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First Mystery of the Time Vandal

The author says:

Dr. Elijah Snow wanted to record history, not become a part of it. But after stealing the T714 time-displacement craft from his US Air Force benefactors, he quickly found out that witnessing an event without participating in it was easier than it sounded. Accompanied by his quirky A.I ‘Fuzzy’, Dr. Snow sets out to document many of the major historical occurrences which had always intrigued him. From the Mongol Invasion to the crowning of the Danish king Harald Bluetooth, Elijah does his best to record without getting involved. But invariably he ends up becoming embroiled, time and time again, in these events, never failing to leave his footprint on the pages of history.



Nathan says:

I sometimes have “opposite” days where I think I have a good design concept, and yet everything I do to make it better instead makes it worse, until the only thing left for me to do is scrap it.  This cover reminds me of my output on those days: there may have been a good starting point (“good” meaning “something that caught your imagination”), but a succession of decisions that didn’t seem bad at the time bury it.

From your description, I’m envisioning a novel of obviously wide scope, colorful adventure, and more than a little humor. Unfortunately, I don’t get any of that from your cover.  The only indication of adventure or thrills is the silhouette of the running man, and he’s not central enough to draw the eye, nor specific enough to convey anything.  After reading your description, I can recognize the clock face as meant to convey the time travel element, but clock faces are also used to convey “ticking clock” tension in contemporary thrillers.  The buildings, likewise, are modern, as is the stolid typeface; there’s absolutely nothing here to clue the reader in on the genre, tone, or scope of the novel.

And the color scheme… waaay to murky to draw the eye.

This is a link to the current bestsellers in the Time Travel subgenre on Amazon. (You can refine the sub-subgenre further to Horror,  Humor,  Mystery,  Non-Romantic,  Romantic,  Thriller — and the fact that they have “Non-Romantic” as a specific sub-subgenre fills me with despair for my species.)  Ignore the covers from books by Stephen King and Douglas Adams, since the most important element of those covers is the author’s name.  The rest? These are your comrades, and your competition.  This is how readers of time travel novels expect their novels to look; this is what they look for.  Could your cover attract the positive attention of someone who just read one of these books and wants more?

My advice, cruel as it may seem, is to scrap what you’ve got and start over.  Start with a color scheme, or maybe with a font — those are the things a reader will see first, and they have to be interesting enough that they’ll take a second look.  Build from there.

If that’s beyond your skill set, seeking help from a reasonably-priced professional is your best bet.

Anything feel differently?


  1. I think it looks better as a thumbnail than at full size. There is too much ‘brown’ on the bottom 1/3rd of the cover. Try adjusting the elements so the solid brown area only just covers ‘time vandal’ and hopefully the ‘first mystery of the’ is still visible. Also perhaps change the brown to a greyscale or sepia colour and make the clock red so it stands out as more of a focal point, and the figure bigger. I would use the same font for the author’s name as the title. Not entirely sure the black bar at the top is necessary. I would definitely look at the other books in the genre as Nathan suggests and see if you can come up with any other ideas that could be incorporated to make the genre more identifiable. I quite like the concept of the big clock and the cityscape though.

  2. Also: I didn’t download the image, to double-check this, but to my eye, the dimensions (aspect ratio) looks wrong. It looks a bit too nearly-square. Not 2:3 or even 1:1.6.

    I ditto the comments from Nathan. It’s too murky, and not nearly exciting enough. I think that you REALLY need to amp up the contrast, and bring in a boatload of color. That’s what sci-fi readers expect, and if you plan to deliver a great story to that reading crowd, you need to entice them in with a great cover. FWIW.

  3. The middle third is a nice start on a painting – but for a book cover there is a lot of wasted space. Too much black at the top and too much brown at the bottom. And for a time travel story, why are all the recognizable bits from a very simular time and place?
    – Skyscrapers
    – Modern clock face
    – a hair/clothing outline that can easily be quite modern.

    Nothing at all looks anachronistic!

  4. I like a good time travel yarn as much as anyone, but this cover only vaguely hints at that theme with the clock face in the background. If you want to make a compelling cover, I’d say try taking a few lessons from movie posters on this kind of story. For instance, have a look at the IMDB entry for The Final Countdown (1980), in which an aircraft carrier travels back in time to Pearl Harbor right before the infamous Japanese surprise attack there. Then there’s Time After Time (1979), in which H.G. Wells chases Jack the Ripper across time, and Millennium (1989), in which agents from a hideously polluted future rescue people from the 20th century who were about to die in various accidents in order to repopulate a more distant future.

    Notice something about the posters for each of these films: while the human element isn’t entirely absent (Time After Time has a hand holding a watch, for instance), the emphasis is on the equipment. Your character, according to the description, has stolen a military “time displacement craft” from the Air Force; some kind of time-traveling jet, perhaps? A time travel story with military overtones also has some precedent: it sounds more than a little like Westwood’s Red Alert games with their time-warping chronospheres and chrono-vehicles, which began with Einstein inventing a time machine and going back to erase Hitler from history… leading to some pretty dire consequences, such as Stalin and the Soviet Union being the greatest villains of World War II instead of Hitler and Nazi Germany. The covers on those games might also be a good source for inspiration in drawing your cover.

    My suggestion: showing the protagonist in a montage on your cover is fine, but if you really want to get your potential readers’ attention, try showing a shot/some specs/a digital diagram of the military device he’s using, and if you have any room in the background behind that, show some event from the story that will strike us as visually bizarre. (For Red Alert 2, one such eye-popping event was a shot of the newly rearmed Soviets invading New York which unfortunately got pulled right before the game’s release because it showed the World Trade Center Towers and the game’s release was in October of 2001… Oops.)

    For your story, your description suggests Elijah Snow will manage, despite all his best intentions, to do some real damage to history with the time machine. If so, show us whichever bit of damage he does that produces the most visually interesting result. A Jeff Davis Memorial instead of the Lincoln Memorial? Genghis Khan ruling the world? Everyone in the 19th century suddenly outfitted with technology from the 21st? Whatever it is, if it’s in your story and will make your potential customers do a double take, that’s what you should put on your cover.

    (One last example from an actual book cover: Hitler Victorious, which shows Hitler and an adoring crowd in front of… the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. Wait, what!? That’s the kind of reaction you want from your reader.)

    1. Yes, I was also going to suggest looking at the Time After Time poster, as I have that framed in my office!

  5. It works great as a thumbnail but tends to fall apart when seen larger. I don’t have a lot of problems with the color or overall design: it has a very 30s look to it….which might be appropriate for a time travel book. I would nevertheless suggest replacing brown and grey with alternative colors to see what they might look like. The figure, which is easy to recognize at thumbnail size, needs to be made a little clearer so it reads equally well large. I might also suggest reducing “First Mystery of” so it isn’t so prominent. At the moment it appears to be part of the title.

  6. Hi Nathan and everyone,

    Wow thanks so much for all the feedback! I sent this off to be critiqued and then headed to Croatia for a holiday, neglecting to take the link to this site with me.

    When I returned home yesterday and saw all the comments, I was much gratified to see the time everyone took to chime in with their opinions and help me make the cover better.

    I will go over it all this afternoon and get to work on either fixing this design or scrapping it and starting over. I’ll check back in when I have something new.

    Thanks again, everyone.


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