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Ossie & The Babe

The author says:

My book is the true story of a quest spread over many years. I was given a vintage baseball photograph, and found it arresting in its stark simplicity and the intensity of its action. Two players occupy the foreground: a runner identified as Babe Ruth is sliding hard into third base, while an unidentified infielder crouches to apply a tag. Questions sprang to mind at once. Who was the infielder? Where was the game played and when? Why were the distant left-field bleachers nearly empty, if that’s Babe Ruth? Was Babe going to be safe or out? A longtime fan but a novice to baseball research, I set out to crack the photo’s mysteries. A few answers came easily, but others were more elusive. Out of thousands of old baseball photos, this one turned out to be one of a handful that have defied full identification even by dedicated experts. As so often happens, there were unforeseen complications and surprising revelations; there were side trails to follow and broader contexts to explore. Embracing all these has enriched the experience and has helped to elucidate why baseball occupies a special place in the fabric of North American society.

Ossie & The Babe front cover

Ossie & The Babe front cover

Nathan says:

Kinda nice when the subject of your book is an image, isn’t it?  You go into the design process knowing what you have to work with, at least.

Not having seen what the rest of the photo looks like, my first recommendation depends a lot on factors I can’t know, but I’m wondering if shifting the image right so that the player on the left is a little more visible (and a little more instantly recognized as a baseball player) might be a good strategy.

I also understand that blowing up an original photo is going to give you a fuzzy image — the problem is that we’ve seen so many fuzzy images without that rationale (i.e., people just not knowing how to process an image) that I fear some readers will just assume that it’s a poor image choice.  Are there any texture or flaws to the original image — scratches, dust motes, etc. — that would show more clearly that what we’re looking at is an enlargement of a historical photo, and further show that this is a faithful reproduction of a blurry-at-that-size photograph?  Does the original photo have any tinting, or any yellowing from age?  I think that should be included, rather than bleached out.  Shucks, even if the original image doesn’t have any tinting, I think it would be okay to “cheat” a bit and add a light sepia tone.

I like the font for the title, but I don’t know that the color scheme works.  On a black-and-white Kindle or Nook, the title is going to wash out into the gray background.  I’d play around with making “OSSIE &” darker and “THE BABE” lighter so they stand out better against their respective backgrounds.

And finally, I really don’t like the font for your subtitle.  You should keep with the theme of period typefaces; look back on some advertising of the period — especially sports advertising — and use that as inspiration to pick another font.  Or go for a good handwritten font; it would add the connotation that this is a personal quest.

Other ideas?



  1. The highest quality version of the photograph you’re examining that I could find online was this one. Granted, I can’t entirely blame you for wanting to crop it a bit, considering its subjects being off-center, but I think you’ve closed in far too much. I’ll also concede that the full photograph of Ruth and the unnamed infielder actually looks as if it’s been stretched horizontally; unfortunately, reality being unrealistic, we cover critics are probably just going to have to live with that.

    These concessions granted, there’s still plenty of room for improvement on this cover. As mentioned, you’ve pulled in and cropped the picture far closer than necessary; in the thumbnail, not knowing much about baseball history or recognizing the “famous” photograph, I couldn’t make much sense of the blobby tangle of limbs. According to my assessment of the original photograph, your 2:3 cover ratio provides plenty of room to pull back and give us a fuller look at these two fellows. Pulling back would also give your prospective readers a good look at how empty those stands behind them are, an important part of the mystery you examine in your novel. (Was this shot from a practice session? Was Babe Ruth’s team having a bad season? Find out in this book!)

    The other part of this cover that leaves a lot of room for improvement is the font: it’s awfully thin and reedy, and doesn’t bring anything baseball-related to mind at all. How about something a bit stouter (like Babe Ruth himself) and more reminiscent of baseball, such as the font used on the scoreboards at baseball stadiums, or that kind of underlined calligraphy you often see in the titles on posters for baseball movies? For color (if necessary), presumably you might want to use some bright red and blue like on the Major League Baseball official logos, or Babe Ruth’s team colors (whatever those were).

    Here‘s my rough draft revision of your cover, based on what I was able to do with that photo. Obviously, my editing program couldn’t get it to yield any better signal-to-noise ratio than the original image, but I think you’ll agree this draft is a lot clearer overall.

