Eye-Catchers: My Favorite Covers from 2011

I haven’t analyzed a cover for a long time (not since Mira Grant’s Feed), but before the first month of 2012 passed I wanted to share with you my favorite covers from 2011 and why I think they work.* My top three are Blackdog by K.V. Johansen (illustration by Raymond Swanland), Embassytown by China Miéville (illustration and design by David Stevenson), and The Hum and the Shiver (photographs by Valentino Sani and Marilyn Angel Wynn). They all have excellent lines to draw the viewer’s eye and serve as compelling introductions to the stories inside.

Blackdog: A Study in Eye Movement

Blackdog by K. V. Johansen

There are a lot of things I love about this cover, but all of it hinges on the spectacular illustration from Raymond Swanland. The color scheme is striking even though it isn’t flashy, because Swanland has a nice contrast between the lights and darks that adds flavor and variety without having to be extreme; the image packs a lot of elements in without feeling busy; Holla-Sayan (the guy in the foreground) is compelling.

But the thing that strikes me the most about this cover is the motion. Everything is moving. The owl is in a dive (as are the other shadowy birds), and that dive moves in the same direction as the ribbons of cloth coming from Attalissa (the girl in the center). The contrast of the bright circle in the center with all the darker elements draws your eye, but then it’s easy for your eye to flow around the rest of the cover elements following the motion lines. Then you get caught up in the intersection where Holla’s hand and his sword meet, you move up to his face, and you get hit head-on with the fact that he’s looking out from the cover. His face is the only element that isn’t synchronized with the upper-right–to–lower-left flow, and because of that it strikes a strong chord.

This cover is a study in the power of eye movement. The movement sucks you in, and the illustration has enough detail to keep you captivated for a while. Definitely long enough to decide you want to buy whatever is behind that cover. (As a nod to whoever did the text, the title color contrasts well with what’s behind it, but harmonizes with the existing illustration. It’s placement also defers to the illustration, which is smart considering how strong the illustration is.)

Embassytown: Room for Imagination

Embassytown by China Miéville

The first think I like about this cover is the color scheme. You can’t get more contrast than between black and white, and red is my favorite accent color. It’s a striking scheme that never seems to get old (for me, at least; I’m sure other people are sick to death of it).

David Stevenson uses the red judiciously: he only uses it for the author name, which is a lightweight font compared to the title typeface, so the red remains an accent, but not the note that stays with you. Where the Blackdog cover had a lot of diagonal motion, this cover is strictly top-to-bottom. The contrast of the black and red (or the black and white, depending on the viewer) draws your attention to the top. Then your eye filters down through the inverted pyramid of the jumbled letters and finally to the city, which is made up of vertical buildings.

The space between the title and the bottom of the cover is the part I like best about this cover. The jumbled letters give you an idea that words are important to the city below. It gives you hints; it gives you an impression of what Embassytown, the city, is like; it gives the city both a glow and a shadow. Those hints and impressions and contrasts are interesting, and they’re ripe for a viewer to start creating a story of their own with the image, a story that will compel them to read.

The Hum and the Shiver: Simple Can Sell

The Hum and the Shiver by Alex Bledsoe

This cover is different than the other two because it relies on two images instead of on a specific illustration (if you’re a self-publisher thinking about a stock-photo cover, take note).  Neither photo would make as compelling a cover alone. The landscape image is full of beautiful color. The yellows and oranges in the sky catch the eye, and they do so all the better because they’re bordered by the unobtrusive blue of the mountains below.

The shape of the mountains draws down in a V that guides the eye to the central figure (the other image). Like the city and the jumbled words of the Embassytown cover, this figure lets you, the viewer, start to tell yourself a story. Here is a woman, partially transparent, holding a stringed instrument. Because she’s nondescript—you can’t really see her face, you don’t know exactly what she’s feeling—you have the freedom to fill in the gaps.

This cover is simple: the contrasting colors draw your eye, and the solo, nondescript figure lets you tell yourself a story. It’s powerful from an emotional sense, and it sets a beautiful tone for the book inside.


*Remember, I’m not extensively skilled as a designer. I’m decent with typography and word-based design, but not stellar when it comes to creation. I leave the illustration and design to my more able colleagues. You don’t have to be able to create awesome stuff to love awesome stuff and to be able to say why.

Books to Look for in 2012

In case you haven’t noticed, it’s a new year. That means a whole new year of books! I’ve been trying to keep my eyes and ears open for news of upcoming releases that pique my interest. I’ve got several on my list, but I also have a huge gap in my book year. So I’ll let you know about books I’m looking forward to if you’ll let me know about your go-to list for 2012 (especially if you’re looking forward to books coming out in the spring and summer).

