OP-ED: Can I Be Blunt? I Can’t Stand Modern Cover Design

There, I’ve said it. This post has been a long-time coming (it was actually planned for the week after LTUE, but then that big bit of metal fell …) but today we’re finally getting to it. And the title pretty much sums it up.

I don’t like modern cover design for books. At all. And the more books move toward this modern design, the less I enjoy it.

What’s not to like? First and foremost, the size of everything. There was a time when a book had three primary things on the cover, in addition to some smaller things that could sometimes appear. You had the name of the book. You had the name of the author. And you had the cover image itself. And these were displayed with a decent hierarchy in mind. The cover image was usually foremost, followed by or sharing equal billing with the title.

Now, however … that’s not the case. One of the trends right now is that the author’s name has to be AS BIG AS PHYSICALLY POSSIBLE, dominating as much of the cover as it can. At first it was just under the size of the name of the book. Then it became the same size. Now? On a lot of books, it’s even bigger. You can find book covers with the author’s name taking up over a third of the cover. Or more.

Personally? I can’t stand it. I get that there are “reasons” behind it (I heard about them at LTUE, and you’ll definitely hear them from the Indie crowd), but even with those “reasons” I still can’t stand it. Especially as the driving force behind it is … well, it’s kind of childish personally. It’s the old “Bigger is better” idea.

No, I’m not joking. I wish I was. Now, it has been encouraged by digital storefronts, in part. Basically, the new “rule of thumb” is that an author’s name needs to be as big as possible so that any passing reader can read in in a small thumbnail at a glance, because author name is what people buy off of, not anything else. However, people spouting this are quick to point out, bigger is also better, and therefore the larger the author’s name, the more important they are and the better the book is.

don’t buy this at all. And I don’t like the trend. It’s one thing to be a reader that enjoys books by an author. But doesn’t that mean we’re going to search them out anyway? It’s not like we live in a world where I can’t click on an author’s name and instantly see every book they have available. Or in a world where other sources of books (ie, libraries) aren’t arranged alphabetically by author name.

Yes, bookstores as a physical place aren’t … oh wait, most of them are. Plus, at that point, the book cover isn’t a thumbnail anyway. Not that this matters, because as I’ve heard many times, it’s the size of the name that counts.

Or does it? Personally, I think that’s playground-level ideology. The kind of rumor that runs around because someone said it, possibly for an entirely unrelated reason, and then everyone else started repeating it. After all, publishers love making the names of their stellar authors as big as a book title because of the way they market things, but does it actually matter for an author without that colossal marketing machine behind them at all?

Well, some people say yes. That size is everything. And then you get this ugly cover where the author’s name is covering most of the actual cover.

But here’s something interesting. I did some fast Googling on this one as I was writing this, and … if someone has done an actual study of any kind on this, they’re keeping their results to themselves.

Yeah, all I could find on the subject was author’s blogs stating that ‘bigger is better and leads to more sales’ as if it were fact … but not one of them actually had any data or evidence that this is true. More often than not, it was a case of ‘Well that’s what everyone says, and everyone’s doing it, so it must be true, right?’

No, actually. Not at all. It just means that it might be one of those things that’s been said for so long that no one’s really challenged it, and it’s become an assumed rule. In fact, the closest I could find to actually supporting this rule was a Harvard study on signatures that said size does matter … but only to a limited extent and used properly, suggesting that too big is too much.

I believe that latter bit. Nothing bugs me more these days than a book where the author’s name is larger than the title of the book and dominating the cover. It’s absolutely a way to get me to not pick up a book.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that the author’s name should not be on the cover. Or so small it’s hard to find (I’ve found a few books like that). But honestly, I think the current trend has gone far too far in the other direction, like a pendulum smacked by a small child until it’s trying to take the clock with it. Author’s names have become gigantic. They’ve consumed the other parts of the cover. And it’s just … unattractive.

colony-finalWorse still, it’s combined with another trend in covers of being generic. Don’t get me wrong, there’s something to be said for the stark contrasts of a well-designed minimalist cover. Sands, I used it myself when I got a cover done for Colony. A stark, carefully designed cover can be pretty eye-catching.

Granted, actually catching that kind of eye-catching starkness means involving someone who actually knows what they’re doing to make that kind of starkness. In other words, you need an actual graphic designer or artist on hand. With something like Colony, I made sure I did. But a lot of other book covers these days? They … well … don’t. And it’s kind of obvious.

51t6kuokswl

I’ve heard this trend referred mockingly to as “Game of Thrones” covers since that’s the most notable series to make use of it. You’ve probably seen the type. You have a gigantic author name, a mono-color cover with a single symbol of some kind, and then the name of the book. Sometimes the book title and the author name are swapped in position.

I mean, there it is, right to the left there (unless you’re reading this on a phone). Here’s another cover for the same book. Same thing. And personally?

This is … kind of ugly. The text is massive. The image is nonexistent, almost an afterthought. Sands, the alternate version literally has a background that looks like it’s a gradient out of the old MS Word free art package. At least the new one has some layers to it on the edges of the image. But even then? There’s more text on that book cover than there is image. And it’s just chopped into bland thirds layered on top of one another.

And this is a good example. A lot of the books that are following this trend with their covers? They look worse. AUTHOR NAME. GENERIC SYMBOL. BOOK TITLE! That’s a cover! Ten minutes in photoshop! Get the next one ready!

71rfzydtvulOh, you think I’m joking? Look at the cover for Son of the Black Sword, by Larry Correia.

No offense to Larry—and be aware readers I enjoyed the book, it’s a lot of fun—but that cover? It sucks. It’s ugly. It feels like a cover I’d see on a college textbook, not a story about a mass-murdering enforcer of a strict caste system who finds out that his entire world is a lie.

Crud, based on that cover alone, I likely never would have read it if not for the fact that Larry was so excitedly talking about it on his blog. And the reviews were good. It’s just … that cover. Ugh.

Huge names, huge title … no actual cover.


Now, at this point I kind of feel I should step back for a moment and make declarative that old adage of “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” It is the content that matters more than what’s on the front, sure. But the front cover is supposed to advertise the content. A cover is supposed to give you an idea of the story, the genre, the characters!

And sure, giant letters informing me of the author’s name does give me some idea. I know, or at least can presume, that the author was involved in some way, either in writing or in brand (by the way, did you know that “Michael Crichton” is publishing another book?).

But a cover is supposed to inform the reader of genre. Of what sort of events take place inside said story. Sands, sometimes they can be really daring and actually show an amalgamation of a scene inside the book.

Shadow of an Empire - Textless WallpaperAgain, the cover is just supposed to catch the eye. It’s what’s inside the book that matters … mostly. I’ll admit I like looking at the cool covers in my book collection. They’re art, and good art is cool. Especially if they capture a scene from the book. It’s very cool to flip to a cover after reading a great scene and go “OH! That was THIS!” Even with an amalgamation of a cover, where the cover isn’t one scene but a summary of themes, it’s still cool to look at the cover before and after you’ve read the book and think “Wow, that’s so cool!” Granted, you have to like the book, but it’s neat to have.

Which is why I really don’t like a lot of other modern covers that do manage to give an image instead of a lot of text … but it’s a generic image that has nothing to do with the story, just the setting.

Now, I do get that there are some instances where this works. Anthologies, for example, are catch-alls anyway. You need a cover that kind of summarizes the gist of what’s inside. But for a book that’s only got the one story? A generic cover image is just … boring.

91ywobjddulI mean, take a look at this image for Imperfect Sword. Again, I actually liked this book. But the cover? Yeesh. In fact, I’d actually avoided this series for a good amount of time because the covers were just so … generic. I only picked it up after a book suggestion thread on Reddit’s r/suggestmeabook recommended it as a good series for reading about relativistic space battles (and if that last sentence made you drool, grab the first book).

Let’s ignore the fact that it’s committing what is personally the absolute cardinal sin of making the author’s name larger than the actual title of the book. But this image, while saying “This is sci-fi with guns” is absolutely generic in every single way. Putting aside the boob-plate, as far as I’m aware that’s not even a character that’s in the book. It’s just a generic woman holding guns over a bright background.

It’s got color, though, I’ll give it that. It’s not that it’s a bad picture (well, outside of the boob-plate, which I’ll at least give the artist some credit for because it’s not a ridiculous one). It’s just … it has nothing to do with the story. There’s never a moment reading the book of “Oh, that’s who that is on the cover!” or “Oh, that’s what’s going on there!” It could be a cover for any number of other books with a remotely similar setting.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Covers are expensive. Especially for a publisher. And there are a lot of books out there. But if you’re going to commission a book cover for a couple of thousand dollars from someone (and yes, higher-end covers go right there), you could at least get a commission that is something from the book. Just give the artist a quick summary of things! A scene! Something.

And, lest you say this isn’t an option, that’s exactly what I did with Shadow of an Empire, which ended up being an awesome amalgamation scene of Sali staring out over the desert at a distant train. My point being that all I had to do was ask the artist. Turns out, they wanted to deliver a good art-piece and had no issues making it actually reflect the book in more than plain genre.

Just make the cover reflect something that’s actually from the book. We need fewer generic images of people. And yes, I acknowledge that one of my own covers, Unusual Events: A “Short” Story Collection, breaks this rule a little, though it is a “short” story collection (it’s not short). “Oddly” enough, this is also my lowest selling title by far. How far? I think it’s lifetime sales are eclipsed by daily sales for the rest of my work.


Okay, one last trend I really don’t like in modern covers that’s becoming popular. This one’s more among the indie crowd, but I’ve seen it here and there from larger publishers as they cut costs.

The DAZ-3D cover.

I’m actually not going to use a real book cover for this. Because I’d feel bad singling out an indie on this one, but …

Stop. Do not pass go. Do not continue. Stop using Daz-3D covers. They look like a PS2-era cutscene you just cropped and reset. In other words, they look like a computer-generated image. And not a good computer generated image either. They end up looking plastic-like and cheap.

daz-studio-rigging-with-temDon’t know what DAZ-3D is? It’s a piece of hobbyist software for generating human character models. Basically a cheap 3D computer generation tool to make images like the one you’re seeing on the left.

It gets worse when you make it full-size, too.

But it’s not limited to Daz-3D. There are a lot of bits of software out there that let someone play with low-poly human figures and scenery to “sculpt” a cover. It’s just that at the end of the day, they end up like … Well, exactly what you would expect from someone grabbing some free 3D models, throwing a quick stutterstock freebie background on it, some lighting or photoshop filters, and calling it a day.

In other words, something gross, ugly, and often almost identical to other covers. In fact, while searching for a good image for this part of the post, I found two pictures of a mermaid model (as in CG model), one of which was from the one selling the model, the other was that exact model in the same pose plopped atop a CG rock for a book cover.

Yeah … Look, 3D-generated images can look awesome. If you’ve seen Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse you can see some of the amazing things computer images can do (seriously, go see that movie).

But that’s with lots of time spent to make something that looks good. It comes from high-quality models, lots of careful lighting use to avoid making skin look like plastic, careful rendering to avoid hard lines and flat textures … And all of that takes time and money.

Time and money a lot of people clearly aren’t spending on a lot of covers out there. Especially indie covers. Crud, I’ve seen some covers that are photoshop touched images of action figures, with the figures blurred just enough to maybe avoid copyright or trademark issues. But you can still see the joints.

And honestly, you know what that says? It says to me that the author probably spent the same amount of care and effort on the contents of the book. Or the editor. Or the agent. Whatever. A cheap, shoddy cover says “Hey, I don’t care about this.”

Either learn how to make DAZ-3D and other generated images look good and spend the time, hire someone to spend that time … or just don’t. I clearly don’t speak for all, but … I will not buy a book with a cheap, crappy 3D-image cover that looks like an early 2000s-era video-game cutscene. It doesn’t send a good message about the book.


Now, I know what some will say to that. Or to any of this. “But it’s just a cover. The book is what really matters.” And … no, those people are wrong.

A cover is part of the book. It’s part of the package. And if part of that package looks low-effort, cheap, or just plain uninteresting … what message does that send about the rest of the package?

Sure, we say, as I mentioned earlier, that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. But we also acknowledge that a cover advertises the rest of the book … so like it or not, there’s some judgement there. And a cheap cover? It says “cheap book.”

Maybe I’m an outlier. Maybe not. The comments will have to have their say, I suppose. I don’t like overdone, overly large text with a bland cover design. am not a fan of generic imagery. am not a fan of cheap, 3D-photoshop covers. I don’t like a lot of the modern trends.

What about you, readers? Do you disagree? Agree? Do you think we should just axe the cover altogether in favor of some text? Have a favorite cover you want to link for all to see?

Leave a comment, and let’s find out.

 

11 thoughts on “OP-ED: Can I Be Blunt? I Can’t Stand Modern Cover Design

  1. A good cover is critical. People make snap judgments based on how things look constantly. You have 86400 seconds a day. People need a way to reduce their choices down to a manageable few quickly. If I’m looking for a new book to read without asking around then appearance is going to help me quickly get down to a few books I take the time to really look at.

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    • I mean, I agree. But I think a lot of modern covers are effectively turning readers away by being crappy covers. Going too far into the distillation.

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  2. I do think that there is one thing that can at sometimes be bigger than the title and that is when it is a series that the name of the series would pull in more than the title. A good example is the star wars novels where star wars is usually bigger than title. But the star wars novels also had very good covers to draw you in and give you a feel for the book and usually which characters would be the main focus. But to pull this off you would need to be a huge series such as star wars or halo not generic military scifi series #34.

