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Mrs. Hartley and the Senator

The author says:

This is a nonfiction book. It is 1895. A young artist moves into the top floor of a bank building in frontier Reno, Nevada. The bank owner slips something into her drink and, well, has his way with her. The book is told almost completely though newspaper stories of the time, with transitions from one to the other by the author.

Nathan says:

An interesting premise.  And the cover’s professionally done.  But I don’t know that the cover as it is will draw in the audience that would want to read this account.

One of the tests of cover design often mentioned in the comments here (and which I will thus shamelessly steal) is, “Would someone who doesn’t understand English be able to look at the cover and tell what the genre and tone is?”

If I didn’t understand the text, I would assume that we’re looking at possibly a detective story (the newspaper background would lead me there), but I would assume, I don’t know… a chemical or scientific angle? (The drink in the hand isn’t distinctly enough a shot glass at first glance, and coupled with the newsprint, I’d jump to the conclusion of some sort of newsworthy chemical announcement.) And the typefaces chosen say neither “Reno, Nevada” nor “1985.”

Here’s what I’d do:

  • For the title, bylines, etc., I’d find some actual fonts used in newspapers of the time.  If need be, I’d get things a little more Western-looking than the actual fonts (small-town newspapers didn’t WANT to look small-town, after all), but I’d at least use the original fonts as a touchstone, including the wear and printing mistakes that would show up in newspapers of the time.
  • The newsprint is a good idea; I’d put it in several clippings at overlapping angles, riffing off the idea that there are several disparate accounts being assembled here.
  • Rather than a male hand triumphantly holding a drink aloft, I think you’d get a lot more mileage out of a female hand, on the floor, a spilled drink next to it.  There’s a lot more drama to be had there.

Other ideas?


  1. I agree about getting a news-print font from the era if legible, and also about angling several columns of text. Toward both ends, you could track down the original stories from Reno’s 1895 newspapers, providing it was covered at the time. The University of Nevada Reno has many publications from that time period listed here:
    I count 3 starting with “Reno” with the “Reno Gazette” being the most likely and 2 more potentials under “Washoe” for county papers. You might also check for Sparks, NV which is very close. To the extent that a senator is involved the Carson City papers might also have picked up the story. Interlibrary Loan anywhere should be able to get you copies of the records.

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful reply, Kristopher. I checked all those sources and more, as well as the state library, etc. The text is completely done now, and I won’t be going back to it. I am working on similar projects. Good reading!

      Sincerely, your friend,

      George Garrigues

  2. Hmmm… My guess, from seeing the thumbnail on the feed over at Lousy Book Covers before following it here, would have been that this was a detective novel. While that’s not too far removed from the book’s actual genre, I wouldn’t go with this cover unless you’re looking to reach out to that other genre’s readers. If you do go that route, however, you’ll end up leaving some of your prospective readers in either target audience parked on the curb and waiting for the punchline.

    The main culprit in misidentifying the genre is that everything on the cover is a line drawing; the quality of the drawing is top-notch, to be sure, but what such line drawings bring to mind is stuff like the illustrations from old Choose Your Own Adventure books and (given the more grown-up implications of a hand holding a shot glass) mature works of classical fiction such as old Sherlock Holmes novels. Again, these aren’t exactly the worst concepts for readers to be associating with your book, but you’re missing the opportunity to make the most of the selling point that this crime story comes from real life. If you’re trying to appeal to readers on the grounds that this story (as you tell it) sounds incredible enough to be pulp fiction and yet is completely real and true, a dramatic tagline ought to be sufficient to make that point; you don’t need to make the cover image look fictional.

    The unreadable “peas and carrots” newspaper text in the background (the lettering of which looks a bit like reversed modern Hebrew lettering, incidentally) isn’t helping either. For best results, I recommend getting an actual newspaper clipping or shot from the relevant newspapers’ microfilm archives, and make sure it includes an actual captioned picture from that newspaper (even if it’s just a “wire photo” from a court or forensic drawing) as well if at all possible. If none of the relevant newspapers reporting the story at the time had any such images in them, you might even doctor one of their pages to make it look as if they did; just make sure to start with something real from an actual newspaper that reported this story back when it happened.

    As ever, I’d particularly advise paying attention to how other writers in this genre pitch their books and following suit. One “true crime” story I’ve seen fairly well done is the true story of Blanche Taylor Moore, convicted and sentenced to death in 1991 for murdering her boyfriend using banana pudding laced with arsenic. Note the use of a monochromatic photograph with reddish-orange tinting on the cover; you might do well doing the same with a picture of your murderer or victim on your cover. Because things in real life are typically messier and not as well-coordinated as in all of the made-up stories, the grainy old black-and-white photography newspapers used to do is associated with realism in a lot of prospective readers’ minds to this day.

    One other minor detail: your title’s coming through all right in the thumbnail, but your byline and tagline are a bit difficult to see and read. I definitely recommend bumping up their size a bit to increase their visibility and legibility. If you take my advice to use an actual newspaper clipping or microfilm, increasing the byline and tagline size will also help ensure these captions stand out visibly over the headlines and text from the newspaper as well.

    1. Thank you for your careful comments, RK. I appreciate them.

      “ you don’t need to make the cover image look fictional.”

      The above is an excellent point, but I actually WAS trying to draw in somebody who likes fiction because much of my intro reads like it was made up, although everything in the book is is carefully sourced. There is more there besides a murder, there is a real life with a mystery at the end as to WHO this victim actually was. I didn’t want prospective readers to think that this was just another frontier “true story.” So there we have to disagree.

      “The unreadable ‘peas and carrots’ newspaper text in the background (the lettering of which looks a bit like reversed modern Hebrew lettering, incidentally) isn’t helping either.

