Cover advice: Foliomancy

Apropos of this post of Covercritics (https://covercritics.com/?p=3251#comment-area).


This is one of those covers that demonstrates the principle you can be ticking so many of the appropriate boxes but still not getting the cover you need. Covers are so particular. It makes sense - when we talk about cover design, we're talking about trying to express something as big and complex and unique as a whole novel as a one-sheet bit of design which is also simple and beautiful, in a way which also entices people to pick it up.


That's one of the main reasons covers have clear trends and tropes, of course, it's one of the most useful tools at the designers disposal in being able to visually say 'you know that thing you already like? It's like that.'


And the person putting this cover together has clearly looked at other covers in their area of publishing (in this case female-starring historical fantasy) and observed that a strong trend in female-leaning YA historical and/or fantasy is a centred image of the protagonist. I.e.:



The problem with the current cover though is that the image used ticks some of the above boxes but not all the vital ones. I'll come to what those are later, but suffice to say for now that the reason is because as an independent author, this cover is relying on existing, stock imagery, and this is a trend which requires highly bespoke art.


I'm going to come back to this specific issue of whether there's any way to do this kind of cover without having the facility for bespoke high-quality artwork, so put a pin in that.


First we need to go back to the drawing board to understand the basic principles behind how you get a good cover.



I make my initial approach on a cover in a three-pronged way, with three fundamental points of enquiry in mind. They are


  • What is the title?

  • What do other books in this genre and/or niche of publishing look like?

  • What imagery is available to me?


There's no order of priority intended by the order I've put these in, in fact you kind of bounce around between these points as you start working out initial thoughts on a cover. But for the sake of clarity I'll explain each one by one.



What is the title?


When you start a cover you have a few elements which you already know are definitely going to end up on there. The title, the byline, and sometimes some other things (e.g. an awards logo, a pull-quote, a tagline, a a publisher logo). Most of these are pure practicalities, not cover elements that are there to draw you in. You'll need to accommodate these elements compositionally and you'll want to style them in a way which complements the rest of the cover where possible, but they're not load-bearing in terms of the overall impression of your cover. But the title is different.


The title is going to be a key part of any cover - quite probably the key part. This has become especially true in recent years. Now that books sell so predominantly online, covers need to be legible and attractive when seen at thumbnail. That means titles have to be clear and probably large.


So since the title is so important, and the only important thing that we already know about this cover, it makes sense to start by checking it out thoroughly. I consider a title from two angles: what does it convey, and what is its physical shape.


If you're thinking as a writer, the first is perhaps the more obvious question. A writer chooses their title carefully, and is good at using words to effectively convey information and feeling - you'd hope! In this case, we have a fantastic title. Foliomancy is a title that both gets across the hook/premise of the story immediately and does so in a way which evokes mystery, magic and uniqueness.


Then there's second angle, the title's physical shape. That's not something that might immediately occur to non-designers to think about, but it's a straightforward issue once you see it. Titles need to be big on covers. They need to be so clear and/or big that even when that cover is viewed at thumbnail size they're legible - because these days, especially for an independently-published author, most if not all of the time your potential readers are going to be encountering your book first as a thumbnail on Amazon or Goodreads. And if your title is long, the letters must get smaller to fit it all on one line.


It's not just the important thumbnail issue, either. A small title gets dwarfed by other elements and loses impact. When you have a title as good as Foliomancy that's a real shame.


As it happens, I recently took a look at a book with exactly this issue of a single-long-word title, and which was also in this broad genre of female-oriented magical YA. You can see the full write-up in my blog.


The book is called Threadneedles and for the published cover, the designer had chosen to split the title in half and present it across two lines. That solved the issue of not being able to make the letters very big. But I argued that this treatment also somewhat detracted from the power of the title, making it feel more prosaic. It turned it from the intriguing 'Threadneedle' to the duller 'Thread Needle'. I suggested a second solution of splitting the word more:


On the left is the finished, published paperback cover. On the right is my rough proof-of-concept sketch of how you might split the word further to run right across the cover:




Both of these approaches have arguments in their favour. As I say, I think the version on the left makes the title lose a little sparkle. While with my version on the right you have to accept that there won't be much room for other elements with the lettering taking up all that room.


