Iron John

My Teacher Said
(a requiem)

“This symbol is often displayed
incorrectly,” he said,
“The yin descends. Darkness
descends. But do not forget
that there is some light in the darkness
and some darkness in the light,
yin and yang. And far too often
we forget the value of darkness.
The Hebrews created the concept of the Sabbath,
a stroke of brilliance.
It is a natural rhythm;
when we rest, we step outside
and then we can see clearly.”

“It is as though our lives are a stove.
We burn to warm; we burn for light.
But burning creates ashes which, unchecked,
will eventually fill the stove
and choke it out.
Some who burn too brightly will burn out
if they do not take the time to sweep the ashes clean.
And if you only clear enough to light the stove again
it is only a matter of time until
the fire goes out once more.
Deal with the ashes in your life;
scoop out the cinders, and sweep the flue clean.
Only then can a new fire be laid.”

You can rise up high and fall down low;
We all must to ashes someday go.

May 3, 2009

What Does the Font Say?

If you are doing your own graphic design, particularly for book covers, it’s important to understand a little bit about what your font choice is saying. (It’s best if you understand a lot, of course, but as long as you understand enough to pick the proper examples to work from, you’ll do okay.)

The first thing to note is that a default font—the first font your word processing program goes to—is a really bad idea. Not only does it indicate that you put little to no thought into your work, such a font has been used in so many places that its signaling value is null. (I will use the term signal or signaling to indicate the way that a font “feels” to a reader. Some fonts will “feel” like fantasy, or like romance, and those fonts are sending a certain signal.)

The second thing that is important is that the font be legible. even down to a small size. If you’re selling a book on Amazon, the book image is little more than an inch across. If a reader can’t squint a bit and get an idea of what the title is, it will influence their decision to buy negatively.
a block of text that is well-nigh illegible

It’s also considered a good idea to not pick a font face that has been overused. The website Papyrus Everywhere shows examples of the overuse of Papyrus, from homeowner’s associations to organic products, from touring companies to churches, and the end result of this font face being used everywhere is that the font no longer has a useful signal. It’s almost as ubiquitous as Times New Roman, the default font on Microsoft Word. And that means that nobody knows what it’s standing for, except that it’s overused.

So let’s talk about signaling. Some font faces have been used for particular things so much that they have a feel of that venue. For instance, Trajan is the movie font.

It doesn’t tell you the genre of movie, but it does signify that this is a movie that you’re seeing advertised.

When you get into books, each genre—and sometimes even sub-genre—has its own particular style of font faces that say “This is a book of this particular genre.” Not only that, but the signal morphs over time. The fonts that were used twenty years ago are not considered today, and that may even be true of the fonts used just a couple of years ago.

To illustrate, I’m going to use the covers for author Elizabeth Moon. She has more than a quarter-century’s worth of work in at least two distinct genres, and many of her earlier books have seen reprints such that you can compare font choices as they have evolved over time.

Sheepfarmer’s Daughter is the first book in a fairly well-known trilogy by Moon. You can see that in the first printing, there was some custom work done with the font in order to get that arched style in the title. The second cover uses the same artwork, but has gone to more recent font styles—and the author’s name has gotten larger as she is now well-known and a sales point on her own.

Oath of Gold is in the same series. You can see the use of the same fonts in the first cover, but the second is from a different reprint than my earlier example. It’s fairly recent. Note the slight flare to the letter ends—not full serifs, but enough to keep it from being a sans-serif font. Fantasy fonts have serifs or semi-serifs; science fiction has sans-serif fonts almost exclusively.

If you squint hard at the original 1990 cover of Surrender None (sorry; it’s the biggest I could find), you can see that all of the fonts are serif and that all are capitalized.

Personally, I’m amused at the swordsman pose in the second version, which so closely mimics the one on the original cover of Liar’s Oath. Neither swordsman has much of anything to do with the text, but we’re talking signals here, not accuracy.

Elizabeth Moon also writes science fiction. Here are a couple of her titles with variant covers.

