Avoiding Photoshop Barf

Source: Lousy Book Covers

This week’s post is inspired by the cover of the book Split Seconds, by award-winning author Maggie Thom. It comes courtesy of the folks behind Lousy Book Covers, a hilarious yet surprisingly instructive blog which points out the myriad mistakes that self-published authors make when attempting to design their own book covers. (Or, if you’re feeling charitable, farm out the job to the author’s spouse/grandchild/nephew/whatever.)

Not to unfairly single out Ms. Thom’s book, and I’m sure it’s a compelling read, but this type of cover is fairly typical in the self-published field. The cacophony of layered imagery and ill-chosen fonts on this cover exemplifies an aesthetic which I call “Photoshop Barf.” To be fair, I can understand why authors gravitate towards this look. In the effort to entice potential readers, they want to visually communicate as much as possible in that small rectangle. There’s also something of a herd mentality at play with authors aping the covers of similar, bigger-selling authors. Styles come and go, yet (unfortunately for all of us) if a junky aesthetic is the one that sells, authors will want it.

As a designer of book covers, mostly self-published, I try like the dickens to steer authors away from Photoshop Barf. The aesthetic is so pervasive, however, that inevitably my covers end up looking like a cleaner, more professional variant on Photoshop Barf.

How can we avoid this? As a visual palate-cleanser, I offer this book:

This paperback edition of Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey was put out by Harper Collins as part of their Olive Editions, limited-run reissues of notable books from their back catalog. Each one sports a spare yet evocative cover designed by Milan Bozic, who probably doesn’t have to deal with authors wanting to cram every little thing on their covers. Although it doesn’t come across in the photo, this book was designed as an object, with a spine that matches the others in the series and an appealing contrast between the matte cover stock and a glossy effect applied to the black type and artwork.

Although a cover like the Wilder reissue is beautiful to behold, we can concede that it’s harder to pull off in the click-and-read context of e-books. Still, I’ve done enough of these projects to put together a few handy tips for self-published authors desiring an effective cover.

  1. Invest in a Cover Designer. Imagine being a struggling author, spending months or years on getting your first book just right. Having invested all that time in your manuscript, does it make any sense to hurry it out with a sloppy, home-made cover? No, it does not. As a matter of fact, when an author hastily slaps a bad cover on a good book, all of her efforts might as well get thrown away. The modest investment of an actual, professional designer will end up paying off. Otherwise, a mediocre or bad cover will make efforts to market a book that much more difficult.
  2. Simplify, then Simplify More. Whenever I set up initial consultations with author clients, inevitably they present a long laundry list of things they want to include on their cover. What I tell them is, besides the title and author name, what do you really need? After all, the central Writing 101 tenet of paring down your message to the barest essence applies just as strongly to a cover design. While a busy design can sometimes work, I always encourage clients to eliminate any extraneous text (ahem, “award-winning”), and try to focus on a single, powerful, eyeball-grabbing image. Or, perhaps no image at all.
  3. Don’t Get Too Attached to Your Genre’s Conventions. Look, I’m aware of how important it is for aspiring authors to adhere to their chosen genre when attempting to build an audience. After all, nothing says “If you like [successful author], you’ll love me” more than a cover that closely mimics the style of a certain genre. You know the stereotypes: if it’s a Thriller, it needs darkness and a splash of blood, if it’s Young Adult, it needs a gritty patina, if it’s Romance, it needs dappled sunlight or a cozy interior. Unfortunately, authors tend to be ultra-timid when it comes to this stuff. What I tell them is: if it’s a good book, it doesn’t need to rely on these visual clichés to sell. Instead, let’s concentrate on producing an eye-catching cover—period.
  4. Don’t Get Too Literal-Minded, Either. Authors enjoy using their imaginations to conjure up worlds both terrestrial and unearthly. Why is it, then, that they tend to be so literal-minded when it comes to a cover design? As a hypothetical example, if an author came to me wanting a cover for a soul-baring autobiographical novel entitled Cherry Tomatoes, you can bet your bottom dollar that the only image she’ll want is a stock photograph of cherry tomatoes. Browse through the offerings of the major publishing houses, however, and you’ll note that many covers sport a hint of ambiguity in their designs. With novels in particular, one thing you’ll notice is that most use illustrations or creative typography in lieu of photographs. This is deliberate—why use concrete imagery when a talented author can conjure up the images instead?
  5. Aim for Postage-Stamp-Sized Impact. When browsing for books online, what do you see? Rows upon rows of tiny boxes, usually the size of a postage stamp (on a computer monitor) or even smaller (on a smart phone or tablet). In this setting, choosing to have a cover design with any sort of complexity is a bit like commercial suicide. Potential readers don’t have the time to click on a cover to examine it in detail, much less check out the plot description or price. It’s imperative that a book’s mood must be communicated at this reduced size using legible type and easy-to-understand imagery (not dumb, mind you, just easy to read).
  6. Avoid Photoshop Barf. After discussing points #1–5, does this need to be repeated? Yes, and in case you didn’t get it, I will repeat it again—avoid Photoshop Barf.

Adhering to these simple rules will make a world of difference. If any authors have read this far and are interested in collaborating with me, my online portfolio can be viewed at MattHinrichs.com. Thanks.