This third installment of Judging a Book by its Cover looks at great book cover designs that won the 2012 Design Observer 50 Books-50 Covers award. Part 1 explored how most book design rarely rises above “competent.” Part 2 looked at the state of self-published book covers. But rather than criticize blindly—it’s too easy to proclaim that a design fails or succeeds—both articles explain what works and what doesn’t work about a variety of covers.
After exploring a field of generally mediocre-to-poor examples, I want to try to answer the most difficult question of all: what does work in design? No magic formulas exist. Many designs succeed simply by avoiding some of the weak practices described in the earlier articles. Other designs succeed for many reasons—and ironically, those reasons—and even the perceived success of the work—may not be obvious at first glance. Continue reading →
Part 1 of Book Cover Design: Judging a Book by its Cover critiqued “professional” covers taken from Amazon’s Editor’s choice list. Read that article first as it provides background for this one. The article looked at design elements that worked and identified some that didn’t. This section looks at covers of indie books. As a group, these covers represent the state of self-published books quite well. Certainly, it’s easy to describe a design as “weak” or “ineffective.” But understanding and articulating why a design doesn’t work is more difficult.
To clarify, I don’t like making any distinction between self-published books and traditionally published books. As we saw in Part 1, design standards for trade books aren’t very high. This should represent a golden opportunity for self-publishers to present their work as a gourmet product. Instead, after spending years writing a book and polishing a manuscript, too many writers bypass professional editors and designers, believing they can produce satisfactory work on their own. The results are shown below. To a large extent we are responsible for the stigma attached to self-publishing.
If you’re not a graphic designer, this article won’t catalyze any grand transformation. But it will hopefully help you see more deeply, recognize the value of working with a professional, and assist you with distinguishing between real cover artists and overconfident pixel-monkeys. As a self-publisher, only you can set the standards for excellent work. Set them high.
How can indie writers and self-publishers use a blog to build an author platform? The visitor stats for this site will soon cross the 150,000 page-view threshold and I expect to hit 200,000 by year’s end. Other bloggers have much higher visitor statistics. This article explains how to publish online content to build community around your books.
Build an Author Platform: Set up Your Blog
A blog (short for web log) is a publishing platform that enables you to publish static pages (About the Author, My Book, etc.) and a chronologically ordered stream of articles (called posts). My favorite engine for blogging is WordPress. WordPress is free and most web hosting services have an automatic installer that sets up a WordPress site with a few clicks. I also published my own installation guide on this blog. If you don’t want to buy a domain name and a web hosting account (or have decided that this article is already getting too technical for your tastes), start with a free account from WordPress.com. You can upgrade to your own, fully-customizable copy of WordPress that runs on your own server later. (Download your own copy from WordPress.org when you’re ready). Google’s Blogger.com is a popular alternative. It’s quite functional and it’s free but WordPress is infinitely more customizable.
Nothing screams “amateur” like a poorly crafted book cover. The standards for book design aspired to by trade publishers are not all that high, but self-publishers routinely fall short of them. If you want your book to be taken seriously, package it like you’re serious about it. Perhaps the greatest tragedy in literature occurs when a well-crafted, meticulously edited bookblock is paired with an uninspiring cover.
This article reviews a selection of “professional” book covers to explore what works and what doesn’t in book design. Rather than go straight to the top and bottom of the design spectrum, the examples are pulled at random from Amazon’s Editor’s Choice list. I assume they’re trade-published books but the distinction between traditionally published books and self-published books is irrelevant; good (and bad) book design comes from all corners of the publishing universe. I chose these as a random sample of books that sell well.
Part 1 of this article explores mostly “competent” covers. They aren’t all excellent or groundbreaking, but they convey some sense of professionalism and attention to detail while communicating some essence of what the book is about. As a designer, I care much more for some of these covers than others, but whatever I might think of them, their aesthetic qualities didn’t stand in the way of the books’ success.
This article began as a response to a post on a writers’ forum. An author submitted a book for review and had his work rejected out-of-hand simply because it was self-published. Self-publishers grumble about this insult regularly.
The National Book Awards (among many others) has the same policy. Here’s the response I got when I asked to have my publishing company added to their list.
Are you a self publisher? If you don’t publish books other than your own or go through a print on demand outfit, you are unfortunately ineligible for the National Book Awards.
What do you think a professional editor’s pay scale should be? Assume that a proofreader would be at the bottom of the scale and a developmental/line editor would be at the top. An examination of the work editors perform sheds some light on the matter.
An accurate proofreader—not a full-blown editor but a reader capable of ferreting out problems with spelling, grammar, and style—has spent years learning the details of language and even typography (knowing when and how to use hyphens, endashes, and emdashes, small caps, and other typographical conventions is part of the job description). Clearly, we’re talking about a skilled, educated and experienced professional here, even if the editing is done only at a technical level. Isn’t that person worth $50,000/year—at least?