      I have an opposite opinion from Nathan, who says, “The newsprint is a good idea,” So there we go: Great minds do NOT think alike. Also, the newsprint background is common to the three books I now have online, so it serves the purpose of tying the series together. Not that THAT is one-sidedly important, but it’s something I think about.

      “increasing the byline and tagline size will also help ensure these captions stand out visibly over the headlines and text from the newspaper as well” I may have my designer increase the size of both. I’ll really consider that for the next one of these I do in that particular series.

      Once again, thanks.


      1. I think you misread me slightly; I wasn’t suggesting that you not use newsprint at all, just that you not use that “peas and carrots” article since you can just as easily procure a real (and legible) newspaper article for your background. In addition to underscoring that this real-life mystery novel is indeed ripped from the headlines (so to speak), this gives you a slight edge with prospective readers: people do like some attention to detail. Having an actual article for them to read right there on the cover won’t necessarily increase your readership in advance (since it’ll be too small in thumbnail to catch anyone’s eye anyway), but such attention to detail subtly indicates to people that your research has been rather careful and thorough as well, and might well earn you slightly better reviews from your readers when they go to rate it on Amazon or Goodreads or the like.

        Presenting a true story as if it were fiction does present you with a bit of a dilemma: as I say, you do risk losing some of your prospective readers from either target audience. On the other hand, real life can sometimes be so absurd as to put fiction to shame, as with (for instance) World War II sounding like something written by a hack writer for a cheesy television show. Real life, unlike fiction, is not always required to make sense.

        If you’re going with presenting a real-life mystery as if it were fiction, there’s something of a precedent for that kind of book too. I mentioned, didn’t I, that the line drawings on this cover reminded me of a Choose Your Own Adventure book; as it happens, the humorists of made just such a book (Lose Your Own Adventure) dealing with a well-researched investigation into the real-life assassination of John F. Kennedy in a similarly fictional manner. Judging by the montage used on that book’s cover, maybe line drawings are the way to go after all; as long as they’re adapted from real-life pictures the way most of them on that book’s cover are, that is.

        1. RK: the link to the livejournal is absolutely hilarious. TY for posting it.

          I see that George has actually declined all the advice proffered here, with reasons why he can’t or won’t do this or that, so while I actually strongly agree with your recommendation–to use an actual text from a newspaper of the time, or at least something along those lines–I think that the best we can hope for is that his next real-life adventure novel will use that.

          We see so many dire covers that when we see one that’s well made, we’re grateful–peas & carrots notwithstanding. 🙂

          Thanks again for the link. Best damn thing I’ve read today.

  3. Full Disclosure: George is a client of ours, in the bookmaking arena. I just wanted to jump in and say:

    George, if you need some western font-types, I’m happy to check our font libraries. I’m pretty sure that I have a number of western-themed fonts in our collection. Just let me know, I can look over the Midwinter Downtime.

    Obviously, other than that, I can’t kibitz as it wouldn’t be appropriate. 🙂 The crew here is really good, so I hope you’ll get some good input.


    1. My very cheap but very good designer has control of the typefaces, although I should have asked to see her collection. As for “Western” font, the book is about an English artist (with aristocratic connections) and a state senator, not your rough-and-tumble cowgirl (also it is 1895, not 1865), so am thinking no, since we are on the verge of the 20th century here.

  4. It would be neat to actually place the title text as if it were the title of the newspaper article, with the tagline placed like a subtitle. (If you can do so without straying too far towards just making it look like a sheet of newspaper.)

    Speaking of the tagline, it’s awfully on the nose. I mean, yes, that’s the information you want to convey (true, rape, murder), but there’s got to be a more exciting way to phrase it.

  5. A beautiful cover…but does it convey any sense of what the book is about? I don’t think so. Without the sub-title the book could be almost anything…including a detective novel as Nathan suggested. The shot glass of liquor may have significance, but I suspect only to someone who is already familiar with the story, which would not be the case with a new reader. (There is certainly a real disconnect between the image you have and the subtitle of the book.) You need to find an image—in the same style you have already established if you wish, since that is very nice—that better conveys a sense of the book’s themes or subject matter.

    I would suggest some fine-tuning of the type—reducing the spacing between the lines of the title and lowering the entire thing so that it is not so crowded into the top of the cover—but I think the cover art needs to be resolved first.

  6. I does seem like you have made up your mind that the cover is good as it is, and will simply argue against any suggestions – which sort of goes against the idea of posting it in here to start with. Still, the title font is too modern and too bland, and the newspaper background looks like it is in Greek, which does not fit with the story at all. Using clips of actual newspapers of the era would definitely be better.
    The line drawing is pretty, but not menacing – if you do not want to swap it, some change of colours, or a dark shadow cast by the hand, for example, could help.

  7. Honestly, I probably won’t take the time to change this cover, but I certainly appreciate the remarks. Yet it is only I who have read the complete manuscript (unless somebody else here had done so, for which I will SHOUT THANKS to that somebody), so I have to argue against the Old West look, which I think might detract from the book’s interest to modern women (who are its major targets). I regret not having mentioned that latter fact.

    Nevertheless, I appreciate the forward-thinking criticism that suggests using real headlines instead of fakey (and unreadable) ones, so I’ll keep that in mind for future books in the same series.

    I’ll be posting another cover here of an UNPUBLISHED book pretty soon so I can get advance critical comment, for which I will thank you all in advance.

  8. I meant, nobody on this board who has commented on the cover. I have, however, received some royalties on this and my other books. Enough to set you all up with a round of drinks at my local brewery. One round.

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