, “Perfection is Everything.” Where to put this? Before putting it anywhere, its size also should be increased substantially, and the period should be dropped, even though the tagline forms a complete sentence. Perhaps this tagline could be considered the subtitle and be placed immediately under the title, but that would bring back a spacing problem: to fit there, the text would have to be kept small.

The problem is with the descender to the Y. If the title were in all caps, there would be no descender, and the tagline/subtitle could stretch the full length of the title, allowing it to appear much larger.

As another alternative, the tagline/subtitle might be placed beneath the series tagline at the top, with its letters widely kerned to help distinguish the two lines from one another. Such a placement might necessitate lowering the girl’s face so the two lines of text don’t cover too much of her forehead.

Overall: This cover’s strength is the girl’s face, its weakness the size and placement of the text. At least the genre is plain enough. The cover makes it clear that this book is aimed at a young-adult audience and that it has something to do with the unexpected or the bizarre. Even as it stands, the cover deserves a solid B.

Case Study 17

Title: Sealing Death

Author: Basil E. Bacorn

Designer: Basil E. Bacorn

Genre: Fantasy, young adult

Graphics: The graphic treatment here is, shall we say, minimalistic: a green, corrugated background on top of which lies a blue, textured splotch. The best I can do is to guess that the green represents grass and the blue a pond, though the green doesn’t look like grass, and the blue doesn’t look like water.

Whatever these items are supposed to be, in no way do they indicate death or even the book’s genre. At best they confuse or mislead the reader. It would have been better to use a cover without graphics at all, one with just a solid color. That would not have made for a good cover, but at least it would not have induced the wrong kinds of questions.

Typography: The title font seems to have been designed by someone who was having a bad day. It’s hard to imagine any situation in which the font would be appropriate. It certainly adds nothing here. The font’s odd serifs don’t say “fantasy” or “young adult” or even “death.” Even Helvetica would have been a better choice.

The author name appears in too small a size and too close to the bottom of the cover. It is preceded by “by,” a major gaffe. It likely is impossible to locate a book published by one of the Big 5 publishers that sticks “by” before an author’s name. There’s a reason for that: “by” adds nothing. The prospective reader already knows, from experience, that if a cover sports a person’s name—especially if that name is in sufficiently large letters—that person must be the author.

Overall: I should note that, at Amazon, the author identifies himself as a high school student. If a middle-aged writer had produced such a cover, I would have little hope of reformation, but most teenagers are capable of acquiring new skills. The author is to be commended just for being an author at his age, but he needs to learn that his words are unlikely to find an audience unless they are packaged reasonably well.

Case Study 15

Title: Fate

Author: Maya Mirza-Gill

Designer: Maya Mirza-Gill

Genre: Young adult

Graphics: This is the third book in a trilogy. The others have similar covers: a silhouetted figure and lightning. Perhaps the author/designer felt obligated to keep the style uniform, once the first volume was published. That’s understandable, but it would have been better to have turned to a professional for the later volumes. As it is, this one has the least intelligible image, which, unfortunately, is cut off at the top and bottom by large black swaths.

Typography: The title has a drop shadow to make it stand out, an indication that the wrong font was chosen—but at least the color is correct. There seems to be a single font used on the cover. It would be better for the title to be in one font—say, a serif font, as here—and the rest of the text to be in a sans serif font.

The biggest problem with the text is that it isn’t big enough. At thumbnail size everything except the title is illegible, and even that is too small.

The tagline, which hugs the bottom and is oddly divided, actually has nothing to do with this book. It’s praise of the first volume in the series. That kind of thing “works” only if the one giving the praise is famous, but that isn’t the case here.

Overall: Stand back from the monitor a bit and look at this cover. It’s hard to distinguish anything, other than the title word.

A cover is a book’s most important marketing tool, and this is truer for ebooks than for print books. An ebook cover needs to catch a buyer’s eye in seconds, or it won’t catch it at all. There is nothing catchy here, and, for Fate, that may have proved fatal.

Case Study 7

Title: The Space Between

Author: Rachel Sanderson

Designer: Zoella Rose Designs

Genre: Young adult

Graphics: At first it’s hard to tell what the image is, at least at thumbnail size. At full size it’s clear that we’re looking across a plain at a distant ridge, with roiling clouds above and ground fog below.

If the image is supposed to evoke “space between,” it doesn’t quite work since the fog obscures the space between the woman and the ridge. It would have been better to choose an image that shows a large, flat, unobscured plain with hills and clouds in the distance.

Suggestion: a wintertime shot of Death Valley’s famous Racetrack playa, looking south to north at the Grandstand outcropping of rocks at the far end. In such a photo there would be no fog, yet in winter there often are roiling clouds over Death Valley.

As on far too many covers, here the protagonist (I presume that’s who it is) has her back to us. This might be a case where it makes sense, since she’s looking across a void. Nevertheless, rear views (and views of rears) have become cliché. There no longer is anything catchy about them.

On close inspection it looks like the image of the woman was pasted onto the background. Yes, there is a hint of shadow behind her, and it goes in the right direction, given that the light is coming from in front of her. But she doesn’t look like part of the scene. Perhaps she would have, had there been footprints behind her on the wet grass.

Typography: The tagline at the top (virtually invisible in this image) says this book was “shortlisted for the 2016 Ampersand Prize.” That’s nice, but it’s not really a selling point. It would have been better to include a subtitle or a tagline that explains what the story is about.

In fact, is it a story? From the title alone, one might imagine something to do with physics or geography. There isn’t even the customary notice that this book is “a novel.”

The font for the author name is fine, and the letters are well spaced, but they shouldn’t be black. Perhaps a light blue, taken from the lightest tone of the woman’s denims, or perhaps just plain ol’ white. The black is just too hard to read against the darkness of the ground.

The title text is bad in two ways. The font is too thin for the image, and its colors (three of them) are poor: light blue for “space,” medium blue for “the,” and dark blue for “between,” all of them partly transparent, for no obvious reason—and why is the article tucked into “space”?

This cover needs a font with short serifs or no serifs and with thick verticals, and all three words should be a uniform color with no transparency. But which color?

White would seem to be contraindicated since the clouds have much white in them. So maybe black. As it is, “between” stands out reasonably well, and it would stand out even better if it were solid black. If the first two words were put on one line, and if all three title words were in uppercase, they could rest not far above the ridge, thereby giving more emphasis to the notion of distance.

Overall: To do this novel justice, it probably would have been necessary to fight the impulse to use a long-distance background image. Such images make it too easy for a designer to take shortcuts, and they’re overused. However that may be, there really was no excuse for the title treatment. The intent may have been to make the words look mysterious, but the result was to make them look hard to read.