Cover advice: The Joke at the End of the World

Apropos of this thread on Covercritics.

This is a interesting one. It doesn't obviously fit a publishing niche, but all the same has a strong identity with a wide potential audience.

The first thing to do here is establish what a text's strengths are.

Here, a major one is the authorship. The 'genre' of humour is a difficult one. People are more fussy about comedy than perhaps anything else. You've got to work twice as hard to sell humour because potential readers just have more fussy standards than elsewhere. But if people need assurance they're not wasting their time with an unfunny hack... 'founder of The Onion' is going to be a real selling point.

I can understand a potential reluctance to include that credential in so many words. Some creators wish to separate different strands of endeavour (like Iain Banks using different versions of his name for his science fiction and 'straight' novels). There may be the feeling that the kind of writing, in form, intent and style, in the novel is very different from that of The Onion and so the reference seems misleading or irrelevant.

So literally having 'from the creator of The Onion' might or might not be appropriate, but there should be a clear reference to this author's previous success/credentials (e.g. the existing cover's "From the NYT bestselling author").

The book's other big strength is that it has a strong and clear hook. As I say, this book doesn't fit neatly into an obvious genre / audience niche, but nonetheless it has a strong clarity of purpose and device, and the audience is out there.

A third strength is that the book has an evocative, communicative title. These days, title almost always take the fore in terms of design. Books are browsed as thumbnails on sites like Amazon so titles need to take up a lot of real-estate on the cover to make sure they're readable at that size. All the more of a strength, then, to have a really good title. If that's going to be the part of a cover most visible, it should say a lot both in how it looks and what it says.


The hanging question then is where does this book belong in terms of audience?

Potential readers need to know what they're looking at when they seen this thumbnail come up. And placing a book into a genre it doesn't truly fit is only going to make it look weaker as a text and disappoint readers who expected something else.

The author describes the book as YA, which is a reasonable shout since it features a young protagonist in a sophisticated story. But it's not YA.

Crucially, the protagonist is only 12 years old. There are some borderline cases. For example, His Dark Materials is sometimes filed as YA/teen although its protagonists are 12. But basically YA books always characters who the same age (or usually just a little older) than the people reading them.

Having read the text, it also doesn't read like YA in other crucial ways. It's sophisticated but there are different values of 'sophistication' and it doesn't match the YA one. So if not YA, what is its place.

The author names satirists like Twain and Vonnegut as influences. Reference points I'd add are Sue Townsend, Louis Sachar, Carl Hiaason and Bill Bryson.

Specific novels I thought of while reading included David Mitchell's Black Swan Green, Betsy Byars's The Midnight Fox, and perhaps especially Emma Donohugh's Room.

Maybe a touch of The Curious Incident of The Dog in The Night Time by Mark Haddon and the slight trend it was part of in the earlyish 2000s for adult books with naive-yet-wise-beyond-their-years child protagonists (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer).

A reviewer has mentioned Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. The former is a slight reach, but I can see some similarity between his lesser-remembered Johnny books and this. Neil Gaiman isn't an obvious comparison to me either but I can see the comparison with his crossover novel The Ocean at the End of The Lane.

So some of these associations are looser than others but it's useful to cast the net wide here when you're struggling to locate where your cover should sit in order to best market your book.

They're also quite a disparate bunch of authors but actually they fall quite neatly into a couple of categories: adult books and children's books. There's no YA here. Some of the examples are 'crossover' hits (like The Curious Incident... and Adrian Mole) one genre they don't represent is YA. These are authors of adult fiction and children's fiction, not the in-between!


Let's take a look at some covers then to see if that can help guide us:

Unsurprisingly, quite a varied set. But we can begin to pick out patterns and pointers of interest. A common feature of several covers from comedic books above is that they use a single image which doesn't necessarily depict the book's main subject or idea except tangentially. They find a funny, intriguing image that relates to the text. An illustration that gives you a strong hint of tone rather than trying to be too literal about content.

I've mentioned the importance of a good title, and many of the above examples demonstrate the principle. They can lean heavily on the title without imagery having to work too hard because the title already says it all and you don't want to mess with that too much. Titles like The Long Dark Tea-Time of The Soul and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time give you such a clear sense of voice and tone that much else would be superfluous. They just need complementing with the right visual touches to do their best work.

As for where these examples help place The Joke at the End of the World in terms of genre/audience, my feeling is that we're more in the adult fiction category, but that it's important to use imagery that points to the youth of its character. An adult book with a child protagonist-narrator.