  2. I agree with all of the above. I quite like RK’s mock up version. One minor change to his version may be to use a different font on the bottom sentence and name. I would also center the players better so there is not so much grass area with nothing in it. If the photo is too small you could always cheat the sky. This would also make the stadium seats more visible. I do like that you can tell right away that they are baseball players.

  3. There are some excellent sports-oriented fonts on sale, at the moment, on either Deal of the Day or CreativeMarket. What about Branboll font? Or, The Line Up? Appelton is nice, albeit skewing a bit earlier in the century than The Babe. Try these: and see if any of those float your boat.

    (n.b.: if you find one that rocks your world, you could ALSO use it for your book’s title page, or chapter heads…or both. Conforming fonts across the cover and the interior adds a nice, professional touch to your work.)

    I’m thirding RK’s layout. I don’t love his font (sorry, RK), but then again, font wonk here. However, I think you’re blowing the fabulousness of the image. I’m not sure that I know the “why” of that–is there a reason that you’re obscuring all the recognizable stuff in that cover image? If there’s a good reason, then, great, but if not–you should definitely go with something more like RK’s version. The image he scrounged up from the archives has nice depth of field to it, also–so, as it’s obviously available, why waste it? It creates visual interest, to see the crisp ballplayers offset against the background.

    So, I respectfully demur from Nathan’s take on the title font, but otherwise, I’m in agreement with my fellow Critics.

    So, author/publisher/cover artist, it’s back to you. Batter up!

    (I know, I know. Dreadful.)

  4. My sincere thanks to Nathan and the (so far) three critics (RK, Renee, Hitch) who kindly took the time to provide thoughtful feedback.

    I am certainly conscious of the lack of ‘punch’, of the title, which is one of the main reasons I submitted the design here. I was greatly limited in font selection by the online cover design tool I was using – but what I like most about this one is that it is reminiscent of the kind of handwritten legends that often appear (in white or black) on old baseball (and other) photos.

    I’m sure there are many other possible fonts out there – thanks to Hitch for suggesting sources. The font in RK’s rough draft does absolutely nothing for me, I’m afraid. It doesn’t suggest the period of interest, and I find it aesthetically jarring – just my opinion, of course.

    I cropped and blurred the photo partly because I wanted to impart a feeling of mystery to it, and partly because I feel it works better that way as a background to the words. Making the beautifully sharp photo the main focus of the design, as it certainly is in RK’s rough draft, though that may seem the obvious thing to do, just doesn’t work for me. Many cover designers advise against this “The Grass is Green” use of images. Such a direct approach seems too obvious and uninteresting to me. (The photo does appear inside the book, of course, in its HD original form.)

    To repeat, thanks to all. For my next ‘plate appearance’ (also dreadful): since submitting the design here, I decided to follow the lead of an earlier submitter, and I am working with Rena Hoberman at Cover Quill. She has been very responsive and helpful already.

    1. hi, Dave:

      Are you using Derek’s Online Cover Creator? At Derek Murphy’s Creativindie? If so, I’d suggest that you do whatever image manipulation you need to do there, and then export the image. You can then add text pretty simply with almost ANY tool, from Gimp if you’re a sadomasochist (ditto AIllustrator, APhotoshop, and Fire-whatever it is), or something easy-peasy like the usual image tools that come with your OS. That would allow you to deploy a font you liked.

      I think, given that you’re sort of married to what you’re doing there with the image, you should really pay attention to the fonts.

      Also: for what it’s worth, (which is what you’re paying for here, so…), I disagree strongly with the idea that cover messages/intrigue, etc., should be SUBTLE. I have written extensively about this, but no one details it better, really, than Murphy himself in the fairly infamous “8 Cover Design Secrets that Publishers Use To Trick You Into Buying Books,” or something along those lines. I have seen far too many examples of great colors selling mediocre books and lousy covers sinking GREAT books.

      I tell you: human beings are CROWS. We like shiny pretty things, and that’s what we pick up. Males of the species are even MORE drawn to shiny pretty things (want a test? Put two very attractive young ladies in two different outfits. Put one in a navy or black simple outfit. Put the other in something brightly-colored. Watch how males respond. Want more proof? Repeat the experiment, and put FRINGE and baubles on the second woman. Hookers don’t dress like they do just because they like to freeze their hoohahs off, gang.)

      Need more proof? Go stand in the frozen food section of your supermarket. Watch how people WITHOUT lists shop there. What do they buy? The box of meatloaf, etc., that has the prettiest, BEST image on the cover.

