Saturday, May 31, 2014

Cover Stories

I've been thinking a lot about book covers lately.  They are the first and often the only chance of getting a prospective reader to stop browsing long enough to check out the blurb and maybe the first page, and decide whether they want to lay down their cash and keep reading.  We've been told since childhood that we shouldn't judge books by their covers, nor people by their appearances because beauty is only skin deep.  Yet we do it all the same.  How many wonderful books go unnoticed and unread, languishing behind an uninspired cover?  How often have you been tricked into picking up a vapid, shallow, badly written book because of a striking cover and discovered that you've been tricked into wasting both your time and your money by another pretty face?  A striking cover is no promise of quality, just as a person's attractiveness is no measure of their character.  But without a good cover it's unlikely that many people will ever discover your book's merits.

So what separates the good covers from the bad?  I think there are a couple of factors that may contribute to an effective cover: one is an implied narrative, another is layout.  Cover illustrations often tell a story in their own right; preferably one that pertains to that which lies within.  It isn't absolutely necessary for cover art to tell a story, but if it does it should be an honest and accurate one - some covers are disingenuous and promise one thing but deliver another.  I recall being often disappointed, in my youth, by publishers in the 1970's who all too often pulled this bait-and-switch tactic to sell paperbacks.  In those days all a publisher had to do was slap a Frazetta painting on a book and it would sell.  I should know - I'm the one who bought them.

Contrary to the implication of this cover on the Ace edition of Edgar Rice Burrough's The Cave Girl, there are no spear-wielding, sabre-tooth-tiger-taming, fur bikini-wearing amazon women in it.  It's actually the story of a gentleman who was shipwrecked on an island and who discovers a young woman who was similarly stranded as a child.  They have some adventures after which he takes her back to civilization and marries her.  The Frazetta cover version looks more exciting though, doesn't it?

Here's the cover of the Pinnacle edition that hits a little closer to the mark:

Which of these two editions would you be more inclined to buy?  Yeah, the publishers at Ace thought so, too, and they were undoubtedly right.  The question, though is whether you want trick readers into buying a book once, or to deliver what you promise and cultivate a loyal fan.


The cover of The Man in the Iron Mask depicted below is an example of a poor choice in cover illustration, not because the painting is bad (although it is drab and not especially eye-catching), but because it has absolutely nothing to do with the story.  Philippe was incarcerated in the Bastille, not the crumbling ruins of a tower in the remote countryside.  I have a feeling that this illustration might have been stock art that Signet had on file, and that they decided it was close enough to save them the cost of commissioning art specifically for the book.  Of course, since The Man in the Iron Mask is a classic it doesn't really need a flashy cover to sell it.  Indeed, I bought this book despite the cover, not because of it; I was at the book store specifically looking for The Man in the Iron Mask.    Most books don't have this level of fame going for them, and I have to wonder how many more people might have bought this book if it had a better cover design to catch their eye.

Irrelevant Cover

On the other side of coin there are books whose covers are so appealing that I'm predisposed to buying them before I've even read the blurb to find out what they're about.  Mind you, a well-designed cover should give you a good idea of what the book is about before you even pick it up.

Here's a book I bought last week solely because of its cover:

It was the layout of the book more than the actual illustration that grabbed my attention.  This book makes an excellent argument for self-publishers to hire a professional cover designer instead of trying to make the cover themselves.  The cover alone translated into a sale.

Here's another book I bought about a year and half ago based solely on its cover:

I never get tired of looking at the illustration of this book; not only is it very clever, it communicates a great deal of information about the book.  This is probably one of the best cover illustrations I've ever seen in terms of its aesthetic appeal and implied narrative.

I'm very pleased to say that both of these books lived up to the promise made by their covers: excellent stories that were every bit as much fun to read as their covers suggested.  So sometimes I guess you really can judge a book by its cover.

