Wednesday, December 14, 2011


Rick Blechta back on the hot seat!

Yesterday's blog started this conversation about book covers with Rick Blechta, mystery author and designer. There's more...

3. As a designer, what would you advise authors to focus on when having input into a cover design?

First of all, don’t expect to get much of a say in the matter. Even if an author complains loud and long about the horrible design of the book’s cover, most publishers will fall back on the usual bromide: “It’s a marketing decision.”

In designing covers, I’ve discovered two very surprising things along the way. First is that many, many people in the publishing industry (and I’m including writers in this) don’t know the first thing about good cover design. Case in point: they’re not aware on how choice of colour can affect the perception and legibility of a cover. Try this if you have the computer knowledge to do it: find a whole bunch of covers and remove all the colour. Make them black and white. Are they still really legible? It’s amazing how often that wonderful looking colour cover becomes an illegible mess when it’s changed to black and white and shrunk to fit a newspaper review. If you don’t see that as of critical importance, you’re nuts. Do you think the designer of that page is going to sit down and optimize that cover for you? Ain’t gonna happen.

So my suggestion to any author is to print out their proposed cover on a black and white printer. Stand back about five to ten feet? Can you still read it easily? If you can’t, something has to be fixed. Less experienced designers make this simple mistake a lot.

Second, look at the book’s title and your name. Again, stand back a few feet. Can everything be read easily? If not there’s a problem either in font choice(s), setting of the font(s), size, kerning (how close or far apart the letter are), contrast or choice of colour – or both. A lot of times designers will make inappropriate type choices that muddle the message. I’m not saying that every book cover should be designed using just a handful of very legible, standard typefaces that have been designed for display work, but type should be appropriate to the use to which it’s being put. Inappropriate type can also call attention to itself too much. You want people to read the words not have trouble figuring out what the words are or gawking at the pretty typeface or the clever way in which it’s been set. The first rule of good typography is always that it should be “invisible”. In other words, it should just look right.

Another thing: is the image on the cover appropriate? Does it actually communicate something useful? Don’t get married to the idea of having a scene from your book on the cover. First and foremost, you want the image to be evocative. It can sell the sizzle of the book, or it can sell the steak. Either one can be good and effective if handled properly.

The most successful cover I ever designed was for one of my own books, Cemetery of the Nameless. Over and over, booksellers told me how much they loved the cover. It was often faced out on bookshelves for just this reason. Now that’s a powerful sales tool and I got it for nothing. Well, I’m here to tell you that that particular cover design broke just about every rule in the book: the image was ridiculously too busy, the balance between the title and author was deliberately out of balance each to the other, but they were placed that way because they further strengthened the image. The strongest thing in the design was the way the title of the book was set. Why? Because it was a great title. (For the record, I didn’t come up with the book’s title. Two cops in Vienna did when they told me about the real Cemetery of the Nameless.) Incidentally, we came up with forty-eight different versions of that cover (some variations were minor) before we settled on the one that was used (#42). Not many designers can afford to put that much time into one cover – an no publisher would have paid for what that cover actually would have cost.

4. What about photographs vs artwork? What’s more effective?

It depends on how they’re used. The nice thing about an illustration is that you can get exactly what you want. If the illustrator is given a detailed concept from which to work, and they’re competent, you’ll get a good image. If they understand the concepts of effective book cover design that I’ve outlined above, you’ll get a great image.

For photographs, again, find the right photographer, give them a great concept and let them do their thing. You should get a great image.

The shortcoming of both in the modern world of publishing is that commissioned art, whether it be illustration or photograph can be very expensive. Publishers are leery of it for that reason. Ever see a cover where you’ve wondered, “How did that ever get approved? It is just plain ugly!” Well, what could have happened was that the artist or photographer just didn’t do a very good job or they weren’t given a clear idea of what was needed. (Almost no designers, illustrators or photographers have anything more than a cursory knowledge of the book for which they’re designing the cover.) But with commissioned art, the publisher has invested a considerable amount of money and they’re loathe to just toss that away. Quite often the person at the publishing company who commissioned the original art is unwilling to take the fall, so they push the hell out of it to compensate for their error. It’s dumb, but it happens.

Which brings us to the current reality of cover images: stock photos. There are a number of companies that sell them, most do it online now. What happens is the designer and sometimes the editor pour over pages of images based on keywords that are punched in. Hopefully, they come up with something good. Part of the equation is how many hours they’re prepared to look since you can imagine that this situation is akin to finding a needle in a haystack. For the publisher, the monetary saving is big. They might be able to buy that image for as little as $20, instead of several hundred for the most established stock photo resellers or upwards of $1000 for a commissioned image from a great photographer or illustrator. Which route do you think they’ll choose, especially if the author is low in the pecking order?

The big problem is oftentimes the designer never finds that “just right” image so they settle for something less. You’ve seen the results on countless covers over the past several years.

5. Is there anything else you feel needs to be said?

This is already pretty long. Let’s stop now. I could go on and on and on. Time to step off the soapbox.

Thanks, Rick! It's a large topic and that's a tall soapbox packed with lots of valuable information.

Besides his career as a writer of crime fiction, Rick Blechta has been a graphic designer since 1998 who now owns a successful design studio, Castlefield Media. Over the years, during which he was mentored by well-known designers and artists, Kal Honey and Kim Lee Kho, he made himself an avid student of this arcane art. His design output has included commissions for a number of book covers.

As a writer, his short novel, Orchestrated Murder, was recently published by Orca Book Publishing, and fall of 2012 will see the release of his full-length novel, The Fallen One, by Dundurn Press.


  1. Interesting blog. Unfortunately, as you say, we don't have much control but good points to remember if we are asked.

  2. Not so, Joan. Remember that trick about turning your cover to grayscale and looking at it at a small size (as it would be displayed in a newspaper)? Next time you're given your prospective cover, do it. Can you read everything easily? It's an excellent trick to have in one's back pocket. I've found that designers sometimes forget this thing about colour values when they're too close (or worse yet, don't know really about it) and they will usually happily change things if they've not handled this well.

    Another trick is to print out the cover in colour (pay to get this done if you don't have a good colour printer and look at your cover from a distance in different light levels. If your book is on a lower shelf in a bookstore, the light won't be very good. Is it still legible?

    One thing I didn't point out is that you can't accurately judge what something is going to look like on paper if you only view on a computer monitor. If I really want to know what ink on paper will look like, I pay the bucks for a "contract quality" print, and this from someone who has a lot of experience with ink on paper. You can do this, too. Just ask for a hi-res version of your cover and get it printed out by a service bureau near you.

    Anyway, the point is an author can take a look at their cover in a professional manner, using the tips from the paragraphs above and get a better idea of what their cover will actually look like. If you see the designer has made a possible mistake or bad choice, bring it up! In the end, the publisher wants to have a good cover as much as you do. Sometimes with multiple deadlines, things can be glossed over or slip by. If you make a valid point when you find something dodgy, you will often find your concerns listened to. You will have to give them something specific, though. You can't just give them a vague, "I don't like it," and expect any kind of positive response.

    I had some minor concerns for the cover of The Fallen One, my release for next fall from Dundurn, and all were listened to and acted on. I think it's a knockout cover, and no, I didn't design it. ;)