Sunday, March 27, 2011

Guest Author: Brian Fatah Steele - The Story Under Covers

Brian Fatah Steele is joining us today to talk about the art of cover design.

Brian says...
There’s an old adage that states, “You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.”  Unfortunately, we do.  It’s the very first thing we see when perusing the bookstores or online marketplaces.  Without names that are immediately familiar to us, it’s the cover art that initially pulls us in to look closer.

Although I’m a writer now, with multiple books tossed out there, my first passion in life was visual art.  I originally went to college years ago for fine arts, and while I never finished that degree, the concepts of aesthetics and composition have never left me.  Even now I still create visual art, usually as interior illustrations for my books, covers or promotional images.  However, many wonderful authors aren’t lucky enough to have this skill to fall back on.

Sadly, there are too many authors who have penned remarkable works that largely go unnoticed simply because of poor marketing.  Marketing, that in today’s retail relies heavily upon that first impression that makes outstanding cover art essential.  But what makes good cover art?  What are we seeing when our eyes glance across rows of titles, in stores or on a screen, and what can independent authors do to insure their covers are astounding?

For the sake of narrowing this argument, let’s concentrate on works of fiction.  There are primarily two types of cover designs in current popular use.  These are by no means, the only types used, but they compromise the majority.

The first, most often seen and easily understood is what we might call the Contemporary Design.  This is what you find on your basic, mass media paperbacks – large, bold font at the top of the cover with a coordinating font at the bottom, artwork featured in the center and perhaps behind the fonts.  This font will be used in text that will usually take up the entire width of the cover, for both the author’s name and the book’s title.  Their positions on the cover, (author-top, title-bottom) are interchangeable, depending on the publisher, but there is often additional text to further promote the book.  This can be anything from announcing the author has been on best selling list, quoting a particularly excellent review or quoting a similar genre author.  These types of covers are traditional and safe, but they risk becoming underwhelming.

The second is what we might call the Post-Modern Design.  This is what you find on your more irreverent pieces of fiction, those that may not easily fit into simple genres or those that perhaps take themselves too seriously as “literature.”  Here, the font is incorporated into the cover art as part of the composition, the text used in a more graphic sense than merely to transfer information.  These types of covers are difficult to both create and to market on occasion, the book’s message sometimes lost in the visual art.

Unfortunately for everyone involved, there’s so much more to it.  Let’s look at some examples…

Mega-star authors like James Patterson, Danielle Steel and Clive Cussler release books that often have cover art that technically adhere to the Contemporary Design.  However, the text on these covers constitute the bulk of the surface, only a small percentage ever given to artwork, if at all.  While these authors can sell millions on books based on name recognition alone, other mega-stars like Stephen King and Anne Rice have been known to re-release many editions of their past works, each time with a series of similar covers that create a “branding effect.”

Even within a particular genre, we can see how different authors have used cover art to cater to specific crowds.  Robert Jordan employed fantasy artist Darrell K. Sweet to create very elaborate, classical images of what many considered a fantasy novel’s cover art should have.  Meanwhile, Terry Goodkind had artist Keith Parkinson creating very subdued fantasy landscapes for his epic series.  Many readers felt that both cover art concepts helped them to disappear in the pages.  Conversely, many fans of silver age fantasy/sci-fi author Piers Anthony have complained that his older book covers (art that he had no say over) had absolutely nothing to do with the story inside.

In what could arguably be some of the most iconic cover art in the past 25 years, artist Gail Doobinin created subtle imagery now recognized the world over for Stephanie Meyer.  Literary anarchist, Chuck Palahniuk, has released multiple books without any text on the cover what so ever.  Some authors and visual artists, like Neil Gamian and Dave McKean, have become inseparably linked due to all the various work they’ve done together.

But, what about those bad covers?  Yes, we see them.  Most often, it’s some confusion between the Contemporary and Post-Modern Designs.  Images aren’t properly aligned, fonts are too small, images are poorly rendered, colors are non-complimentary.  Sometimes the cover art gives the prospective reader the wrong idea about what the essence of the book is about, or even worse – it gives us no idea at all.  While these issues plague indie and self-press authors more than authors writing for Big Publishing Companies who can afford professional artists and graphic designers, I’ve seen quite a number of poor covers released by huge names as well.

The best route for an aspiring and struggling author is to know your work, know the market and to produce the correct cover accordingly.  You’ll know.  The best route for a wary and hopeful reader is to take that cover as a preparatory glimpse inside the author’s imagination and decide if you want to journey further.  That’s more difficult.

It’s hard not to judge a book by its cover, but at least that verdict isn’t final.  You can always change your mind.  And who knows… you might find some magic hidden behind that monstrous fa├žade.

BRIAN FATAH STEELE lives in Ohio with 2 cats that are probably plotting his doom. He survives primarily on a diet of coffee & cigarettes. If he's not hammering away at his keyboard, allowing another bizarre idea to creep out, you can most likely find him creating Visual Art to compliment his written work. His tales are often a combination of Horror & Urban Fantasy, usually with a "Post-Mythic" genre element. Currently promoting 4 books along with chapbooks and digital shorts, his short stories, articles. poems, & essays have appeared in various online & print magazines, journals, & blogs.

Thanks for visiting us today Brian!

You can find Brian Fatah Steele online at where you can find out more about his books and art.  You can also find Brian on Goodreads HERE
Brian's books are available at:



  1. Interesting article. With paper books, I notice the spine before anything else. In fact, the spine is the thing that will or won't catch my eye and encourage me to pull the book off a shelf. Font and title make the difference between checking the book out and walking right by. If the book is placed to show the cover, then I do notice that first. I know what the type of books I like look like, and I know what kind of covers usually denote books I don't like. I will miss out on a book, or be disappointed, if it's got the wrong type of cover. The blurb is the next thing I check out, and the font of that blurb makes a different to me, as well.

    With ebooks, I do pay some attention to covers, but it doesn't seem quite as striking to me. For some reason, I'll check out a larger variety of ebooks, regardless of cover.

  2. yeah, if the spine is out on the shelf I'll notice that first but I notice the color and design before the actual title/author. If it is face out I'm definitely noticing the cover art first and like you, the cover art for what I read tends to have a distinct look and feel, so if it doesn't have that type of design then I may overlook it.

    I usually pass over books on smashwords that have no covers. I think for me, good covers are actually more important for ebooks. There is so much out there to sift through and digest that I tend to zero in on the covers that catch my eye and tell me "I might be something you like to read...take a closer look!"

  3. Great post, Brian. Thoughtful insight into something that touches authors and readers. I've been lucky so far that all of my covers have been fantastic.

    That's something self-pubbed authors have over traditionally published authors. Trad authors will give feedback and sometimes the artist and marketing will take that into account, other times they don't. Whereas a self-pubbed author has complete control.

    I am ashamed to say I do judge a book by its cover as well and if a cover is really bad, I'm not just talking off, but I mean baaaaad, it's prevented me from buying the book.

    Not because I didn't like the cover, but if the cover art is shoddy, it makes me wonder what else is shoddy. Editing. Content. Etc.

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  5. If I could type today, that would be cool. I haven't had my coffee yet. Anyway, as I tried to state previously, if you guys haven't read Brian's work, he's a must-read. In Bleed Country is one of my top ten favorite books.


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