So just to kick us off, let's take a look at how the title Foliomancy works using no splits, one split, and two splits in the word respectively:



Sure enough, the no-split, all-on-one-line version is so small as to lack impact. It looks OK with nothing else on the page but it's pretty quickly going to get swamped by the other cover elements.


The one-split version and two-split versions both have more potential. I'm going to put a pin in these as I consider my other factors.


So much for the physicality of the title. Coming back to its actual content, what it means and conveys:


As I say it's a great communicative and unique title. But no title covers all the aspects which are important to get across. There are points that could do with sureing up via choices in the visuals, and points that aren't covered at all. For example, the word 'folio' could be considered semi-obscure at least to a young audience. You're probably going to want to make sure your imagery backs up the idea of 'books' or 'words' or 'writing'.


Then there are things which the title doesn't itself touch on, and you'll need to signal elsewhere. The title tips us off as to being in the field of fantasy, but nothing yet really says 'historical' firmly. Nothing says YA or 'female oriented' either. And those are all pretty key points that you will want your cover to get across clearly.


So you see how having considered the title carefully, we now have a really good steer on a lot of things, a great starting place for a good cover.



What do other books in this genre and/or niche of publishing look like?


This is a pretty simple research process. One goes to Amazon and narrows down the book results to the area/s that match your own:


Books>Teen & Young Adult>Science Fiction & Fantasy>Fantasy


Books>Teen & Young Adult>Historical Fiction


You scroll through, opening-to-tab anything that seems particularly relevant. Not everything will be. You can put aside your Harry Potter results and your WWII novels and so on, things which belong to different sub-genres.


Normally I note that you should observe how different markets differ and be informed by that, but with this sub-genre, tropes are pretty international. What works on Amazon.com will work on .co.uk and .com.au etc.


You'll begin to notice the trends that dominate and also develop an eye for what covers are doing it better and which worse. Some areas of publishing have vaguer and harder-to-pin-down cover tropes than others. But female-oriented historical/fantasy YA is one with some very clear trends in place.


We've already touched on one of these, the 'heroine portrait'. Let's take another look and note some points about them to better understand why they work and what one would need to live up to this line of design:



One easy thing to spot is how stylistically similar all these images are. They each use a digital oil or digital acrylic approach for a painting which is rich in colour and tonal values. They are all very technically good. The figures themselves are enormously communicative about the stories they star in. You can see it at a glance - this girl is a dark hunter; that girl is a plucky wanderer in a dangerous wood; that girl is a magic-user. Their complex, incredibly specific costumes tell us about their worlds, their settings. The moods and atmospheres are ambiguous (often caught between trepidation and bravery etc) but strong.


... Now all of that is somewhat hard to come by as an independent author. These paintings were all very clearly created especially for these novels, and that takes a budget. If you're working with existing imagery, like stock, you're going to be very lucky to happen across something which not only happens to match your unique creation of a novel and protagonist, but also works well in all the other ways it must to form the base of a great cover. I won't rule it out entirely, but I'll come to that presently.


So with this approach so daunting, what else?


Fortunately, there's another strong design trope for this area of publishing which is more accessible to small creators:



I.e. covers that centre fancy typography of the title and surround it with a kind of decorative illustrative border.


I talked about the importance of title, and we see it here. At thumbnail not many specific details are visible on covers like this except the title. But that's fine, because all of these are titles that give you, like, 90% of what you need to know to understand to whether you want to pick the book up or not. The rest of the choices just need to provide the right atmosphere and tone, maybe a couple of specific hints of the novel's setting or preoccupation (the tentacles on To Kill A Kingdom, the swords on House of Dragons etc). Mostly they just need to look overall beautiful, dramatic, atmospheric.


I've mentioned that this is more of an option for designers without a big budget, who are relying on existing imagery. That leads us to...



