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Month – April 2015

Trial by Fire

The author says:

Trial by Fire is the first of three contemporary fantasy novels, also known as the Road Trilogy. In a world of swords, steam and sorcery, powerful individuals known as adventurers roam the lands. Some of these have become stone-hearted mercenaries, holding nothing more sacred than the gold in their pockets. Some adventurers have taken a darker path, sowing pain, strife and discord for their own nefarious ends. Amidst these are the adventurers of heroic renown, giving their all to make their world a better place. This is the story of one of the greatest adventurers ever to walk the Road.


With the soil atop his father’s grave still fresh, Virgil Irons now stands alone, preparing to step out on the Road. Intending to be an adventurer like his father – the famous and revered fist-fighter Rufus Irons – he must deal with the pressures of his lineage, the expectations of his peers, and somehow carve out a life for himself. Virgil is a deadly foe, but it will take more than a quick fist to survive on the Road. First he must hone his skills at the secretive Duskshield Academy, a training ground for adventurers, under the expert tutelage of those who have walked the Road and lived to tell the tale. Virgil and his companions, Monty and Ari, are hurled into a dangerous world that they are not ready for, and that none of them fully understand. Fear and mistrust are rife and the three young initiates will need every ounce of training – and each other – if they are to survive.


The story should hopefully appeal to anyone who loves JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books, as well as the Dark Tower series by Stephen King, and is also inspired by D&D and traditional fantasy, with a gritty edge. I’d like to think it’d appeal to those in the young adult category and upwards, though writing for an audience is something I’m yet to master – I kinda just write what I want to write. Thanks in advance for the critiques!

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000026_00042]

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000026_00042]


Nathan says:

You’ve got a good, strong fantasy-appropriate color scheme. A lot of people don’t understand how important that is, but color is the FIRST thing people will see — before text, before any specifics in the images.

Now, after we get past the colors, I see a couple of problems (or, if you prefer, “opportunities”).

First: As colorful as the flame texture to the title is, it’s still hard to read because of lack of contrast.  Look at the thumbnail: The byline is more easily read, despite being at a smaller character size.

Second: The bracers are… well, bracers.  They’re just kind of there.  Even if bracers figure in the story prominently, they’re just a thing on the cover.  They don’t tell the reader anything except “yup, medieval stuff.”  They’re nice and all, but…

Anyone think otherwise?

A Dodge, a Twist and a Tobacconist

The author says:

This story teams up better and lesser-known literary characters in Steampunk alt-Victorian London. They seek to uncover and overthrow a rising slave empire setting England on its ear and threatening to turn the social order on its ear. From the Indian jungles to the New England countryside they come to end a nightmare of disappearing souls. Lovers of Victorian Literature and movies like the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and recent Sherlock Holmes movies will enjoy this airship ride to adventure.

new font dodge 25

new font dodge 25

Nathan says:

it’s certainly got the Victorian/Steampunk vibe going on!

A few things:

– While the way you’ve arranged the words in the title is clever, it crosses the line into making it difficult to decipher. The eye naturally flows from “Dodge” to “Twist,” then has to go back to catch the “a” before “Twist.” The same thing happens with “Tabacconist” — the “a” gets left out.

– Even with the filters on the main image, it’s pretty apparent that it’s a touched-up digital picture. Filter harder!

– At thumbnail size, most of the image elements that say “steampunk” get lost.  We see the face, but not the hat lost behind the type, and the Victorianity (is that a word?) of the type is less recognizable. What can you do to make the genre more immediately identifiable from the thumbnail?

– Given that the face is one we (presumably) aren’t expected to recognize, you could reduce the space the head takes up, leaving you more room to space out the words of the title and make it more readable. Just a thought.

– The readability of the byline fades out in the middle (because of the gentleman’s white shirt behind it). If you’re not moving things around on the cover, then I think the byline needs more of a border or outline.

Other thoughts?

The Party Line

The author says:

Attached please find the cover of my YA thriller THE PARTY LINE, about a young American girl in midst of Iranian Revolution. I designed cover with a little help from a desk top artist at CreateSpace.



Nathan says:

I like it.

(What, you were expecting more than that? Fine.)

If I were looking to improve this cover, I would say that the contrast is a little dull.  If the thumbnail were displayed alongside several others (such as it is commonly on Amazon and other sites), I don’t know if it would catch the eye long enough for the viewer even to notice the interesting elements. I’m not saying to make it stark and saturated, but a little more bright and dark couldn’t hurt.

Other than that, I think it looks fine. Anyone disagree?

Aurum: The Screams of Decompose

The author says:

The book is science fiction/fantasy. The head is a dragon, the gold dragon, with tendrils of hair. I considered darkening the two men into black silhouettes. What feel do you get from the two men? I don’t want people to shy away from the book because they think it’s an erotica. Also, please keep in mind that I can easily go darker but not lighter in making corrections.




