Fantasy Covers

In my last post I claimed that British fantasy covers work better as e-covers than their American counterparts. If you look at the two rows on the A3 Book Chart named ‘Original Covers’ and ‘Updated Covers’ I think you can see this pretty clearly. Here are a few examples for those who can’t see the chart.

09 The Way of Kings   09wayofkings   09a The Way of Kings UK    1955

03 Dragon Keeper   43098   03a Dragon Keeper   88138

04 Robert Jordan   33496   04a Robert Jordan  37770

In all these examples the British covers (on the right) work better as e-covers. The pictures are clearly drawn, without variation in colour and tone. The text is large and block-coloured. The contrasts between light and dark highlight the titles. In the original covers (on the left) the artwork is beautiful and detailed, but entirely lost in thumbnail and greyscale. The text can be large enough, but it often merges with the background due to similar shades of grey.

Better, worse, the same or just different?

Over at The Ebook Test, Mike Cane wrote an interesting post comparing the print edition covers with the e-edition covers of various books. He says:

One of the few things I haven’t complained about with print publishing is the design of book covers.  This is because it’s an art that stretches back for decades and there have been some seriously great covers (see The Book Design blog for some samples).

There is even a science to book covers!

But with print publishing turning to eBooks, all of that learning is being flushed down the eToilet.

I have to admit that for most of these comparisons he has a very good point. There was no need to change the Richard Branson cover, which works perfectly well as it is. The new version certainly isn’t an improvement, the text is nearly illegible in thumbnail and the image is dull. It’s frustrating that the replacement is worse than the original.

cover004b1   77904   ecover0041

Mike would like to see all the original covers reformatted and used on the ebooks, but I disagree. The problem really is that the replacements are bad, not that the originals are good. The Branson cover could work better in thumbnail if the photograph was closer cropped and the text was slightly larger. Many of the other covers, such as The Civil War, Lincoln Unmasked and Black Boy do not work well in greyscale thumbnails. The photograph in The Civil War is lost and much of the text is too small to read. The red banner across Lincoln’s eyes, which was an effective play on the theme of ‘masking’ in colour, looks like bad design in greyscale. Much of the text is too small to read in thumbnail and clutters the image. The contrasting colours of Black Boy are lost in greyscale, destroying much of the effect and the allusion to abstract expressionist art.

55004   86293   74770

These books would be best served by creating covers that work both in large and small, both in colour and in greyscale.

I was interested to discover that there are different covers for e-versions of books. I poked around on Amazon and discovered an interesting fact. Some books on Amazon.com have different covers for the physical copy and the kindle copy. However, those same books on Amazon.co.uk have only one cover for both the physical copy and the kindle copy. For example, Jasper Fforde’s Shades of Grey has one cover for the paperback on Amazon.com, and another cover for the kindle edition. On Amazon.co.uk, it is the same cover for both editions. The first colour image below is the American edition, the second is the British. They both use the British edition for the kindle. Is the British edition a better cover for an e-edition? I honestly don’t think so. The American version is clearer in thumbnail and greyscale, although the British version is more eye-catching in colour.

9780143118589H   21821   shades-of-grey-pbk   27924

The Way Of Kings is the same on Amazon. It has one cover for paperback on Amazon.com, and another cover for British paperbacks and all kindle editions. In this case, it seems clear to me that the British version is much better suited to being a kindle cover. The American version is inadequate for reasons discussed here.

09 The Way of Kings   09wayofkings   09a The Way of Kings UK   1955

Looking at other fantasy books I saw that Sword of Shannara and Lord of Chaos both had American covers for the paperback on Amazon.com and British covers for the kindle edition. It seems that the trend on Amazon is not the choose the cover that works best as an e-cover, but to simply use British covers across the board, regardless of whether they are better or worse.

It is my opinion that the British fantasy covers generally work better as e-covers and I’ll be discussing that in my next post.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

I am a huge fan of Joel Friedlander at The Book Designer. Every month he gives an award to the best ebook cover design, and he gives some good advice to the runners up. Now that I’ve discussed some of the factors that influence ebooks I wanted to examine some examples from The Book Designer that do it well and some that do it badly.

