Not judging a cover by its book

I want to talk tonight about what I liked about a book I didn’t like.

…okay, that intro could have been clearer.

Last month I decided to check out some books published by Angry Robot Books, which are putting more and more SF/F/H books out these days. I didn’t really care what I read; my main interest was seeing what the standard of editing and typesetting were in their books. Which is normal, right? Plenty of you just grab books at random from library shelves because you want to check on the level of skill and care taken in their production, right?


Anyway, I looked at Angry Robot’s Wikipedia page and grabbed the first novel by the second author listed (after Dan Abnett, as I’d already tried and quickly cast aside his Triumff.) This was Guy Adams’ The World House, and frankly it’s not very good. It has a decent premise (there’s a surreal and spooky house inside a box and shit’s going down) that’s let down by pedestrian writing and clichéd characters and dialogue. (As for the typesetting and editing, there were a few glaring errors but on the whole it was acceptable.)

But I don’t want to get into that; others may get more out of the book than I did, and anyway I don’t want to use this blog to talk about negative things. Instead I want to talk about what was terrific about The World House, and that is its cover, which is fucking boss.

Let’s start with the front image:

Really strong sense of design here that makes the most of a stark black-and-white palette for maximum contrast. Bang – title. Bang – spooky house. Bang – author name. Lots of hard lines and blocks with occasional curves to break things up. And then you’ve got that single spot of red in the window that pulls in your eye and tells you that something important is up in that room. Add in the intro sentence at the top and the whole point and premise of the book is spelled out to immediately grab your interest. Personally I wouldn’t have bothered with the moth and the pull quote from Kilworth, but then again I’m not a professional designer and they’re more likely to be write about this than I am.

So that’s a really strong front cover that stands out in a shop or in a set of Amazon listings, and that’s a hugely important thing. For a lot of publishers that would be enough. But Angry Robot really went the extra mile with an amazing back cover:

(Sorry about the drop in quality; I had to scan it myself because no-one bothers showing the back cover of books online.)

Let’s look at each part in turn:

  • Blurb: Short and simple, this fleshes out the promise of the front cover with the first line in red to immediately tell you what’s important – there’s a ‘they’, they’ve been around for a long time, and you can bet that they’re bad guys. The rest of the blurb tells you that weird shit is in this house, and bad stuff, and a prisoner and that all of that is important. I personally think there should be more in the blurb about the characters of the novel to make it clear that the narrative involves people doing things in this weird environment, but at the same time it needs to stay short so this is probably okay.
  • FILE UNDER: This box in the top right tells us right away that the book is MODERN FANTASY and gives us a handy précis of plot points – ‘worlds within worlds/ a sinister prisoner/ dimensional mayhem/ break out!’ No spoilers being handed out, but if you want to know if the book has the kind of story elements you like, or you can’t spare an additional 20 seconds to read the blurb, that box tells you everything important about the book in 14 words.
  • Pull quotes: I’m not terribly impressed by the opinions of Mark Chadbourn or Christopher Folwer, to be honest, and I don’t even know who Stephen Volk is. But I’m not the sole target audience, and it’s not like many readers drop a book just because they don’t like another author who liked it. For those who do like these authors, it’s a drawcard, and if you don’t know the authors, you still get the impression that people who probably know lots about MODERN FANTASY liked this book and think you will too. It’s win-win. Also, the use of red for the quotes and black for the attribution keeps the contrast flowing on the cover, quickly drawing your eye from the slugline at the top to the recommendations and then letting you drift back to the blurb proper.
  • IF YOU LIKE THIS TRY: Now this is clever, because they start off by recommending three books that aren’t published by Angry Robot. None of them are new books, either – Simulacron-3 (1964), Otherland (1996) and Weaveworld (1987). By suggesting these, Angry Robot potentially help newer readers learn more about some of the history and significant texts of the genre/subgenre, which is a really cool thing and worth pursuing. They also aren’t diluting their own brand by pushing readers towards competing modern titles.
  • OR ANOTHER ONE OF OURS: These, of course, are the modern titles Angry Robot want you to buy, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I think it’s smart to just show the covers with no additional info, because it stops the cover from getting too cluttered and because we can assume that if those books are shown then they’re probably in the same subgenre or ballpark as this one. I also think that it’s smart to use covers that are primarily black and/or red, so that they align with the design and colour palette of the rest of the cover.
  • MORE?: Last, it’s important to have a URL on the back of the book, of course. It’s even more important to have a URL that still works and that doesn’t redirect you to a Harper Collin site that has nothing to do with this site or with Angry Robot, but I’m sure it worked when the book was printed and time marches on. It’s also good to have that note that the book is available as an ebook, because the only way someone will see the back cover is if they have the book in their hand in a shop or library; knowing that there’s a digital version may be enough to sway a Kindle owner to buy it that way if they’re not sold on the hardcopy.

Wow, this turned into another long post. Why am I incapable of using fewer than 1000 words to say I liked something?

Anyhoo, I don’t really want this post to foster discussion about either The World House or Angry Robot. I didn’t like this book, sure, but I’m looking forward to Chuck Wendig’s Blackbirds (which also has an amazing cover) and I’ve been hearing great and intriguing things about Adam Christopher’s Empire State (ditto) which are both from this publisher.

A completely unrelated angry robot

What I’d rather talk about is what you think of this cover design, front and back. What do you think works? What doesn’t? What would you do differently? What are some cover designs – especially back cover designs – that have grabbed your interest and packaged information in a really effective way?

And, most of all, what are some ways that ebook authors/publishers, who don’t have the luxury of a back cover, can format and deliver this kind of information without just dropping a bunch of text onto a title’s Kindle Store page that no-one will see because they don’t scroll down far enough?

(PS – if you’re Guy Adams and you stumble across this entry, sorry to be a douche about your book. Feel free to be a douche about one of mine in return.)

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