Terby’s agent looked at the distraught author with both scepticism and sympathy. She had always thought it was a professional hazard for creative people to be highly strung but Terby was normally so self-confident.
“So you mean that somebody made a prank cover?” she asked the wild-eyed author, “You should probably find that flattering. All publicity is good publicity!” Perhaps, if she could just find a positive spin on this Terby would calm down.
“No, no, no! Not A prank cover! All the covers! Of every edition! Of every COPY!” exclaimed Terby.
“Oh don’t be ridiculous Terby!” she scoffed as sympathetically as anybody can scoff, “Look I’ve got a copy of your breakout novel right here. You’ll soon see everything is just fine.”
She reached over to the bookcase and pulled out a paperback fantasy novel and confidently placed it face up on the desk. The colour drained from Terby’s face and sweat broke out on his brow. Only then did she look at the cover. A garish, plasticine-like creature dominated the central image. Underneath the day-glow earth-pig was the title:
Aard’s First Rule
The Libri Operimentum Artifex had struck.
I do enjoy doing this. The idea of using different categories is to force me to look at the covers in different ways. It doesn’t make the scores more objective but it does encourage me to look at how covers serve multiple roles and it also makes some of the apples versus oranges comparisons easier to do. A fun side-effect is I don’t keep or look at a running score for each cover until the end. That means that I don’t know which cover was my favourite until this final post!
Of course, I probably already had a favourite and that bias will have impacted on each of the scores I gave. So I am not surprised by the top covers I picked out. Please do wade in with comments on your favourites!
The Top Three
I love each of these. I didn’t have a category that explicitly captures that “Oooh, I want to see what this books about!” feeling but I think each of these has that feeling for me. I’ve only read one of them though! Central Station is in my TBR pile.
- Rank:1 Score:15 – Hammers on Bone Artist÷Designer: Jeffrey Alan Love| by Cassandra Khaw, Tor ISFDB or Amazon Entry
- Rank:2 Score:14 – Central Station Artist÷Designer: Sarah Anne Langton | by Lavie Tidhar, Tachyon Publishing ISFDB or Amazon Entry
- Rank:3 Score:13 – Firebrand Artist÷Designer: Michael Heath| by A.J.Hartley, Tor ISFDB or Amazon Entry
The Honourable Mentions – Rank 4 and 5
All great covers. Given the arbitrary way I’m dishing out points, each of these may have made it into the top 3 if I ran my choices again with a fresh brain.
- Rank:4 Score:12 – The Changeling Artist÷Designer: Yuko Shimizu | by Victor LaValle, Spiegel & Grau ISFDB or Amazon Entry
- Rank:4 Score:12 – Lovecraft Country Artist÷Designer: Jarrod Tayler| by Matt Ruff, Harper ISFDB or Amazon Entry
- Rank:4 Score:12 – The Days of Tao Artist÷Designer: Galen Dara| by Wesley Chu, Subterranean Press ISFDB or Amazon Entry
- Rank:4 Score:12 – The Drowning Eyes Artist÷Designer: Cynthia Sheppard| by Emily Foster, Tor ISFDB or Amazon Entry
- Rank:4 Score:12 – Too Like the Lightning Artist÷Designer: Victor Mosquera | by Ada Palmer, Tor ISFDB or Amazon Entry
- Rank:5 Score:11 – A Fierce and Subtle Poison Artist÷Designer: Allison Colpoys| by Samantha Mabry, Algonquin Young Readers ISFDB or Amazon Entry
- Rank:5 Score:11 – Breath of Earth Artist÷Designer: Gene Mollica| by Beth Cato, Harper Voyager ISFDB or Amazon Entry
- Rank:5 Score:11 – Everfair Artist÷Designer: Victo Ngai| by Nisi Shawl, Tor ISFDB or Amazon Entry
- Rank:5 Score:11 – Final Girls Artist÷Designer: Julie Dillon| by Mira Grant, Subterranean Press ISFDB or Amazon Entry
- Rank:5 Score:11 – Ninefox Gambit Artist÷Designer: Chris Moore| by Yoon Ha Lee, Solaris ISFDB or Amazon Entry
- Rank:5 Score:11 – The Underground Railroad Artist÷Designer: Oliver Munday | by Colson Whitehead, Fleet ISFDB or Amazon Entry
- Rank:5 Score:11 – Witchy Eye Artist÷Designer: Daniel Dos Santos | by D.J.Butler, Baen ISFDB or Amazon Entry
The Covers I’m Surprised Didn’t Get More Points – Rank 6
Remember that aside from one book, all of these covers had already been through a substantial set of filters. So there aren’t bad covers here, just ones that didn’t grab me quite as much as the higher ranked ones.
