Ignorance, Expertise, and Asses

Every so often someone who has deep expertise in one field (say, an artist or photographer) will make a complete ass of him or herself (or itself, let’s not be binary-genderist here) pontificating or offering advice in another field where they don’t have any expertise. Sometimes the field is related, sometimes not. Say… book covers.

So why, you say, would an artist not know anything about book covers? They’re art, aren’t they?

Well, no. They contain art, but they’re not primarily art. They’re primarily a marketing tool. That marketing tool has to communicate several pieces of information: who wrote the book, what genre (and in some cases subgenre) it is, the title, and something about the feel of the book. That’s a crapload of information to pack into a smallish rectangle that needs to attract potential buyers from several feet away (or the other side of a screen anything from phone sized up).

What this means is that everything on a cover has to multitask. Everything. Including font size, the font itself (do not ever use fonts that are hard to read. And if you have words like “flick” in your title choose your font very, very carefully indeed. It might not look like “flick” when you read it from five feet away (I know whereof I speak, here. There was a – much laughed about – public obscenity case in Australia over a bumper sticker that read “FLICK OFF”. In a font that… well… Let’s just say that with more spacing between the L and the I it wouldn’t have been quite such a problem)).

The first way to make the right links in a casual viewer’s mind is for the cover to have an appearance that more or less fits with similar books. This is why if you look at say, historical romance covers, they have a similar kind of feel to them. More than that, these conventions change. Rapidly.

If you have a large enough collection gathered over a long enough time frame, take a look at 1960s SF covers. Then 1970s. Then 80s. 90s. 2K-ish, 05-ish, 10-ish and nowish (do not include Baen covers in any grouping. They’re a category unto themselves, for Reasons). They change quite a lot, in terms of dominant theming, preferred fonts, embossing, chroming, assorted effects… as well as the kind of art used, color saturation and a ton of other things. Notice too, how changes are happening more rapidly lately – which makes it much more difficult to keep up with what’s current.

Trends in art are different than trends in covers. Trends in each genre are different, and different subgenres have their own trends. I said in a recent comment over on According To Hoyt that

good covers can be totally shitty art. They can look like someone crapped on your computer after ODing on rainbow glitter, as long as they fit with the norm for covers of that genre.

If you doubt, go and look at the 60s and 70s covers again. Many of the new age covers did look exactly like that – and for the time frame and genre they were perfectly good covers. They signaled that these were not traditional SF books, and they had a look that distinguished them from the traditional covers of their time.

Of course, the “artist” (I think he’s a photographer, actually) on that thread got all offended and gave a world-class performance of the epic dummy spit, and at the time I’m writing this has yet to figure out that nobody is slamming his tastes or his abilities. People are being remarkably polite in the face of a toddler tantrum, at least so far (okay, okay, it’s amusing me to play at being polite while seeing how much of an ass he can make of himself. I never said I was nice).

The point being, of course, that he’s forgotten or never knew that his abilities in his field do not transfer automatically to book covers, because while there are some similarities and you could say the fields are related, they aren’t close enough for an artist or photographer to be a good cover designer without training or study. So, of course, instead of listening to the people who have studied, he made an ass of himself.

It’s common. Physicists have done it when talking about climate. Movie stars do it all the time (especially when talking about politics or economics). The solution is that you don’t just bloody assume because you know a lot about one thing you automatically know about some other thing that looks kind of like the thing you do know.


  1. You left the party over at ATH too soon, Kate. He’s been back — groan — and has even posted an example of what he would have done to “help” another of the people commenting. Let’s just say his “example” probably doesn’t do what he thought it would to help prove his point.

    1. There are two possibilities, based on his posting history. One is that the poor fellow is utterly incapable of communicating via the written word so what he thinks he’s saying isn’t what he’s actually saying. The other is he’s doing this deliberately.

      I don’t know or care which, but I could live without it.

      1. Funny thing is, the guy is AMAZINGLY Prolific in the comments of damn near every political site I’ve run across. And his comments over on Larry’s blog are epicly funny. He really didn’t cover himself in glory in the ATH discussion though.

  2. I’ve starting ignoring (ie not reading) that individual’s “posts”.

  3. A-freaking-men!

    I get it. That individual was talking about what someone who was new could throw together. Unfortunately, his example? It’s bad. Really bad.

    Yes, as I said over on ATH a short time ago, part of it is that I’m not a fan of rendered art. It’s not so bad when it’s hard to tell its rendered, but if I can tell, it’s an instant turn off for me. But that’s just me.

