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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?


  1. Not a whole lot I can add to what Nathan has said.

    To reiterate a few points, however:
    There is no need for the color border.
    The font choices are not very good.
    You are trying to include too many elements from the story in one image, with the result that no one of them really stands out.
    I also think that you are including things that are meaningful to you because you know the story, but will not be as significant to the newcomer. This may solve the problem of the two men since you could easily delete them.
    If the dragon is supposed to be gold, why not make it that way?
    The pointillist technique doesn’t work very well at all.

    My strongest suggestion would be that you get someone experienced to create your cover for you.

  2. Nathan, you would only be the biggest butthole in the planet if you didn’t tell the truth. Everything you said, needed to be said.

    I am sorry Nina, but I am going to agree with everything Nathan said. Here are a few more points.

    Those two guys are going to kiss. That is what their pose is saying. Even the angry eyes of the one on the right do not help sell anything but the fact that they are going to kiss.

    Pointillism is a tricky medium to work with. If not done expertly it quickly becomes muddled and lacking in contrast. There is barely any contrast in this, you can barely make out important details. I can hardly see the dragon’s teeth, the whiskers, and the faces. To make matters worse you have lines in the pointillism, which completely destroys the effect of pointillism. Even if this was an amazing pointillism, I still don’t think it would be right for a fantasy book cover. A book about a tea party maybe, not a book about dragons, unicorns, and fighters.

    The Gold Dragons in Dungeons and Dragons are famously the dragons that have long tendril whiskers of hair that look pretty much exactly like that. I am not saying that Dungeons and Dragons invented whiskers on dragons, I know that oriental dragons are famous for them as well (as that is what they based it off of) but I think it would be a safe bet that many people who would read a book about fantasy dragons knows this dragon fact. The first thing I thought when I saw that dragon was “This is a licensed D&D novel?”

    That dark unicorn and the caped figure are gigantic. Given the fact that the unicorn is on the horizon it would be thousands of feet tall! Ditch the horizon at the very least if you have a layout like this.

    I know it is hard, but I think you need to scrap this as Nathan said and start over. Like Nathan, I had a cover and I was 20 hours into. It was a custom painted fantasy book cover. Then one day I opened the file excited to paint more and I just knew that it was completely wrong for my book and I scrapped it and started over (it would still make a good banner stand though).

    Here are some tips I think would help:

    This looks like it should have a ‘movie’ poster vibe to it. The concept of martial artists with dragons just feels to me like a movie poster. I suggest looking at a few to get the dynamic impact they can have in your mind.

    For your name pick a professional looking serif font. Increase the kerning (letter spacing) by far more than necessary (200% or more) and make it all in caps (or even with some small caps). This will make your name look very much like it is from a movie.

    Lastly, this needs contrast desperately. Check out the movie poster for ‘Brave’. That is some insane good ‘page popping’.

    Good luck!

  3. It’s just… not professional, not competent, not effective. Sorry. I don’t think it can be improved upon or there even is really anything to use as a starting point. I think rather than trying to redesign it, it might be a better idea to hire the services of someone with a proven track record at designing covers. It will pay dividends in the long run. There’s no shame in using a professional.

  4. I cannot add much constructive input here beyond agreeing with Nathan’s points and to reiterate the need for a nearly complete redesign, including the subtitle, which really threw me with its English usage. On first glance, it has the look of an academic work that is more about satisfying some personal literary goal than a financial success, and I assume the author seeks the latter more than the former.

    Finally, as an artist myself, I sense the creator has the skill to produce the image(s) needed, but must focus less on what the writer wants to see and more on the expectations on that genre’s readership. Perhaps asking those who have read the manuscript for their vision of what the cover should look like to get some ideas?

    Best of luck and I look forward to seeing another iteration.

