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Not a Hero

The author says:

YA Fantasy trying to turn the fantasy tropes on their heads. The main character doesn’t win the trial to become the hero and has to live with all that entails.

Not a Hero cover

Not a Hero cover

Nathan says:

More than anything else, we’re seeing a particular flaw with the book covers submitted here: They don’t look like the kind of book they are.

Take a look at this cover: Does ANYTHING about it say “YA fantasy?” No. I would guess that it was some lit-fic coming-of-age story, or maybe a memoir of child abuse. In other words, if I were a reader who would enjoy a subversive YA fantasy, nothing about this cover would tell me that it’s for me.

You need to rethink the concept, and you need to do it like a marketer: “How do I attract the readers who would enjoy this book?” Because otherwise, having this cover on this book would lose you more readers than having no cover at all.


  1. All other things being equal, I like this cover—in spite of not knowing what in the world the figure is supposed to be holding. But…

    It does not in any way suggest what this book is about or what kind of book it is. A book cover is really a kind of miniature poster: it needs to get across a clear message with immediacy. Most potential readers will give a cover little more than the briefest glance. And the cover has only that split second to make them stop and take a closer look. Someone browsing for a YA fantasy would simply pass by this cover and go on to the next book.

    It’s entirely possible that the figure and whatever it is doing is significant—but one would have to read the book in order to understand that. And that is putting the cart before the horse.

  2. I like the cover (except for the byline font, it’s boring) but Nathan is right, it doesn’t fit YA fantasy. At first look, I thought the kid was holding a microphone and the book was about stage fright. Maaaaybe if the silhouette was glowing to indicate some kind of magic and the fonts were more fantasy-ish, maybe it could work.

  3. It’s that old book vs cover misconception I mentioned in an earlier comment, Nathan. It simply does not apply (if it ever really did). There seems to be the notion that covers are just decoration as opposed to possibly the most important piece of marketing material for one’s literary opus.

    This author an others would do well to remember what it is they’re trying to do with their cover, and that’s to ADVERTISE a story. If your cover doesn’t in some fashion describe your book, it might as well be blank in my opinion. Again, I suggest you draw from a dynamic scene in the book for inspiration and give it another shot.

    Best of luck.

  4. If you were to publish with this cover, it would end up on Lousy Book Covers not for being badly drawn (though it would have to be refined from this to avoid being tagged for its pixelation; from the compression artifacts, this is obviously only a rough draft), but for “false flagging” since the cover doesn’t match the contents. When I first saw the thumbnail for this from the feed over there, I was kind of assuming it was a biography or documentary of some kind. The body language of the boy’s silhouette combined with the title would suggest he’s about to give a speech to the effect of “I wish the real hero were here to speak to you today, but I’m afraid he’s dead and all I can do now is tell you his story…”

    My main problem with it is that while it certainly expresses the point about the kid not being a hero, nothing about this cover tells of this being any kind of fantasy. As a rule, fantasy needs to have a low-tech, or at least not-very-scientific-tech kind of setting (i.e. you can have tales about magic or miracles set in the present with all of its technology, but the technology can’t actually be what’s doing the magic or miracles, or the book is properly classified as science fiction instead). The boy on this cover has… a microphone; not exactly very magical or miraculous, is it?

    For that matter, nothing on the cover even suggests science fiction; that miniature microphone is well-known modern-day technology and even a little bit obsolete for not being cordless. There’s nothing to suggest that anything impossible to modern technology takes place in this story: hence my impression that this might be some kind of non-fiction like a biography or documentary. We need to see something fantastic: fantastic creatures, or fantastic powers, or at least some kind of fantastic setting.

    My suggestion: give us a scene in which we see whatever fantastic “trial” the character flunked taking place, and then either get a shot of him watching in dismay as the actual hero aces the test that he couldn’t, or show him walking away dejectedly from whatever it was. (I assume flunking his trial isn’t fatal: if he failed to kill a human-eating dragon, for example, he obviously wouldn’t have long to “live with” the personal and social consequences of such a failure that your story presumably explores.) Give your readers a preview of what kind of fantastic heroism your protagonist is doomed to fail to do while placing the focus usually reserved for the victorious hero squarely on your loser protagonist instead. Then they’ll know what kind of story you’re selling them.

    Basically, your cover evokes the right kind of emotional response (“Poor kid!”), but has insufficient information on it to evoke the desired intellectual response (“Oh, so this is the tale of the kid who competed and lost“). The story of the also-ran does have fairly broad appeal to fantasy and science fiction readers in general, but you do need to let members of that target audience know that this book is for them. Give them some background on your cover, both literally and figuratively, so that they can make sense of what’s going on in your foreground.

  5. I agree with everyone else, but I do have another comment. Unless this is a Middle-Reader book–the original age group at which the first HP book was aimed, so 8-9-10-11 year olds–then this hero seems way too young. That boy looks to be 7 or 8 to me. I can’t see YA readers signing up for that; that era of childhood is all too fresh in their minds, and it would be “too babyish” for them, I’d say.

    If this is really aimed at YA, you need an older silhouette, if you plan to stick to that idea. I just can’t see any teen avidly reaching for a story about a 7 or 8-year-old. Sure, if the anti-hero passes through that age, during the course of the story, that’s one thing; but a protagonist that is that age probably is a weak selling point–so I wouldn’t advertise it on the cover.

