Tag Archives: chip kidd

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.

Alexander Louis Leloir, Jacob Wrestling With the Angel, 1865

Friday Link Pack—End Of The Year Edition (2014)

This will be the last Link Pack for the year which means it’s time for the End of the Year Edition! I compile the best loved links I’ve shared over the year into one big post! As always, some of these I’ve mentioned on Twitter, if you’re not already following me there, please do! Have a link I should feature in the upcoming link pack? Let me know! All right, let’s see what you liked:

My Most Popular Posts Of 2014:

Building A Better Book Cover
I wax poetic on cover design, what makes a well designed cover, and I offer tips on how to improve your own covers.

A SpoCon Debriefing
Pics and stories from my first convention. I had a blast at SpoCon and I am looking forward to the conventions in 2015.

Old Broken Road Cover Reveal
The post where I reveal the cover of my latest novel Old Broken Road. I love doing these. Expect a reveal for Red Litten World coming very soon!

Most Clicked Writing Links Of 2014:

The Two Most Powerful Behaviors Of Successful Writers
It’s no surprise that San Francisco writing coach Lauren Sapala shows up as a most-clicked. In this post Lauren discusses two behaviors—focus and boundaries—used by writers to get things done. Invaluable advice, both are tough to master but critical for personal success.

Designing A Book Cover Is No Laughing Matter, Okay It Is
In my post Building A Better Book Cover I reference this TED talk by acclaimed cover designer Chip Kidd. It gets a lot of love, and for good reason, Kidd isn’t only a great designer he’s a fantastic entertainer. Easily one of my favorite TED talks.

Do Not Despise These Small Beginnings
I loved this piece from composer Royal Teague on creation and the creative struggle and you did too! It’s very much worth a read.

5 Reasons I Switched to Scrivener For All My Writing
It’s no secret I love Scrivener. It’s my go-to software for all my writing. In this post, author and speak Michael Hyatt goes into details why he switched to Scrivener.

Most Clicked Art Links Of 2014:

The Art of Kuldar Leement
I’m a huge fan of Kuldar Leement’s concept artwork, so much so I featured him as a Visual Inspiration post. He has a great sense of composition and it really helps carry his vision.

Portraits by Dave Bastian
Design and illustrator Dave Bastian does portraits, but they aren’t your typical portraits. (If you’ve seen my twitter profile image then you’ve seen Dave’s work, but his Instagram account really shows off his incredible imagination and skill. Check out my portrait here.

Einstein’s Camera
Adam Magyar takes stunning motion photos using custom built cameras. The results are shockingly beautiful. If there’s one link you click today, make it this one. (Thanks to Erik Hedberg for the tip.)

Most Clicked Random Links of 2014:

Famous Paintings Of Jacob Wrestling With The Angel, Ranked By How Much Their Actions Resemble Slow-Dancing
I love the internet. (Thanks to Gus for sharing this way back when.)

David Foster Wallace Was Right: Irony Is Ruining Our Culture
My friend Ray Frenden shared this Salon article way back in April, I liked it then and so did you! It’s real good. An honest look at irony’s effect on our modern culture.

The Seattle Archipelago
Jeffrey Linn, a campus planner at the University of Washington, has created a fascinating map showing what my hometown would look like based on a 240′ rise in sea level should all of the world’s ice sheets melt. Someone should write a book about this… hummm…

One Of The Solar System’s Largest Volcanoes Is Right Here On Earth
Tamu Massif sits about a thousand miles off the coast of Japan and it rivals even the mighty Olympus Mons on Mars. Solid work Ring of Fire.

Lovecraft Story Of The Year:

At The Mountains Of Madness
It’s no surprise this was the most clicked Lovecraft story. Not only is it one of the most famous, it’s also one of the best. So settle in and follow the doomed Antarctic Expedition as they explore what lies in the mountain range beyond the ice. When you’re done I recommend checking out Thug Notes’ analysis, good stuff.

Animated GIF Of The Year:

DLX3EUB

Building A Better Book Cover

Let’s Talk About Your Book Cover.
Along with being a writer I am also a designer. I’ve been designing for 15 years now, having done everything from posters, logos, email campaigns, web sites, before eventually settling into user experience design. I mention my pedigree such as it is, only because I want to talk about some concerns I have over design advice  given to indie authors who are diving into self-publishing.