    The rest of it is that it just screams amateur. Nothing on that cover would make me wonder who made it, at least not in a good way. A cover like that? I see that, I’m skimming over it and looking for something else. The purpose of the cover is to grab folks attention and make them want to know more. Like you say, Kate, it’s a marketing tool.

    Kind of funny that the individual in question blasts writers who teach cover creation, saying they come at it from a marketing standpoint. Um…that’s kind of the point. It’s marketing, so of course they’re coming at it from a marketing standpoint.

    Of course, my issue with him at the moment has less to do with what he’s saying, and more about how he’s saying it.

    1. I’m not a fan of poorly rendered art, either – but I am a fan of well-rendered art. (all of Peter’s covers being art rendered well enough to look good on a trade paperback cover.)

      Well, not fan in the “hang on the living room wall” sort of way – for that, I have nicely framed prints of oil paintings – but for book covers, absolutely. And to be honest, I won’t mind that much if Peter puts up framed pictures of the covers; they’re decent works of art. More for the hallway, or den, though, than the living room – like nicely designed concert posters and playbills, that way.

      1. Peter’s books have so far had good covers for this reader. I could list several others who write here with the same praise.

        A good cover, to me, is just that. A hook to drag you to the back cover, which prods you to *open* the cover, which contents then compress time in that magical way a book does such that you are running to the checkout at closing time, because you can’t leave the book behind (and unfinished).

        But it’s just a hook. I rarely even note the covers of ebooks nowadays, anyway- most stories I find when looking for something else, or off someone else’s recommendation.

        1. Thanks, Dan!

          And yes, once the sale is made, the cover’s job is done. Like a seatbelt, it’s a lot of thought and design into something that’s only useful for a few seconds. (But critical for those few seconds!)

          No cover can compensate for bad story. Though I love Luis Royo’s work, and automatically pick up his covers, I’ve sadly learned that a beautiful cover does not mean a matching quality and beauty to the story inside. The story’s what’ll keep you coming back for more!

          1. Oh, yes. The point of the cover is to attract a wandering eye and get the “hm, this looks interesting” reaction. After that, it’s up to the story to do the heavy lifting.

            A bit like that tantalizing glimpse of leg and the husky voice beckoning you to that shadowy corner with the hints of the pleasures to be found therein…

            1. A bit like that tantalizing glimpse of leg and the husky voice beckoning you to that shadowy corner with the hints of the pleasures to be found therein…

              DON’T GO! He shaves his legs but not his beard!! Trap!

              Hm. Never mind. Wrong blog.

              1. Well, my thought was that she’s a mugger. Oh, you can’t be a pretty female and be a mugger? [Very Big Grin]

      2. I agree. The art on Peter’s covers are great, and that I have no issue with. After all, it’s difficult to tell it’s rendered (I didn’t realize it at least) and I don’t mind that in the least.

        I’ll have to keep an eye out for that kind of stuff for my space opera series (still to be written). 🙂

    2. That person has an amazing gift for saying things in the most abrasive manner possible. And I say this as someone who has something of a similar gift.

      1. You and me both, though I’m trying to do a little better. Not much, because I like me how I am, but some.

        He really went out of his way to be as annoying as possible, which isn’t unusual for him. Usually, his language was focused on people I didn’t like either, so I didn’t say anything. I really, really should have then.

        1. Let’s just say there is a reason I try to avoid commenting when I’m angry and leave it there.

          1. I shouldn’t comment when I’m angry but I’ve done it. [Frown]

            Oh, most of the “bad” examples were elsewhere.

            1. I’d say there’s a difference between “able to piss people off without having a clue why it did so” and “seems to deliberately rub sand paper on people’s sore spots as a matter of course.”

              That may be self-serving, though.

          2. I have said before that I’ve been fortunate here and elsewhere that when I get really angry, I tend to lose some of my ability to put words together.

  4. Unfortunately, a cover can still determine whether or not someone picks up a copy of your book to look inside in the first place (and yes, this includes ebooks). The human mind likes the pretty, see, and we naturally gravitate towards bright and shiny things over ugly and dull (ever try to propose to a woman using a muddy rock instead of a sparkly stone of some sort? It never goes well for the guy). Seriously, and no offense to Cedar here, but if someone gave me the choice between Kurt Miller or Cedar for my book cover, I’m going with Kurt Miller every single time.