What imagery is available to me?


If one was working as an in-house designer, or a freelance designer with a budget, the above two questions would be the only ones that you really needed to consider before getting going on sketching up ideas. You would decide, for instance, that you felt the 'heroine portrait' format was the most appropriate and commercial angle and start doing some pencil-roughs of how that might look; considering which particular illustrator you wanted to commission to create the final piece.


But for any cover project without 'commissioning an illustrator' available as an option, there is this third crucial angle to consider.


Doing research into the kind of covers that work for your genre has given you a sense of what imagery to look out for. Now it's time to start finding out what is actually out there, available to use.


For this stage, I get onto Shutterstock, and just start chucking in search terms that seem likely to bring up relevant stuff. 'Fantasy book pattern', 'magic book illustration set', 'historic book pattern', etc. Dozens of variations on combining the basic key words and ideas and opening to a tab anything at all promising the search throws up.


You might notice I'm using words like 'pattern' and 'illustration set' as part of my search terms. That's because usually what is most useful is not a single, finished illustration but rather sets of illustrations around a theme and style. For example:



These are great because you can take individual elements and arrange them to suit a cover's compositon. You can see, for instance, how you could build up a cover in that 'dominant typography, decorative border' style using illustrations sets like this.


But I also keep my mind open to other solutions. I definitely try some search terms like 'girl portrait, 'girl fantasy portrait', girl book portrait'. You have to be able to be led somewhat by the images that are actually available rather than go in with rigid ideas.



Trying stuff out


Having above worked out some basic thoughts about the title-treatment, informed ourselves about genre trends, and finally gathered a bunch of potential images to try out, it's time to start seeing what we come up with.


First of all, let's try the 'dominant typography/decorative border' approach.


I mentioned that one thing the title isn't in itself letting us know, but which is fairly important to have the cover signal, is the historical-ness of the setting. It's definitely important to give that broad impression. How specific you need to get is more up for grabs.


I love me a 1910s setting (I blame Titanic coming out when I was 13) and I'm personally intrigued by the idea of it as a setting for fantasy, because that's not a common idea. But it throws up some specific challenges.


An obvious Edwardian aesthetic jibes oddly with the visual cues of magic. That time period is defined almost by the non-fairy-tale-ness of its look. The dresses are neat instead of flowing, sensible instead of whimsical etc.


So I've tried to think of some aesthetic which links 'early 20th century' with 'magic' more sympathetically. I've thought about the Art Nouveau look. That does the job, and as a bonus is a time of beautiful book design which might help bring in that 'folio' angle well too. I've found some Nouveau patterns based on period book covers and tried them out:



Pretty enough but these roughs lacks much specificity. Foliomancy carries a lot of weight as a tile, but it probably needs more support than this. You want the cover to feel bespoke; intriguingly its own thing.


Another approach that occurred to me was using distinctive lettering to both convey a sense of period as well as tying in to the book's subject of, well, books:



Not exactly a winner, but not without something to it. The mismatched decorative type of the title does create a mood and establish period expectations.


So let's move onto versions of the 'dominant typography/decorative border' approach which use something a bit more story-specific in that border.


Now I don't know any details of this book beyond its premise. So I'm working blind here, but hopefully I can demonstrate the principles clearly. Foliomancy might not contain a mermaid character or a dragon moment or whatever, but consider these stand-ins for whatever images would be more relevant.




You'll see that on the left I've used illustrations which are medieval in character. As I mentioned, it's important to signal the 'historicalness' of the setting but there are other approaches than being super literal about the 1910s.


The use of these illustrations immediately gives us a sense of real-world history. With the book illustration and the type leaning into something not medieval, that might balance out at about the right place to attract interested readers.


The rough on the right has more Edwardian cues in its styling but the gold glow and inclusion of clear fantasy notes stops it looking too old-fashioned and grown-up.


So there's potential here too.


As I mentioned despite my lack of optimism I did have a look for images in the 'high-quality portrait of a girl who happens to match the premise and protagonist' category.


