May 26, 2009

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.

cmbcvrEleven 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.

jcspirateThe book has sold, it just would sell better with a proper cover. And I can still fit into my “pirate slops” for symposiums and cons!

Since Captain Mary, Buccaneer we’ve learned a lot. See some of our award-winning covers!



© Jacqueline Church Simonds 2009


Leave A Reply
  • Great post! We offer a 10-point objective book cover evaluation service at for anyone who would like to know for sure if their cover is up to professional standards. “Liking” the cover is not enough.

  • Thanks, Michele. I know YOU would never have let such a horrid cover out of your studio! LOL.

  • I do have to admit the cover does look like it should be in the YA section.

  • Hi, as the author of The Michael Fane Adventures – I can relate to it – the first copies carried a really ‘naff’ template cover – the new ones are better. My new novel ‘Captain Blood’s Pirates’ is out this summer. Based on the real Captain Blood.
    On your book, when the 18 years viewing standards come in, you will get a reprint with the 18 label on it. Hope this helps Regards David

    • “On your book, when the 18 years viewing standards come in, you will get a reprint with the 18 label on it. ”

      Not a clue what you mean by this. I am the publisher and have no plans to re-issue the book at this time. The only way you get a new cover is if the publisher decide to do that. Is this some sort of British or Canadian rule?

  • Thanks for writing, I very much enjoyed your latest post. I think you should post more often, you evidently have talent for blogging!

  • Hi, good post. I have been wondering about this issue,so thanks for posting. I’ll definitely be coming back to your site.

  • I really liked this post. Can I copy it to my site? Thank you in advance.

    • Yes, you are welcome to, as long as you provide a direct link back to my site and attribute to me.

  • Hi, gr8 post thanks for posting. Information is useful!

  • Your blog is so interesting! I have subscribed on rss and I will read it regullary/

  • Very interesting blog! Subscribed on rss. Regular will read it

  • Excellent blog! Very interesting themes. I will regularly read it.

  • Good news! You can see the back cover using Amazon’s “search inside” feature. And, you’re right! It’s absolutely terrible — and totally unreadable.

    We all make mistakes and I appreciate you sharing your embarrassment with us. Hopefully it’ll keep others from making similar mistakes.

5 Trackbacks/Pings

Comments Are Closed