Thursday, January 17, 2013

On Book Covers and What Makes Them "Lousy"

There's a tumblr page that's getting some attention lately dedicated to "Lousy Book Covers." As we all know, the digital age has made it much easier for authors to publish their own books. Naturally, all of those books need a cover, and sometimes the result is a bit...underwhelming. So Nathan Shumate has dedicated a tumblr page to a sampling of them.

Now, I'm conflicted over sharing this link because we all know how hard it is to commit yourself to an artistic endeavor (like writing a book) and it always seems wrong to laugh at people who are attempting to express themselves artistically. I have a lot of admiration for anyone who is able to complete a book and publish it. To put yourself out there and open yourself up to all that criticism takes a lot of guts. And, I would assume that, being authors first and foremost, many of them have more of an interest in writing a book (and more training in that area) than in designing a cover for the finished product.

That said, it's interesting to look at the collection of covers and look for trends that lead to problematic design. And as you peruse the choices these designers have made, you begin to wonder what exactly the rules are for creating a successful cover.

I'm not sure that there are any absolute rules for designing a good cover...but for the cover of a novel to be successful (and this applies to comic book covers as well, and also for movie posters), I think it's safe to say that the most important rule is this: does it make you want to pick up the book and start reading it (or make you want to go see the movie)?

Looking at all of these "lousy" covers in one place is a good opportunity to see trends among them and formulate some theories as to what is making them less than successful, and those rules can be helpful because they apply to other areas of drawing and design as well.

What makes a cover work or not work?

So what is the measure that makes a cover successful in the first place? Well, any good cover - be it for a book, magazine, comic book, album, DVD, etc. - should, obviously, grab the viewer's attention immediately. Books are designed to be sold on shelves in bookstores (even thought that's not exactly the case anymore) and the whole point of a cover is to stand out from all the other covers that are surrounding it as the book sits on a shelf in a bookstore. So the whole concept of the cover should be attention-grabbing and interesting. Also, it should be incredibly clear, so that the viewer can tell at a glance what idea the cover is trying to communicate. Even a moment's confusion over the cover will cause the customer to give up trying to decipher it, walk away and forget all about the book. There's always another cover just inches away competing for attention and drawing them away, and they don't want to have to "work with" a cover to figure out what it's trying to communicate.

So simplicity, I think, is key. Whatever the idea behind the cover is, it should "read" in a fraction of a second. Usually, that's how long a consumer takes to decide if they're interested or not.

Less is more

Unfortunately, inexperienced designers often think that, to be a good design, a piece of art has to have A LOT of stuff jammed into the composition. Maybe this is an effort to make it seem like the book is stuffed full of a lot of story. But simplicity and focus are hallmarks of good illustration. Less is always more. And to be restrained and control your impulses to include EVERYTHING takes discipline and control.

Any good piece of art has one center of interest. Some pieces of art might have two, or even three, but only in rare cases. To get one idea across is hard enough, and once you have multiple ideas competing for emphasis, the result is usually chaos. Art depends on hierarchy to have meaning. The artist needs to tell the viewer what the most (and least) important aspects of a piece are so the viewer can make sense of the artwork and understand what the artist is trying to tell them.

How does an artist do that? A few examples...

Obviously, things like light and dark are usually great tools to give emphasis to the center of interest and sublimate unimportant areas of a composition.

The eye will always be drawn to the area with the most contrast within the composition, so always use the most contrast where you want the viewer to focus.

How you compose and arrange the objects within your composition is another important tool for telling the viewer which things are important and which are lesser in importance.

In line art, the thickness of ink lines can even be used to tell you what's important and what isn't as important.
Those are a few examples, anyway, just for an explanation of what I meant. Back to the book covers!

As I was saying, I think some designers think that a composition is good if it's full of a lot of things to look at. The problem is, of course, that that approach is a recipe for a jumbled mess. Photoshop, unfortunately, can make it too easy to put a bunch of disparate elements together.