The Rook by Daniel O'MalleyThe Rook by Daniel O’Malley (January 2012)

After reading a snippet somewhere (probably in Publisher’s Lunch), I put The Rook on my radar. Then I read the sample chapters months ago. I followed the @RookFiles Twitter feed. The voice has me captivated, and I have the book pre-ordered. I’ve never pre-ordered a book in my life. (My mom pre-ordered Harry Potter books on my behalf, but I’ve never actually felt the need to do it myself.) O’Malley, you better deliver. I expect to enjoy myself between those simple black covers.

Thief’s Covenant by Ari Marmell (February 2012)

Thief’s Covenant is coming out as a part of Pyr’s new YA line. I haven’t picked up a new YA for a while (not since last Christmas when I bought Matchless on a whim), but I’ve been looking forward to this one since I heard about it at WorldCon last year. (P.S. Is the cover not awesome?) The main character is the only remaining worshipper of her household god; everyone else who used to worship him is dead. Now she runs through the city as a thief, trying to keep ahead of the people out to kill her.

Shadow Ops: Control Point by Myke ColeShadow Ops: Control Point by Myke Cole (February 2012)

I’ll let you in on a secret: although I’m a military wife, I’m not normally into military genre books. War literature is something I dig (you might remember that I love Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried), but genre military fiction (military SF, for example) normally doesn’t float my boat. But something about Shadow Ops: Control Point intrigues me. Maybe it’s because it’s military fantasy, which is something I don’t recall running into before. It’s an interesting angle, and I’d like to see where it goes.

Big Gap for Spring and Summer

Please donate your suggestions to fill this gap. Or I could use this time to catch up on some of the wonderful books that are already out that I haven’t had a chance to sample yet.

Six Little Sisters by Garcia McCall (Fall 2012)

This book is coming out from Tu Books, an imprint with a cause. A cause that has led it to introduce me to this very interesting-sounding book, Six Little Sisters. I got this description of it from Tu Books’ editorial director’s blog: “In this retelling of The Odyssey, Odilia and her five sisters embark on a quest to return a dead man to his family and must overcome monsters from Mexican folklore as they journey home.” Sound cool much? If not, maybe you’re just not enough of a folklore junkie yet. Don’t worry. Listen to me long enough and I’ll get you hooked eventually.

Rootless by Chris Howard (November 2012)

Rootless is another book I saw a pitch for in Publishers Lunch. A tree sculptor who fashions decorative trees out of scrap metal learns about the possible whereabouts of a real, living tree. He sets off to investigate. Yes, this is in a dystopian world in which all living trees have supposedly died off.

Your Favorites for 2012

What are you looking forward to in 2012? I’m open to all suggestions. I seem to only have speculative fiction on my 2012 reading list, but I’d be happy to hear recommendations for mainstream fiction, nonfiction, Billy Collins–like poetry, or any anthology with folktales in it. If you’re on Twitter, you can also use the hashtag #books2012 to tell your tweeps about books to look for.

Weekly Roundup: 9/24–9/30

Gini Dietrich: Control Your Own Destiny

Gini is not in publishing, per se (though she is writing a book). Gini is in PR, and she’s also a business owner and she’s not keen on blaming your shortcomings on the “current climate.” While reading her article, the arguments she was refuting reminded me of common complaints about the publishing industry. She says, “Stop blaming the economy and start working twice as hard to build [y]our businesses”; I hear, “Stop blaming the industry and start working twice as hard on your writing.” Write great sentences; write great chapters; write great books. If you get a pile of rejection letters or your self-published novel tanks, don’t blame your circumstances. Brush yourself off and do it all again, only better. Books are you business. Don’t fall into this human flaw Gini points out: “We’re human beings. We like to have someone/something to blame when things don’t go our way. We’re inherently lazy. And we are always looking for shortcuts and the easy way out.”

(Reading Gini’s blog, Spin Sucks, can also be very informative when it comes to marketing, especially authentic marketing like that championed by a lot of publishing pros. I read it every day, and while I don’t always find something relevant to me, I find relevant posts often enough that I keep reading.)

TABISSO Punctuation LampsTABISSO: Punctuation Lamps

I want one of these lamps. The closing quotation marks are beautiful, but depending on where it was going I might pick the colon instead, because I love colons. (By the way, last Saturday was National Punctuation Day, and I intended to entertain you with a lovely post about the dash family—hyphen, en dash, and em dash—but I was celebrating the first wedding anniversary I’ve spent in the same country as my husband, so I never wrote the post. I’ll write one for you later, because I believe they grant you amazing options for communication and nuance.)

Amazon: The Kindle Fire & Cheaper Kindle Models

You’ve probably already heard about Amazon’s Kindle Fire, the $199 color tablet that was announced this week. My thoughts? If I’m getting an ereader, I want e-ink. I personally don’t like backlighting at all. If I’m going to get a tablet, I would probably go with something other than the Kindle Fire. Currently it appears that Amazon is trying to exert the kind of control over its appstore that Apple has over iTunes, but their submission process has been complicated, flawed, and unhelpful for the app company I work for. Apps get rejected before they’re reviewed and then the company gets reminders to resubmit the app—even though the app is already resubmitted. The system needs ironing out before the Kindle Fire can have the same ecosystem as other tablets.