What does each choice of font imply to you?

As one final note on font choice, I am going to refer to an article by Fontcraft about choosing alternate fonts. An alternate font is one that looks similar to the one you want, but has different design elements and isn’t as widely used.

I can’t say it better than they have here: “Once a font reaches the level of overexposure you begin to see other, better and more appropriate fonts being passed over because designers have an unconscious impetus towards the look which has become established for the genre they work in, or they are just lazy and say “hey, this is a horror movie, let’s just use the font that was used on The Craft” […] Good fonts get neglected and fonts of questionable quality get entrenched and become tediously overused.”

Even Elizabeth Moon got a Morpheus-variant font. (That N. That horrible, horrible N.)

Snow White

Hot as Hate

Black as coal and red as blood

We think we know the tale,
the young beauty rising
from the fading of the old
saved by sympathy
and succored by the world.
We’ve lost the cues
the comb, its poisoned tines
the corset laced tight to press the breath away
signs of beauty, warped by jealousy
We are left with only the apple
health and temptation inverted.
We think we know the tale
but willful blindness marks our telling
a car pushed into a lake
in a bathtub, one by one
we do not wish to remember
that at the start
there was no stepmother involved.

March 5, 2009

What Makes an Effective Cover Image?

panel with Lee Moyer, Karen Haber, Mark J. Ferrari, Annie Bellet, Stephen Segal

A lot of information was packed into the 45-minute panel aimed at self-publishers, small press folk, and the curious fen. Lee Moyer started off with a slideshow that included the good, the repetitive, and some bad (leaving the worst for his Infamous Bad Cover panel later.) The panelists took questions at the start so as to be sure to cover the topics that most folk were interested in.

The thing to be remembered above all else is that the cover exists to sell your book. While accurate artwork is a lovely thing for an author, it is nothing unless such elements get the novel in the hands of the buyer. However, while covers can be inaccurate, it is important to not break the reader’s trust by implying that the book is different than it is. Each genre and even sub-genre has its own specific style. Furthermore, trends change over time and it’s possible to date a book by its cover style if one is sufficiently familiar with the genre conventions.
the original artwork and the modified reprint cover

Four different covers for Tamora Pierce’s Wild Magic, showing how young adult marketing has changed.

There are four elements to every cover, three mandatory:
1 The artwork
2 The title
3 The author’s name
4 A “pull quote” from an author, publication, or even from the book itself

The most important element depends on what will sell the book. Bestselling authors such as Stephen King, Nora Roberts, or George R.R. Martin can sell a book by name alone. Cover designers for those authors can (and have) put the author’s name as the largest element of the cover, with the title and artwork coming in distinctly behind.

A good title can work well for a lesser-known author, particularly if it gives the reader some indication of what’s inside. If it’s part of an ongoing series, a subhead saying “Book [x] of the [whatever] series” may be enough to induce a reader to buy.

And of course, artwork can be a huge draw for readers. “Artwork”, of course, refers to all elements of the graphic design, from font choice to branding to element positioning. You want your artwork to grab the attention of the reader, signal the genre, give hints as to the type of story they will be reading, and, ideally, intrigue them enough to put down money to purchase your story.

To make matters harder, now you have to do this with artwork that is compelling at approximately an inch high, as that’s the size of the small thumbnail on most websites. If you can’t grab them with that single inch, they’re not likely to click through to the sale page with the larger artwork.

Recent trends in fantasy, its sub-genres, and many related fields reflect this move to digital. A common feature—almost too common, as shown by Lee Moyer’s slides of identical stock photo covers for major authors—is to have a large central figure, waist high or even closer, with a color wash or color-wheel fade (like the iconic movie orange – teal combo). The title has started to migrate from the top (probably a side effect of having important elements of the artwork, like the head or the eyes, at the top.) The color overlays will have either the same color for the whole series or thematic color changing. (I saw a series in the dealer’s room that had identical artwork for each book—a closeup of an eye—with a different color overlay for each book.)

