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The Thirteenth Hour

The author says:

Let me first start of by thanking all of you for this site. Wish I’d stumbled on it earlier! I’m in the process of updating a cover to a book that is already out and would welcome any feedback.

“The Thirteenth Hour” is a fairy tale about a young man who, through no fault of his own, ends up involved in a quest around the known world to find the secret of eternal life for a narcissistic ruler. Thought it’s not something he’s thrilled about, he continues on the quest alone and without provisions after his team perishes and their ship sinks early in the mission. Along the way, he comes to better understand something about adventure, but more about becoming an adult and his own person.

Creating a suitable cover has been challenging since it’s been a difficult book for me to classify. It has fantasy and sci-fi elements, but hardcore fans of those genres would probably find it lighter. It’s not really young adult (in the publishing sense), since the characters are a little older (late teens-early twenties), but the “new adult” genre seems mostly dominated by romance novels at the moment. So, I have described it as a fairy tale for adults. I was aiming in this cover to have warm colors and a sense of dynamic motion to fit the central image of the main character speeding over the cloudscape while doing a backflip on his hoverboard. But, I let you be the judge of whether that was successful or not.

logan flip clouds_cover small draft2

logan flip clouds_cover small draft2

Nathan says:

Thanks for the kind words — and now you’re probably going to hate me because I’m about to crap all over your cover.

Because it’s just not professional quality. It’s not.  Yes, you have artistic talent, but your work doesn’t show the results of years of learning professional technique.  It looks like the kind of thing that could be pinned up inside a locker, but not something that could compete against other books on Amazon.  The line quality is primitive; the anatomy and perspective is off; the colored pencil work is colorful, yes, but it lacks a dynamic light/dark contrast — if seen in grayscale, it would all be a midrange murk.

On top of that, the choices you made for type are plain wrong.  The typeface is borderline unreadable, and while I understand that you bent the text to run parallel to the hoverboard, but the unfortunate effect is that “The” becomes the most emphasized word in the title.

Name five book titles that you would expect to have a common readership with yours.  Now go to Amazon and look at their covers. That is how your readership expects books to be presented to them — that’s how they expect their books to look.

I really don’t see a way to salvage this.  At best, you could take your version of the cover to a freelance illustrator and say, “Here’s what I was thinking,” and see how that freelancer could adapt your ideas to a professional design.

Other comments? Am I wrong?



        1. Here are some I quickly found on Google Image Search that were great. (I’ll avoid using actual links because they often don’t work properly in blogs and such, so you will need to cut and paste)

          When I look at your work I notice there are too things which would help you improve this piece.

          Contrast: The figure needs to stand out, everything right now is too bright, just make him brighter than the rest.
          Blending: That white pencil crayon needs to be used! Sharpen it up and experiment with some blending. There are a lot of tutorials out there, experiment a bit!

          Good luck!

  1. Your protagonist reminds me of this guy.

    But yeah, unfortunately, there’s not much to salvage here. The concept is great, but the execution needs a do-over. You just have to do digital art or photography for an ebook cover. It seems like this wouldn’t be hard to do with manipulated stock images.

  2. This would be an amazing and intriguing cover if done by a good digital artist. I can just imagine it looking something like this: in terms of quality of artwork. Knowing what you want on your cover is half the job, so you’re halfway there :). The other half now would be to get this concept to a suitable publishing quality.

  3. I don’t want to pile on, but I have to say, this seemed to me to be a child’s or Young Reader’s book–not young adult fantasy. I think it’s skewed in the wrong direction.

    The comments by Nathan cover the artwork itself pretty thoroughly. Sorry I don’t have something better to add.

  4. As the others say, it’s a great concept, but not that great a cover. When I first saw the thumbnail, I actually thought it might be a murder mystery with psychedelic overtones; all I could make out was the upper part of a guy’s body bent over backwards in what looked like a “died with his eyes wide open” pose. Those retina-thrashing fluorescent colors you used so liberally all over this cover would contrast better with a darker and less saturated background than they do with each other now.

    In the end, though, the art criticism is rather a moot point. For any kind of mature science fiction and fantasy, you need something more solid-looking than these line drawings; even the “pseudohumans” we’re always mocking on would be preferable to this “art for a refrigerator” you’ve got right now. I’d even settle for claymation.