  5. Um, wow. I wouldn’t exactly say that’s “a whole heaping pile of cruelty” you were getting from Nathan there, since he’s pretty tactful, but I will say that’s got to be the longest review I’ve ever seen him give a cover on here. Usually, we only see a wall of text like that down here in the comments. Rather than go over his critique of your cover point by point, which would take hours, I’ll just do my own critique.

    For starters, when I saw your cover without reading your description, my first impression was that this was a cover for some kind of Asian martial arts story. You say your story is in the “science fiction/fantasy” genre? Well, I suppose some of the martial arts movies I’ve seen might fall into those categories as well, but what the theme of your cover suggests to me first and foremost is martial arts, not science fiction or fantasy. The unicorn and the guy with the scimitar in the background do suggest some mixing of the mythologies, but on the whole there’s nothing that would be out of place in a Kung Fu movie with a dash of mysticism in it. Unless that’s the impression you’re trying to give your readers, I’d suggest scrapping this cover and starting over on this basis alone: nothing about it really says “science fiction/fantasy” to me.

    As for your description… it’s not telling us much about what you’re trying to accomplish here. Neither is your cover: I’d be hard pressed to imagine what role the dragon, the two Asian-looking guys, the guy with the scimitar (or is that a gal?), and the unicorn play in this book, or what the general plot of the story is. It’s all just random imagery to me, and that monochrome isn’t helping either; if the dragon is supposed to be a gold dragon, why not draw this cover in color so you can show us that it’s a gold dragon instead of having to tell us? Better yet, given that the art quality would earn it an “art for a refrigerator” tag on Lousy Book Covers, why not have a pro draw the cover for you instead?

    Again, you didn’t say much of anything about the plot of this story, which leaves us only your title and the seemingly random assortment of pictures on the cover as a basis to guess the cover’s intended concept. You worry about the pose of the two guys making everyone think it’s an erotica; while this is indeed the least of your troubles, their pose and the expression on their faces does very much suggest a belligerent sexual tension in the air between them thick enough to cut with a knife, and that they’re about to tonsil-diving on each other. Since you said that’s the very impression you were trying to avoid, that’s another good reason to scrap this cover and start over with something completely different, preferably done by a pro.

    Speaking of the titling, that font does actually look a bit appropriate if this is a story based on Asian mythology, but you’ve got major layout woes there: while it’s fine for the main title to be all caps, the sub-title should definitely have, at most, only the first letter of each word capitalized. As for the wording of the sub-title… am I right in thinking English isn’t your first language? “The Screams of Decompose” has the ring of what we here in America mockingly call “Engrish” to it. “All your base are belong to us” is an internet meme for a good reason. You do not want your book remembered as another unintentionally hilarious tome like English As She Is Spoke.

    If you are indeed speaking English as a second language, I strongly recommend that in addition to scrapping the cover and starting over with something professionally drawn, you write the book and its title in your first language (whatever that may be) and get a professional translator who’s a native speaker of English to translate them both. English being such a cosmopolitan language, its variability and flexibility mean almost anything can be successfully translated into it, including colloquial and pidgin versions of other languages, but only by native speakers. The Screams of Decompose fairly screams to those of us in your English-speaking audience that whatever else you may be, you are not even remotely such a native speaker.

    We can tell you this nicely or we can tell you nastily, but either way, any number of “corrections” are not going to make this a viable cover. You need to scrap the whole thing and start over, and that’s all.

  6. Having read parts of what I assume is the first book (Twilight of One: the Plague of Decompose) I will say that the subtitle Screams of Decompose isn’t Engrish, but until one has started reading the book, that is how it sounds. On the one hand, the only reason I even read the available parts of the book was because I expected Engrish and wanted a laugh — turns out that the author’s English is quite competent. On the other hand, a lot of people will not read the story because the subtitle seems like poorly composed English. I would really, really encourage dropping the subtitles.

    As Waffles said, this needs a movie poster type of cover, not this.

