Blast From the Past: Ignorance, Expertise, and Asses

So I’ve got a release going out this morning (tomorrow as of when I write this, but I’ll be deep in deployment activity when this post goes live) so to spare myself, it’s a blast from the past that remains utterly true now.

Expertise in one area does not transfer to any other area. Just because you’re a world-renowned something does not automagically make you an expert in something else. It’s like expecting a rodeo rider to be a really good cook. The two skillsets aren’t mutually exclusive, but they sure as hell don’t come as a package deal, either.

That said, welcome to a several-years-old post about how expertise in one area and ignorance in another can make asses out of all of us.

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.

25 thoughts on “Blast From the Past: Ignorance, Expertise, and Asses

  1. The flick comment reminded me of back in the day when doing comics, FLICK would be used as a replacement for the obvious swear word. What can I say? It was a long time ago, and we were young and foolish.

  2. This discourages me from doing my own cover art. My primary dilemma is this: which genre do you signal when your work is a framing tale? The various stories written in the tale are quite different genres: one would be properly labeled a romance (two young star-crossed lovers- think R&J) Does their youth make it a YA work? Another is military action. (Think Hunt For Red October) Yet another is cyborg/AI speculative fiction (Think Ghost in the Shell). I SWEAR all the threads are related and combine into one meta-epic, in ways unable to be predicted by the average reader. The folk here on this site MIGHT be able to, but I grow weary of trying to convince y’all that your reading and speculative abilities are way beyond normal – supernatural even. 🙂

    1. I’ve seen at least one anthology of fantasy stories that had a cover of people obviously telling tales around a fire. So if you’re doing that sort of frame, something that indicates a large range of stories might be appropriate. Like an anthology titled “Bar Tales” with a tall glass of beer on the cover (and blurred background that indicates a bar.)

      1. Good idea, channelling the Callahan’s bar, but it’s not seperate people telling the tale, nor does it much occur in a bar. It’s about a family, two parents, three kids, 3 pets, each of which has seemingly different, unrelated, story arcs. Each of those arcs could be thought of as its own genre. All end up intertwined to form a “Meta-story.” A pure Romance cover will aggravate readers when they read an action adventure arc, and vice versa.

        1. Family tree-style graphic with individual elements of the sub-genre. But I would have the artist themselves come up with more specific than that.

      2. I hope some of the people were obviously not human, or the fire was blue, or the people had swords or something.

  3. Nice ass, er, donkey, er equine. Anyway…

    My first thought about “Oh, that cover, no!” was the British web-site GoodShowSir. For 1970s-80s cover art, and not just US and UK but France and Germany as well… But be advised that it is NOT a good place to learn what covers “work” and what crash. They evaluate the covers as art… or not art. (But if you are signalling fantasy and you can’t get basic human anatomy anywhere near correct even for genre… probably not a good cover. Probably.)

    1. One of the worst book covers I ever saw was… one of mine.

      I sold a programming book to a British publisher in the mid-1980s. They plastered the cover with various sizes of… question marks. It looked like it belonged on the Doctor Who shelf, not in the programming section…

      Somehow, it sold rather well for a specialty title. Considering it was a UK-only release, maybe it *did* sell to Who fans… But everyone who has seen one of my author copies has either WTFed or stifled a laugh.

    2. There was a Miles Vorkosigan cover that I submitted because it reminded me of that woman who over-painted a classic Jesus icon so that it looked like a baboon.

  4. E. M. Foner’s covers for his Union Station series have a robot with a bow tie and a woman drinking a glass of wine.

    Each book has the same cover but the color of the bow tie and dress change with each book.

    I think that breaks several rules of covers but it works for him.

    BTW, the books are a delightful, fun, light romp in SF.

    1. I like the covers. Its a fun idea. Too bad I didn’t think of it first. 😦

      Working on MY cover right now, so publication approaches. It is, I kid you not, based on a close-up of my snow blower and a picture of the former Mississauga dump.