    You say you’re not sure which genre the book is. From what you say here and in the book’s summary on, I’d say it’s mainly an action-adventure fantasy with science fiction elements and a little romance thrown in. As Orson Scott Card (who’s written a lot of both science fiction and fantasy) might say, what determines whether it should be classified as science fiction or fantasy is which one it feels like from the beginning. A fantasy is still a fantasy even if you reveal at the end that all the magical stuff actually has a perfectly rational scientific explanation (e.g. the magic powder is made of nanobots, fantastic races come from humans being genetically manipulated, and magic gems are actually miniature supercomputers encased in crystals). Likewise, science fiction is still science fiction even if all the gadgetry is eventually revealed to be running on a bunch of New Age nonsenseoleum and Santa Claus turns out to be real after all near the end. From all descriptions, your book is firmly in the fantasy genre no matter what technology your protagonist may discover in later chapters.

    As to the age group, what determines your target audience there is not so much the age of any of the characters, including the protagonist, but how much sex and violence and other potentially mature subject matter is in it. Obviously, your book is not Game of Thrones “grimdark” material, but not quite Muppets’ Treasure Island family fare either. In terms of movie ratings, maybe it would rank a solid PG-13, which makes it acceptable to a fairly broad late-teens to early-twenties mainstream audience.

    For your purposes, I recommend either a stylized or photo-realistic cover with enough sunshine and cheerful coloring to keep it from having the “torture porn” look of grimdark fare, but enough darker and mistier coloring to keep it from looking like kids’ stuff or psychedelia. A picture of your protagonist sky-surfing is fine for giving your readers an idea of what kind of book this is, but try to make it all look more real. What you’ve got right now isn’t much better than a storyboard for what your actual cover ought to be like.

    1. Thanks for your insights on genre. Do you have any thoughts on what might lend a more fairy tale/ wonder element to s cover – not necessarily this one – just in general?

      1. The distinction between fantasy and science fiction, porous as the border between those two genres has gotten, remains the same as ever. If you can do some currently impossible thing by throwing a switch or crawling into a machine or stepping through an energy field, that’s science fiction. If you can do the very same thing by casting a spell or rubbing a talisman or making a wish, that’s fantasy.

        Worth remembering is that while fairy tales are commonly thought to be for children nowadays, they were originally fantastic tales for adults told by adults to adults. As such, the original versions typically had more sex and violence in them than contemporary retellings and didn’t always have happy endings. In other words, there’s a much greater historical precedent for mature fantasy than a lot of people these days realize.

        How light and soft or dark and edgy any given fantasy of yours is doesn’t change what kind of imagery you should have on the cover, just what kind of color scheme you use and how solid and real the artwork should be. The imagery itself should have something to do with whatever impossible thing your fantasy’s characters will be doing. If it’s about exploring a world full of fantasy creatures or races, obviously you’ll want to show us at least one of these fantastic beings on the cover. If it’s swords-and-sorcery, give us a sword and some sorcery. If it’s about magic and/or miracles, you’ll probably want to give us a glimpse of the wizard/miracle man’s workshop.

        Once you’ve established what kind of imagery you want on your cover, your next task is determined by your target audience: how mature are your intended readers? The younger they are, the lighter, less realistic, and more brightly colored your artwork should be; think in terms of Care Bears and My Little Pony artwork here. Parents usually hate having to watch kids’ shows like that with their kids and even odd peripheral groups of grownup fans like the “bronies” typically have to stay in their closets to watch them; yet for appealing to children, this kind of “sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows” artwork is the right way to go.

        In contrast, the older your target audience is, the darker, more realistic, and more washed-out your colors ought to be. You can still have any kind of imagery that appears in fantasies for children, but it should look as much as possible like you were actually there photographing a live-action version of it, and like the photo-shoot took place on a cloudy day. Sex and violence on the cover (blood splatters, skimpy outfits or outright nudity, etc.) aren’t necessary, but you do have the option of including them.

        Between these two extremes, of course, lie plenty of middling courses. From the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales (not much sex, but twice the violence) to J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic high fantasy novels (some sex, more romance, plenty of violence). This specific novel of yours we’re critiquing here sounds like it’s very nearly dead center (some–but not too much–of each) on that scale. That’s why I say the colors are too bright and the art’s not realistic enough.

        For your future endeavors, here are three examples for each respective level of the child-to-adult scale:

        1. This cover, submitted here at Cover Critics, is obviously for roughly the Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone‘s age of target audience. Note the bright colors and soft-edged painting. Note also that being “unrealistic” doesn’t at all mean the art is bad, just that the artist needs not be too concerned about the architecture and landscape being exactly proportionate. Note further that this is clearly a fantasy even though there’s machinery right there on the cover: the dragon and the medieval architecture make clear that this is a fantasy setting, regardless of what sci-fi elements may come riding in on that mechanical spider.