I hadn't really thought very deeply about what makes an effective cover when I was forced to design one for Libram Mysterium; my ruminations have been subsequent to the book's publication.  When I did the cover I was rushed and behind schedule and trying to juggle too many irons at once.  Nonetheless I'm quite pleased with how it turned out and somehow, by intuition, I managed to produce a cover that is visually striking and is faithfully suggestive of the types of stories that the reader will find within.  Of course I was very fortunate to have Christopher Conklin as the artist.  He not only drew all of the interior illustrations, but also made the cover painting on very short notice.  One of the truly groovy things about working with Chris was his ability to take just a few lines of description and produce a picture that was exactly what I wanted.  I'd tried to keep my instructions minimal and somewhat vague in order to give him creative space, but he nailed the image I had in my mind's eye every single time.

In any event I feel more confident that I understand the elements that make for a great book cover for the next time I design one.  Acquiring the technical skill to pull it off is another matter...

Friday, May 23, 2014

Fourty Years of Rubik's Cube

Believe it or not, this week marks the fourtieth anniversary of the invention of  Erno Rubik's famous puzzle cube, originally known as the Magic Cube, that has vexed millions of people to the brink of insanity.

I should know: I've been trying unsuccessfully to solve it for thirty-four years.  I received my Rubik's Cube (shown below) as a gift back in 1980, just when the cube was becoming popular, and it has been a constant fixture on my desktop ever since.  The very same cube sits beside my keyboard today and I still pick it up and fiddle with it every day.  The most common reaction that I get when people discover that I'm still working on the thing is why I don't just look up the solution.  Cheat books were very popular in the '80's and I'm sure that nowadays the solution is just a Google search away.  But solving the puzzle isn't really the point of the cube - not to me, anyway.

The cube is not just a puzzle, it's an aid to concentration that I play with whenever I'm stuck on a problem, and as I twist and turn the rows and columns on the cube to line up the colours, the tumblers in my brain click into place.  This same cube has gotten me through high school, a bachelor's degree, a master's degree, and a Ph.D.  It has seen me through algebra homework, English essays, term papers, and study sessions.  I've played with it while working out taxonomic conundrums, plot twists, and character development.  Whenever I'm stuck and in need of mental distraction my cube is ready at hand to provide it - my trusty weapon in the never-ending war against writer's block.  A magic cube, indeed.

I have a feeling that if I ever did solve the cube, it would no longer have the power to amuse and distract me. My talisman would just be another puzzle solved then forgotten, tossed aside and never played with again.  And that would be a shame.

"This is my Rubik's Cube.  There are many like it, but this one is mine."

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Constructing a Platform - It's Not Just for Hangmen Anymore

I've been insanely busy formatting Libram Mysterium for various print and electronic formats and it is now available in print at Amazon, in electronic format at Amazon Kindle store at Smashwords, and in print and PDF at DriveThru Fiction.  In fact I've been spending so much time fussing with the book that I haven't made any time to do any actual writing of my own - including blog posts.  But my mid-year resolution is to change that and try to get onto my next story as well as making active blog posts.

Of course now that I have a book to promote I have to spend a lot more time marketing it, and that involves getting more actively involved in social media, like I need to spend even more time on Facebook instead of getting any writing done.  At least now I can justify it: I'm not procrastinating, I'm building my platform!  Honestly though, I'm not sure how people manage it.  Between writing blog posts, updating Facebook and LinkedIn a big chunk of my writing day gets claimed before I've even started.  And, as of today, I've bitten the bullet and joined Twitter.  I've been avoiding this for years since it's always seemed like the height of egotism to think that anyone would be interested in my tweets.  But they tell me that it's an essential tool in the writer's platform.  And by 'they' I mean all the various people whose opinions about book marketing I've read on the internets.  When has the internet ever been wrong?

So if you have any interest at all to bearing witness as my head explodes from social media overload you can find me on Facebook , Twitter, Google+ and LinkedIn.  And because I have Pulp Mill Press to promote I've got a Pulp Mill Press blog, Google+ and Facebook page for that, too.

The old expression, 'hoist by your own petard' dates back to the sixteenth century and it means to be blown up by your own bomb, referring to petards that were used to breach castles exploding prematurely, killing the man placing it.  You can see the parallel?  I may end up hanging myself from my own platform.