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


Taglines: Yes or No?

Taglines and quotes from reviewers are a useful sales tool in a bookstore. A casual browser can be persuaded to buy a book on the recommendation of an author or celebrity that they already admire. On an ebook cover the tagline is rarely visible (especially during the process of browsing and purchasing) because it will be viewed in thumbnail. That kind of review and recommendation text is much better displayed on the webpage next to the cover, not on the cover itself. However, there are reasons to keep the tagline on the cover: so that the ebook cover will match the hardcopy cover; so that the work of cover design doesn’t need to be done twice; in case the browser decides to click-through and view the large image.

I’m undecided whether the illegible tagline on the cover has a negative effect on aesthetics of a book cover in thumbnail. Consider the cover of Firestarter (which was designed before ebooks but is still a useful example). The title, author name and image are all clear in thumbnail, but the text below the title is just slightly too small to read, which is both tantalising and irritating to the viewers squinting down at it. Likewise, in The Celestine Prophecy the text is illegible and would probably be better replaced by an image of a pyramid. In Cold Mountain the rather obvious information that the book is a novel is slightly too small to read comfortably, forcing the viewer to work harder to understand the cover.

Firestarter_novel   Thecelestineprophecy   Cold_mountain_novel_cover

However, there are covers which I think benefit from the tagline, despite it being illegible. In Gone Girl the original cover is rather empty without the tagline and the sticker. There is nothing to draw the eye around the cover or to keep it in the image. The sticker adds some much needed shape and contrast to the composition, while the tagline helps to fill the blackness.

05 Gone-Girl   5 gone-girl

In Stardust the quote from William Gibson is too small to read. However, if it were removed the composition of the cover would be ruined by the wide-open negative space that is currently filled by the quote. It’s better to keep the quote, just to balance the image, than to reject it for being illegible.

06a Stardust


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.

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.