Continuity of Design

Have you ever been driving along, not really paying attention, until that one house caught your attention? You know what I mean – the faux asbestos tile stones siding… or maybe that’s just an Ohio thing. It’s the most hideous stuff I’ve ever seen on a house, and I’ve been a lot of places. Or it’s the house that has the three dead cars in the yard in various states of assembly, and the dogs tied out front howling at you, and the washing hung on the front porch. It’ll catch your eye, all right, and not in a good way. I’m not just talking about last weekend’s expedition with my Mom to look at houses and land in KY (she did find a little farm and put on offer on it, yay!) although there was a funny moment as we’re driving and she asks in a startled tone ‘did they stucco that mobile home?’

There are so many things wrong with this cover: photo, bad photoshop, not readable in thumbnail, unreadable author’s name, box text for no good reason, it just goes on and on.

I’m actually talking about book covers and ebook formatting. Just like in a neighborhood, the potential buyers are judging your book not just by the facade of that one house, but the others around it. If the book really, really doesn’t fit in, the buyers are going to subconsciously reject it. Or even worse, they might buy it expecting it to be different inside, only to realize you’ve stuccoed a mobile home and instead of getting, say, a romance, they’ve just bought hard science fiction. And they will leave very unhappy reviews. So even if your friends swear they never judge a book by it’s cover… no. You know what? If you are showing off your cover, and people are saying ‘oh, I don’t judge books by their covers’ that is when you know something is wrong with the cover and you need help. 

This is a photo. It’s not hard to convert a photo to art – and this is a good photo which would convert nicely. it would take no cost, and very little effort, but none at all were made. So many headdesks…

Just like in a neighborhood, you want your book to stand out a little bit, but not to stick out like a sore thumb. If no other books in your sub-genre have covers with photos as art, for heaven’s sakes stop putting a photo on yours! I’ve seen this twice just in the last week or so, both times on books that really ought to have known better: one was ostensibly published by a small press, the other by a famous author. I’m head-desking so hard. Look, I am a professional designer. Taken classes and everything, I didn’t just hang up a shingle proclaiming myself one.

Continuity of design is what people expect. It’s roughly equivalent to filing the rough edges off so people don’t get splinters, or trip. You can be eye-catching in a good way, while still maintaining some continuity. There’s a neighborhood I drive through almost every morning on my way to work and I love to look at the houses. I’m always spotting something new to admire. It’s the gingerbread, you see. The neighborhood along the Miami River is all Victorian and Edwardian mansions. They fit together, but are all beautifully different. Which is also what you want if you are designing a cover for a series.

I know, I know, I’m asking you to walk a thin line between standing out, but not sticking up like a nail that needs hammering down. Where you should not stand out at all, however, is your internal formatting. I was attempting to read an ebook that was badly formatted the other day, and making heavy water of it as it was not properly formatted. The brain sort of bounces off a lack of paragraph breaks, you know. It’s like one long wall’o text, and personally my mind retreats to a fetal position in the back of my skull and starts whimpering after a while of that. I kept reading because professional reasons (including feedback on the need for formatting) but had it been a pleasure read I’d have given up on it entirely. I don’t care how you format your ebooks – Amanda has done some excellent tutorials – but they need to be similar if not the same to all the other ebooks out there. So they are easier to read. Anything that takes my attention off the words coming to life in my imagination is a bad thing. Don’t do it. Creativity in ebook formatting is doomed to failure, in really ugly ways. It just comes across as amateur.

32 thoughts on “Continuity of Design

  1. Okay, now I’m curious. I’ve seen asbestos shingle siding and old enough to have worked with it some before the required moon suits, but all I’ve ever seen are asbestos shingles. These came in different colors, and the draw was maintenance free, like brick facade (they predate aluminum and vinyl siding a good many years). These look like, well, shingles. Is what you’re describing made to simulate stonework and hung differently than shingles?

    1. Yes, and it’s hideous. I may have to drive where I know there’s a house covered in it today and take a photo. I was telling Sanford as I was writing this I regretted not having one on hand to illustrate!

        1. Oh. I’ve seen sheet metal variations on that. It’s based on a concrete block design. Used to go to a church where they made concrete blocks out of forms using this design. Here the blocks are painted white. But this is the first time I’ve seen it as asbestos tile, though that does make sense.

          I haven’t seen it in years, but there used to be an exterior wall covering that was a roll of asphalt paper. It had designs such as brick. We used a plain one with a rough exterior on barns and such. Some people today call that tar paper, but it’s not.

  2. To take your house analogy, it’s like going down the road and seeing a bungalow; an A-Frame; a ranch house; a shotgun house; and maybe a geodesic. All of them say something about the interior layout. But even if you’re in a neighborhood of bungalows, each can be different. Some catches your eye more than others. Yet they’re all bungalows.