      You gotta get up at bat before you have runs, hits, or errors. If you start with too many errors, your “at bat” may never happen.


  5. Hello Hitch, Thanks for your further thoughts. Yes, I realize I am not really stuck with the online design tool (which is indeed Derek Murphy’s). I’d probably try OpenOffice, the draw program.

    I’ve watched and read quite a lot of Derek’s material and of course I’ve encountered the argument you present about how covers sell books. He presents the case extremely well. But I think it’s important to keep in mind that what constitutes a “great cover” is dependent on the book’s genre, intended audience, selling context, and the author’s goals. The pulp fiction market, for example, (which comprise a great majority of Derek Murphy’s online portfolio, I’d say) has acquired a well-defined ‘look’ that certainly calls to mind your hooker analogy. With a cover like that, you sure know what you’re going to get. That may be ‘where the action is’ these days in book-selling but it’s of little relevance to a book like mine.

    Your hypothetical “two very attractive young ladies” example is instructive, because the male response will certainly be to notice the brightly-coloured outfit, but please don’t underestimate the ‘little black dress’. And once you add the fringe and baubles to the coloured outfit … well, hookers dress the way they do to make it clear what they’re selling, and believe it or not, not every guy is in the market for that all the time 🙂

    As for meatloaf, you can’t sample it in the store, so the ‘shiny’ box image (which is ALWAYS misleading, BTW) may clinch the deal. Once. In a bookstore or online, I believe no-one buys a book based on the cover alone, even though the cover is certainly what makes it noticeable. As Derek Murphy and others say, the cover should make you pick the book up. Then you turn it over and read the back (the meatloaf ingredients? Illegible!). And I would NEVER buy a book of any kind without first sampling the quality of the writing and design inside.

    Recently I watched a couple of TED Talks by Chip Kidd. He starts off saying “use a picture of an apple, or the word APPLE, but not both. Don’t insult your reader’s intelligence.” He advocates a mixture of clarity and mystery. He eloquently demonstrates how a book cover can be artistically satisfying and, yes, subtle – and still be successful.

    As an indie author who isn’t necessarily trying or expecting to make a living from writing, sales numbers are not the only important factor. I have to feel good, myself, about the design; it has to be a book I’d be happy to buy, read, and have on my shelves, if I encountered it in a store. I have hundreds of books at home; not a single one looks remotely like anything on Derek’s portfolio. When I look at the covers of ‘baseball books’ in Google or amazon I am struck by how few have well-crafted or satisfying designs. If I were to adopt that ‘genre look’, I would not be as proud of my book as I want to be. But there are a few baseball books that are really good … artistically satisfying at a higher level than just their immediate impact. That’s something I aspire to achieve. It doesn’t come about just by using chunky (or even brutal) fonts and bright colours.

    I think it comes down to the fact that as with so many things in life, the mass market isn’t the only market. And success is not entirely about commerce.

    1. Well, you can have any philosophy you personally want about the role of covers and the meaning of success, but if your view is “Covers don’t actually sell books, and I’m not trying to sell my book anyway, so all that matters is whether I personally like it,” why are you posting to a query critique site?

      I liked your font better than RK’s, by the way (his was too on the nose). But if you stick with it, correct the aspect ratio of the title. I think there’s potential to the “intriguingly ambiguous photo close-up” approach in general, but in your case the layout of the photo keeps it from working–there’s no neat way to crop it without odd bits of fielder intruding on the edges.

      1. Hi Katz, No, that’s not my view, and it isn’t what I wrote.

        I posted here because I’m very much aware of my own limitations as an amateur graphic designer, and aware that what I came up with has shortcomings and can undoubtedly be improved upon.

        Thanks for your helpful comments on the font and the use of the photo.

    2. I’ve watched and read quite a lot of Derek’s material…{snip} But I think it’s important to keep in mind that what constitutes a “great cover” is dependent on the book’s genre, intended audience, selling context, and the author’s goals. The pulp fiction market, for example, (which comprise a great majority of Derek Murphy’s online portfolio, I’d say) has acquired a well-defined ‘look’ that certainly calls to mind your hooker analogy. With a cover like that, you sure know what you’re going to get. That may be ‘where the action is’ these days in book-selling but it’s of little relevance to a book like mine.

      Well, let me say this about that: we’ve produced in the area of 3,000 books since 2009-2010. That doesn’t make me an expert in covers, but it does give me a rather large database–larger than many editors in BPH’s–to call upon in looking for trends. We have clients in literature, pulp fiction, non-fiction–about everything. Take these two examples from “real life.”

      We have a client that is a new-to-it author. She writes fairly simple, single plot-line romance-mysteries. She has about…6 books out. Of them, ONE outsells all the others. Is it any different, in terms of depth, quality of writing, etc. than the others? Hell, no. But it has a banging cover. A quality cover, mind you–no bodice-ripping or any of that drivel. It’s a single, well-done graphic element that has almost no bearing on romance OR mystery. And that book outsells the others by nearly 5-to-1. Not lurid, but–an eye-catching single element. (A doll, FWIW).

      I have another client, who has been the trade-pubbed author of now 3 different series. He’s been published by BPH; he’s got two series picked up by various producers (including Eddie Izzard) for TV/Movies; he’s Macavity and Edgar-nominated. No chump. In one of his series, he has a book–the second in the series–that dramatically undersells the others. Now, although standalone, these books are a series with a main storyline, characters, etc., that develop as the series progresses. So…why is it that this ONE book is the “dog” of the bunch? I mean, wouldn’t it make SENSE that if people liked the first, and then proceeded to buy the others, that the second in the series would also sell? But: NO. Why? It has a drab cover. Not dreadful; just mostly dark brown tones. The only one colored like that. The others have the usual brighter colors; the one after it has a stunning cover. So, if subtlety sells, someone forgot to tell his audience that.

      If you don’t care about money and commerce, then really, the cover doesn’t matter–does it?

      it’s important to keep in mind that what constitutes a “great cover” is dependent on the book’s genre, intended audience, selling context, and the author’s goals.

      Actually–I disagree with you. A great cover is a great cover, period. While there are different attributes, for different genres or areas of literature, ALL successful covers share certain traits, and it precisely these traits that you are, by and large, choosing to ignore, as near as I can tell from your response. Among those shared traits are: a clear conveyance of WHAT the book is, at some level, about; an easy instant reference for the reader to get the idea whether or not the book is of interest to him/her, and, most importantly, again: it’s eye-catching. It’s intriguing enough to make the prospective reader PICK IT UP, or click the link.

      If you think about the idea that your reader may find you through browsing, then eye-catching matters. If they do browse, they will be looking at a search result (or category) on Amazon, with dozens of covers–all designed to catch their eye–and yours. Before your prospective reader gets to appreciate your subtlety, they have to click through to your book. Do you really think that will happen, if you hide everything under the proverbial bushel?

      As a female who tends to be the LBD type, I don’t underestimate that. But I do know that the bottom line is, the bright dress catches the eye, before the LBD, assuming that the women wearing them are equally attractive. Your problem is that nobody will see the whether or not the girl (the book) is attractive–the one wearing your dress (the cover), if someone doesn’t Click. The. Link.

      I think you’d be shocked at how many people download books simply from the cover alone, by the way. You can tell about that by reading reviews. Just FWIW.

      And as far as reading the LookInside–yes. Again, however, you have to get them to that, first. That’s all anyone here is trying to do–get them to your detail page. Then, the rest is up to you. But if you don’t get them there…well.

      One last comment, about Chip Kidd: sure. That’s a bloody great mindset, when you have RH’s marketing department behind you. I mean, let’s not kidd* ourselves–his covers don’t have to bring readers in, do they? Nothing againt his work, but…sheesh. The “heavy lifting” that his covers have to do, versus what an Indy cover has to do, given a possibly smaller advertising budget,given that you likely can’t send out Five THOUSAND advance review copies of a book to reviewers nationwide to generate buzz…well, isn’t likely to have the same needs, is it? (Not to mention: really, Chip? Chip who’s put out enough pulp covers to reforest the great Siberian forests? Forget where we come from, much?)

      Obviously, it’s your book, and from what I’ve seen so far, in your responses, you’re not exactly embracing my suggestions, so I’ll bug out. I’ve been wrong before, and I’m sure you know best for your own book.

      *Yeah, I went there. Can’t kidd a Kidder.