The problem with jumbling a bunch of unrelated objects together is that humans are very sophisticated when it comes to viewing our world....we do it all day, every day and we know when something's not right. So when we see a bunch of objects that were photographed at different locations and under different lighting conditions thrown together, we sense (even if we aren't really aware of it) that something is off. And that sense of unease and general wrong-ness can be enough to make you think a book isn't going to be worth picking up.

In the last two covers above, the artist compounded the problem by using a background where the ground plane was visible. So we can clearly see that, in the first example, the three beefcake models and the naked woman don't quite appear to be convincingly standing (and lying, brrrr...) on the surface of the ice rink. In the example above, the two medieval guys don't appear to be on the same plane with each other or the background behind them. The artist is each case would have improved their chances of success if they'd used just one figure and if they'd chosen a background where the ground wasn't visible. That makes it a lot harder to judge if the perspective was fudged or not. For an example, scroll down to the bottom of this post where I've posted some other covers from bestselling books that I found on

Color and Palette Choice

Another telling sign of an inexperienced designer is the use of a ton of colors in one composition. Again, Photoshop makes it too easy to use as many colors as you want, and a wide range of unrelated colors is one of the quickest ways to create a totally confusing mess. Even painters with decades of experience will avoid this trap by limiting their color palette to just a few complimentary colors, or stick with a monochromatic palette.

Again, scroll down to the covers posted at the bottom to see some book covers with very controlled, simple palettes.

Tone and Subject Matter

The cover of a book is a bit like a trailer for a movie. It has to carry a lot of weight in accurately describing the contents and tone of the book so that a potential reader can tell, at a glance, what the subject matter of the book is and what the overall tone of the book is (meaning is it funny, serious, etc).

Font choice can have a lot to do with this. Every font has a unique personality and evokes a specific feeling and tone. And font, obviously, takes up much of the valuable real estate of the front cover. So font choice should do a lot to communicate the content of the pages inside the book.

Some fonts are hard to read, and sometimes the artist doesn't help matters by not creating enough contrast between the font and the artwork behind it.

And in some cases the artist just picked a generic font, completely squandering the opportunity to create a mood or feeling that describes the book within.

 Mass Market Covers

For contrast, a quick search of fiction bestsellers on Amazon shows that most book covers tend to be very simply designed, and therefore very direct and arresting. There's a lot of contrast and a lot of bold choices.

Fantasy and Science Fiction books seem to be a little more complicated. In contrast to other genres, Sci Fi and Fantasy books seem more likely to feature a particular character on the cover. But even so, the covers of these books keep the presentation as simple and direct as possible: always just one character to focus on, with a minimum of distracting background detail. A strong bold pose that's eye catching and feels dynamic. And typically they limit themselves to a simple color scheme or are entirely monochromatic.

In any case, I hope all this makes sense and I hope you enjoy the Lousy Book Cover tumblr. And just to repeat: my intention is not to mock the work of others or feel superior by laughing at what they've done, only to learn from their mistakes.

In future posts, I'm planning on looking at movie posters and comic book covers as well, and trying to wrap my head around what seems to work (and what doesn't seem to work) in those mediums as well.


Jonah Sidhom said...

Awesome post. It seems like less is more when it comes to book covers.

I did a book cover project last semester at school, I chose Animal Farm:

Steve Marshall said...

Love the blog, love the post, and I'm excited to see your analysis of comic covers. Can I suggest some reference? Ryan Ottley:
Cory Walker:

They're two of my favorites in comics for different reasons.

Christian Kaw said...

What is it with people using a ton of color?

Luca Carey said...

Maybe it's just me, but I seem to notice this trend in complicated covers more in superhero comics, whereas indie comics tend to feature very minimalistic or direct designs. Much like scifi/fantasy books, comics engage the senses, so it makes sense that they would (and to some degree should) represent their high visual standard from the get-go. Much like everything else in comics, balancing this visual dynamism with a simple consumer-friendly aesthetic is a tricky proposition.

Lucy said...

Great post! thanks!

Rebecca Burgess said...

Thank you for a very insightful and as always detailed post! I have alot of trouble with covers and poster design, this is really helpful :)

dirtywhitecandy said...