    1. Looking up the book Tia mentioned on, and then the author, I just realized something else: this book cover is modeled after another one that managed to land itself on Lousy Book Covers. In addition to my initial advice, given in ignorance that this book was part of a series (hence my thinking the title was Engrish), I offer two more bits of advice:

      1) Do something to let us know this is part of a series about someone or something called Decompose.

      2) Instead of modeling the cover after Amaranthine, which was definitely not your finest hour as a cover artist, try something more like your Twilight Trinity or Twilight Son covers. Those covers have more of what you need for this series: vividly colored shots of stars and planets and winged reptilians that suggest this is a story about dragons… IN SPACE! (An odd premise? Yes. A bad premise? No. A crossover between Star Trek and Dungeons & Dragons, bizarre as it seems, could connect with its readers if it had enough clever writing.)

      3) Redo Amaranthine‘s cover to be more like those other covers as well; preferably without the photobombing Santa Claus on his sled, unless he’s actually in that story. (If he is… well, render him on his sled in full color, and put him IN SPACE along with those dragons from the cover of Twilight Trinity.)

  7. Let’s see if I can give you some art feedback beyond “scrap it.”

    First: This is a scan or photo of a pen drawing, yes? Unless you’re working with professional-grade supplies, it’s hard to make analog art work in a digital format. For instance, your background should be white, but it’s gray and non-uniform. Switching to digital will make it much easier to produce a professional-looking cover. (Rotoscoping a pencil drawing is totally OK.)

    Second: Seriously, use color. It grabs the eye, creates a more engaging composition, and (bonus) distracts from any small mistakes.

    Third: I highly doubt pointillism has a place on any book not about pointillism, but it’s particularly ill-used here. You’re not even using it to create subtleties of color or shading; you’re mostly just using it to make flat shades of gray! Lose it and use conventional coloring.

    Fourth: Generally, I think you’ve got a good grasp of anatomy and proportion, so I think you’re capable of drawing the artwork for this cover. Do keep an eye on small details like giving the dragon’s whiskers uniform thickness and naturalistic curvature.

    Fifth: As others have mentioned, your big weakness is composition. This artwork has no focal point and doesn’t “add up” to anything. What reaction is this cover supposed to evoke? Make sure the main element inspires that reaction, and all the other elements support it.

    Sixth: Unfortunately, I don’t think you can keep any of the elements from this cover, even if you digitally ink and color them, because they lack dynamism and don’t evoke anything (see previous point). The poses are too generic: Holding a sword, running, just sitting there in the case of the dragon. Give the image dynamism by making all the elements doing things and supporting each other. (The easiest way to do this is to illustrate a single scene rather than a collection of elements.)

    Sixth: If you want to avoid slash connotations with the pair of guys, don’t make one of them topless and the other with his shirt open. The bashful downward gaze and full lips aren’t helping, either.

  8. Yes, “Decompose” is a noun in my book. It is the name of the main character. I guess I should have put more of a synopsis when I posted the description. Readers are unlikely to be confused because this is explained on the back cover blurb.

    This is a second book in a series. The cover on the first is also in pointillism. So… my question now is, should I redo that cover as well? Since the consensus seems to be against using that medium. You can view the cover at the link below.

    I figure the books should have similar covers, so its either both be in this style or neither, right?

    1. Yeah, that one needs to be redone too. The composition is better, so if you lose the Santa and probably the planet, you could use it as a sketch to rotoscope. But otherwise, all the critiques you’ve been getting here still apply.

      The thing about titles is they’re not for people who already know what it’s about, they’re for people who don’t know what it’s about. No matter how much sense it makes once you read the book, a title that sounds like word salad won’t sell the book in the first place. It’s not fulfilling its basic function.

      Even forgetting about the Decompose issue, your titles are just “Made-Up Word: the Noun of Proper Noun,” which doesn’t give me the faintest clue what these stories are about.

