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Signs of War

The author says:

Softcover non-fiction book providing a photo study of road signs in use by 21st Army Group in Northwest Europe during the Second World War.

Nathan says:

Well, that’s definitely niche.

I think I would up the historical/vintage character of the photos — instead of pristine back-and-white photos overlapping at perfect right angles, I’d have photos on yellowed paper with quarter-inch borders showing scratches and foxing, placed as if they were physically arranged on a background of khaki canvas or worn leather.  Similarly, the stenciled letters of the title wouldn’t be stark and perfect black-and-white, but a greenish off-white on a dark painted wood surface (or the same khaki or leather extending from beneath).  You would still be showing off old images, but you’d do so in a way that also gives your cover some warmth and character.

(And chop the number of images on your cover in half, at least.)

Other comments?


  1. I would probably put a selection of signs on the cover of this book, too…but I’m afraid that the way it has been done here doesn’t quite work. One reason is evidenced by the thumbnail: it is simply impossible to tell what the images are.

    The cover also looks far too much like a randomly arranged page in someone’s photo album or scrapbook. The title is essentially a white block that takes up nearly half the space available. There is no real reason to surround the title with that much empty space. You might want to think about making the title block resemble one of the signs (I suspect that may have been your intention anyway). Close up the line spacing between “Signs” and “of War” and reduce the white space until it just surrounds the text. Even if you don’t change the size of the type, you will have reduced the overall space occupied by half. And the result would look more like a sign itself. You might even want to consider tipping the title graphic a little to emulate the signs in the photos even more.

    I would also strongly suggest enlarging at least some of the photos so that the space is filled more. And you perhaps don’t need nearly as many examples to get your point across: you may want to perform a triage and eliminate at least three. And there is no reason that the title “sign” could not overlap one or more of the photos, as they photos do themselves.

  2. Consider the intended audience for this book and cater to them. You want to peek a browsers interest. Anyone interested in such things will expect nostalgia, as Ethan said, sepia-toned pictures with ambiance, pictures that entice with gritty realism. One good picture that sets the stage and tells the story would be better than a hodgepodge that you can’t focus on. Look for a picture that clearly states era but is also interesting in and of itself. Make sure it doesn’t look like a photoshopped image but a real one. Also, pictures of static ‘things’ are rarely as enticing as pictures of people interacting with things or the things themselves about to act. A great picture of a sign warning of danger gains drama if a man is running away terrified or the sign itself sits on a stack of ammunition or whatever, not alone in a ‘void.’
    In the book itself, if using pictures use care not to overwhelm by placing too many side-by-side as that makes them all unreadable. Give them spacing with clearly defined text.

  3. PS. are you

    they have some nicely lighted and colored signs there that with some tweaking could be a nice cover although I don’t think they are ‘real’ but more impressionist signs, which is fine for a cover that is meant to entice. If that isn’t you, you might want to think about the book title as they have that name copyrighted.

    1. You can’t copyright the name of a company, you can only trademark it. Indeed, you will see that on the Signs of War website that the contents of the site are copyrighted, not its name. In fact, the US Copyright Office says explicitly that “Copyright law does not protect domain names.”

      1. Yes, good summary. Even if it was a book, there is nothing stopping anyone from using the title of someone else’s book for their own.

  4. Hmm, no I am not associated with that website. Very curious, I wonder if they have a copy of my book… It’s been (self) published for a while now but contemplating a revised addition, hence the interest in redoing the cover.

    I don’t think the sepia tones would work – the book is a reference, and so the selling point is how good the photographs are – the intent being that people will use them to refer to. I think sepia would send the wrong message (too many historical reference books out there now from authors who just scoop up old pictures on ebay and throw them into print).

    Some good points though about the collage, and I’ll see if I can’t find a more interesting photo of a sign that shows someone interacting with it, as suggested.

    And yes, the upper half of the cover is patterned after the actual military road signs in the book.

    Thanks all.

  5. I have photos from the 1890s onwards which have been stored away from light – and they are all crisp black and white. I think sepia would be incorrect.

    I would also say – black border around the cover. I think Amazon doesn’t like white edged covers and it all sort of fades out at the edges. I suspect you put the box around the title to make it look like a sign. If you want to keep that, then either put a second box around the photo collection, or a border round the edge of the page. (Not a designer here, but I really didn’t like the way the edge of the cover disappeared into the surroundings.)

  6. It doesn’t need sepia but it does need to tell the genre at a glance. (Which sepia does) If this is intended to be a reference manual it needs to be clean and crisp right from the get-go. Because the cover is intended to entice it can present different elements then the interior but it should sell the book your selling. I’m not quite clear on what that is. Is this a book of interesting facts anyone who likes war trivia might enjoy or is it for a specific audience and if so who? The idea is to sell to the audience in a way they’re familiar with so you need to know the audience to design the cover.

    You could use a sign in an interesting setting too. It doesn’t need to be a person. Consider a sign that says bridge out. If you put that sign before a broken bridge and raging water it becomes more interesting. But color and lightning play a huge role on what people find engaging. Tinting the picture to capture interest would be totally okay for a cover. For instance, a spotlight on the sign with it colored (even if normally it wouldn’t be colored or lit) and the background more muted would work. That’s artistic license and expected in sales. You don’t need a sign with those elements already in place, the elements could be merged together.
    So consider your signage and the setting of the book and try to pic images that will entice the prospective buyer.