This also where the category system might show its bugs. I really thought I’d give Walkaway a lot more points!
- Rank:6 Score:10 – Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet Artist÷Designer: Joan Wong| by Charlie N. Holmberg, 47North ISFDB or Amazon Entry
- Rank:6 Score:10 – Walkaway Artist÷Designer: Will Staehle| by Cory Doctorow, Tor ISFDB or Amazon Entry
- Rank:6 Score:10 – Fallout: The Hot War Artist÷Designer: David G. Stevenson| by Harry Turtledove, Del Rey ISFDB or Amazon Entry
Fun but Flawed – Rank 7 to 9
Well done to Sieging Manganela – it did manage to hold its own against some big publishing house covers. Again, some nice covers here. Generally, they lost marks for reasons: not enough information or too much information, being too literal or not literal enough, and so on. All good in other ways though.
- Rank:7 Score:9 – Sieging Manganela Artist÷Designer: Brian Allen| by Charon Dunn, Amazon Digital Services ISFDB or Amazon Entry
- Rank:8 Score:8 – The Sunlight Pilgrims Artist÷Designer: Suzanne Dean, Kai & Sunny| by Jenni Fagan, William Heinemann ISFDB or Amazon Entry
- Rank:8 Score:8 – A God in the Shed Artist÷Designer: an unsung hero| by J.F.Dubeau, Inkshares ISFDB or Amazon Entry
- Rank:8 Score:8 – Of Sand and Malice Made Artist÷Designer: René Aigner| by Bradley P. Beaulieu, DAW books ISFDB or Amazon Entry
- Rank:8 Score:8 – The Hammer of Thor Artist÷Designer: John Rocco | by Rick Riordan, Disney Hyperion ISFDB or Amazon Entry
- Rank:9 Score:7 – After Atlas Artist÷Designer: Anxo Amarelle | by Emma Newman, Roc ISFDB or Amazon Entry
- Rank:9 Score:7 – Borderline Artist÷Designer: an unsung hero| by Mishell Baker, Saga ISFDB or Amazon Entry
- Rank:9 Score:7 – Occupy Me Artist÷Designer: Sidonie Beresford-Browne| by Tricia Sullivan, Gollancz ISFDB or Amazon Entry
The Judge is an Idiot – Rank 10 and 11
I think both of these scored poorly because they are BIG ART on a tiny cover with text on top. On reflection, my low scores seem mean and your own judgement might put these much higher. Still, somebody has to come last and it was a tough field.
- Rank:10 Score:6 – Babylon’s Ashes Artist÷Designer: Daniel Dociu| by James S.A. Corey, Orbit ISFDB or Amazon Entry
- Rank:11 Score:5 – Death’s End Artist÷Designer: Stephan Martiniere | by Cixin Liu translated by Ken Liu, Tor ISFDB or Amazon Entry
This Score is too Good For It – Rank 12
Enough categories and enough lapses of judgement on my part and this monstrosity still managed to pick up some marks here and there.
