Bernie pic

Bernie pic

Thursday, 25 December 2014

The art and soul-searching science of a minimalist cover

By Bernie Dowling

DO we add the gun and should it have a pink or grey frame? I know. We will run it by our marketing team and see what they come up with. No wait, Bent Banana Books hasn’t a marketing team, not even a marketing soloist.
It is fascinating to think of all the complex decision-making behind today’s minimalist fiction-book cover. Most writers and many readers know that minimalism is considered the go in our era of eBooks and internet thumbnails.
I suppose, technically, designer Dhrupod’s cover of Vision: Complete Trudy Harper Psychic Investigations is a marketing fail in a minimalist world. (Why has minimalist four syllables? Surely that’s too many.) 
Before we consider the Bent effort, let’s take a look at the art and science of today’s cover design.
The publisher has complete creative control of only two aspects of a book: the title and the cover design. In-house editors only make suggestions to authors on copy changes. But what the publisher wants as far as a cover goes, the publishers gets.

As a publishing minnow, I am always trying to understand what the Big 5 are up to. Critics may well call them dinosaurs, but they have paid for and accumulated a lot of technical knowledge over the decades.
Did you read this story from earlier in the year: Computer scientists have developed an algorithm which can predict with 84 per cent accuracy whether a book will be a commercial success.

I immediately thought, Wow, I bet the Big 5 are doing everything they can to get a hold of that algorithm. (There might be a Dan-Brownish thriller in that concept) The algorithm would not do me much good as I am living by the mutable Law of Serendipity. I only accept authorial submissions I stumble across. But that’s getting off-topic, so I need to stop trolling myself.

J.K. Rowling’s first novel A.P. (after Potter, but you knew that didn’t you) could be considered a minimalist template. No people are in it. You might think a person on the cover aids reader identification but that’s a problem as well. In an age of differentiated lifestyles and interests, universally identifiable images are non-existent. Often, far better to have a cover which various readers can interpret in their own way.
The colors while strong are also somewhat cheery and most importantly not a usual combination for covers so it will stand out among other thumbnails.
Both the author’s name and the title are in friendly fonts which suggest humor. But a big black cross connects them. So what do we have, black humor or satire, precisely the genre of the book. Of course a lot of readers are suspicious of satire so they do not read that into the title.
Most importantly, the fonts are easily read in thumbnail. As a general rule using all capitals, such as J. K. ROWLING, decreases readability. But, it is quite clear here, allowing the authority which goes with capitals. “Name” authors do not need any more favors but they get them with minimalist design and large fonts for author names.
Similarly the title The Casual Vacancy is easy to read despite an italic-style font. One of the reasons the title is so big is to render the font clearly.

For some reason, the Rowling cover made me think of the Anita Loos satire Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. I did a bit of research. Check out the colors and font selections for the movie poster. Nix Munroe and Russell and we have a “back to the future” vibe here with The Casual Vacancy.
The “The” in the title worries me. I don’t like The in a title but the Big 5 seem to love it. Remembering that publishers choose titles here are some of John Grisham's books: The Firm, The Client, The Chamber. The Rainmaker, The Partner, The Testament, The Brethren, The Summons, The Broker, The Appeal, The Associate, The Confession, The Litigators, The Racketeer. There are more Thes in Grisham. I have included only two-word titles.

We see the title neatly frames the top of the book (pre-fame) or the bottom (post-fame)
None of our Bent authors are famous enough to have their names up the top so it is a race to see who is first.

Now we are looking at Rowling’s 2013 novel, obviously under a pseudonym. It is almost like a template of commercial graphic design. (I am not up to date with principles of graphic design so I don’t know whether this would be considered classic or quaint.) The retreating man, head bowed, shoulders hunched, shrouded by foggy light provides an arresting image, if bordering on cliché.  In mysteries and thrillers, you see that same man with his back to you at the distant end of a tunnel or under a far arch. The main image is framed by a lamp above, a light pole to the left and a metal hence fence, bottom tight. 

Here are the first and last of the Harry Potter books to illustrate what I have been saying.

Back to our Bent cover. Rowling’s peeps would kick our butts for Druphod’s wispy font on Vision. But it is a perfect representation of the book.  Similarly Jane’s name would have been easier to read in a different font in a larger point-size. But I was not going to argue against Dhrupod’s sense of proportion and perspective. I did ask for the gun, though.
I thought the subtitle was getting lost and it needed a gun and smoke to highlight it. The first gun had a pink frame and I asked author Jane what she thought. She straw-polled family and friends and this became our Marketing Department in full swing. 
In the end Jane and I were not sure about the color so I went for gray for indefinite reasons. I do not allow myself cognitive dissonance so I am good person to make the final call.

So that’s it. We have a fantastic cover for our print book. But it is a rule breaker under the regime of minimalism. Not that I care. I like it.

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