The Afterlife and Sarah and Gerald apply the same principles to come to vastly different results that, nevertheless, both work well. The Afterlife image is a black and white photograph that works well in colour and in greyscale; the hint of red in the text adds a highlight in the colour version but doesn’t detract from the greyscale version. Sarah and Gerald on the other hand is a bright and stylised drawing that really pops out in colour. It still works in greyscale because the bright colours of the background become light greys the contrast well with the text. The simple line drawing still works in greyscale. The dark colour of the clothes becomes a dark grey that helps the figures to stand out. The simple line drawing remains clear in grey. The Afterlife works well in thumbnail because the image of the face immediately draws the eye and is still very clear. Sarah and Gerald works well in a smaller version as the image and the text are just large enough to still be clear.

afterlife   afterlif   Sarah-and-Gerald   sara

Covers that don’t work include the cover of Private Showing. When working in thumbnail size, it’s necessary to use all the space available. The large amounts of empty space at the top and bottom of the page are unused and consequently the image of the house is overpowered and left looking lost and alone. It’s too small to see clearly in thumbnail, as is the text of the title. The subdued and mottled grey of the cover fails to draw the attention in colour and in grey the whole thing becomes washed-out and hard to see. The green of the hill and the blue of the sky become almost identical in grey. A Very Zombie Holiday is bright and attractive in colour, but in greyscale the reds and the greens become similar and much of the mood is lost. In thumbnail the text becomes difficult to read and the expression of the little girl, vital to understanding the narrative of the image, is too small to read comfortably.

Private-Showing   25845   A-Very-Zombie-Holiday   29594

Colour and Online Bookstores

Most of my discussion so far has focus on two factors that strongly influence ebook covers: the need to work in thumbnail and the need to work in greyscale. However, it is also worth remembering that many ebooks are bought through a browser on a computer, not just through ereaders. Up to 70% of online book purchases are made at Amazon (according to the Bookseller’s Association). This means that ebook covers shouldn’t just look good by themselves; they should look good on the Amazon website. As most of the Amazon website is a neutral white this isn’t usually a problem, unless the book cover is white. If the cover is white, it will merge with the white background of the website and lose all definition. Rainbow Six and Kissing Freud are both perfect examples of how this can happen.

TomClancy_RainbowSix   Kissing-Freud

If the cover calls for a white background then the best way to make it work online is to add a border, to outline the image as has been done for The Man who Did Too Much. It’s also possible to define edges using other elements. In Lauren Takes Leave the cover is filled with images and text while in Watch Over Me the blue trees line most of the edge of the image. Where the edges are white the eye draws its own line, inferred from the lines that can be seen.

Body   15951137   04 watch-over-me-cover

Working in Greyscale Part 2: Working in Grey and Colour

A cover that works well in greyscale runs the risk of being rather bland and simple in colour. One technique to ensure that the cover remains interesting in colour is employed effectively by Beasts of the Walking City. The cover is mostly black and white, so the skyscrapers and the cat eyes are clear in both colour and greyscale. The dark text stands out clearly against the light background. This is a cover that works well in greyscale. In colour, the green highlights have been added to the eyes and to the text. Eyes are often an arresting image that draw the attention and the green only adds to this effect. The colour adds to the impact of the image, without doing anything to make it confusing in grey.

1578a   15787947

The cover of The Magpies does the best job of working in both colour and greyscale. In colour the entire cover is in shades of blue. The darkblue of the ground, the trees and the title, compared with the light blue of the mist, the girl’s dress and the water, fading to white behind the title. The authors name is also in white. The only other colour is the pink flesh of the girl. The contrast between her pink skin and the blue background makes helps to make her the focal point. This colour palette does a brilliant job of evoking a sinister and melancholy mood; it highlights the helpless solitude evoked by her pose.

In greyscale the mood of the blue is lost. The subtle variations in shade become a wash of grey. The contrast between the blue background and the pink girl is lost in the grey. The picture loses a great deal of its detail and and seems flattened. However, the contrast between the dark text of the title and the light background becomes more effective. The title really stands out in the greyscale. Likewise, the small white text of the authors name is rather lost in the similar shades of the colour cover. In greyscale, the name is clear and highlighted by the contrast.

In the colour version the cover had mood and a focus on the image. In the greyscale version the focus is on the title which stands out to the reader. Both covers work well, but differently.

03 THE-MAGPIES   17048

Edited to add: After I published this post I looked at the two images of The Magpies above and thought that they did nothing to support my argument. They both have clear text and image, the image isn’t clearer in colour, neither is the text clearer in greyscale. Please look at the A3 book covers charts. When you view these covers in thumbnail, competing against a host of other covers for your attention, then you get a better idea of how they stand out.

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.

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.