Next add to these skills the ability to read a narrative deeply, find inconsistencies, recognize overused patterns, understand the fine points of language and storytelling, and convey these to an author as useful, sometimes hard-hitting but never insulting critique. This kind of professional is difficult to come by—this editor understands both the left-brained, technical points of fine writing and the right-brained art of communicating stories, ideas, emotions, experiences, and streams of consciousness and perspective for which there are no names. We’d sell this talented person short by offering $100,000/year but let’s use that number for the sake of discussion. Continue reading →
With the arrival of the Internet, the common man got the power to publish—anything—for free—for the first time in history. Then PDF brought replicas of printed documents to the screen with clarity, accuracy and security. Flash brought the power of animated vector graphics and a powerful programming tool to the web browser. Then the eBook brought reflowable, resizable text and inspired new reading devices—perfect for displaying long, paginated documents. But somewhere along the way, an important promise was broken. All of these technologies empowered the Internet’s unprecedented freedom to publish—except for the eBook.
Ebooks and the Promise of the Internet
EBooks violate the fundamental promise of the Internet. Anyone can publish a website. Anyone can offer content for free or sell whatever they want from a website. Small commissions to payment processors and web hosting costs notwithstanding, the Internet empowers a seller to engage directly with a buyer. Ebooks break this promise; the writer should be able to engage directly with the reader. The writer should be able to sell directly to the reader. Imagine if you had to pay your web hosting company 30% of your gross every time you sold an item on your website—that’s exactly what eBookstores do. By separating the eBook from its proper home—the web browser—big media companies grow fat. This article explores the relationships between the web browser, PDF, Flash and eBooks—and how those relationships affect you.
Few subjects arouse more passion among writers and designers than the debate over how many spaces should follow a period. If you adhere to a style manual, you’ll be hard-pressed to find one that doesn’t specify a single-space. Chicago and MLA specify one—debate ended—but the popular arguments in support of the single-space after a period (arguments I must confess to having perpetuated in previous writings) turn out to be mostly apocryphal. The single-space after a period is a simple style evolution—and it’s a fairly recent one. This leaves traditionalist typesetters like myself in something of a quandary; staunch advocates for the single-space must question whether their “classic” design work is authentic.
This article surveys book typography from the 1700s to the present. The survey is small and the examples come from various publishers in different parts of the world, but the trends revealed are, at least, a catalyst for deeper exploration. As a “core sample,” the images suggest a certain path of typographical evolution.
I recently responded to a question in a writers’ forum from an author who was in the process of designing a cover for her novel set in a swamp in New Orleans. “I chose a ‘swampy’ font that hangs down over the art to make it look like Spanish moss,” she said. For her previous Zombie fiction book, she chose a typeface appropriately named “bullet in the brain.” Though these might seem like obvious choices, their obviousness is precisely what makes them a liability. This article offers a few thoughts on book cover design for genre fiction.
Book Cover Typefaces: You Get What You Pay For
Excellent typefaces often cost hundreds of dollars. Fonts on free font sites are very often either ripped off and renamed or designed by amateurs. Rarely will someone take the time to design a serious typeface and give it away. FontSquirrel and a few others offer some quality typefaces but gimmicky fonts often lack a full set of characters. For example, they may offer only capital letters and might omit dollar signs and other useful glyphs. Like free clip-art that’s available to everybody, free fonts get downloaded and used over and over and over. Paying even a small price for a typeface ensures that 99% of amateurs won’t be using it. Continue reading →
I recently published a post about the difference between vanity publishing and true self-publishing. Fundamentally, the article defines a publisher as “someone who takes the risk on a book.” Vanity Presses represent themselves as publishers and accept royalties while the author assumes all the risk. True self-publishers pay the up-front costs for design, printing, distribution, etc. but after the sales commissions are paid, they don’t have to share their profits. But several readers wrote in to suggest I’d omitted a third approach—co-publishing. This article explains what co-publishing is and what it isn’t.
Co-Publishing – What it Is NOT
At first, I mistakenly assumed that co-publishing was an arrangement where the author published under the “self-publishing” wing of a major publisher. For example Penguin Books started a Book Country imprint which has been criticized as a vanity press that preys on authors who want to be “affiliated” with the publishing leviathan. But writers don’t have to work very hard to earn pseudo “Published by Penguin” status. Penguin’s parent company, Pearson, purchased Author Solutions which is the umbrella entity under which most of the major vanity presses operate. Penguin risks the dilution of their brand—their respected role as gatekeeper—by admitting anyone who wants to publish through the side door, and authors are unlikely to sell many books by playing the phony “published by Penguin” card, anyway. If Penguin thought your book was a potential blockbuster, they’d sign you directly and send you an advance. But though Penguin’s business tactics are newsworthy, pretending to ride the coattails of a major publisher by vanity publishing through one of their holdings is NOT co-publishing.
Co-Publishing – What it IS
Publishing on any level has risk associated with it; money is spent to bring a manuscript to market with the understanding that profits may not exceed expenditures. Traditional publishers assume all the risk; they pay the writer an advance against royalties and cover all the costs of marketing. Self-publishers cover their own costs. They assume all the risks and take home a much larger share of the profit (if there is any).
But what about a third arrangement where the author and publisher share the risks? For example, a small publisher may not be in a financial position to pay advances against royalties but it may be able to provide editing, design services, and publishing expertise—valuable contributions that writers often lack the skills and experience to handle on their own. Potentially, a co-publishing arrangement is worth a piece of the prospective future pie. Continue reading →