Thanks so much for explaining this so clearly. I'm off to tweet!

David Rickert said...

Hi Mark,

I'm looking for blogs on storyboarding. I'm new to the game and want some tips and tricks like I get from your site. It doesn't look like Story Bored gets much action. Can you give me some names of some people you know who do storyboards? I thought about clicking the links to the side, but figured you could just tell me much quicker. Thanks!

Anya @ On Starships and Dragonwings said...

Thanks for bringing up fantasy book covers, since I was about to get all sad for a second ;-). I generally use fantasy scenes on covers as a cue as to whether I want to read the book or not, and the gender of the character (since I'm in the mood for female main characters right now), and the type of magical/supernatural stuff that is shown. All of this means that I will pass by a book that has too boring of a cover ;-). It still has to be darn pretty though! This means that fantasy indie books might have it harder than other genres since it costs money to get a professional illustration done, whereas it's not as difficult to pull off a simple and dramatic "just text" cover.

-Anya @ On Starships and Dragonwings

Alice Plouchard Stelzer said...

This was so helpful. While I was reading it, the idea for my cover came into my head. Simple with only two colors. Thank you.

Myrna Lou Goldbaum said...

I have just completed and now editing my first fiction book. I have 3 published non-fiction books now. Your cover hints and suggestions will make this book a success from the start. I learned a lot of useful info here. Thank you.

Lev Raphael said...

You're forgetting that with big names like Grisham, their books are pre-sold. Covers don't matter, the names do. Hence those simple covers by best-selling authors above.

Adrijus G. said...

Pretty good post! Good advice. Useful to authors who do their own covers too. I'd add that cropping is also a problem sometimes with bad cuts.

Good post, keep them coming if you have more, authors will appreciate it.

mark kennedy said...

Jonah - thanks! Glad you liked the post. I'll check out your cover!

Steve - thanks for the links! I'll check them out.

Christian - I don't know...I guess it's counter-intuitive to keep it simple. Seems the same with drawing.

Luca - well put!

Lucy - thanks for the comment!

Rebecca - great, I'm glad it helped!

candy - great, glad you enjoyed it!

David - I don't know, really - even the story artists I know don't post much storyboard art. Chris Sanders (link on my sidebar) recently posted some Croods storyboards. Check out the Bill Peet link for some classic examples of story type drawings. Hope that helps!

Anya - yes, good point.

Alice - that's great!

Myrna - that's great, good luck!

Lev - true, but I still think a simple, conservative design denotes sophistication, and that's a big part of what readers look for in a book written for adults.

Adrijus - glad you enjoyed it!

Rebecca Marshal said...

Thank you very much for sharing nice post. It is very useful to authors.

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CS-Cart Development said...

Now, I just finished editing my fiction in the first place. I have three nonfiction books published today. Their advice and translation coverage make this book a success from the start. I learned a lot of useful information here. Thank you.

Princess Rockstar Scientist said...

In general I agree, but a lot of the book covers one sees these days are not just simple, they're completely generic and forgettable. I can't tell you what was on the cover of the last three books I read. As they were all mysteries, I'm guessing looming trees, a silhouette in an alley and maybe some windows at night, all squelched through a photoshop filter. But I love pulling out my fantasy books to look at Josh Kirby's chaotic Discworld covers or the detailed and ethereal covers by Kinuko Craft or James Jean's beautiful covers for Fables.

Gina said...

This was a fantastic post! A few months ago I spent a ton of time looking at different covers trying to decide what direction to go with, and I'll definitely keep this post in mind when I have to do the next one. The dark and light and contrast in particular are things I hadn't thought much about before. I really love the simplicity of some covers, and the ones that focus purely on typography. It's amazing some of the things you can make with simple fonts.

Also, just as a side note, someone tried to talk me into hiring them to make one of those "random objects photoshopped together" covers, (I said no, of course) but I worry about how many of those covers writers spent a lot of money on. So I appreciate you emphasizing that using the covers wasn't for mocking, it was for learning from their mistakes.

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