Blast from the Past: Ignorance, Expertise, and Asses

Between trying to schedule a follow-up biopsy for the Bugger-cat so the oncologists will prescribe kitty-chemo and the normal chaos around Haus Paulk, I have no brain with which to offer pearls of wisdom (and really, a pearl is a bit of trash coated with layers of hardened mucus that just happens to look pretty), so instead, I’ll offer a blast from the past which – sadly – never seems to get old.

Namely, some musings about expertise not being particularly transferrable, leading to people making asses of themselves with impressive displays of ignorance.

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. Physicists talking about climate…. hmmm, who would that be?

    And I bet he was on a show of the same name as that other famous physicist that said SDI was going to get us all killed….

    1. I won’t call it PTSD, instead I’d call it a long and lovingly held grudge, but I will NEVER forget 10th grade and playing a game-show type thing in History class called “current events” and answering “S.D.I.” or more properly “Strategic Defense Initiative” for one of the questions and being told it was wrong. When no one else got the right answer the teacher said that the correct answer was…. wait for it… drum roll… STAR WARS.

      1. Yup, and I have some bad news for Carl and all the other naysayers…

        “Star Wars” WORKS.

        You CAN shoot a bullet with a bullet.

        etc, etc.

  2. I’ve noticed that Baen covers, lately, (I’d thought to say SF covers in general but I realized that all the ones I can think of were Baen,) are drawing the figures with a camera angle that creates a warped perspective. See Sarah’s _Guardian_ cover, for example. And I can picture a couple more such as Brad Torgersons last cover.

    At our local sci-fi convention a few weeks ago I noticed that the self-published or micro-press books for sale in the dealer room tended to have super professional looking covers *but* that they didn’t have background clutter. It didn’t seem to make a big difference if the book had a geometric or stylized symbol or a person as the focal point, the area around it was clutter free. The traditionally published books, at least it seemed to me, had even busier artwork than usual.

    I haven’t gone out and looked and compared in any sort of deliberate way. What have other people noticed?

    Just as a sort of working theory, I wonder if while indy publishers try to follow traditional publisher trends (so quickly changing!) in order to send the right signals, if traditional publishers are (consciously or not) reacting to indy publishing cover trends. Putting the camera angle a foot from the ground and looking upward at the characters, or putting the camera in the sky looking down, or having an extra level of detail in the background without distracting from the focal point are all upping the difficulty and expense and thus signal the amount of money put into the book, all for things that aren’t going to improve the thumbnail or electronic display on your device in the least. Maybe it signals “this was published large enough to show” or something.


    1. I think the odd angles is a reflection of the ubiquity of phone cameras, honestly. It’s a lot easier to envision unusual angles when you’ve been able to take pictures like that quickly and virtually free, whereas if you go back ten years or more, you had to buy a separate camera and process the images. With so many pictures floating around, you have to change things up in order to stand out.

    2. I suspect that’s the difference between bespoke art, which can gracefully detail all the free space because it’s all one piece, and covers constructed from layers of separate images, where you’re already fighting with the background image to place the foreground image, and detail becomes… clutter, so doesn’t happen.

      As to Baen covers, I’ve long had the habit of hold my nose, close my eyes, and _then_ grab the book…

      1. The Baen covers do rather run the gamut. There’s some I like, and some I loathe, some where the composition is great but the art poor, or vice versa. The Tom Kidd covers for the 1632 series are amazing. The later Honor Harrington novels have CGI that’s not to my taste as major elements of the covers, but there’s enough visual consistency between them that you can tell they’re Honor Harrington novels. The cover for Travis Taylor’s “Warp Speed” is positively awesome, one of my favorite covers I’ve ever seen. Alas, some novels were far, far less fortunate in the covers they received.

        1. At least Baen does their own covers. I’m seeing way too many books from Big 5 publishers with Shutterstock covers.

            1. Heck, I saw the cover art from a Big 5 novel (with a few tweaks) available at the Indie book cover store I buy from. Which really, really makes you wonder what the publishers do with their budget…

                1. Circa 1996, I noticed that one of the GURPS RPG books I’d purchased had the same cover art as a Pournelle & Stirling novel I’d purchased a couple years prior.

                2. I’ve seen quite a few repeated covers or cover elements. The most popular is a bearded, scar-faced warrior and a guy in a gas mask and hoodie. You can see those on indie and trad published books alike.

  3. *As a paying customer*, I can tell you that bad cover art is much worse than no cover art at all.

    I’ve picked a lot of books from the shelf, stared at the covers in horror, and shoved them back where they came from without looking at the blurb.

    Bad art doesn’t talk. It shouts. It shouts “We thought the text was such a loser, we didn’t even bother to try to do a proper job of marketing it. Run away!”

    You want artwork that sells books? You don’t want to be talking to the people who sell art, you want to talk to people who buy books.

    And yes, there *are* people who will buy a book for its cover, but they’re buying the cover, NOT YOUR WRITING. Maybe they just like the artist’s style or something. But if they’re buying that one book for its cover, they’ll probably be a repeat buyer… of SOMETHING ELSE that looks like that. Nothing to do with what you wrote.

    And as an aside, if I’m looking at a physical book, and I flip it over to read the back, and there’s nothing but a giant picture of someone’s face, it goes back on the shelf without further examination.

    Yeah, I have my prejudices and quirks. But it’s a buyer’s market now, and having learned markers of a bad book in the past, I can now afford to toss one and try another, rather than reluctantly purchasing what seemed to be the best of a bad lot.

      1. I do. I buy books for their contents.

        Even if I was buying a book for its cover art, I sure wouldn’t want it cluttered with text and icons, brands, or logos.

      2. I mentioned Space Force covers a while back: The first 25 books have exactly the same cover art. Just the title changes. It is pretty close to “no cover art”, but the “buy next” button always got the correct book, so it didn’t really matter.

  4. I commission my book covers and basically have something I like that says SF. Whether other people like my covers is a moot point. Some do, some surely don’t. So, like my stories, I do what I like or would like to see. Trying to please everyone is impossible. YMMV.

  5. I got stung this year by bad art. Really, really bad art, bad enough that I had several mentors and friends texting or e-mailing me to pull the cover and they would chip in to get a new one, or help make a new one. I have a suspicion that the artist got a major commission, forgot about me until the last minute, and then put together something that sort-of fit. The design was OK, the colors et cetera… bad. The font was also a problem.

    Lesson learned. Bad is worse than none.

  6. So… looking at cover art on Amazon by searching “science fiction books” and paging through…

    So… cyborg erotica seems to be a thing.

  7. On a mix of aesthetic and sales sides, you can make the font moderately complex IF the art is correspondingly simple. Like this:

    1. Cool. Speaking of dragons, I loved the Elmore covers for the early Dragonlance books. They were not 100% accurate, but then I sometimes thought that the stories might at times have twisted along to match pre-existing cool Elmore paintings.

      1. A classic tradition is writing the story to a cover. Pulp magazines would buy the cover art and then assign writers the task of the cover story.

        Poul Anderson once, when stuck, asked his wife to give him a story; she thought a minute, described a scene, and gave him an award-winning story.

  8. Once upon a time, someone published a book with a hologram cover. It made the book look large. Alas, the cover itself was a mixture of dark green and dark sort of purple that someone must have liked, but that I associate with small children with lots of crayons and no constraint on their use.

    But it certainly drew my attention.

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