Working Greyscale Part 1: Colours and Contrasts

Colour is a very effective tool for creating a mood. Bright reds will tell the reader that the book is going to be violent or sexy; deep blues signify something melancholy or profound. Chick-lit covers are invariably bright and cheerful pastels, while crime has a limited palette of strong colours. In The Way of Kings the hero stands before a vast, open canyon stretching into the distance and the majestic colours of the sunset help to evoke the awesome mood of the epic story. In greyscale, the bright and subtle colours become a dappled grey which is neither dramatic nor emotive.

09 The Way of Kings   09wayofkings

In the Timeline cover, the red text of the title contrasts boldly with the dull grey of the knight’s helmet. In greyscale, the red becomes just another shade of grey, lost against the grey helmet.

MichaelCrighton_Timeline   MichaelCrighton

A cover designed to be viewed in greyscale will benefit from contrasts between light and dark, not contrasts between colour. Subtle variations in shade are lost in greyscale. Black and white photographs will work well as greyscale as they are already designed without colour. There is barely any difference between the black and white and greyscale covers of Margaret Thatcher.

13 cover_charles_moore   maggie

The Ming Storytellers works well in both colour and greyscale  because the stylized image has clear lines and obvious contrasts. It doesn’t rely on variations in shade or tone.

TheMingStorytellers   theming2

However, a cover that is simple and bold in greyscale runs the risk of being rather dull when in colour. In my next post I’ll be discussing covers that work well in greyscale and in colour. For other opinions on working in greyscale see Mike Cane.


Working in Thumbnail Part 2: Complicated Covers

In a previous post I noted that many of the covers from the 1980s were simple and bold,  as if perfectly designed to work as ebook covers in thumbnail. In contrast, many of the bestselling covers from the 2010s were complicated. So what factors allow a complicated cover to also work in thumbnail?

Patricia Cornwell’s Port Mortuary has a detailed colour photograph and small text. The photograph has various colours and details in the texture while the text is thin. There is great potential for this cover to fail in thumbnail but it succeeds. The font is a geometric modernist font without serifs or modulated stroke so it remains clear and legible even at a small size. The black shadow in the photograph is cleverly positioned behind the white text making it stand out. The tiny figure in the background is also silhouetted against the sky, helping to keep the image clear. The knife in the foreground is large enough to be visible even in a small size. The detail is only detail of texture. The detail is interesting and evocative in a large size, when the viewer can make out the sea, clouds and the blood splash on the knife, but none of these features are necessary to understand the composition of the cover. In a small size, the knife and the silhouette are still clear and visible, the blood stain has vanished. The quote at the top is legible in a large size, but in a small size it gets lost in the cloud and is not a distraction.

9781408702352   9781408702352

This is the secret to scaling complicated covers: the details that are visible in the larger version and invisible in the smaller version should not be necessary for understanding the picture. The Forest of Hands and Teeth achieves the same effect as Port Mortuary. The creepy details of the trees, the texture of her shirt and the whisps of her fly away hair are all lost in the thumbnail – but the overall mood of the picture is still clear and comprehensible in her lowered head, floating hair and the subdued colour scheme.

Forest_Hands_Teeth_hb_cover   Forest_Hands_Teeth_hb_cover

Terry Pratchett’s Guards Guards is a perfect example of a cover which does not work in thumbnail. Josh Kirby’s artwork is a perfect fit for Terry Pratchett’s novel. The novel works on many levels, as a straightforward adventure, as a witty comedy, as a satire of fantasy conventions and as a police procedural. Josh Kirby’s artwork reflects that: the cover is grotesque and amusing, frenetic and detailed. In thumbnail the characters in the lower left become a jumbled mess, while the baby dragon and the sea gulls are lost entirely. It’s hard to make out the basic narrative of the story, a drgaon attacks a group of men, which is obvious in the larger size.

05 Guards Guards   05 Guards Guards

Fantasy covers have traditionally been complicated and colourful. The trend towards simpler covers in the fantasy genre is something I will discuss in a later post.

Working In Thumbnail Part 1: Keep it Simple

An ebook cover needs to have a simple image that will catch the eye of the browser. Anything that is too detailed is going to get lost. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows doesn’t work as an ebook cover because it isn’t possible to decipher what is happening in the picture. However, I can understand why Bloomsbury decided to stay consistent with their artwork. The final part of the Harry Potter saga probably would’ve sold well without any cover at all. The cover of A Very Zombie Holiday has too much happening in it. There’s a narrative in the picture of a little girl looking on while a zombie steals cookies meant for Santa, but when the picture is in thumbnail the viewer has to work to understand what is happening.

Harry_Potter_and_the_Deathly_Hallows   A-Very-Zombie-Holiday

The cover of James Patterson’s Kill Alex Cross has a perfect simplicity. The Alex Cross books are already extremely popular and many readers will by any book that is by James Patterson or about Alex Cross. The bright colours will grab the eye and the text will do the rest. The Story Trap by Masha du Toit takes an almost opposite strategy to Kill Alex Cross. Here the intriguing artwork of the woman’s face and hand draw the eye of the viewer, while the title is comparatively lost.

Patterson_KillAlexCross%2010-2011   JF-The-Story-Trap

The typography needs to stay simple as well. Tom Clancy’s iconic cover design that remained constant throughout out the 80s, 90s and 2000s is nearly perfect. It is large and clear, but when reduced to thumbnail size the extreme modulation in the stroke and the resulting invisibility of ascenders, descenders and spines make the words more difficult to work out. The elaborate cursive script of A Vision of Sugar Plums is illegible in thumbnail, as is the jagged text of Fractured Facade.

Red_Rabbit_cover  A-Vision-of-Sugarplums  Fractured-Facade

77 Days in September and Deadly Straits both use orange text and blue backgrounds; the colour contrast ensures that the warmer colours ‘pop’ out to the viewer. The solid, sans serif fonts are clearly legible in thumbnail. Flat Out Love has a more complicated font, as the text is also an illustration. it remains legible as it is so large.

77-Days   Deadly-Straits   Flat-Out-Love-cover-2012-small kindel bestseller

In conclusion, thumbnail covers work when the text and the image are both as simple as possible.

Covers from the Past

I created my Book Chart becuse I wanted to be able to easily compare a large range of different book covers. I included a row of books from the 1980s, 1990s, 200s and 2010s to show the evolution of book covers. I was expecting to see subtle and detailed covers becoming bolder and more simple in the late 2000s and 2010s under the influence of thumbnails and greyscale.

Instead, I was surprise to see that the ’80s were a time of simple covers and bold fonts. When looking at the book chart you can see that John Le Carre’s The Russia House, Sidney Sheldon’s Rage of Angels and Danielle Steel’s Daddy all work well in thumbnail size, both in colour and in greyscale. The text is large enough to be competely legible in any size. The simple imagery, or total lack of imagery, means that the details cannot be lost in thumbnail size. There is little in the way of extra text, like taglines and recommendations, to clutter up the page.

JohnLeCarre_TheRussiaHouse   RageOfAngels   Daddy_by_Danielle_Steele

Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses doesn’t do so well. The text is large, but the font is so thin that it disappears in thumbnail size. The dark text becomes illegible against the dark background at thumbnail size. Stephen King’s Firestarter and James A. Michener’s Caribbean suffer from some small text and detailed artwork respectively.

1988_Salman_Rushdie_The_Satanic_Verses   Firestarter_novel   Mich_caribbean_1st_ed

There is a little more detail in the bestsellers of the 90s. There is more photography such as the horse’s eye in Nicholas Evans’ The Horse Whisperer and the boat in John Grisham’s The Testament.  There is more small text, The Celestine Prophecy is mostly illegible in thumbnail size. Cold Mountain and Assassins are both difficult to see in greyscale. The colours merge, making the text difficult to decipher.

The_book_cover_of_The_Testament   Thecelestineprophecy  TimLaHaye_Assassins

There are even more photograph covers in the bestsellers of 2000, as well as paintings, computer generated imagery and both large and small text. Compared to the homogenous covers of the 80s, the 2000s covers are a very diverse collection. Obviously, many of these don’t work well at all in greyscale. The complicated images and small print are lost in thumbnail.

The-Last-Song-movie-tie-in-book   Dreamcatchernovel   Harry_Potter_and_the_Deathly_Hallows

2010s, so far, have followed the trend of the 2000s. The covers are varied in colour, complexity and detail. From James Patterson’s simple and bold Kill Alex Cross cover, which could have been designed purely to jump out at a casual browser, to Stephen King’s 11/22/63 which is filled with tiny text and details. Even Fifty Shades of Grey, originally popular on the internet has text that is fairly small in thumbnail (although perhaps the now-iconic cover image is all that’s necessary).

Patterson_KillAlexCross%2010-2011   11-22-63   50ShadesofGreyCoverArt

So why was I wrong in my prediction? Why have covers become more, not less, complex? It could be due to increased competition as more books are published every year. It could also be due to improved production methods that allow more colour and detail on book covers. However, searching out the reasons could be an entire essay in itself. I will stick to my topic of ebook covers and in my next post look at how well the complicated covers work as ebook covers.



Why is this blog a blog?

In the instructions for this assignment we were encouraged to think about the form that the submission would take. At first, it seemed obvious to me: I was going to focus on ebook covers, so I should make an ebook of covers! I would probably do it in epub format so it could be read on any device.

However, it soon became clear that this wasn’t going to work. An ebook is usually viewed in greyscale, as the e-ink screens don’t show colour. How could I compare colour and greyscale covers if I couldn’t show the colour cover? It is also notoriously difficult to get the formatting right in flowable ebooks that inclue images. I decided to write it as a blog instead. The blog format has all the benefits of being online, allowing me to easily link to references and further reading, and it allows me to separate different points into different entries.

I wanted to be able to compare a large number of covers at once, but this isn’t possible on the small screen of an ereader. In fact, it isn’t really possible on the average computer screen. My assignment was going to need a physical component. I intend this blog to be read in conjunction with an A3 copy of my Book Cover Chart which lets you easily compare a range of different thumbnail covers in colour and in greyscale.

If you don’t have a physical copy then here is an online version (click to see it in large). I don’t think you get the same overview by looking at the online version as you do by looking at the physical version, but it’s still useful.

Book Cover Chart

How are ebook covers different?

The cover of a book does a lot of work. The spine will give you the the author and title, so that you can find it on the shelf. The back or the flap will contain vital blurb designed to entice you into the story. The cover will have attractive and informative artwork to catch your eye. There may even be a recommendation from a famous author or critic. The book is usually big enough to sit comfortably in your hands so there’s plenty of space for detail on the cover.

An ebook is different. There’s no need for spine or back cover art because these parts of the book effectively don’t exist. The front cover is the only artwork associated with the book. In this image from Amazon (who have 70% of the UK online sales according to the Booksellers Association) the cover image is a small fraction of the space dedicated to the book. The thumbnail image is usually only around 21mm x 30mm (depending on various factors, obviously, such as how much you zoom in).


If a reader is buying directly through an ereader like the Kindle, then there’s a good chance that they will be looking at the image in greyscale, not in colour. Once the ebook is bought there will also be a large version of the cover image that will fill the whole screen (most ereaders are somewhere around 6 inches high) but it will still be greyscale. It’s also possible to ‘look inside’ some books on Amazon, in which case there will also be a large colour image of the cover.

So, in summary, ebooks need to:

  1. Look good in colour
  2. Look good in greyscale
  3. Look good in thumbnail
  4. Look good in larger sizes

In my next posts I’ll discuss how this effects the style of ebook covers. If you’re interested in more information about the size of ebook covers then read more at Webbish Books, The Book Designer and PasswordIncorrect.