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Friday, January 27, 2017

Help Jordan Murray pick a cover

Want to help Jordan Murray with her very first book cover decision? Jordan is the daughter of a friend of mine, and we recently met to talk over first novel (a fantasy) and her decision about whether to submit to publishers or to strike out into the exciting wilderness of self-publishing. Now she has decided to self-publish and just asked me what I thought of her choices of cover. So now you can throw in your own two cents as well. Keep in mind that it needs to appeal to readers of fantasy.

Step one. Go to 99 Designs and look at her four potential covers by four different artists and decide which you like (and why, if you know why!) You can leave a message there. (Or you can click on these images to enlarge. Also, click on the names to see more work by each cover artist.)

Step two. And, if you like, come back here and see what I thought about which cover would be more effective in drawing readers.

And then step three. Tell me why I'm wrong or right.

Please don't read my comments first, as they'll affect your own thinking. After all, I'm no expert, just a writer who has sometimes had a little say over the cover artist used--and sometimes not. I have sometimes gotten to pick a cover in just this way, and I've always enjoyed the process.

Update: Now I realize that changes are possible, I might just change my mind! I'd be inclined to tweak any one of these quite a bit.

And if you are a fantasy fan or know someone who is, share! Jordan is a bright, lively young woman, and I'm curious to see what tale she has told. The book will be out soon.

#76 by  Alfie

1. I wish the figure was more detectable--it almost looks like tree roots in the smaller image, and even in the large one it takes seconds to read the image. That's not good, though I think this one has a certain charm (human beings always like a spiraling path, I find--the golden ratio at work?), and it looks pleasantly like pastels. It's absolutely clear what the genre is from the lettering and the image. Somehow the castle reminds me of a certain type of spider, so that's interesting but probably just me. I'm dimly wondering if some people will feel that the wagon looks too much like a Conestoga, so that you have two genre-thoughts clashing. Not sure. (p.s. Decimal in the wrong spot.)

#77 by  iMAGIngarCh+

2.  I fear this one is too all-around dark--the image is not easily readable, even when you blow it up to large size. For selling online, it seems hard to grasp. It's more elegant, but it's subdued, and I'm not sure that's what a writer wants for this genre. The image reminds me a bit of Arthur Rackham, a thing I like. On the cheesy-to-elegant fantasy scale, it's firmly not-cheesy, which I like, but it still strikes me as maybe not the best for hauling in reader-fish. Maybe not enough light-and-dark contrast between title and background? Maybe too busy and fussy? When cut down to small size online or in a catalogue, it might be too hard to discern its intent and elements.

#75 by B-Ro

3.  I like the way the "magic" element crosses. the spine. And the human figure is appealing to readers. (My agent criticized FSG's hardcover jacket for Catherwood as not having a human element at all--just forest, no figure in a story about a woman lost in forest. He liked some of the other versions better.) I think it may be a bit of a mistake to have a title with the word horn cover his crotch! On the other hand, given the nature of readers, maybe it's not! Never mind! Okay, I'd think about that issue, especially if you could get the cover artist to swap main title and your name. But now it's bothering me less. I would say that this one is much more modern-looking, and by that I mean the title font and color, the angled body and our angled viewpoint in looking down slantwise on the figure, and the abstracted (but magicky) background. Everything has good visibility, and the image and title would be readable in small size or in black and white. I tend to think this one fulfills what a jacket or cover is meant to do, but it may be too young. It probably would set up for future covers--she would be doing a main figure on the trilogy fronts, as in the Dillons' jackets and covers for the Garth Nix Abhorsen trilogy. But is it too y.a.?

#78 by  Sergey Gudz

4. This one has human beings in transformation (genre clarity there, and the lure of the human--and the faces are quite individualized) and also a lot of clarity on the nature of the book, and those things are valuable elements to consider. But the coloration strikes me as too muddy and murky for the author's purposes. The shadowy effect may or may not suit the story, but it surely makes reading the image a little more difficult for potential readers when seeing the cover at a smaller scale. But it is lighter behind the title.... If I were the author, I would shrink the image down to an inch or 3/4" and see what I saw--for that matter, I would try shrinking them all down and considering them in that way. Might be a help.

Upshot: I'd change the coloration of #4, make it less murky, go for more light and dark contrast and a different dominant color, make the copy more readable on the back. Right now it's not that readable. #3, I definitely would consider whether it is too young, though it does a lot of the things desired--clarity, balance of light and dark, etc. But if it's too young, yes, out. It does look y.a., the more I look at it. And #2 would have to be less dark and less detailed. And #1: I'm still thinking about the dratted wagon. And the guy who looks like tree roots at small scale. But it has some charm.

Painter Yolanda Sharpe votes for #4... And I'm more in favor of that one now that I know some changes can be made. I still don't think it's clear enough at the small scale we often meet online. And that remains important.

Just call me indecisive, I guess....

Postscript: A certain well known cover critic weighed in for #4, with a vote for a slightly modified #4, which he thought "dramatic and eye-catching at thumbnail size." That's the challenge now, I suppose, to have a cover that will stand up to being enlarged or shrunk down to postage-stamp size.