    I enjoyed reading “Vengeance from Ashes” immensely. But I wouldn’t have picked it up based on its cover. That’s just me. I do like the looming space ships, the planets in the background, etc. They remind me of scenes from Star Wars, and those designs pass along a certain message in their designs: this is an EPIC space adventure and you don’t want to miss out! Fail Burton may be pissing you off, but he has a point. Certain images on covers are designed in such a way to excite the reader about the potential of a book. Yes, this is a marketing tool, I’m agreeing with you there. But the art had better be damn good and have some kind of hook if you want a reader to look at an unknown author.

    1. No offense taken, Jason , if I had the choice of Kurt Miller I’d pick him, too. On the other hand typography and setting the cover up on the art? Fail hasn’t a clue what he’s talking about there. Also, there’s a reason I use other peoples art on my covers (with the exception of Eternity Symbiote, which signals hard sf). My artistic style isn’t suited to what I write.

    2. Jason, I agree with you for the most part and I’m glad you enjoyed VfA. I’ll even admit that, while I liked the cover, I like the new cover a great deal more. But then, I’m like you. I like spaceships and planets, I especially like exploding spaceships and planets. 😉

    3. Jason — in the cover of Vengeance we (I did it, yes) were hampered by “must be free art” as that’s all we could afford at the time. For “every element free, and I don’t have time to draw it” it was damn good. OTOH it had a “seventies” vibe.
      Not arguing that and that’s not Fail’s point, actually. If you see his sample, you’ll see what he thinks is “suitable for beginners” art and it bad. REALLY bad.
      His entire point is something like “if you can’t afford a pro designer, then do something as “simple” as possible, so you don’t make mistakes.”
      The issue is what he considers “simple” is actually bad and amateurish, as well as signaling seventies or sixties bad sf.
      He ignores Dreamstime, renderosity, Photolia, and a dozen other free or cheap cover art sources. And his typography advice isn’t even wrong, it’s so bad.

      1. I was ignoring his advice about typography because, well, you already said it. I was agreeing with his basic principle about cover art. Where you get it from and so on is an entirely different matter all together.

    4. I never once said he didn’t have a point – but the comments I’d read before I started to write suggested that he was missing the main point which was that the primary purpose of a cover is to convince someone to take a closer look – and for that art is simply one of the tools involved.

  5. In reading the exchange it looks like you’re all talking past each other rather than anything productive. None of you is really listening or acknowledging the others’ reasonable points – but in general it seems that Fail is getting the short end of the stick; commenters are being far ruder to him that he is to them. He’s been subjected to a lot of unwarranted nastiness and personal insults. Further, on a number of occasions he would make a point and then someone would “interpret” what he really meant and then lambast him for the “real” meaning – even though the interpretation is far from fair. I’m actually surprised at the venomous, knee-jerk hostility presented in the response and don’t think it reflects well on the site. Frankly, a lot of people sound like know-it-all jerks.

    1. Okay. First up, the rudeness had not started when I started writing this post.

      Secondly – I was not at any point rude. The way I read what Fail was saying was two-fold: first that he had issues with crappy art (I don’t blame him one bit, but if crappy art is the norm for the genre for my book then I’ll grit my teeth and use crappy art that matches that genre). Second, that those who can’t afford top-dollar artwork should go as simple as possible – to which he gave his example.

      Unfortunately that example is not the norm for covers in SF or fantasy or any of the related genres right now. If it had been, there would have been no problem. Because it isn’t the norm, a cover with the font settings Fail suggested will stand out as being “amateurish”, “retro” and so forth.

      Pointing this out – and using colorful examples to do so – is hardly “hostile”.

    2. You know, you seem to spend an awful lot of time defending Fail. Just curious, but have you commented on other posts here at MGC or ATH before today?

      I ask, because so far the only thing you’ve shown an interest in is defending someone you don’t know. You acknowledge that you don’t know the history, but fail to acknowledge that the history might just be relevant.

      You’ll save yourself a lot of time if you come to understand one simple thing. The vast majority of folks here will not be agreeing with you on this. Ever.

  6. @Cedar, what were your objections to the cover of ‘:Plant Life?’ I rather liked the fractals.

      1. liked the stargazer fractal too. BUT the colors on Plant Life are PLANT colors and I liked them. They fit.