- Rank:12 Score:4 – MAGA 2020 Artist÷Designer: Dawn Witzke| by ed Marina Fontaine, Superversive Press ISFDB or Amazon Entry
Relevance – this category only gets 2 points because not every cover needs this and I don’t know all the books well enough to make fine distinctions. In some ways this is a simple test and also the hardest. Does the cover suggest what you are going to get? Does it match the style and contents of the book? The easiest to judge are the more Nutty Nuggets covers, the hardest to judge are the ones for more literary novels which are hard to sum up with a cover.
Luckily I don’t need to be fair and your own judgement may differe…
[ETA – posted this without a title! Somebody wanted kibble.]
Onto the graphic design (aesthetic) criteria: 0 to 6 points. Text, art, borders, colour, everything – as a complete image, how good is the cover in terms of making all the bits work together aesthetically? An extra couple of points are available here for covers with no artwork per-se, so that artwork-heavy covers don’t get an in-built advantage.
Here we go!
Functionality: 0 to 3 points. A cover has a basic job to do. Can you read the title and who wrote it? Is all the relevant information there? Is the information well ordered?
There is a bit of a built in advantage for book covers that don’t have a lot to say. Each cover needs firstly these two things:
- A title
- An author
In addition there are other text elements:
- Series title
- Publisher name (pretty rare these days)
- Egoboo thing ‘Number 1 New Yrok Tines Besteller!’, ‘Thrilling to the last page!’ Stevan Kring
A sequel that’s being promoted can end up with a gaggle of text elements.
Somebody IRL asked why do these weird points and that they don’t make it more objective. That’s right – the categories don’t make the judgements less opinionated or subjective but they do make you look at different aspects. Using subcategories is an attempt to make a judge reflect on their own opinion.
If you were using lots of judges you could also better see where there was consensus and disagreement.
Having said all that – this remains just me messing around with working out what I like and dislike about covers and your own mileage will vary!
More after the fold…
One aesthetic trick I think works really works nicely with book covers is the use of the diagonal implied by the oblong character of a book cover.
I’ve made this one into an extreme example but the elements need not create two regions quite as starkly or as abstractly as this one.
It seems to do a lot of things:
- create a sense of movement
- organises features of the cover into more areas
- allows for different colour contrasts without being too busy
- introduces shapes other than rectangular blocks
I mention it because I noticed most of the covers in this years list are a lot more centrally aligned – either creating a simple vertical line or implying one by using partial symmetry along the cover’s central vertical line.
An example that is both extreme and very subtle (and why I used purple in the abstract example) are the great cover designs for Heather Rose Jones’s Alpennia books.
That silk curtain/drape does a lot of work – suggesting secrets in line with the alchemy elements of the books, romance elements, aristocracy but also as a graphic design element.
Some interesting diagonals in the cover list I’ve got this year:
Borderline Artist/Designer: an unsung hero| by Mishell Baker, Saga ISFDB or Amazon Entry
Central Station Artist/Designer: Sarah Anne Langton | by Lavie Tidhar, Tachyon Publishing ISFDB or Amazon Entry
Final Girls Artist/Designer: Julie Dillon| by Mira Grant, Subterranean Press ISFDB or Amazon Entry
This next one uses a variety of different oblique lines rather than the main diagonal of the cover rectangle.
Firebrand Artist/Designer: Michael Heath| by A.J.Hartley, Tor ISFDB or Amazon Entry
These last two are just a bit off from vertical but still make some use of the effect:
The Drowning Eyes Artist/Designer: Cynthia Sheppard| by Emily Foster, Tor ISFDB or Amazon Entry
Too Like the Lightning Artist/Designer: Victor Mosquera | by Ada Palmer, Tor ISFDB or Amazon Entry
Artwork: 0 to 4 points. Not every book cover needs its own epic painting but if it has one then the work gets graded from 0 to 4. Note that this is purely in terms of the artwork on its own merits. Relevance and appropriateness to the book will be covered elsewhere.
Pretty book covers get more points on this criteria but may get less points on later criteria. As always – just my opinion, partly disected.
Pictures after the fold.