When attempting to design a cover for your book, one of the best things you can do is look at decently-selling midlist authors in your particular genre and see what their covers have in common. You do not look at the best sellers, because those often can get away with things that other authors can’t. For instance, George R.R. Martin doesn’t have to have lovely covers. His covers often have very little in the way of artwork, because the name “George R.R. Martin” (“New York Times Bestselling Author”) does the sale, not the artwork.
The cover to A Game of Thrones started out complicated, and got simpler as the series gained prominence.

The panel brought up the subject of branding. Branding, in this instance, refers to iconic shapes or setups that mark books as part of a series. The artist Jody Lee was referenced as an early pioneer in branding; her covers for Mercedes Lackey’s Elemental Masters series all have a picture-within-a-picture format. (I’ve seen some of her originals; they are not composited after the fact but laid out in the original that way.) If you have a series and you have a circular inset on the first book, it’s probably a good idea to do something similar on subsequent books, because if you start throwing in triangles or banners, it will be visually confusing to the buyer. You don’t want to confuse the buyer.

Some of Jody Lee’s Elemental Masters covers. Note the repetition of the rectangular inset.

Stock photography was mentioned, especially since a particular gentleman in a hooded cape seems to be showing up everywhere. The first thing to know with stock photography is that you have to purchase the rights to use it, because getting sued is not a good thing for any career. But further than that, you have to know *which* rights you’ve purchased, because otherwise you may end up with “your” cover ending up elsewhere, which, again, leads to confusion.

You know, that guy in a hood really gets around.

Font choice was brought up as well. (Lee Moyer shares my view of Papyrus, a beautiful font face which has basically been put off-limits by its extreme overuse in the last fifteen years.) A few things were pointed out:
1 Serifed fonts are preferable for readability. If you don’t know what a serif is, please learn before you deal with typography.
2 Sans-serif fonts, at this time, signal hard science fiction (when speaking of the fantasy/sf genre area.) If you’re not writing hard SF, you should avoid them.
3 A recent trend has brought in custom fonts and more aggressive use of fonts (using fonts as an artistic element, for example.)
4 There are lots of places that offer “free fonts.” BUT those are often free only for private use. You need to license separate rights if you are going to use the font face on a salable item, or find a font that is listed as “free for commercial use.”
5 ABOVE ALL ELSE, the font must be legible. If they can’t read it, they won’t buy it. That means Scriptina, for example, is a problematic font choice for a book cover.

DeviantArt was mentioned as a terrific resource for finding new art and artists, including font artists. And as with everything else, it was emphasized that you need to have clear rights purchased through a written contract, because a contract protects both parties. Image rights can vary, so be sure to understand what you are purchasing. And as a final note, the goal of a cover is to attract attention… without breaking an implicit promise to the reader. You don’t want to attract attention for being the laughingstock of the internet…


Little Red Riding Hood


Do not stray from the path.

They knew the forest in those days,
knew, and had reason to fear
old growth, vine-encrusted, blotting out the light
thickets tangling the route
no trail of bread to guide the way
the wolves that, in hunger, lose their fear.
Our forests seem tame
second, third-growth, monoculture, trash forest
all handicap accessible
with markers to teach us what once we knew.
I have walked the forest
with only the stars
(fading year by year from the encroaching light of cities,
miles away)
and feared nothing worse than a misstep,
a stubbed toe
(do not stray from the path)
though it did turn out later
there were bears
stealthier than we knew.

We do not fear the forest.
Instead we fear the urban jungle
city buildings, vine-encrusted, blotting out the light
cold breezeways leading us astray
blind alleys, lairs where danger lurks.
Our predators wear a more familiar face.
I have walked the city streets at night
over my friends’ objections
(do not stray from the path)
under the brilliant summer sky
or the sodium glow of a snowy winter
and feared nothing worse than an obnoxious drunk
though it did turn out later
that mere blocks away
a human wolf was taking his toll
in those days
when I dyed my hair red
and knew that I would never come to harm.

March 23, 2009