  7. Here’s a cover tip I’ve learned the hard way: You need to ‘center’ the main feature of the cover art, but if you buy only the minimum size needed for your cover, that may not give you enough ‘spare image’ at the top, bottom and sides to be able to ‘tweak’ the picture, moving it to center the main feature, then cropping the bits that protrude. I’ve made that mistake a couple of times, which required my cover designer to ‘fill in the blank bits’ at the edges (after centering the main feature) through creative use of Photoshop.

    I’ve learned that if your book cover is (say) 6″x9″, you’ll do well to purchase the image in 9″x12″ size, which allows for judicious manipulation without running out of image at the edges. (It works the same way with pixels. If you’re trying to make an e-book cover for Amazon’s preferred size of 2,500×1,536 pixels, simply divide each figure by 300 – the required minimum print density – to get inch sizing. The Amazon cover thus works out to 8.34″x5.12″.)

    1. I would disagree that you always want to “center” your image – but I agree that getting a larger than “necessary” image is important.
      When using third-party material, the image is usually composed for stand-alone use. When you add title, author, blurb etc. you need to adjust the composition of the image to unify the layout. You need to have wiggle room to make this even possible.
      It’s often best to focus on a portion of the third-party graphics, rather than viewing it as a whole, and design your layout around that sub-image.

  8. I thought he actually made some decent points – if you give him the benefit of the doubt instead of misrepresenting what he’s trying to say. Calling him a “pustulent” “dick” on the “arse of the internet” isn’t terribly productive.
    I don’t know the history of the commenter, but based on this exchange the reaction is entirely unwarranted.

    1. Here’s the key, try to soak this up: You. Don’t. Know. The. History.

      You could be getting pieces of it from the many responses you received at ATH, but I guess you’re missing it.

    2. Just for reference here, I do not have any say over what anyone else posts here or on According To Hoyt. If you wish to call me out, do so over things that I have said.

      I made this post not to hammer Fail Burton, but to point out that it’s possible to have a great deal of expertise in one area (art) and have little to no expertise in a seemingly related area (cover design). And yes, being technically capable while ignoring current trends in something changing as rapidly as cover design does indeed count as little to no expertise.

    3. I thought he actually made some decent points – if you give him the benefit of the doubt instead of misrepresenting what he’s trying to say.

      “Do it my way.”
      “No, that’s not right, here’s a ton of examples.”
      “Do it my way! Appeal to unstated authority!”
      “No, let me explain it in a different way, with more examples. By the way, here’s my background, what’s this authority you keep claiming?”
      “You ain’t the boss of me! I’m right! Do it my way!”
      *repeat a few dozen times, with increasing insistence that his is the only right way and some added rudeness on Fail’s part up to and including a shut-up-you’re-not-the-host comment… to which the hostess points out she agreed with the one disrespected*
      “Dude, you’re being a dick. Think you can manage to make an argument?”
      “How dare you be rude to me!”


      The only way you could say he made decent points is if you do a Justice Roberts level re-write of what he said and divining of intentions.

  9. How right that the conventions change–I’ve been looking at YA SF covers and so far I’ve found abstract designs, plenty of stars, and dreamy or oppressed young girls–especially oppressed, because so many of the stories are juvenile remakes of the Handmaid’s Tale.

    But I have to keep to the conventions. 😛

  10. I loathe doing cover art. There’s a rather large part of me that wants all the books I buy to be in plain leather covers with gilt title/author lines, and that’s all. Also, having studies ideas for a lot of my life, I object to the use of so much real estate as a marketing tool. Don’t get me wrong: I get it. I just don’t like it. I have – for a good couple of decades – objected to cover art that seemed to have nothing to do with the book beyond, “there are spaceships innit.” My standards have lowered enough that I’m more or less pleased when I get to the end of the book and can recognize the cover as having something to do with a scene from the book. Even when details are wrong. Again: I get the design pieces, I just don’t like the reality of it. Also, I’m colorblind. Not completely, but enough that certain covers don’t work for me because the colors don’t look right. This is something I can do nothing about, beyond asking somebody to check my work. It also influences my tastes. See above.

    1. I should clarify. I dislike doing cover art; I loathe putting covers together. My tastes aren’t synonymous with well-designed covers, I fear.

      1. Dave, I must apologize – I did put your cover up on my post about cover layout. And said you should make your name bigger. In my defense, I like your book, and used it as an opportunity to promote it. There were a couple clickthroughs to Amazon; I hope you got at least one sale from it!