There seems to be a great many folks out there who claim you can make a well designed book cover with a cheap stock photo and a bit of text. I have seen these articles pop up on blogs all over. Every single time I just get frustrated. Why? Well, frankly… they’re totally wrong.

A Short Design Lesson

A well designed cover is so much more. It’s clever. It’s engaging. It’s attractive. It’s enticing. Chip Kidd—arguably one of the best cover designers in the world today—is quoted as saying:

“A book cover is a distillation.
It is a haiku of the story.”

The primary essence of a haiku is the Japanese word きる or kiru, which means to cut or slice. In a good haiku everything is removed but the perfect words to formulate the perfect line. A good book cover should also strive for that same perfection. Just like a haiku, it should reduce thousands and thousands of your words into a few simple elements. These elements should work together to do one thing: engage the viewer.

Staying simple is key. One of my favorite sayings comes from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry who said:

“A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

What does that mean? Let’s take a look at one of my favorite covers from last year, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch:

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

There is so much going yet it’s so simple and clever. Excess distraction has been stripped away and it still oozes intrigue. The choice of hand lettering. The tear and the peeling back of the paper to reveal the titular goldfinch. It’s compelling. It’s engaging. It’s clever. It leaves the viewer wanting to know more. It makes me want to read the book.

Often stock photography tends to be the most cliché take on a subject. Cleverness rarely comes from cliché. To get past the cliché I think you need to go beyond visual imagery, sure…a piece of stock photography might show up, and yes a typeface choice will be a part of the final design, but just slapping together a few things that are “close enough” won’t do your story justice. A good cover goes beyond all of that, it becomes that perfect line.

Creating A Better Cover

Okay, my lesson on book cover design theory is over. You want to make a simple engaging cover. So how do you go about doing that? I get that not everyone is a designer. So what can you do as a writer to really make your book cover stand out and look professional? Here’s a few suggestions.

If you are willing to spend some money:
  • Hire a designer
    Seriously. A designer will help your final work look it’s best. Make sure you have them read your book and approach you with a few concepts. If you have a few ideas throw them out there, but be willing to bend a little. It’s their job to distill your story down into that perfect haiku, that is what they are good at, let them be good at their job.
If you are going in alone:
  • Study well-designed covers
    There are numerous resources out there for you to browse award winning covers. One fantastic place to start is The Book Cover Archive, a site I have mentioned before. But there are other collections all over the web. Use them as a resource, see what works and learn to recognize what doesn’t.
  • Learn from the masters
    Chip Kidd had a great TED talk I suggest you go watch. There are also a ton of books out there as well with instructions on how to get started.
  • Sketch out ideas
    Sit down and start sketching out ideas. You don’t have to be a good artist. Just get a feel for what you want. Does it involve people? Does it need to even have a photograph? Is there something representational you could use instead?
  • Get messy
    Look back at The Goldfinch‘s cover. A lovely (and I believe in the public domain) painting by Carel Fabritius. Some paper. Some rough handwriting. It’s all laid out and photographed. It looks great. Don’t be afraid to try some weird crafty things to capture that cover you want for your book.

A Few Final Thoughts

So does the cover even matter? Some would say in our post-bookstore eBook-flooded-world a cover isn’t anything more than a thumbnail—if even that. Some would say the interior is what matters and cover design is a waste of time. Both stances are probably right on some level and sure, a well designed cover means nothing if your book isn’t up to snuff, and yes a cover is rarely seen in an eBook but I don’t think those are good arguments for bad cover design.

If you can put in a little effort into making your book look that much more professional thus making it more appealing to readers…why wouldn’t you? Quality sells. People look at covers before they buy a book (yes, even with eBooks.) There’s a reason why folks like Chip Kidd, David Pelham, and Barbara Dewilde can make careers designing some of the most iconic and recognizable covers on the market. It’s the same reason why people are drawn to smartly designed book covers, and why readers remember their favorites.

Imagery resonates. You have spent all this time writing a pretty amazing book. Spend a bit more time and give it a pretty amazing cover.