    2. The story summary sounds crazy interesting – the covers just don’t do it justice. Both of them should probably be redone, yes. Right now they just don’t look professional, and people tend to veer away from what looks like a vanity publication based on the cover art.

    3. Hi:

      Readers are unlikely to be confused because this is explained on the back cover blurb.

      Yes, but you’ve made a big assumption there–that they’ll overlook what appears to be “Engrish” on the cover, and go through that to the description. (A blurb is what someone else gives you, praise, or comment, which you cite on the cover, e.g., if Stephen King said he read your book and it was fantabulous, you’d put that on your cover as a blurb or in the Reviews/Editorial.)

      That’s a bit of a fatal assumption. The cover badly needs redoing, to start with. If someone clicks through that cover, to get to your book page, on Amazon, they’ll likely read the description, anyway. Your challenge–the part you are not seeing–is getting them to that book page in the first place. And neither of those covers will do that.

      Firstly, a comment I haven’t seen in the thread, although it might be here: I strongly urge you to lose the Unicorn, unless it’s drawn by a pro. There is something about not-professionally-drawn horses (and, for what it’s worth, other domestic animals prone to being sketched by young girls) that makes the cover look a lot less professional than it ought.

      The dragon, however–I personally think that if you redo the dragon and give him color, you can get away with that. Unlike real live horses, dragons can be whatever you want, and nobody can say “oh, wait, no, the canons on a REAL dragon wouldn’t….” if you see what I mean. In fact, I see the dragon head and the Bedouin-type figure as the best items on the cover, and I’d use those, or redrawn versions of them, rather, and lose everything else. The two proto-humans, the unicorn/horse–lose those.

      All the other advice you’ve received is solid. Go for color, go for contrast. I agree that you should consider professional artwork in your genre. If you can’t afford the regular pros, rummage around at DeviantArt and find a less-polished artist to work with you. (N.B.: that doesn’t make them cheap, mind you, but cheap-er.)

      Best of luck to you.

    4. I vote that neither be in this style. Again, you had a pretty good thing going with the covers of Twilight Trinity and Twilight Son in the series, so try continuing that style. Whether this is a continuation of the series or a spinoff, you ought to go with that style for all of your covers.

  9. Nathan:

    Can you please fix the quote? I endeavored to put this:

    Readers are unlikely to be confused because this is explained on the back cover blurb.

    inside the quote. If you’d be so kind? (I really, really loathe this commenting software, whatever it is….)


  10. Really? Is that q cite supposed to be inside the blockquote, is that the thing? So that the singular q cite is wrapped inside the opening and closing blockquote tags?? Or…?

    I guess I hang out at fewer WP sites than I thought. Hmph. Actually, I guess in thinking about it, this is one of the very few “blog” sites I visit at all (which goes a very long way to explaining my own site’s dearth of inbound links), so…whadda I know? I do like Disqus, though, which I think I’ve only said a billionty times, so feel free to ignore me for the billonty-first time. 😀

    Amended to add: I like Disqus as a commenter. I really don’t love it as the owner of a website; managing it is less awesome than it ought to be.

    Lastly, thanks for fixing the quote. I honestly don’t think I could live any longer without my daily dose of LBC and CC.C. Between you and Cakewrecks (and the book agent guy, can’t think of his site, and, I’d have a hard time getting up to face the day in the a.m. THANKS!

  11. Aw, shucks. *blushes*

    And it’s just simple HTML: {blockquote}quoted material{/blockquote}, with the curly brackets standing in for the carets.

  12. OK, but, then, what’s the q cite HTML that’s shown below the comment box? (Don’t blush, it’s just NOT the right shade of red for that complexion, laddie!)


    1. I don’t know why they even bother to include that in the standard footer — it basically adds quotation marks. (I suppose you could use custom CSS to format a cited text differently from text in quotation marks, but it’s not really a concern in blog comments.) And blockquote is all you need:

      This is an example of text enclosed in the blockquote tags.

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