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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?



  1. The small fish is eating the big one? That’s a good way of showing that your approach is the other way around, but you’ll going to need better fish. A great white versus a piranha, or a barracuda vs king mackerel. Don’t go with just a generic fish, make it a shark. Pick something specific instead of something general (the same rule applies for writing–it always paints a much better picture if you say a “burgundy camaro” than a “red car”, so why not use the same principle here?).

    I’m not sure why, but I’m not liking the fonts much. They’re not bad or inappropriate, but still… I don’t know. Maybe somebody else will know why.

    I’m not sure about the gradient either, but I’d have to see a version with better fish to say for sure.

    1. The fonts are interior book fonts. Not title fonts. They would work great for the inside text, but as a cover they are rather bland.

      For the amount of action that should be on this cover, the fonts are not going to match.

      I do like the idea of a little fish chasing a shark though. Don’t use a piranha, as they are already seen as tough little guys that would tackle a shark.

      1. Yeah, but since this is not fiction, overly “artistic” fonts might be too much. But I guess there’s enough fonts out there to find a nice, serious looking, heavy font that’ll look good on a non-fiction cover.

        As for the fish, it really depends on the message they’re trying to send (maybe the point is to make the reader into a piranha?). It’s not the same having a piranha eat a whale (yes, I know whales are not fish) or a sardine eating a shark. That’s why it’s important to have a particular species of fish to better convey the message. The fishes above give a very vague and unclear message, like, is that fish really supposed to be smaller or was it just an error on the artist’s part? Is it eating a big one because it’s a little beast like a piranha? I don’t really know what to make of it.

  2. Nonfiction business: You want the title to really STAND OUT on the cover, even in the tiniest thumbnail (e.g. browsing on a Paperwhite), and the thumbnail can be even tinier if you advertise with AMS or Goodreads, for exmaple. Nonfiction business books tend to have extremely large title text.

    If the fish are drawn much better (probably a thicker “pencil” outline, too), this may work. Nonfiction business books can show a simple visual concept, with a very large title. The simple visual concept also leaves more room for the text.

  3. Hoooooo, boy.

    Okay. First, the cover has almost zero contrast. As Nathan has so rightly pointed out, this is a marketing instrument. I frequently refer cover-wanters to the blog post by Derek Murphy on Creativindie, “8 Design Secrets that Publishers Use to Manipulate You Into Buying Their Books,” (or a title to that effect), which is the best thing about cover design, for we non-designers, that I’ve ever read. I’ve been trying to say what he says for years, and it’s worth reading. That’s a long intro to “needs CONTRAST,” badly. Read his blog article, and you’ll see what I mean.

    Catie and Waffles are correct about the fonts–they are utterly wrong for a cover, assuming you want it eye-catching. You need something far more robust, so that you can also load that with contrast–say, a deeper stronger yellow, in a strong sans serif, so you can get bang for the buck. You can lighten up on the author name, if you like, even flip over to a serif made for covers, like Augustus, or IMPERATOR Small caps, or ye olden Felix Titling.

    The artwork is not working for me. I really do like the small fish eating the big fish…but I don’t like the badly hand-drawn part. If you’re sticking with the fish, I do think that the ideas already suggested (shark as the larger, something less but very identifiable, depending on what you’re selling–a guppy would be good if that’s the way you’re rolling) are good. I like Nathan’s ideas, with the T-Rex or the Zombies–if it’s lighthearted, those are super ideas.

    The gradient…meh. Again, if you’re working the green as a variant of sea-green/seawater theme, you might consider doing something really identifiable, e.g., a darker ocean fading up into a lighter ocean water, maybe have the wave (?) break at the top of the cover into bright blue sky. That’s probably not quite it, but you get what I mean.

    If you’re not doing the fish, but instead go with something that Nathan or one of the others have suggested, like the Zombies-water cooler, then I’d steer away from the green. If you want to stick with the green, generally, (money?), then look at the green on Ignite Me, on Derek’s blog article. That’s got flare. In fact, you could do worse than to use that shade of green, and those font styles, although you obviously don’t want the fictional feel.

    Hope that helps. Without seeing the interior, in terms of what the book is really about, I can’t know if you ought to go “cuter,” in terms of drawings/art, or more serious, so…flailing a bit here.

    Good luck–bring back your finished piece, so we can see it. 😉

  4. Business guides, alas, don’t tend to make for very exciting reading, which probably explains why so many of the ones I see on have covers as dull as dishwater on them; many don’t even have pictures, just titles, taglines, and bylines in dull fonts against a dull background.

    Whether you’re going for a lighthearted approach or a more serious one, it looks like you’re going for a visceral appeal to the business manager. This being the case, I think you should concentrate on making the cover look more exciting by making it more violent. I mean, “survival of the fittest” (an idea which originates more with Darwin’s cousin Malthus, incidentally; Darwin swiped it from him in order to complete his theory in Origin of Species) brings to mind various violent imagery involving the strong preying on the weak and staining the land with the blood of the vanquished.

    Your rather… minimalist cover above hints at nothing at all so exciting as all that. So far as I can see, it could be younger fish nipping at the fins of his world-weary father. You don’t want to remind your readers of their business troubles and the drab drudgery of their day-to-day lives. Like the desk jockeys in cubicle farms everywhere, you want to make an otherwise dreary subject seem exciting and fulfilling by spicing up descriptions of everything people do in the workplace with violent metaphors. “Don’t shoot the messenger!” “I’ve been putting out fires all day!” “I may have to fall on my sword if this doesn’t work!” That sort of thing.