Nathan says:

Okay. This is gonna sound like a whole heaping pile of cruelty, but please understand that everyone here wants your book to get the best support it can from its cover. We speak of book cover design, because the word “design” explicitly denotes a goal or purpose, which in this case is to attract the attention of the readers who would enjoy the book. Anything which accomplishes that goal is a good cover design; anything which detracts or distracts from accomplishing that goal is bad cover design, no matter the intent, the artistic technique, or the resonance which images on the cover have to the story.

Take a look at your cover at thumbnail size, which is the size at which most potential readers will encounter it.  Most of it is gray; there are no strong contrasts, nor any color except in the border, where it doesn’t call attention to anything important, or in the type, which at that size is an undifferentiated blur.  Not that every word of the title needs to be legible at thumbnail size, but the type should be distinct enough that the reader can at least grasp the character of the font.

Although, in this case, the font is a poor choice.  The two brush scripts used here clash with each other, and neither evokes the majesty one should feel when dragons, unicorns, etc. are involved.  The subtitle font, especially, has a very casual feel to it — definitely not what you’re trying to convey.  And the gradients, rather than make the type more dynamic, instead simply makes it harder to read.

The font chosen for the byline has a different problem: The more unusual the author’s name, the more readable the type needs to be. (Trust me. My name is “Nathan Shumate.” I’ve learned.) Because of the uniformity of ALL CAPS, and the lack of a period after “R,” your name comes across as NINARSCHLUNTZ.

And now the artwork. Man, you’re going to think I’m the biggest butthole on the planet for this but: It’s not of professional quality. It just isn’t.  Look at a professionally produced fantasy book, even one with a black-and-white illustration, and look at the difference. Aside from line quality and technique, there are huge layout problems.  There doesn’t seem to be a focus; a bunch of random objects and people are assembled with no indication of how they relate to each other.  The dragon’s head is central, but as a mass of gray it competes with the bright gradients in the title, and the overlapping heads from the bottom rob it of the visual weight it would hold if it were isolated toward the center.  The heads at the bottom, meanwhile, are shifted over toward the right of the space, but not enough so that it seems like a deliberate design choice.

(By the way, to answer your concern — which I think is the least of your concerns here — if you want to show two men facing each other without it seeming like gay erotica, make sure that a) they are standing directly opposite each other in a confrontational position, not half-turned like the figure on the left is, and b) their eyes are on the level with each other. That posture conveys nothing but aggression. See the posters for Stallone’s movie Demolition Man to see how this works.)

And finally, a word about your subtitle: “The Screams of Decompose” doesn’t make sense in English.  Maybe in your story, you establish that “decompose” is a noun in your fantasy world, but the first impression it gives to potential readers is of misused English — and seeing misused English on the cover is never a draw.

So.  Now that you think I’m the most heinous person that a mother ever shat out upon the world, what advice can I give you? What “salvage” is there?

1) Decide FIRST what you want your cover to look like at thumbnail size.  What colors? How much contrast?  How much real estate will the type take up, and how will it be distinct from the other elements?

2) Pick a SINGLE image element to dominate the cover. I’m not saying that the cover can only contain one image (although that’s certainly an option), but only one can dominate.  The men facing each other? (That’s a single element.) The dragon? Whatever it is, sketch out your cover to put that element front and center.  Anything that distracts the viewer from realizing that the central element is the most important needs to fade into the background, or disappear entirely.

3) Redo the art. Yes, I know, I’m sorry, but you need to.  Right now it’s detrimental rather than beneficial to your book.  Remember that: The cover exists to serve the book, not for its own sake. If it isn’t helping the book, it needs to go.  (I say this as someone who has slaved long and hard over a design that I finally finished and then, the next morning, realized I had to jettison because it didn’t do what it needed to. It sucks, but it happens.)

I will note that fantasy novels are, by my unscientific estimation, the genre in which you would most expect to see fully realized custom cover art — which means that fantasy readers are most used to seeing fully realized cover art instead of stock images, clever type, etc.  But on the other hand, a professional looking cover which was nothing but readable type readable both in terms of what the text says and what the specific font conveys) over an evocative texture does more for the book’s appeal than far more ambitious cover artwork which falls visibly short of its ambitions.

All right, Big Bad Nathan has said his piece. Anyone else have something to add?

Mea Culpa: Bounced emails

Lordy, lordy.  I just got a metric crapload of error messages from my host’s email server (why it decided to dump them all today, I don’t know), notifications that messages sent to me from the contact form here were bounced back from my gmail account.  That means that ALL of these people sent covers for criticism, and I never got them. YEARGH.

Not only that, because the error messages are text-only, I still don’t have the actual covers, so I can’t belatedly throw them in the hopper.  My only recourse is to email back the original submitters, explain the problem, and have them resend directly to my email address.

If you’re someone who’s been waiting for your own cover to show up here, I can only point my fingers to our robot overlords and shrug apologetically.

Survival of the Fittest

[Edit: The first cover I had here was sent to me in error; the better cover is below.  Comments are pretty much the same.]

The authors say:

A book for business owners or managers which presents an unusual approach to the dog-eat-dog mentality. One chapter is how to avoid creating zombie employees, another that the leadership structure shouldn’t be top down but more like the flexibility of an amoeba. We hope the cover suggests a different and better approach to making a profit and developing people.