    The very last genre for minimalism is fantasy. It is, rather, opulent. Flowing robes, blousy shirts, swords, hats, Druids, Wizards…it’s just not a minimalist environment, which makes your cover all the more an off-note.

    AND, that’s also true for the font. YA fonts are anything but spare.

    Hope that helps. I think you could do yourself a very large favor and look at the really big YA novels and series that have been out in the last few years. I realize you’re trying to be the anti-THAT, but still–you have to catch their eyes before you catch their coins. AND, subsequently, their reads.

    Good luck.

  6. You know, I don’t think it was possible for me to not see what he is holding, considering I wrote the book about an archer not a swordsman to break another fantasy trope. On top of that, I’m the one who took the picture of my son looking sad with his head bent over his bow. I just don’t think in a million years that I’d ever confuse it with a microphone. So thank you commenters for pointing that out to me, because I sat there for so long, confused as to why archery wasn’t fantasy, at least enough to merit such a harsh criticism as my book would be better with no cover than this one.

    1. So that‘s what that thing he’s holding is! Yes, it was indeed impossible for you not to see what your son was holding the way we didn’t, as you were to close to your story; this happens to the best of us. As Stephen King once said in his book on writing, don’t kick yourself too hard when someone you’ve asked to edit your story finds a huge plot hole in it, “huge” meaning “big enough that you could drive a dump truck through it.” The same advice applies to covers.

      Though Hitch has a point about what age your son looks to be and whether that can draw enough of your target audience to the book, having a home-made silhouette on your cover is not by itself a bad thing: that certainly sets it apart from the stock images so many authors are using now. You do need to pull back so that we can clearly see it’s a bow the kid is holding, however. We also need some kind of colorful background, since a lone figure on white is not going to carry the cover all by himself.

      As it happens, we had a pretty good cover for a book in this genre using just this kind of silhouette a few months back on here that should be a pretty good demonstration of how to go about jazzing up your cover to make people want to buy your book. Note the three-dimensional-and-yet-rather-flat-looking background against which that author set her protagonist. There seems to be a bit of a fashion trend these last few years toward this “flat” art style on book covers, and I think you could make this trend work for you too.

      Obviously, if what the kid lost was an archery tournament, you’ll probably want your background to be either a forest (if the tournament wasn’t that formal) or a medieval stadium (if it was). As long as you’re making a “paper doll” silhouette out of your son’s photograph, you might also want to give him a hunter’s cap with a feather sticking out of it or something similarly appropriate to the setting. For best results, of course, you’ll probably want to show a target with his arrow in it set up in the background to show just how badly he missed the shot.

      In any event, don’t dwell too long on your mistake, since helping you correct such errors is the whole reason why we have this site in the first place. Just go back and draw up a new cover with what you’ve learned, and see if that doesn’t improve our opinion of it immensely.

    2. Oooooh… Yeah, now I see it. It was just too close.

      The idea is definitely great, you should stick with it, but it does need work. First step is to zoom out a bit and show more of the bow. Then, basically, everything what RK said, there’s no point in me repeating it.

      I would only add for the last step to use a more fantasy-style font. You shouldn’t go overboard with something that will take five minutes to decipher, but you really do need a fantasy type font. Something both elegant and readable. This post has some good fantasy font examples for what I mean. You don’t have to use those very fonts, but something along those lines. You know what would fit best for your story.

      1. Yes, of course–now we can all see it. I will stick with my one real sticking point, though–the boy looks awfully young. Maybe he’s just light on bulk, and so looks younger than he is, but to my eye–7, 8 years old. I’d be surprised if you said he’s 10. If this novel is really YA, that’s badly shy of what you need, to attract your demographic.

        @Catie: that’s a great resource and “how to” kind of thing. I’d forgotten about it–thanks for linking! I’d also suggest Derek Murphy’s go-to list, on his site. More fantasy fonts than you can shake a stick at. So to speak.

        Good luck, Ladd. I hope we’ll get to see the improved cover soon!

    3. I thought it was a microphone too. As I learned from my airplane cover, it’s really important to show the distinctive parts of an object–airplane wings, or the full D-shaped curve of the bow–even if you think only part of the image ought to be easily recognizable.

  7. I’m strongly on the side of starting over, because nothing in this design either looks like fantasy or appeals to me visually. The Rest Of Us Just Live Here is your obvious comp title; that might be a place to start.

    Silhouette covers are common, but they usually work poorly because they look like an easy, cheap alternative to a complete illustration. Because that’s exactly what they are. Breakers of the Code is the exception that proves the rule because it has a ton of painstaking detail.

    If you want to keep it, it needs a lot of work:
    -Get an image that’s clearly and unmistakably a medieval teenager, not a modern child.
    -Get a background image that’s a proper image that conveys the setting–castles, forests, dragons, whatever tells us what we need to know.
    -Replace the boring, modern black and gray with a more fantasy-like color scheme.
    -Clean up and vectorize the silhouette so there are no artifacts. (Note the one on the left edge of the image in particular.)
    -Fix the typography. Replace the plain sans serif red and black with something more fantasy-like and much larger.

  8. I think that this cover would make a great concept that you could hand over to a pro. The idea is there, but, as others have stated above, it just doesn’t work. The typography, image, and layout are all too weak and ambiguous to hold together.

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