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 have different covers for the physical copy and the kindle copy. However, those same books on 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, and another cover for the kindle edition. On, 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, 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 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.

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.