Nathan says:

I always like to start my critique by commenting on what’s already there, but… there isn’t much there.  This is the kind of cover you might use for a captive audience — a textbook, maybe, for a class taught by the authors — but it’s definitely not a marketing instrument, which is what a commercial cover should be.

You use plenty of interesting metaphors and references in your title, subtitle and description: “survival of the fittest,” “Darwinian,” “dog-eat-dog,” “zombie,” “amoeba.”  I don’t know how light or colloquial the actual text is, but if it matches the images those words put into my head, then you could definitely have fun with this. Have a T-Rex wearing a conservative tie and holding an iPad! Zombies around the water cooler! An amoeba with black-rimmed glasses and a pocket protector!  Yes, this is custom art we’re talking about, but given that it lends itself well to cartoonish line drawings, I think you could wave a couple hundred dollars in front of a webcartoonist like Carter Reid or David Malki and get something that just oozes with awesome.

If, on the other hand, you’ve got a more serious book behind this cover — punctuated by some interesting metaphors, but not as lighthearted as I assumed above — then you could still bring those metaphors to the cover.  A solid, dependable font like Trajan, surrounding a posterized silhouette of a T-Rex, would still give enough of an eye-catching appeal while not misleading readers on the tone of the book inside.

(Why a T-Rex, and not just better versions of the fish you have? Well, which do you think is more attention-grabbing? I thought so.)

What do other people think?


Patchwork Brothers: Bandits in Burlap

The author says:

This is a super early draft cover, but I’m drawing a complete blank. It’s for a kids chapter book about a mysterious quilt that takes a pair of brothers back to the wild west. They have to face off with outlaws and skeptical lawmen to find a way back home. I’m drawing a blank at balancing the handmade “quilty” elements with the rough and tumble nature of the two protagonists. I ended up with a fantastic cover from last book’s critique so bring it on, I can take it.

Patchwork Roughest Draft.JPG

Patchwork Roughest Draft.JPG


Nathan says:

Yowch. I’m glad you said you can take it, because you’re gonna get it with this one. But at least you admit that you’re drawing a blank.

I think you need to go to the bookstore or library and take a good look at the popular chapter books.  Here are the things I see as being common elements:

  • Colorful artwork with semi-cartoony exaggeration.
  • Characters that young readers can instantly identify as relatable protagonists.
  • Type that’s bold and sometimes fancy, but always readable for people who haven’t mastered (and may never HAVE to master) cursive script.

Now, what I’m about to suggest may be beyond your skillset, but you do what’s necessary to market the book:

If you want to keep the quilt motif, let it be the WHOLE cover. Make the individual quilt squares big enough that you can show the protagonists themselves in the squares in a scene from the book, or at least a situation indicative of the story (maybe have two or three squares which are all part of the same image, even though they’re separated).  Render the quilt in deep enough colors that you can use bordered light type for the title and byline and have it stand out.

Marketing to young readers is a specialized skill, in your target audience isn’t going to “get” subtleties of typeface, color scheme, etc., which designers for adult books can often rely on in place of a full illustration.  You very well might need to partner with a professional illustrator to get it how you want it.  (I actually know someone with reasonable rates who might just be the person for you — let me know if you’re interested.)

Other insights?

The Queen’s Viper

The author says:

Hatred prowls the streets of London, and her name is Viper. Ancient and wicked, Viper feeds on human aeir, the magical energy that connects people to everything. She discovered the unique power of Princess Elizabeth’s aeir by accident. Viper put Elizabeth on the English throne to sustain herself and find her past. When Viper uncovered her kin, she discovered an enemy with enough power to trap her for 400 years. In 2012, something releases her from her bonds. Aided by her Foundling, Mouse, and a group of humans selected by him, Viper seeks revenge on her foe and the descendants of those who imprisoned her…starting with Queen Elizabeth II. Lesley Donaldson’s re-imagines Celtic mythology into an urban fantasy unlike any fairy tale you’ve read before.

Queen's Viper first draft cover

Queen's Viper first draft cover

Nathan says:

I like the file name of the image you sent me: “Queen’s Viper first draft cover.jpg.”  First drafts are great for throwing ideas out and seeing how they stick.

My first observation is that the art is a little shaky — not terrible, but definitely less than confident. (I’m speaking here from experience — I can turn out a sketch that looks great, but when I go back to finish the details, I get stuck on the nostrils and the lips and having the two eyes match, all the same trouble areas I see here.)  Unfortunately, the white space around it means that the face has to carry the entire cover, and it’s just not up to it.

White space is its own problem.  A lot of books, especially “grimdark” fantasy novels, have put it to good use recently, but it does bring its own particular problems. You’ll notice that most of the books using a white background (a) have high-contrast, almost chiaroscuro artwork, and (a) use asymmetrical layout to keep it visually interesting. Unfortunately, yours does neither — the white space comes across as simply unused, rather than an intentional part of the design.

My suggestion, if you’re going to stick with the same artwork (even if it’s refined): Put the face to one side, making it less symmetrical, and let the type carry more of the weight of communication: make it not only bigger, but more evocative.

Other ideas?

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