I found one which I thought had potential. The quality is high, the styling on point, the atmosphere and emotion is there, and the high collar and Nouveau headpiece make the girl feel suitably tied to the right era:



So I took a look at using this:



Hm, OK. Interesting.


My first assumption was that one needs to place a literal book on the cover to complete the overall image. But it turns out that it's a step too far into literalness for this book and age-range. The inclusion of a magical book immediately makes the book look middle-grade.


Also, covers work by raising questions, not by giving answers. The girl-and-book feels to direct, too much of an answer. What is foliomancy? Book magic. Who can do it? This girl. That's too flat.


The version without a book, on the right, works much better visually. But it does need a bit more of a visual link between the girl and the title. Since the literal book is a step too far, I have to think of something a bit more tangential, or allusive...




So I've tried placing elements which suggest the idea of 'book stuff' magically floating up.


These work better.


The one with the handwritten/drawn elements, on the right, seems to evoke the idea of books more firmly, while the one with the letters is more youthful and slick.


What I've found is key here is tying the styling of the title to this 'magical' element. If you look at the one on the left, things don't quite hang together. In the middle one, I've replaced the title treatment with one that uses the same slightly runic/algebraic font I used for the floating letters (a font called Water Street) and things both feel more cohesive and more firmly YA too.


In the one on the right, I've used a font (Modesty) which ties into the old fashioned cursive of the book elements. This isn't the most legible title treatment ever. One would probably want to do some manual adjustment to make sure it read clearly, especially that initial F. With the font all on one line and in a delicate font you are of course back to that problem of a title getting quite lost and potentially not being readable at thumbnail size.



I've mentioned an issue with the cover sliding into looking 'middle-grade' a couple of times. One of the reasons for this is the dimensions of the cover, which in all examples above I've taken from the existing cover.


Book dimensions are something that vary from country to country. I believe this author is within the Australian market which I don't know much about. As far as I know it's slightly more similar to the UK market than the US market.


Whatever the market, there are two formats of paperback, 'mass-market' and 'b-format'. Mass-market books are shorter and wider, like this cover. B-format taller and thinner. And in the US and especially the UK there is a wholesale move away from the mass-market format and towards b-format. That started in the late 90s and is pretty total today. I can't think of many children's let alone YA novel published recently in the UK which doesn't use b-format dimensions. The only books that use a small mass-market forms are those intentionally leaning into something more fun, younger (e.g. the Mr. Gum books use that format).


Obviously none of this practically matters if a book is only going to be published digitally, but the thing is the associations are still in people's heads. Taller and narrower is prestige' and anything else is deliberately young or irreverent.


So another thing I've looked at is trying the cover to b-format dimensions (129mmx198mm in the UK):



This format has the advantage of freeing up a little more vertical space and so I've taken a look at including a tagline under the title. These are another aspect of covers that have become almost ubiquitous now and are very useful. It's like a bridge between your browser noticing your book and clicking through to read the blurb, just enough of a line to hook them in.


Finally with all the elements in place I've taken a look at the colour balance. The version above is fine but perhaps a little dull of tone. If you look back to those 'heroine portrait' covers and indeed the others too, they're all very strongly coloured. It helps a cover hold together and stand out amongst its fellows.



We can see here more than anywhere how minute decisions make huge differences. Each of these four not only feels different in mood but also sets of different ideas of precise genre and age-range.


Now this isn't finished by a long shot but at this point it would be mostly this kind of fiddling.


And just because I've pursued this particular cover furthest doesn't mean I think this is the correct answer. This would be a good cover that set this book up to do well in its market. But it's not the only possible cover. But hopefully I've explained the principles at work in a way which makes it clear how to get to a cover that does that job. The steps in themselves aren't complicated and successful covers tend to be made up of just two or three elements. Its getting each one precisely right, and working with each other to just the right effect which is the tricky bit. And the best way to make that happen - for designers and novices alike - is just to start by being guided by those three basic questions and trying loads of rough ideas to start with.