The Consuming Book Title

Tor Books have revealed the cover of the third book in John Scalzi’s ‘Interdependency’ series. It’s very nice: big bold text over gorgeous space-art. For reasons far too complex to recap, I have ended up being something of a student of the covers of these books and I’m kind of disappointed that there isn’t going to be a book four in this series because there are some definite trends in these covers.

The title text has got progressively bigger with each one and almost systematically so.

With apologies to Sparth (cover artist) and Tor Books

The ‘the’* has been wandering leftwards** as well, so that a hypothetical book four would have the ‘the’ falling off one side or perhaps appearing on the right hand side like your spaceship in a game of Asteroids.

I’m in two minds as to whether this is a really effective use of text elements on a cover or whether it is annoyingly obscuring the great artwork underneath. With the author name as another text element, there’s only a small window in which the artwork details can be glimpsed.

Is there method in commissioning amazing artwork and covering it in text? I don’t know the actual reasoning but the window the text creates in the bottom third quarter is enough to show the main focus of the picture. The text occludes the rest of the image but it is a kind of tease, a suggestion that more can be seen. You won’t literally see more of the picture inside the book but I can see how that teasing element encourages you to look inside.

*[Not to be confused with ]

**[ I should make a joke about John Scalzi wandering leftwards before one of his detractors do.]


13 responses to “The Consuming Book Title”

  1. The placement of the “The” is a bit odd, because except for the first cover, where the entire title is centered, all “The”s are out of alignment with the rest of the title, which is normally a no-no in cover design. Of course, this is Tor who know what they’re doing.

    As for covering up the (really nice) artwork, I always make sure not to cover up the artwork on the covers of my books, but apparently Tor thought that a big letter title was more important.


  2. Going a bit off topic – but still on the subject of book covers – I’ve just realized that the cover of the VD book in the 2017 post you linked to is the same stock art spaceship model used on several other books, most notably Children of Time, albeit from a different angle which I can’t find on Shutterstock.

    These are the original (?) images:

    Other uses besides CoT and the VD book include: Andrew Bannister’s Iron Gods trilogy, UK ebooks of Elizabeth Bear’s Pinion trilogy, M. Darusha Wehm’s The Voyage of the White Cloud, and the promo “poster” for the Black Mirror episode “USS Callister”. Anyone know of any others?

    It’s a cool looking spaceship, so I don’t blame anyone for wanting it on their cover, but it feels a bit overused…

    BTW, I’m sure you know this already, but the UK editions of the Interdependency books have far less dominant text on their covers. They don’t use the Sparth illustrations though.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Algol is a popular provider of SF-nal stock images and you’ll probably find that spaceship a lot in the nether regions of the Kindle store, which are dominated by “exploding spaceships in space” covers. One of my books has a cover image by Algol, albeit not a spaceship.

      There also are only so many providers of SF-nal stock art, so you tend to see the same images over and over again. Tithi Luadthong, whose work graces my space opera series, was something of a secret, when I first came across him, but now I start seeing his work on more and more covers, too. I think Compelling SF and one of my books have the exact same cover image and The Dark uses his work, too, but that’s the risk when using stock art. Besides, the KU space opera/military SF crowd doesn’t use his work, because it’s too arty and doesn’t feature exploding spaceships in space.

      I actually have the UK edition of The Collapsing Empire, because that’s the version I found at a local bookstore. Less prominent title, but a more stock art looking cover rather than the nice custom art on the US edition.

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  3. High level bestsellers, and Scalzi is at this point a reliable, established major bestseller, are essentially for book-selling purposes in their own category. That is, it doesn’t matter what type of fictional story the authors write; all the high level bestsellers are grouped together as their own marketing category, with specific distribution channels/displays for top bestsellers and specific requirements from booksellers for them.

    The key components on covers for the bestsellers category are the author’s name and the title of the particular book (and sometimes series title if there is one.) The bestsellers category makes these pieces of text as large as possible and the main focus and coverage of the cover. Often there is no art on the cover at all, just contrasting background cover to the text, but if there is art used, it is minimal, often using small graphics or buried in the background or placed in a small frame box, usually in the middle or bottom of the cover. This is because the high level bestsellers have large name recognition — their names are the main draw and the title indicates a new work from the main draw author. Reader fans are usually aware of the new title and have been anticipating it and so are looking for the title from the author.

