This is the first in a series of planned posts taking apart bad book covers for the edification and entertainment of all who bother to read this blog.
Before I start throwing brickbats at other people’s books, I thought I’d start with my own.
Eleven years ago, I wrote Captain Mary, Buccaneer, an adult historical fiction loosely based on the real pirate women Mary Reade and Anne Bonny. That was some years before Johnny Depp made pirates OK for adults to care about (which gives me more than your average female’s reason to kiss said actor smack on the lips). Acquisition editors couldn’t figure out why someone would write a book for adults about a woman pirate - I was told again and again there were no such beasties (wrong. There were over 50 pirate women throughout history.)
After collecting 20 rejections (with an interesting stop at Hyperion where I was sorta considered), I decided to enter the realm of self-publishing. I read Dan Poynter’s book cover to cover 3 times, hired an editor to whittle down the egregious mistakes, got the ms typeset (in Quark), formed a company and researched the best way to hire a book packaging company to help me publish.
But I had no cover.
At the time, we were living in Simsbury, Connecticut. Bertie, the baying beagle of Beage Bay, was just a tiny puppy, but we would walk every day along the pedestrian trail. We’d met a couple with a pair of grumpy Bassetts who just loved our little dog (to the surprise of the owners). One day, when the Bassetts’ female owner and I were walking together, I expressed my disappointment in not finding a cover artist (I’d had a run-in with one fellow, who told me he was going to the local harbor for “inspiration.” Um, how was he going to find an 18th century ship there?).
“Oh,” she said, “my husband was a cover designer for Baen Books. Do you want to talk to him?”
I was gobsmacked. While I didn’t follow cyber-punk novels, even I knew who Baen was. So I got together with Doug, who expressed interest in doing a historical novel – something he’d never done before.
<cue Psycho shower scene music locally>
After about a month, he produced this wonderful painting. He’d actually read the entire book, and this is a scene from it. It shows Captain Mary and Petronius “at work,” if you will.
I was thrilled.
I handed him the font I wanted for the book, and he happily put that together for me. The book packager got it printed. And I was tickled to bits. (I’ll write about the delivery of the books and what happened next another time. It’s a sad/interesting, and oft-heard tale.)
That’s when the trouble started. And that’s when I learned about the importance of book covers. That old saw about “you can’t judge a book by its cover” is a metaphor meaning one shouldn’t judge a PERSON on looks alone. But a book is a package intended to make someone want to pick it up and read it. If it doesn’t have a compelling cover, you’ll miss sales.
So, let’s put on our rubber gloves, face shields, and rubber smocks and crack this thing open.
There’s nothing wrong with this painting or the idea behind it. The fault is mine, and mine alone, for not knowing what was needed. If it were a YA, a full cover illustration would be appropriate. Ditto for certain Romances. Who knew? Well, people in publishing. And, if I’d done my homework (say, by going to the bookstore and studying what covers in this genre looked like), I wouldn’t have fallen into this deep, dark hole.
How bad is it? In bookstores, I invariably discover Captain Mary, Buccaneer shelved in the juvenile fiction. “Hey, that’s not so bad,” you say, “at least it’s IN the bookstore.” Well, kinda. I’m just not comfortable with my bisexual, fairly violent adventure tale being read by an unsuspecting 14-year old. I’m pretty sure that won’t win me many fans.
We thought it was really pretty cool to have weathered burlap as the background here (sorry, no picture). It looks so Period. But trying to put white italics with black drop-shadow on top of it was a mistake. It’s almost unreadable. Oh, and I have tabs and block paragraphs. AWK!
This was a serious error on my part, and I try to steer authors and clients away from repeating something similar. I totally fell in love with this goofy font (Goudy Old School) while I was writing the book. It “felt just right” to me, in conveying the time period. What a dismal failure it is.
To begin with, a book title and cover should be able to be clearly identified from 10 feet away, or in a small thumbnail on a computer screen. This font becomes a hopeless jumble from a distance. While sans-serif fonts are generally encouraged, this is a pretty loopy (meant both descriptively and disparagingly) font.
It’s also hard to read. There are library catalogs out there (and God bless you librarians who hand cataloged this) that have my name as “Simonas” because of the weird way lower-case d renders.
Once, over a lot of wine, small pub diva Cynthia Frank of Cypress House and I reconceived the cover. It would be more on the lines of our Gudrun’s Tapestry (also a Doug Andersen cover). Perhaps a tattered, blood-stained Jolly Roger over a sea chest, with a cutlass and rose on top of it. We’re still considering whether to rip and replace the last of the books with this cover. It depends on how well this year goes.
© Jacqueline Church Simonds 2009