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Monday, February 28, 2011

Covers, Colors and Subjectivity

In an earlier blog post, I wondered aloud (well, not really aloud...atext? Aprint? Ablogged?) about why people like and dislike certain colors. And why pretty much everyone disagrees with my aesthetic tastes. Well, the subject has come up again.

Recently, someone was kind enough to explain to me (in detail) why they hate my book cover. No, not the old one. The new one I was so proud of and happy with, and which I thought had addressed the shortcomings of my first attempt (as well as incorporating snippets from some reviews, and a new blurb). Not as aesthetically offensive as the first one, I was informed, but they both pretty much suck.

(The colors came out pretty dull in these photos. But that's probably a positive to everyone but me.)

Well, in a nutshell, a lot of what I was told made sense. I'm still not convinced I should change the print cover as radically as suggested, but I've decided to change the ebook cover to a more conventional (yawn), simple design. The points that really sunk it are as follows:

1. Ebook shoppers see thumbnail images first. And when a detailed cover ("busy" is the graphic design/marketing term, I guess) like mine is reduced to that size, everything is muddled and confusing, or "ugly."

2. Even when displayed at size, a 72 dpi web image of even an attractive cover murks up the details and makes it kinda' ugly. So...

3. The name of the game is to keep it simple. Stone friggin' simple, judging by all the other book covers out there. Outside of western, sci fi or fantasy covers, the most detailed illustration you're gonna see on a book these days is the presidential seal with blood splattered on it, a sinister shadow cast over it or a figure running across it. (I've just described every other paperback cover in Barnes & Noble, BTW.)

4. Evidently the only colors acceptable to most of Earth's population are black, white, or (dull, drab, bland) variations on blue or green.

5. Despite the wise old adage, people do judge a book by its cover.

Somewhat aware of this, even a year ago, my original cover concept for Hell and Gone was merely a Halliburton-type metal suitcase with a radiation symbol on it. But, to me, an image like that does not connote a military adventure/action novel. More like a Sum of All Fears technothriller or maybe an espionage novel. Besides, doggone it, I wanted a five-body fireteam standing in wedge formation in the desert with the sky behind them aglow from a nuclear blast. I thought it would look cool, so nyah-nyah, orthodoxy.

Well, keeping #5 above in mind, I'll soon be conducting an experiment of sorts. I took some pictures. A grenade on various camo-pattern BDU shirts. A grenade next to a bandolier, with another camo pattern as background. A grenade on a stack of ammo boxes. A helmet on a stack of ammo boxes. A carefully composed shot with loaded magazine in the foreground, a nylon assault rifle case standing up on the right (topped by a helmet), web gear on the left, a flack vest in between, tactical kneepads above that...even as I took the last couple photos of that display, I could hear the voice of the Great Sage of Advertising Orthodoxy whispering, "Too busy...too busy..."

I don't particularly like how any of these photos came out, but I'll probably take one of them, sandwich it in between letterboxing in an approved color with title and author in bold, stark letters, and see how it looks. If it's boring, but conveys what kind of book it is somehow, logic dictates that it should improve sales.

No, actually what I think I'll do is take one of the bodies in my fireteam (probably the guy with the M21), sandwich him between some drab letterboxing  with fat, stark letters, and call that my ebook cover. Yeah. Look for that, coming soon.


  1. Yeah, I've been putting a great deal of thought into what I want my cover to look like. In the end, it's going to be pretty simple, and what I have is, in general, what it'll probably be; a red background, black silhouette of a .32 Beretta with a suppressor and white lettering in a rough, typewriter-y font. Like you said, it's going to be bold, simple, and look good even as a thumbnail.

    When I bust my butt and start work on the 70's era novels, I think I'm going to have a lot more fun with the covers...

  2. Hmm. '70s novels? That piques my interest.

    On top of all the other rules I've heard/read about colors, evidently you also want at least 3 somewhere on your cover. If there's only 2 it looks too retro and supposedly the modern reader will dismiss it. I don't know if that's true--just something for you to think about and maybe research somehow.

  3. It's hard to know where to draw the line. Like you, I have no interest in the presidential seal with the burning American flag in the background as a book cover. Booooring... I've heard some fans of the genre ask why they never get to see the hero in full kit on the cover, you know, the way he would look while actually out on one of the missions described in the book itself. That's what I'm going for. Will it be too busy? Yeah, probably. Whether or not it will have appeal to niche fan base remains to be seen.

  4. Well, during the heyday of the genre, you did see that on covers quite a bit. At least you'd see an artistic rendering of the hero with a weapon of some sort. Maybe not with complete webgear and 80-lb ruck, though. It's hard to look heroic with all that on. In fact, it's hard to look like anything but a 2-legged packmule with all that on. ;-)

    What I'm struggling with now is what to use as a background. The radiation symbol? The mushroom cloud? A Sudanese flag? A map? Or would all of that be too busy? Just a stark white background? I might try it several ways and post them here and on Facebook for reactions.

  5. Can't hurt to do some testing. You could make up two or three covers and then do some pay-per-click advertising on facebook, then run with whichever cover gets the most clicks. For a background, if you mean the sky behind the mushroom cloud, I would say keep it subtle. Maybe a transparent map or radiation symbol that blends in with the sky. Speaking of which, I think I have some maps of Sudan in my secret stash. If you give me some time I can take a look and send you some scans and/or digital photographs.

  6. Hey that sounds cool, and would be greatly appreciated.


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