    So the books in the bestseller category don’t need cover art to attract readers. What they need is to make sure that the author’s name and expected new title are impossible for readers to miss (hence the really large type that takes up most of the cover.) Having heavy cover art would be a distraction that might not make the author and title names visible enough. So once your sales get high enough, your name and the title of your new books get very large and the art goes small, or slight graphic or into the background, if you have art at all.

    Scalzi’s series is only using cover art at all in the background to show that this is a space opera series from Scalzi, because that sort of indication is important to SFF fans and one of the main reasons cover art is regularly used for SFF titles. Scalzi writes different types of SF (and a very small bit of fantasy,) so the art is a signal of what area he is doing, but showing a lot of the art is not necessary to do this and so most of it is obscured in favor of making sure the title and author name print stands out, with a few key elements (spaceships to show it’s space opera/military) framed in the middle between text.

    The arrangement of the titles are slightly varied to help distinguish the series’ titles from each other while arranging a cohesive look. The arrangement is affected by the size of the words in the title and the placement and length of other used elements. The first book has the longest title, so visually they centered the whole title, made the word Empire larger because making Collapsing the large word would have been too big, and put a tagline centered underneath the title mentioning Old Man’s War, Scalzi’s big space opera hit. The big spaceship of the art is also then essentially sort of centered directly below the title and the tagline. On the second book, the word Fire is smaller than the word Empire and Consuming is slightly shorter than Collapsing. So the centered title wouldn’t have looked as good. So “The” and Fire are moved left, centered with each other, and Fire, the shorter main word, is again made larger. The tagline is placed to the right of the word Fire and done vertically instead of horizontally. And the spaceship in the art framed in the middle is to the right (which is why they moved the title text left.) On the third book, Last is the shortest main word so it is made larger, but because Emperox is the last word and the noun of the title, it’s also fairly big. But that takes up a big chunk of the middle, nor is there much room for the tagline on the side next to Last. So Last and Emperox are centered and the “The” is moved all the way left with the tagline then placed next to it on the right. The art with spaceships and large dock are framed in the middle.

    The key thing for bestsellers category covers is background color working to highlight the text color and thus make the text maximum noticeable. Each of the books in the trilogy is given a different color palette through the art to distinguish it, but it all has to work with the cohesive silver color of the titles and white color of Scalzi’s name at the bottom so that you see that text clearly. Bestsellers category covers frequently use white, silver or gold text for author name and title against a dark color background, or black or red text against a lighter color background.

    U.S. covers tend to use more cover art as a background or framing device in bestsellers than U.K. or Canadian covers, including in SFF. Australian/NZ covers for imported bestselling authors often use the U.K. or U.S. covers, but their own Australian bestselling covers vary. But for big bestsellers, there’s always an emphasis on large text as the biggest draw.

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      • In the bestsellers category, the author’s name is often larger than the title because again the author’s name has wide name recognition and is the thing that needs to be the most visually noticeable, and thus largest on the cover. For instance, on any Stephen King novel, Stephen King’s name will be larger than the title of the novel and the most prominent thing on the cover. But designs can vary on that.

        In the U.S., Tor is dealing with the particular series as a trilogy series, and with lots of fans looking for the “Collapsing Empire” series from Scalzi specifically. So they made the titles bigger to specify this series from his other series/books, but kept his name prominently in large white type at the bottom of the cover where it is easy to see. They use the tagline about Old Man’s War because they want to make sure that Scalzi’s fans that particularly like the Old Man’s War books (as opposed to his Head On books or Red Shirts, etc.) know that this is a similar space opera/military style SF series from him.

        For his British publisher, Scalzi is an imported American bestselling author. The individual titles are thus not as important in selling to the British (and Commonwealth) audience as simply his name, so his name is larger and the titles are smaller. Plus they are using different art in the background so they use a different design. But they are using the different color palette for each title that is still cohesive and dark in the first two to highlight the white text. (Though they probably should have used silver colored text on The Collapsing Empire because the white washes out a bit against the green palette, but probably they didn’t want to use silver so as not to match the U.S. editions.) They also don’t bother with the Old Man’s War tagline because again, specifying the particular titles he wrote is less important than his name as a bestselling American author. Instead they have a tagline at the top of the cover above his name stating that he is the NYTimes bestselling author — he’s a big cheese in case British readers didn’t know. And at the bottom for balance they’ve put a WSJ review quote to further emphasize that he’s a big cheese American bestseller.