        2. This cover is more in the middling range. The Last Unicorn and the animated movie made from it are not for children, though they hardly have any objectionable content. The reason I wouldn’t show that movie to my two young nieces (currently 3 and 5 years old) is not that it would necessarily traumatize them or give them any bad ideas, but because they would never be able to sit still for it. Likewise, the book wouldn’t make a very good bedtime story to read them, since they wouldn’t understand very much of it. Note the abstract outline, the articulate line-drawing landscape, and the reasonably colorful (but not glow-in-the-dark bright) palette on this cover. This is the middling kind of style you want for the covers of this book of yours and any others like it.

        3. Finally, we have this cover, should you ever decide to go full Game of Thrones-style grim n’ gritty. Note the sickly-greenish torture porn palette, the photo-realistic artwork, and the medieval arms and armor. While the sex and violence on this cover are actually rather minimal and subtle, we don’t need to see much blood on anyone’s weapons or how scant the mercenary woman protagonist’s outfit may be to know this is an adult fantasy; the coloring and realism do all the work. While I’ve never read this novel and am probably never going to (just as I’ve never watched Game of Thrones and don’t care to read A Song of Ice & Fire), I can guess that this book is probably full of treachery! maiming! murder! war! and maybe blasphemy! perversion! rape! torture! In any case, it’s obviously only for mature readers.

        Incidentally, science fiction works exactly the same way as fantasy in this regard: the only difference is what kind of incredible stuff you put on the cover. Instead of a wizard’s workshop, for instance, a science fiction novel would have a scientist’s laboratory; instead of fantastic creatures in a fairy tale forest, aliens in a bar on a futuristic space station; instead of magical bolts of fire and guys waving wands at each other, energy bolts and guys waving plasma blasters and laser swords at each other. The coloring and level of realism you adjust according to the age of the target audience in exactly the same way: brightly-colored Clone Wars cartoon-style drawings for children, Watchmen movie-style live-action photography with washed-out shadowy colors for adults, painted Star Trek novel artwork for the in-between teens-to-college-age crowd.

        In short, what inspires the sense of wonder is the impossible things portrayed on the cover. What style of art you use to portray these impossible things merely helps prospective readers sort out whether it’s at their preferred reading level or not.

        1. Wow. Thanks for the well written and informative post. I learned a lot. And yes, you are right in your assumption: this book fits neatly into the middle category in your hierarchy – can be read by children but a fair bit will probably go over their heads. Thanks for referring me to the Last Unicorn comic cover – looks like a beautiful volume and a great cover tp learn from.

  5. I think Nathan is being a bit hard on your artwork. While he’s correct about its tightness of line nip and color, I think it’s okay with some minor improvement and attention to detail depending on the feel you’re trying to put across to the reader. If you are looking for a serious feel, then Nathan is right and this type of art is too rough for that I think. However, if you seek a more light-hearted or funky look then such artwork would be OK with some tweaking.

    Now, having said that, I definitely agree with Nathan on the rest. Ultimately, you need to decide how serious an approach you want to take. I have a hunch you’re going to want something more serious which will preclude the use of this cover, but don’t be put off from creating artwork because as one artist to another you have some talent, but unless, as Nathan suggested, you’re willing stand your cover art next to others in the genre on the bookstore shelf or website, then it is indeed time to seek outside talent to create a worthy image.

    Good luck.

    1. Thanks for your tips. You’re right in that this is lighter fare. The illustrations in the interior of the book are drawn in the same comic book style but based on what you guys have suggested here, I think I could clean some up as well. I guess the closest I can think of in comparison to a similar tone of book is some of the stuff Neil Gaiman writes or the Hitchhikers Guide series. I’ll take a look at those covers.

  6. Aside from any problems with the actual rendering, there simply isn’t enough contrast. Just squint at the cover and pretty much everything blends together, with the exception of the dark blue shape of the character’s jacket. You can see the effect of this lack of contrast vividly when the cover is reduced to thumbnail size.

    If you will convert the image to greyscale, you will see exactly what I am talking about. The cover is pretty much the same even grey tone over all, with the exception of the darker grey of the trapezoid in the center and the black type.

    In the same realm of visual readability is the type. There is no need to get quite as fancy as you have…and when you do use a very decorative type it’s usually not a very good idea to distort it even further. As it is, it’s hard to read at full size and almost impossible smaller. The cast shadow just exacerbates this. You need to do something to set the type apart from the background, not aid in blending it in.

    As people have already pointed out, the cover art simply doesn’t look very professional. Which isn’t to say that it’s bad…just that it needs a little more polish. Working on the contrast would help a lot.

    I might add that the mix of traditional media—the cover appears to be almost entirely rendered in pencil—and a few puzzling touches done digitally (whatever those snaky things are supposed to be) comes off as jarring.

  7. Ditto what Waffs said. I read your blog, and I congratulate you on the final cover art. Vast improvement, in terms of what sells in the marketplace. Thanks for following up with us and showing us your final.

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