    To this end, simplicity can work fine for your cover, but not minimalism. Line drawings are fine, but make them crisp and clear and sharp. Also, as my art criticism professor in college would tell you, horizontal lines and arrangements are calm and placid. Vertical lines and arrangements are cozy and confined. What you really want for this cover is diagonal lines and arrangements, which give a picture speed and energy. Your fish should seem to be darting upward or downward at an angle.

    I also disagree with some of my colleagues that a piranha against a shark is too obvious; for simplicity’s sake, being obvious is just fine. In fact, I recommend showing several piranhas swarming against a shark to do battle, just as they do in real life. (Well, they swarm, anyway; they don’t generally live in the same parts of the world as the sharks, though I bet an illegal animal fighting ring could make a mint putting piranhas in the same tank as a shark and inviting spectators to bet on the outcome.) The theme of “lean and mean superior numbers take on lean and mean superior force” is a good violent metaphor for what a lot of what competition in the business world is like.

    Finally, that gradient’s got to go: it’s too clean and neat and obviously machine-generated. Get a more realistic rough and chaotic “plasma” gradient by taking an actual photo from under the sea and blurring it heavily the way I do. For fonts, I’d normally say your boring office fonts would be appropriate for a more mundane business guide cover, but they don’t fit the violent and exciting theme you want for this cover. Go for something from a violent horror movie or action flick instead. Put some slants and slashes into your title and tagline fonts. Save the mundane font for your bylines.

    To give you an idea what I’m recommending, here’s a rough mock-up of what kind of cover I think you ought to use. Don’t use this actual mock-up, since pretty much all of it is stock imagery and the fonts are just a few common horror fonts I happened to have installed on my computer, but consider it a potential inspiration. Notice how I’ve tilted the shark about 45 degrees so that he seems to be struggling to rise from the fray, and how menacing the piranhas look bearing down on him from various diagonals. This is the violent effect you should be trying to achieve.

    1. I’m not sold on the horror fonts, I think Hitch’s suggestions might work better, but I love the artwork. Very dynamic.

  5. Wonderful: Placing pearls at the feet of the unskilled and untutored. There is a lot to digest, follow-up on and try, which we will do, thank you. The crude fish drawing was to capture the style of James Thurber of New Yorker fame. Our intent was indeed whimsical; and we neglected marketing. Part of the challenge is our de-emphasis of strength, power and fighting. The first chapter title is: Small and Coordinated beats Big, Strong and Smart. The thesis is noticing what is important and being quick and able to adapt. We are sending the manuscript to beta readers and will do the same with this and later cover versions to learn what our target wants. What a fantastic world you guys live in and we appreciate you sharing so much with us.

    1. Hmm, maybe your target audience will pick up the James Thurber reference better than we did (or didn’t :)). On the other hand, I believe it’s better to go with your own thing than copy someone else’s (except maybe as a parody). Especially since your book sounds like it has a different approach from all the rest. Be yourselves.

  6. My wife and I think the fish scribbles are cute, almost bad enough to be cool. But yes, also in danger of looking unprofessional.

    The main problem is that there are no benefits. This should be the title:
    The New Darwinian Laws Every Business Must Know
    But it needs a subtitle, like “How to dominate the competition on a micro budget and become the King of your field.”

    I made a couple quick samples here:

    1. Uh-oh, Derek’s here. Now I’m not going to be able to play here any longer, now that the grownups have arrived.

      However, Derek, I admit, I didn’t even see the charm of the hand-drawn fish. Hate to disagree with you, my friend, but…they just don’t blow my skirt up. I like the nibbled-tail, on your mock-up, though! 😉

  7. Dissenting opinion here, because I’m afraid I really like the original. It’s cute/witty, it has that Thurber/New Yorker cachet and what’s more it seems to effortlessly encapsulate the whole philosophy of the book. I don’t think any of the suggested alternatives — sorry Nathan, sorry Derek, sorry RK — achieve any of these things.

    But I agree that the main title could stand some work. A little more weight, a slightly stronger font, maybe left aligned?

    Disclaimer: I am not the intended audience for this book. On the other hand, do actual business managers really read this kind of thing? Perhaps I’m too cynical, but I thought the main target demographic for this genre was fantasists and gung-ho business majors — ie exactly the sort of people to whom this sort of fresh, minimalist cover might appeal.

  8. I’m trying to remember where I read this, but I read somewhere that non-fiction books should appeal to the rational mind whereas fiction needs to appeal to the emotional mind. Given how often I read Derek Murphy’s blog and Joel Friedlander’s blog, it was probably at one of those places. (Oh hey! Derek Murphy’s here now? Okay, my opinion counts for less than ever.)

    This does not appeal to me either emotionally or rationally.

    I think you need a single strong image – I kind of like the idea of comet, honestly – you know, since the prevailing theory is (or used to be) that a comet wiped out the dinosaurs. It would convey a sense of danger – “Hey! Get your business together or you’ll be extinct!” This could make people more likely to pick up the book. It’s also just abstract enough to add interest and intrigue.

    As a disclaimer, I am not a cover designer, just someone who likes books.

  9. It looks like you’re going for a humourous or lighthearted approach to a serious subject. The colors and fonts says “business textbook” but the drawings say “my five year old drew this!”. Thurber’s art was naive, but still had a distinct style to it.

    Anyways, big fish being eaten by little fish is a fairly common visual trope, so there’s a ton of relevant stock art out there, for example this is quite nice:

    Match that with a less fusty title font and you’d be good to go. I threw together an example quick:

    1. Yupperdoodle, see, I think that’s really cute. What I still don’t know, though, is whether or not that’s the vibe that’s desired. But I would be far more likely to pick this book up, than the original.

      OTOH, I’m also reading Philip Mudd’s “The Head Game,” which has The Most Boring Cover EVER. So, what do I know?

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