      Question for the experts, is there a downside to going with a Baen-ish cover? Its already been established that SJWs will hatehatehate the book, if the cover warns them off that would be a bonus as far as I’m concerned. A bit of un-virtue signaling.

      1. I would say the downside would only be if it’s a strong departure from the Baen “house style.” That is, if people buy your book expecting something similar to what they might buy from Baen, that’s a mis-signal and a disappointment of expectations.

        P.S. I mostly dislike Baen covers, but I don’t find them as awful as some that I’ve encountered over the years. And there’s one very popular cover artist who I heard was a lovely person, and I appreciated his work ethic, but his style made me gag (his horrid sense of proportions, light, and his tendency to have half a dozen archetypes that were the only people he ever featured.)

  5. Signet used GI Joes and photography on some of their covers in the 1970s. They actually repelled customers. At least, they caused me to put every one of them hastily back on the rack…

    TRX book cover rule #1: “no art” is better than bad art

    TRX book cover rule #2: “if the back cover consists entirely of a huge picture of the author, it goes back on the shelf”

    TRX book cover rule #3: “too many fonts on the cover and it goes back on the shelf” (yes, I have an entirely reasonable prejudice against text that looks like a ransom note)

    TRX book cover rule #4: “if I can’t easily read the title and author, it goes back on the shelf.” Really. Your hoopty kewl font is a major turn-off, because over time I’ve learned to equate “arty font” with “bad book.”

    Also, if you’ve printed it in “red” or “green” over colored background, in which case I may only be able to see random pieces of letters. 15% of males have some degree of red/green color blindness. If your art people are all female, you might want to be aware that to some people, your cheerful Christmasy picture looks like a patch of something the same color as dirt to about 7% of your potential market.

    TRX book cover rule #5: “just because your artwork is rad cool, doesn’t mean it’s appropriate for that particular book.” If your book is hard SF and your cover has centaurs and lyres on it, you’re sending contradictory messages.

    TRX book cover rule #6: “if your back cover and flyleaf text are generic boilerplate that, other than names, could just as easily describe anything else in the genre, it goes back on the shelf.” I see way too many blurbs that look like they were written to the same template; “character name, bad thing, plot complication, see what happens next!” That’s a sign that the author or publisher didn’t even try.

    That’s the results of nearly half a century as a book *purchaser*, not as an artist, salesman, packager, etc.

    Note that there are far more ways to lose a sale to me than to make one. All your book has to be is available and the blurb and flyleaf text to look reasonably interesting. Plain old black and white with block letters is fine. Yes, you’ll get *feedback* from the people who buy because of giant bazongas or Frazetta-ish art on the cover, but they’re not buying your book because of your writing, are they?

    1. Frazetta was okay. Vallejo was awesome. And yes, I probably would never have picked up John Norman’s Gor series if it hadn’t been for the covers on his first books.

    2. In regards to your point #4, it’s always a good idea to put a desaturation layer over your cover to see what it looks like in black & white. If you can’t read it when there’s no color, you need to change things. (I actually picked up that trick in broadcasting classes, because there’s always B&W TVs in the studio to help you make sure the contrast is on line. I saw no reason it couldn’t be applied as a trick in art, not with computers being used so much.)

      1. One of the useful things that I was told in the basic DINFOS broadcasting course, when it came to doing graphics for TV. Make sure there is enough contrast!

  6. *snicker* Flick.
    Which word reminds me irresistibly of the Brit-TV series, “Allo, Allo” and the regular character of Herr Flick, the resident Gestapo agent. Yeah – “Flick, the Gestapo,” when he answered the phone…

  7. An observation as old as Socrates. . . .

    The Non-Designer’s Design Book by Robin Williams ironically tends to get bad cover designs.

    1. “Expertise in one area does not transfer to any other area.” SOMEBODY purty please tell Noam Chomsky and 80% of Hollywood this. I’ll be yer friend. 🙂

    2. I need to get a copy of that book. I used to read it on breaks when I worked at a bookstore and it has a lot of good information—even if the cover designers need to read the book themselves.

Comments are closed.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: