A Weird Fiction Cover Design Intervention

On Twitter this April, I went on a rant about cover design, specifically targeting indie authors and small press houses within the Lovecraftian and weird fiction genres. Both are genres of which I am proud to be a part, but as of late I’ve found myself disappointed when it comes to the quality of the book cover designs. Fellow author S. Lee Benedict suggested I expand on this topic here, and it’s a good idea…

...and here we go.

This isn’t the first time I have written about cover design; you can read my previous post, ‘Building A Better Book Cover’ over here. Cover design is something of a passion for me. I’ve been a professional designer for 16 years working on everything from software, branding, advertising, book covers, and a variety of promotional materials. I believe good design is important, and I know it’s important to fans and readers.

So, here’s our situation. I feel like Lovecraftian and weird fiction literature needs a cover design intervention. Honestly, that statement could apply to much, much more than just those two categories; but these days I am closest to those genres, so they get the brunt of my focus. I’m not fond of publically shaming. So, don’t expect me to call out specific examples of bad design. However, with a little searching, you can easily see what I mean.

It’s not that indie authors or small publishers start out with a desire to make awful covers. Sit in on any self-publishing panel at a convention and every author will readily admit it’s worth spending the money on an illustration for your cover. And, many books with terrible covers start with a great illustration. They’re on point for tone and mood, and often a good step in the right direction, but they completely miss the mark when it comes to typography and design. Strange font choices abound, bad effects mar legibility, and bizarre distortions plague the shelves. At best it’s boring, at worst it’s completely illegible. (And it tends to skew towards the latter, unfortunately.) It’s like someone put all their effort into illustration and completely forgot that paying attention to the cover’s typography and design is just as important as having great art. Those three concepts are the pillars of good design. Everything in a book cover plays off of one another; bad typography can forever mar a beautiful illustration.

“…paying attention to the cover’s typography and design is just as important as having great art.”

If indie authors and small presses were more honest with themselves, they’d know when a cover is done vs. done right. It’s not hard to compare; solid examples are everywhere. And it wouldn’t take much to improve; basic typography operates under a set of rules, and a few typography classes at a local college would go a long way to learning the ins and outs. If that’s hard to swing, sit down with a Skillshare class. Jon Contino, the illustrator who did the lettering for my books, offers a Skillshare class on Illustration and Lettering: A Hands-on Approach to Label Design that is excellent. If you’re looking for books on the subject start with The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst. It’s commonly called “the Typographer’s Bible,” and it’s a good (if not dense) place to start. Also, look into Ellen Lupton’s fantastic Thinking with Type: A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, Editors, & Students; it’s a practical guide on the rules of typography and how to break them effectively and creatively,

The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst
The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst

As I mentioned in my post, ‘Building a Better Book Cover,’ Chip Kidd, one of the greatest book cover designers living today, has said, “A book cover is a distillation. It is a haiku of the story.” I love that quote. He’s not wrong; bad cover design does a disservice to the writing it represents. It detracts when it should enhance, it lies when it should entice.

But there is a silver lining! I know quite a few authors who have taken the time and put in the effort and have made strides in cover design. Word Horde is a great weird fiction press that does wonderful work, and Laird Barron’s novels often have fantastic covers. Recent strides have been made by larger print houses as well; Victor laValle’s Ballad of Black Tom (Tor) and Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft County (Harper) were recent standouts in the genre. So well designed covers in weird fiction are out there. Publishers, designers, and authors should study what those books do right and strive towards emulating their successes.

Weird fiction book covers

I believe weird fiction is one of the most exciting and imaginative genres to be writing in today. It pushes at the edges of speculative fiction as a whole and continues to broaden its reach. It’s only reasonable to desire that the covers of the great work being produced should live up to the potential within the pages. We all want these books to continue to attract new readers for decades to come, and a well-designed cover goes a long way to doing just that.

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