    Unfortunately, this is something tthat’s hard for me to translate into book covers. I know it exists, but carrying it out in the sense of a particular style is something else entirely.

    1. What it entails is looking at a lot of covers, and making notes of what you like, what’s on the best sellers, and on what you don’t like. I don’t think I’d bother looking at the worst sellers 😛 Although sites like crappy book covers are probably a good way to know what NOT to do, as well.

      1. Not necessarily the bestsellers. Sometimes they sell on things other than the cover. A Song of Ice and Fire is a great example of this, because you can look up the history of the cover art. Game of Thrones went from highly representational to more abstract to, currently, little more than a color and an icon… and GRRM’s name in really big print. As the series got more famous, particularly once the HBO series really took off, the things that they emphasized were different.

        The best ones to look at are the high midlisters (few as they are right now.) You know, not Stephen King in horror, but someone who has quite a few horror books out and seems to be selling well. Not Dan Brown in thrillers but the author a tier down. That sort of thing.

  3. I’m a big fan of free ebooks, literary classics, and T. S. Eliot: converge all three in the Kindle free edition of The Wasteland, which I re-read (first time on Kindle) a couple of weeks ago. It’s not as good as his later work, but it should have gotten four stars on the poem alone. The formatting was so ragged and slapdashed (did this editor even LOOK AT the product?) that I could only do three.

    You read that correctly: On a scale of 1 star to 5, the formatting merited a -1.

    1. What probably happened was the person putting it up simply scanned hard copy and converted it without actually checking formatting or coding. You can see a lot of that with some of the postings at Project Gutenberg (especially early entries in the project) and similar sites. I love the ability to scan and covert the printed page into digital files but there will always be problems when you do it.

      1. I’ve been reading an e-book version of Sowell’s _The Vision of the Anointed_. Whoever scanned and uploaded it for the publisher didn’t check, and a lot of commas are periods. Plus there are some introduced typos that I don’t remember from the dead-tree edition I read years ago. *shakes head*

  4. I like to play “genre misfit” when I’m perusing the sale table at the regional B&N. Looks like romance but is “literary masterpiece.” Looks like modern literature but is true crime [what the what was the cover person smoking?!?]. So generic it looks like an ad for a stock-photo company. Urban fantasy cleverly disguised as contemporary romance… You can see part of the books’ problems right there on the table.

    And then there are all the thing-on-black YA covers…

        1. That’s the “Covers that look like the chalkboard at a coffeehouse” thing. Our local Half Price Books has somebody drawing stuff on a chalkboard like that.

  5. Once upon a time, when economics were less restrictive, someone had the bright idea of using a holographic painting. No, I do not know how it was made. It did stand out–the cover looked bigger than it actually was. However, the color scheme was lurid purple and dark green.

    There was also the cover person who paid for a Whelan painting.. I know it was a Whelan. I have a full-size numbered print. The original was beautiful blues. It hangs in my bedroom. The redo was to lurid purples. ghastly.

    1. It’s definitely a nice cover, but my eye was drawn to the broad ax with a colts foot handle. It looks pretty, but it’s like some pistols with a safety. Broad axes are designed so that the handle curves to one side and the blade is reversible. This lets you hew timbers easier, and switch the blade if necessary. It made me wonder why a broad ax and not a single bit ax.

      Shrug. Something that jumped out at me.

  6. I want to second the “don’t mislead with your cover” particularly if your blurb doesn’t clue the reader in either. I have a really mean review unpublished on my computer because I was that torqued off at being tricked into buying supernatural romance.

    And I expect it was good SR as far as that goes. But if you hate eggplant and green peppers make you gag, selling someone ratatouille in a lasagne box is angry-making.

    It took me a while to figure out. I just kept getting more and more furious with the antagonist, and more annoyed at the main character’s plight and general ineffectiveness, and slightly sickened by what seemed like the upcoming graphic rape scene, when it finally dawned on me that this guy was supposed to be the Love Interest. Whoops.

    Genres have tropes that readers like, and even expect. Good on them. But you have to give the reader a clue somewhere.

      1. In fairness it was a decent read. If I’d know it was a romance, I wouldn’t have bought it mind you, but if it had turned up at a house party where I had nothing else to read, I’d’ve spotted all the clues the author laid out: This is not the villain! She’s all tingly for him! They’re “meeting antagonistic” like Kiss Me, Kate.

        I read it all the way through so I could honorably post a savage review, but human decency got the better of bad temper. Yay.

  7. I’m almost finished with Margaret Ball’s “Insurgents,” which I NEVER would have gotten if respectowiggle author people hadn’t raved about it. I wouldn’t have picked it because of the cover, which is of Lovely Blonde Fairyprincess gazing off into the distance, while Tall Darkan Handsome stands behind her. It’s a VERY well executed picture, truly, but match up with the story? Nope nope nope. It’s a GREAT story, btw!

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