  1. I chose Alfie, Gudz, iMAGngrCh, B-Ro. My reasoning was that the castle on a crag is a commonplace of such fiction; that the B-Ro's figure seems to use hair mousse; and that Gudz's didn't make enough sense--is a vine growing out of the left figure's forearm, and is the right figure's hand crumbling?; and finally that the wagon raised no such objections.

    1. Hair mousse! I find it amusing to try and second guess these, but in the end I have no idea what readers like to see on the covers of a fantasy....

  2. For what it's worth, I think the "Alfie" cover will "read" best when it's reduced to a thumbnail, and it also most clearly says "fantasy" to me, although I wish there were a visible enemy to heighten the sense of mystery, magic, and tension.

    To me, the "B-Ro" cover looks a bit too much like a young-adult novel cover--it isn't clear what differentiates this book from so many others.

    My two biggest questions would be: (1) If the horn really exists and isn't just a MacGuffin, shouldn't it be on the cover? (Sometimes you need to make things really obvious for a potential buyer--they have infinite other books to choose from.) (2) Is there a clear conflict in the book that can be depicted on the cover? The "iMAGIngarCh+" cover coveys a sense of intelligence and maturity, but a scene of tension and conflict might be better to attract readers to the work of an author who isn't known to them yet.

    In the end, I think the author has to put herself in the mind of her ideal reader and imagine what might intrigue that reader...and she also has to choose a cover that she'll still be proud of a decade from now when she's moved on to other projects. No marketing expert would advise either of those things, but we can't do everything to please the marketeers.

    1. Yes, the y.a. issue... And I think the Alfie image is one of the two best for readability, if you think about them as already tweaked a bit, anyway!

      That's good advice. Portraying the horn and a sense of conflict both seem like things that might have been given as notes to the potential illustrators, don't they? And I know what you mean about time passing and wanting it still to stand as an image.

  3. Author here, chiming in. Thank you for the feedback and comments, all much appreciated. The frustrations leading up to these current choices stem from a lot of bad stock photo designs, which did not use a horn or a central conflict without it becoming convoluted.

    I completely agree with the comments on Y.A. leanings. In the end, my main deliberation will be choosing between a design like "Alfie", which is a more cheesy cousin of a Wheel of Time novel with generic appeal, or taking a risk with a more original depiction of my characters with "Gudz" - once more color and light contrast are added into the mix. Lots to think about.

    1. I definitely get a different choice when I think about what I like best vs. what marketers recommend as things that will hook a reader. And that's a bizarre way to think, of course, but nevertheless it's an issue--visibility.

  4. I'm not really contributing since, to quote Clint Eastwood, I'm aware of my limitations which date way back to magazine editing. Artists think in images, writers must perforce use words to explain themselves. Yet the editor needs a result. A wispy idea, turned unsatisfactorily into words, becomes concrete and sinks without trace while the artist waits patiently. When it comes to book covers, to suggest, as some optimistic writers have done, that the artist "reads the book" is impractical and as foolish as requiring an accountant to take up pole dancing. The artist gets as far as page three in some sensitive work about the chattering classes in Hampstead, sees a chance mention of the Battle of Hastings, and sketches a guy in chain-mail lying dead with an arrow sticking out of his eye. "It's in the book," says the artist defensively, wondering how the writer/editor might react if asked to advise on brush width.

    I know whereof I speak. So many decades, so many disappointments. For a year or so I've been trying to get various professional artists to suggest a cover for my third novel, Second Hand, plot summary (no more than 250 words) provided. Two months later I've paid artists a significant fraction of the agreed sum for final artwork (Hey! We never got anyway near.) and we've parted brass-rags. Self-doubt starts to creep in. Have I written a novel which lacks a visualisible "idea"? Can I still communicate with the human race? Perhaps the French have the right idea with those paperbacks, paper apparently hand-torn from toilet rolls, the binding so insecure that pages fall out on first opening BUT with only a title, author's name and publisher's colophon on the cover.

    No contribution at all, as I said.

    1. I do have several French versions of "Catherwood" and "Little Jordan" lying around, but only the Canadian one is as you describe in format (though it is well made, more like a letterpress book.)

      I suppose you have pored through stock photographs and such... The advantage there is--as you know--being able to scrutinize a lot of material quickly and to search by theme or item, etc.

      It is difficult, evidently. My first cover for "The Wolf Pit" was astonishingly sweet and misleading, but the final one struck people as too dark. The "Catherwood" jacket displeased my agent by having no human presence and a kind of bull's eye target effect, which we did have toned down in the final jacket.

      But I have had good luck with artists. With Brazilian artist and illustrator Renato Alarcão, I had choice of a number of preliminary sketches. Before him, with Steve Cieslawski ("The Curse of the Raven Mocker" was his last jacket, I believe), we had an artist in oils who loved books. And my friend Clive Hicks-Jenkins in Wales, well, I am astonished that he reads and rereads before considering a cover. The best situation is when there is trust and acquaintance with the work on both sides, but that's not always easy, and it's certainly not the usual situation. It's doable to suggest a list of possibilities with notes on figures, etc. It seems to me that my editor and I did that with the two y.a./crossover books.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.