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    • That’s a good point, I hadn’t even thought of that. Personally, I kind of see a series title as still part of the title, so they go hand-in-hand, but you’re right in saying that even then they don’t use that as an excuse to duck away from a good cover. Star Wars and Halo both have covers that actually reflect events in the story, which is great.

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  3. I’ve noticed the ENORMOUS author names, too. The worst offenders are the “best seller” authors. In fact, I can make a good guess which ones are on the best seller lists by how big their names are on the covers.

    I love good cover art. Who doesn’t like a pretty picture or a well thought out iconography? Apparently many modern publishers. I have one autographed book that I deliberately wanted that edition because I loved the cover art (I don’t care it was a book club edition, I love the art). Even better, I found a copy that was signed by the author *and* the cover artist signed the book cover.

    The Colony cover is simple but I like how the planet looms over the title. It is appropriate considering the circumstances surrounding the characters and the planet.

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  4. My trilogy’s covers will be a main character in a plausible situation that could have been in the book. Period.

    Mainstream doesn’t have rules because the stories can be so very different.

    While genre writers are told to study the covers of more popular writers in their genre, I found nothing in common in the novels that were even remotely like mine. So I pleased myself – and then spent a lot of time getting the first one exactly the way I wanted it. Hope I can do the same for the other two.

    I want to telegraph yearning, and chose a photo of a model in a pose which spoke to me (I looked at thousands), and paid for it. Then I spent lots of time taking the figure and dressing her to fit the story. That was very hard – and involved photographing my daughter in the appropriate clothing, and melding all the pieces.

    In the five years since publication, I have never had a doubt. The next volume involves a sari, and the daughter in a particular pose – and the same model. I can see it forming in my head.

    There won’t be that many books with my name on them – it is dark and clear and small, near the bottom of the cover – in my lifetime. So I have to be happy with them.

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  5. Yep, those covers are just… ow. I tend not to read all the latest books around anyway, mostly because I’m trying to catch up on all the good old ones out there, but just… Why not have a picture that actually looks good and isn’t covered up by text?! Is it because of the weird fascination with modern art and abstract paintings or something? *confused shrug*

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  6. I love the graphic design on Colony. Would you tell us how you got that done–where’d you look, who’d you hire, what sort of contract did you draw up, & what did it cost?

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    • That one was actually an interesting chain of events. I knew from the start what I wanted for it: Something stark with a planet like Pisces in space. I began my search on deviantart, doing searches for things like “planets in space” and looking at the galleries of the art that showed up. And then I found not just the perfect artist for the job, but the perfect piece of art!

      So I contacted the artist credited in the back of the book, Alpha-Element, told them who I was, etc etc, and expressed that I was interested in purchasing the rights to use one of their artworks as a book cover.

      Here’s where the story got strange. They didn’t want any payment. I offered money, and good amounts of it, but their explanation was that getting the money to them at the moment would be more trouble than they wanted to deal with, and that they were more than happy to let me use the image as long as I credited it properly. I double and triple checked, because I really did want to pay them, but they were adamant, and so I worked out the legalese so that I could get an official document from him saying ‘Yes, I’m giving the author Max Florschutz authority to use my image, _____ (can’t recall the name ATM) as the cover of his book “Colony.”‘ Something official to that effect.

      I also swore that next time they’d take my money (since he’s got another image perfect for Jungle). They laughed and basically said “We’ll see.” I did send him a copy of the book for free though, so he didn’t escape without some payment.

      While that gave me the ability to use the cover, it was still just an image. For the other half, I had to teach myself graphic design. I spent a week, maybe two, learning how to use GIMP and reading online courses about art and graphic design. Thankfully, I did a lot of art back in high-school, and had a good art teacher, so I knew a lot of basics. I studied fonts of various book genres, color composition, a ton of stuff. Then I built the cover text over the part of the image I’d selected and asked a friend of mine that’s an art major “Well, what do you think.”

      He gave me pointers (and I believe got a free copy of the book in return), and I made adjustments. Fixing and fixing, until he, and anyone else I showed the cover to went “Wow, that looks great!”

      So yeah, that was like 2-3 weeks of work, easy. No money changed hands, just time and effort.

      “Shadow of an Empire,” meanwhile was less on my as the artist, Michal Kváč, was willing to do the lettering and formatting as well as the image. In his case, we spoke for a while, outlined what I expected, set upon a price, shook hands, and went for it. It only took him a week. and I paid him with glee, since it was a great cover. That was $75, which is a good two week’s wages, I think, in their home country. We were both satisfied and happy, and I look forward to hiring their services once more.

      Again, though, I found him through hunting for art of the style I envisioned on the cover of my book, which was like 3-4 days of hunting.

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