        1. Thank you. I hope so, too. No, despite whatever skill I have in writing, cover design is a foreign country, and one I’m not fond of visiting. I have certain styles I like, but they depend on things like blocks of black so the text shows up and is legible (my red/green colorblindness again). It takes a LOT of energy for me to work covers, and the results don’t seem to be what I need, despite usually turning out more or less how I want. It’s annoying.

        2. And the other thing has the beginnings of a new cover. I’ve got the art, but I’ve been avoiding doing a cover. Again, I don’t much like doing those.

          1. New book? New book? New book?

            Well, you did just make New Human, you and Mrs. Dave. That’s going to be a whole lot more labor intensive than new book; I’ll wait.

            1. Nah, just new cover. Well, sort of. The cover of Shadow Hands is … well, deplorable might not be too far. I’ve got art for that and the … five other episodes that follow, and them written and edited. I just haven’t done the publishing work. Because … like you said: new human. I think that’s the reason, though it makes a lousy excuse. So, yeah. New stuff.

  11. Sarah opened my eyes when she first mentioned how book cover trends have changed over the years. When I went to the dime store and spun those racks full of paperbacks around looking for something to read, a cover did a different job than today when you’ve got an array of thumbnails on Amazon. If you doubt this, do a google image search on Ender’s Game. You’ll see how typefaces and covers changed as the way in which we buy books have changed

    1. Oh, absolutely, Steve. Any book that’s been around for a while will do that.

      And that’s before you look at the covers that have been used in different parts of the world – US covers tend to be more “realistic” than UK covers, for instance (that’s changing with Amazon and ebooks since there really isn’t a need to print different editions for the UK market vs the US market)

  12. Just a note about global warming and physicists. Physicists deal with heat, energy, fluid dynamics, thermodynamics, etc. Dyson Freeman, a physicist, has a critique of the global warming models based on the physics of the gases in the atmosphere. He does believe that humans are warming the atmosphere, but says we do not understand enough about the climate or the atmosphere to accurately model it.

    1. Physics is a discipline that contains fields used by many other disciplines.

      Being a physicist does not automatically make one an expert in those other fields. How many folks do you know that are expert physicists, and also really solid bench chemists?

      For example, someone with a physics background in thermodynamics is not necessarily the same as someone with an engineering background in thermodynamics. Engineers tend to have a background in trade offs, particularly trade offs involving human welfare that go beyond lab safety.

      I once checked the CV of a climate modeler, and his thermodynamics training was in physics.

      Every discipline has its limits. No human can be equally competent in every discipline.

      There is a lot of variation among practitioners within a discipline.

      1. Exactly, Bob. (You don’t know how tempted I am to throw in “As you know, Bob”. Just because).

        1. I meant to write ‘in those other disciplines’, and am feeling a little ashamed.

    2. I should have clarified that a bit and say *astrophysicists*.

      Yes, the physicists who focus on fluid dynamics and heat exchange in complex systems may be able to comment on climate matters. Geologists whose focus is on extrapolating paleoclimate from the available evidence can also add useful information. Neither one has the whole picture and both can quite easily find themselves in the wrong place because of that.

      1. Which raises the question of what makes a discipline or sub discipline appropriate to solving a particular problem.

  13. If you really want to see something interesting about book covers, look at the listings for the top 100 authors in Fantasy, for example. (I had to dig through my history to find the link, since Amazon doesn’t have a really obvious way to find it).


    There’s a definite trend for “Branding” an author’s work with a standard cover format with some varying elements, and the plain cover with an iconic image in the middle is surprisingly common.

  14. Ladies and Gents, frogs and huns…
    What burns me is that people USED to know that this is *what* *art* is for. Michael Angello could have made a good cover. Even his third assistant twice removed (yes, the one with the lisp) could make a better cover than the average artsy child. I know of what I speak. I used to be one, with more of a classical education than most. And classical education talks about the craftsmanship of art, which is NOT just about how to make the light look convincing, or brush strokes or all that. It’s also about layout, drawing the eye, proportions that are pleasing, and a whole host of things that are based on hundreds if not thousands of years of experience.

    The ancient Greeks wrote treatises about it. You can tell, even if we didn’t have them, because suddenly, when people started reading them again, the work on the inside of churches got MUCH better. And that was before they went mad for naturalism. Even the icon tradition has more sense of how to draw the eye and organize a page than one ever learns in most art schools. This is the stuff artists SHOULD be learning, that is, how to communicate and make a living.

    I think that these things are codified into the cover designs and marketing even more than people think, because even the people who know how to make a good cover, might not know the principles behind it that dictate what was used, where and why.

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