A Cover Story: Chapter 5 – Bad Cover! No Biscuit!

I’m pushing back the intended next chapter another day because of some serendipitous content that flew in over the transom, so to speak. The blog The Passive Voice has featured a couple of items relevant to our process, and so I thought it appropriate to toss them in. We will resume forward progress tomorrow.

PASSIVE GUY points to a gallery of very bad book covers. Since we’re on about covers in this series, naturally, we should take a gander. And, I think, most of the covers blatantly display the reasons they were chosen for the list. But… Not all. I’m not certain I disagree with all of the choices the cover artists, art directors, and editors took. For example, I don’t get the criticism of the Hemingway. Not my cup of tea, but I wouldn’t, as the saying goes, kick it out of bed for eating crackers.

Of course, those covers which do sin against all good sensibility do so … shall we say … dispositively. The sins range from poor composition to purely awful image selection. Many of them are so bad as to cause readers to want to remove them from the book store shelves and given them a decent burial or commit them to the flames or something final-rest-y like that. So as to not cause harm to other, innocent onlookers. Anachronism, for one, utter inappropriateness for another. (Tell me: how do a modern briefcase and a kitten relate to a tale of intrigue and adventure set in France at the time of the Revolution?)

On the other hand, you don’t have to search thirty-year-old catalogs from used book stores to find purely awful covers. There are myriad examples to be found among the top editors’ picks at Amazon. For example this one. Or this one. Or this one. Or, in my own genre — science fiction and fantasy — this one. Or this one. That last actually intrigued me and I clicked through from the search listing to the individual product page, but the utter awful type arrangement (I will not dignify that abomination with the ancient and honorable term of “typesetting”.) just sent me running into the howling outer darkness. OK, not that bad, but not good.

This says nothing whatsoever about the quality of the books, only that of the covers. The books themselves might be masterpieces, but their bad covers diminish their chances of ever being read, and more’s the pity. And, if the reasons that I selected the ones I did are unclear, ask in comments and we can discuss.

I do think, however, I should make it clear that my choices have little to do with my personal taste. There were a good many covers I didn’t like and would never choose for my own work. And also many I did like but still would not choose to cover a book of mine. The ones I point out are those that jumped out of the search listing at me as REALLY bad in thumbnail form. And I only clicked through to the one. The rest were judged SOLELY on the basis of the 160×160 pixel image. Keep that in mind. Your work will also be judged on that same basis.

PASSIVE GUY ALSO points to some tools for color. The one I like is the one called Kuler which helps you make a color scheme or theme. I like it because it forces a limited palette. Or, at least, it does if you actually use it.

Limited palette is important because… In order to draw a potential reader’s attention, you need to draw their visual focus. You need to make them PAY ATTENTION to you. And, for the most part, a very good way to do that is to make your cover image a thing which is perceived to be of a single color.

Why? Well, the eye is drawn to the unusual in a scene. And most scenes — look around yourself and you’ll see what I mean — have an incredible amount of noise in them. Which makes it hard to see a particular individual object in a scene unless there’s something to draw your attention to it — to make you focus on it to the exclusion of all else in the scene.


A distinct and clear shape that stands out from the background is one thing that will do this. Military folks have been using the inverse of this for practically ever in the art of camouflage. If you break up the outline of an object, you make it harder to see. Conversely, if you strongly limn the edges of an object, it will stand out — be more noticeable.

Color can accomplish much the same thing. If most of a scene is either a single color or incredibly noisy and an object is of a single different color, or NOT noisy, the object will stand out from the background. So, if you use a limited color palette in your cover design, and do so wisely, you can make of it an object that stands out from the background and yet contains in it other objects — the title and author’s name, or the featured object in the source image — which in turn stand out from the cover. Ideally, you want all of your major elements to read effortlessly at that 160-pixel square size.

Another thing about that tool, (which may mean that SOME of you (I’m looking at you, Mrs. Hoyt) may not be allowed to use it), is that it’s by Adobe. And integrates (or so I’m told) with Photoshop. I haven’t been able to figure out how, yet, but I’m told it’s possible.

But, it’s also an online tool, so isn’t locked into the Adobe apps. You can note the color values in RGB, HSV, CMYK, Hex, or LAB… and transfer them manually into whichever app you’re using. With practice, that’s actually not too bad. I use a similar technique for reading colors from Photoshop into CorelDRAW. Not because I really have to, but because, on an ad hoc basis, it’s fast, easy, and lightweight. Doesn’t take a lot of setup and effort to do. Sometimes the low tech way is best.

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