        The cover art they use in the background is again just to signal it’s space opera and has the main image of the art framed for part of the cover (like a framing box without a box.) For the first two they did the white text and framed art at the top. For the third book in the trilogy they decided to change it, switching to a teal colored text that does stand out against the brown palette, though white would have done so too. And they have the framed part of the art in the middle instead of the top and to balance it, they made the type of the title larger than the two previous titles. That may be because the series has done well in the U.K. and they wanted to give the last cover more punch or it may be because they weren’t happy with the look of the first two covers or thought the look blended in with too many other covers of other titles coming out and wanted to adjust it to have more impact but still be cohesive with the first two. You’d have to ask Pan Macmillan about it.

        In Australia, they’re importing it and so mainly using the American covers, but for Kindle or Audio may show the British covers. For a long time, Australia was always included in British rights sales for U.S. titles, just as Canada is usually included with U.S. rights when making the initial license sale. But Australian publishers and distributors didn’t like that and so they lobbied and started purchasing Australian rights separately as a territory from U.S. publishers whenever they could in the 1990’s. This upset the British publishers of course but became less of an issue as global corporate publishers spent more money to get World territory license rights and started then coordinating simultaneous releases of new works in multiple countries among their various publishing arms. This was part of U.S. publishers going after world territory rights more often ad either publishing in multiple countries or selling international rights more titles for the international market than they used to do, and also authors who have kept international rights being able to sell those rights more widely and more often than they used to be able to do. It used to be that only the really big sellers in U.S. genre fiction could get international sales and vice versa, but now it’s not unusual for a mid-list genre author to be able to sell rights to Germany, etc. or have their U.S. publisher that has World rights have their sister company in another country put out an edition there. (Of course, when there’s a global recession on, that can dry up.)

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      • Germany has a high quote of translated fiction and while not every US or UK book makes it to our shores, plenty of them do and have for a long time. This includes both bestsellers (though not all – some authors and genres just don’t sell in Germany) and midlist authors.

        Most trade published books that do at least decently well eventually get a German translation, though they may not do a whole series, if the first few don’t sell. There also are oddities, e.g. Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files books which are hugely popular in the English speaking world, are published by a small press in Germany and not usually found in bookstores, you have to order them. Of course, urban fantasy and paranormal romance did/do sell really well in Germany, but they’re viewed as genres for women and therefore urban fantasy novels with a male protagonist like the Dresden Files or the Nightside series are relegated to small press publishers. Furthermore, werewolf and vampire focussed urban fantasy does better than urban fantasy focussed on fae or other beings. For example, Rachel Caine’s Weather Wardens series, which was pretty successful in the US, only ever had the first book available in German, also published by a small press. It’s frustrating when you want torecommend books to friends you know would enjoy them, only to find that the books isn’t available or the series break off halfway through.

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      • Those German Scalzi covers are just supposed to signal “If you want science fiction action, here it is”, while warning off people who don’t want to read science fiction. And since it’s assumed that science fiction is not popular or only popular with weird fringe people, publishers take care to warn off anybody who is not a science fiction fan. The covers are often cheap stock art, too.

        A lot of German editions of English language science fiction books have random “spaceship in space” covers.For example, the Paradox trilogy by Rachel Bach, which featured the heroine in her power armour on the original covers, has generic spaceship covers in Germany. K.B. Wagers’ Indranan War trilogy also has random “spaceship in space covers”, even though the first one is largely set on a planet. It’s frustrating, because you frequently have to tell people, “This is a really great book, trust me. Just ignore the spaceship on the cover, especially since it’s not even in the book.”

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      • So basically Germany is still stuck in the 1970’s on SFF and doesn’t want to pay for U.S. and U.K. cover art. Clearly they’ve never been to a Supernatural convention in Germany. 🙂

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