  6. Hi,
    I have no training in design at all so take my ‘advice’ with a grain of salt.
    I liked the original font and colors of the title much better. I liked RK’s picture much better. It almost feels like the word -Discover- should be before the sentence-The secrets underlying a famous photograph. I would move that text up to the sand under the players feet and use the entire darker area for authors name. Or maybe vice versa.
    I like the text for authors name better on RK’s attempt. It’s nice and clear, easily readable. The black background with white text gives it a cool old time feel but maybe orange like the title would pop more? I would play around with that.

  7. Whoops just noticed you use unlocking before the sentence which is awesome. Rk’s version skipped that so ignore my advice to use discover.

  8. I think that if you are going to use a picture of Babe Ruth on the cover of your book, that you should be able to see the fact that it is Babe Ruth.

    So yes, as others have said, this is way too zoomed in.

  9. For the record, the font I chose to use on my draft was one of about a dozen or so similar sports fonts; the reason I chose that particular one is that it was the only one of the bunch that had an ampersand symbol available in it. Using something that looks like it was pulled from an old scoreboard (the non-electric kind) seemed pretty appropriate to me. If that’s not quite your taste, however, what about my other idea, the baseball-related calligraphy you see on movie posters and video jackets for the likes of The Babe? I didn’t do that on my draft because that kind of font with a customized swoosh beneath it is a little bit beyond the capacity of my image editor to provide, but it’s good and stout and certainly says “baseball” a lot more than any old-fashioned typewriter font (which just says “old-fashioned typewriter” to most of us).

    As to matters of mystery and subtlety, these are generally good things for a cover to have, but the top priority of any book’s cover these days when the vast majority of the public is visual-oriented (as opposed to older times when books were ordered largely sight-unseen through black-and-white text-oriented catalogues) is always to grab the prospective reader’s attention. Including subtle details that your readers will have to look twice to see is fine, particularly if you’re going to point them out in your book (“Hey… the stands are almost empty, just as he says… Hmph! Hadn’t noticed that before…”), but you need something showy to get them to look at it the first time before you can get them to look again. Like a billboard, you need something your prospective customers can grasp in ten seconds, because they sure aren’t going to look into the next ten minutes of it unless they’re already intrigued.

    You know, Hitch’s hooker analogy makes me think of the old Batman TAS series episode “Chemistry” in which the villainous plant lady Poison Ivy whips up a bunch of her plant people to seduce and marry Gotham’s richest citizens including (of course) Batman’s alter ego Bruce Wayne. When he realizes his new wife Susan is one of these plant people, he confronts her with the accusation that she must have been covered in Poison Ivy’s notoriously powerful pheromones to have kept him from realizing sooner how she was just too good to be true. To this, she replies that to the contrary, “The pheromones were just to get your attention; the rest was all me.”

    What we critics do here is like what Poison Ivy was doing in that episode: we try to help you get your readers’ attention; you’re the one who actually sells the book, however. Like Susan (whose personality really was quite charming), what’s in your book is all you; we assume for the sake of expedience that what you’re selling is well worth the reading. Since pheromones aren’t exactly an option for getting your prospective readers’ attention, however, we have to use the imagery on the cover instead.

    Bottom line: having your book’s cover subtly reflect its charming personality is fine, but people aren’t going to be attracted by a subtle reflection; they need some glamor and glitz to get their attention. As soon as they look closer, then is the time for mystery and subtlety and subtext and all that good stuff. Give them action, give them clarity and focus, give them–if nothing else–a good shot of Babe Ruth’s face to get their attention; once you’ve got that and the people in your target audience are on your book’s page looking at the summary to see whether the contents live up to the imagery, that’s when you can go to work on them pointing out all those fascinating mysteries about the picture on the cover of which they might not previously have been aware.

  10. I agree with those who have said that you at least show enough of the photo to include Babe Ruth’s face. I happen to love baseball and know who Babe Ruth is, but my first impression of this cover at thumbnail size is that it is about some guy who met a babe…possibly at a baseball game. The thumbnail is your only chance at getting the readers attention. If the thumbnail doesn’t grab their interest, they aren’t going to click on it to see the larger image and find out what the book is about. The large image can reflect all the charm and mystery you want so long as the thumbnail shows the title and, especially in non-fiction, gives a very clear image of what the book is about.

    Just my opinion, of course, but if the book is about unraveling the mystery of a photograph there is no reason not to show enough of the photograph that it is identifiable. The mystery is the backstory of the photograph, not guessing what the photograph is.

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