GalleyCat: Kindle Ebook Errors in Neal Stephenson’s REAMDE

This week Neal Stephenson’s new novel, REAMDE, was released with egregious errors in the Kindle version. From what I’ve heard described, it sounds like the file was probably converted straight from PDF and not proofread afterwards. If publishers are charging a premium on their ebooks, like the price they were asking for a brand-new Stephenson book, the ebooks need to be as pristine as print. That said, if you’re a reader who’s getting pristine ebooks, realize that the publishing house probably put extra work into proofing them in multiple formats (.epub, .mobi, etc.), and don’t squawk too much about the price being the same as the print version, because re-proofing those books is probably worth much more than the $2 is costs to print a hardcover.

Amazon has since mysteriously replaced the copies of the book that had been downloaded, once again proving that if your library is on a Kindle, Amazon has control of it. (Admittedly, it was sort of an opt-in system this time, though cryptic, but Amazon has a habit of doing things that control or obsessively track your use of the things they sell you. Case in point: All your web browsing on the Kindle Fire is tracked, and you can’t opt out.)

Shawn Coyne: Acquisitions P&Ls

Editor Shawn Coyne shares an inside look at acquisitions profit and loss statements (P&Ls). He talks about how to pitch in a way that makes money sense (not just story sense) and gives those who don’t work in a publishing house an inside look at how a manuscript goes from a well liked submission to a book with a contract offer.

Writing Excuses: Writing Assistants

This week the Writing Excuses crew talks to Peter Ahlstrom and Valerie Dowbenko, writing assistants to Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Rothfuss, respectively. They all talk about why hiring a writing assistant helps authors manage their ideas, keep up with deadlines, and accomplish assorted writing-related (but non-writing) tasks. In short, they talk about how writing assistants and other hired help give you more time to just write.

Orbit: Spring-Summer 2021 Covers

Orbit put up a blog post with its covers for the 2012 Spring-Summer catalog. Sometimes Orbit’s covers really delight me (I still practically cackle whenever I see Feed by Mira Grant), but sometimes they don’t quite hit the spot for me. (For example, although Brent Weeks’s Night Angel trilogy has good covers, they are also strikingly similar to Karen Miller’s mage series. The branding for the two has too much crossover for my taste.) Which are your favorite covers in the upcoming catalog?

Eye-Catcher: Feed by Mira Grant

Cover: Feed by Mira GrantCovers have a certain appeal for me. Judging books by them makes it very, very easy to determine what I will read when faced with a tide of new books and stories. With covers doing a good bit of the legwork for me, I don’t have to read nearly as many back covers or first pages to find what I want to read. (I know, you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover. But it’s darn helpful to have such an easy first gate of judgment.)

This year’s Hugo nominees boasted several good covers that appealed to me. The one I found most intriguing, from a creator’s standpoint, was Feed by Mira Grant.

Feed’s cover is not necessarily an intricate piece of artwork that I could spend hours staring at (A Hundred Thousand Kingdom’s cover is much better suited to that). But as a cover, I don’t know what more you could ask for. It’s so amazingly clever. Part of the cleverness stems from Grant’s genius in titling the book: if you don’t already know, Feed is a novel about a group of bloggers in a post–zombie apocalypse world. So it’s got zombies, who are always trying to feed, and bloggers, who want everyone to subscribe to their feed.

The cover captures this by focusing on only two elements: the title and the RSS feed icon painted in blood. The grungy gray wall in the background communicates the setting—semi–post-apocalyptic and definitely not pretty—and makes the word and icon etched in bright blood a high contrast. They pop, bringing the pun to the forefront. The blood and the grunge, when added to the word feed, evoke zombies in the minds of those in tune with the current cultural obsession with zombies. Adding the RSS icon gives a dash of the unexpected, and the pun becomes relatively sophisticated by virtue of being visual instead of vocal.

Because the cover taps into and combines two current cultural phenomena (zombies and blogs), it catches an audience’s eye and forces them to, at bare minimum, read the back cover to figure out what’s up. It achieves what a cover is meant to achieve: it gets people to want to know about the book. It makes readers stop for a moment before moving on to the next of their plethora of options. Feed stands out on the smorgasbord, and that’s the first thing a book needs when it is released into the market.

As far as the book goes, I greatly enjoyed Feed. It was a blast, and Mira Grant’s zombie-ridden world is detailed and exquisitely thought out. I loved that the zombies were not the story: they were a plot point but they were not the plot itself. Beautiful worldbuilding. My one gripe is that I could never quite believe that the main character had a reputation as a hard-fact news reporter. For a while I thought maybe the character could keep her strong opinions out of her writing, but the blog snippets that were at the end of each section never showed me that. So on that point, my disbelief never really got suspended, but it was a wonderful read in spite of that. It also has what is now one of my favorite sibling relationships in fiction. The main character and her brother are perfect.