Gathering possible imagery

Taking a steer in particular from that Bill Bryson cover, I started my hunt for imagery with a lot of searching on stock sites for a vintage 50s image that might capture the vibe of the book somehow. I thought I might find a classic Leave it To Beaver 50s boy that might jibe with useful irony against a modern visual treatment and cynical title.

I came up a bit blank. Lots of 50s kids, nothing that seemed to have that potential. Where I tried images out the vintage-ness felt like it distanced us from the subject through layers of nostalgia and reflection.

So I tried a different tack; picking out a particular image/idea from the book that might not be central to the narrative but feels like it sums up a lot about the tone and themes at a glance.

Without spoiling any specifics, late-ish in the book there's some stuff involving tinfoil. No one quite crafts themselves a tinfoil hat, but I thought that visual might be a good steer. It's something an audience understands at a glance for the right and evokes the relevant ideas - paranoia, silliness, gullibility, hysteria. If the tinfoil hat is on a child, then naïveté and vulnerability too.

I was pretty sure immediately which of these I found the most promising, but for the sake of going through the process and explaining the decisions, I'll show a few options.

First I'll just cover a few the basic design choices. I knew the way in which I wanted to use a photo from this set was by placing the child small and low in the frame, and indeed using a hard cut to include only some of the face.

Placing him thus tells the story that this is a child overwhelmed by crazy circumstances. The extreme positioning makes for a mildly edgy design choice that makes things feel fresh and modern. And the hard cut that eliminates half the face does something else really useful: it increases the tension of ambiguity by making his expression vivid but hard to quite read.

This is useful especially for certain moods and genres. For instance, I used the technique in this cover treatment because it suits the horror/thiller tension to leave the figure faceless.

And humour is tension too of course. Put a pin in that - I'll mention a bit more about why I think this works in the version I opted for. But first let's go through the rejected versions:

I've obviously worked out a particular typographic approach and I'll go into that in a moment, but for now and focus on the photo options.

None of these are bad, they all have their strengths. The first on the left uses an image most like an actual moment in the text, with the child gazing out a window at the sky. Seeing only the back of the head is good for tension. But the composition isn't as strong as it should be.

The other two are good compositionally. But the expressions aren't as strong as the option I've gone for below. The vibe of the version on the far right is too cutesy to suit the tone of the book. The middle has more promise, but the vibe is still too young. The protagonist-narrator of the book isn't quite the naive whimsical voice that I think these options imply. He's a smart pre-teen. I also think the aspect of looking upwards pushes the whole vibe too far towards something misleadingly alien-oriented.

It's subtle and it's not that these options wouldn't work but it's worth explaining the reasons I picked the photo I ultimately did as working better.

Now this is what I was looking for: there's so much feeling visible but it's impossible to quite say what feeling. It could equally be harmless surprise or nervous trepidation. There's something both comic and edgy in the expression when reduced to just the eyes - and that matches the comic/edgy device of using such a hard crop.

The expression is still childlike but older, more wary or wry and less passively accepting. That suits the protagonists voice better.

To come back to the wider design choices, as I say I choose this low, small framing because it makes the boy overpowered and overwhelmed by the cover. He is a small point of doubt against the big, blousy confidence of the typography.


I knew I wanted to use a cursive approach to the title treatment to pair with this image.

The use of a photo for imagery potentially puts the book in ambiguous genre territory - it could look easily look like a memoir or pop-sociology book. Now, I don't think that territory is entirely inappropriate as an association since the author is also a well-known humorist by profession. If at a glance some browsers think the book is a funny memoir or other non-fic book by a comedian, that's OK, they're still the right audience. But you do want to make sure you're not fully falling into signalling a different genre of book.

A cursive/handcrafted look to the typography helps signal the 'novel' vibes. In fact, I've felt it's worth going all-out on that front, having all the text match the same cursive styling.

I wanted the typography to fill the cover and dwarf the boy with its frame.

So that's one reason for including some pull-quotes on the front cover.

A more important one is just that if you have great pull-quotes, they could go not he front cover!

They're obviously really persuasive to potential readers about the quality of a book. But they're also very useful for simply providing information on genre or content to your reader.

If this author didn't have such effusive and useful pull-quotes available, I'd have been tempted to include the words 'A Novel' or even 'A Satire' on the cover following the title. But so much better to include pull-quotes that include words like 'satire/satirist' and kill two birds with one stone.

I've tried two versions of palette. The one on the right leans a little harder into the 50s reference point. I think either version is successful, but I personally prefer the left-hand version a little. It think it has a distinctive and telling vibe without collapsing into any single reference point. It holds ore of that useful tension in it.