  7. Artistic licence being expected in sales – depends on the audience. If you are accustomed to working in a sales environment, yes. If you work in an environment where facts and accuracy are the most important then, no – and jazzing something up for sales is actually a negative thing to do. It looks inaccurate and someone looking for accuracy will reject it with irritation.

    … I need to get a new hobby… (playing with color options)
    You can be accurate and jazzy…lol But I get your point. If he’s selling black and white pictures then he should use black and white pictures but that doesn’t mean the showcase of them should be dull. The pictures could set on colored or textured backgrounds to lend visual interest. An option would be to use one picture on the cover with its blurb, hopefully, something interesting enough to get the consumer to want to read more. I wouldn’t use more than 2 though on the cover as thats info overload.

  9. Appledore is on the money, I think.

    Something else I was thinking of on my drive home was that the target audience really has nothing else there on the subject (niche market indeed!). I think originally I put the collage on the cover to show that there are indeed a ton of photos of different signs. Generally someone buying this will do it because they want some inspiration for a project – set designers for a film, scale modellers doing miniature dioramas, re-enactors looking to dress their living history camps, etc. So the intent is to advertise yes, there are dozens of images with dozens of kinds of signs to get your creative juices flowing.

    For what it is worth, I consider “WW2” lazy, and in Canada, incorrect. The official name of the conflict is Second World War (the U.S. refer to it as World War II). Again, the target audience would probably react negatively even though everyone knows what the abbreviation means.

    Good discussion, I appreciate the time people are taking to help.

    1. Well….the biggest problem that I have, thus far is, the only indication that I have, of this book’s audience/demographic, or its purpose, is this last post of yours. Other than the fact that it’s fairly obviously non-fiction, there’s zero on the cover that tells me wht this book is about, or who wants to/would buy it. Or why. I mean, sure…apparently, signs, some created by GIs, put up during times of war. I don’t know if they’re WWII, or for all time, or from WWI to Desert Storm, or…Just because you have one that’s fairly clearly identifiable as being from the Second WW, doesn’t mean that I or any other prospective buyer will infer the right period of time. (For that matter, is it only the 2nd WW?)

      I can’t tell if it’s memorabilia, for those who served, or general interest, for those who are history buffs, or, as you say, a book for those seeking inspiration for set designs, yadda.

      Whilst you may consider “WW2” lazy, you don’t have a ton of space on the cover. Not by the time you include the website (why is that there? Is it more important than the title, etc.?), or the CSC–while perhaps you mean to say “Canadian Surface Combatant,” or perhaps you mean “Canadian Correctional Service.” For the vast bulk of people who will buy this book, will they know? Because that’s taking up a pretty nice chunk of space, there, and IMHO, you’re giving away valuable real estate that may not mean anything to the prospective buyer.

      As far as the “target audience” reacting negatively, to you using WWII instead of “World War II” or “Second World War,” again–perhaps, if they are devotees of your website, do you really think that a set designer is going to give two s**ts? No, she won’t. She’s looking for material, not obsessing over whether or not “WWII” is lazy. If you want to expound on it, great–do it in the intro, or someplace in the book. (I’ve met and dealt with those folks–and getting them to BE accurate is the fight–not meeting some set of exacting standards that they’ve imposed, trust me. Unless, of course, you’re dealing with someone on a Spielberg film. Other than that, fuhgeddaboudit.)

      The cover credit info you give to the other gent, McKenzie, again–don’t know if you need that for the cover, but if it were me, I’d make that much smaller. Not to deny him proper credit–put it big and loud on the title page and the copyright page; put it on the Amazon, etc., sales page. But adjust that, just because design-wise, it’s really not working.

      There’s not really much point, now, in continuing to provide critique and ideas because as near as I can see, you’ve shot down all the existing ideas, with your reasons why this or that won’t work. Maybe everything you’ve said, thus far, is absolutely, 100% correct, but the cover, as-is, doesn’t work. It may well work if your website followers are the audience, because they’re used to you, how you work, etc. but if you are trying to sell to other people, you need to find a better cover, that tells people what the hell’s in the book. Simply adjusting the collage isn’t enough.

      (BTW: I forget who mentioned it, but the grey-line/border around the cover is an Amazon “strongly suggested.” For all I know, they’ve made it a requirement, of late. Make sure you do it, to prevent that white-background-bleeding-into-the-webpage look, which screams–screams–self-pubbed. Not that that is bad–but a poor cover is not a good first impression, as they say.)

      I would strongly recommend that you look at SM Savoy’s posts and his/her suggested covers. Those are a lot more effective. The third from the top is very strong conceptually. What I’m trying to say to you is, don’t be so locked into how you do things that you can’t use an effective cover to sell your book.

      Good luck to you.

      1. CSC is CanadianSoldiers.Com – which is also indicated on the cover.

        I don’t sell on Amazon – a number of publishers I deal with refuse to, for various reasons. This one I’m selling on lulu – There is a description there (and on my own website) and the preview shows both the back cover text and the introduction pages of the book which will hopefully answer questions better than a bunch of text crammed onto the front cover.

        I see lulu also uses a white background on the sell page though, so changing the cover from white to a different colour is useful advice.

        1. Offered solely FWIW:

          I make my living on the Net; I’m a power-user; the city I reside in is the 5th or 6th-largest city in the USA (hang on, there’s a reason I mention this), and I had the 18th Internet connection in this city, when the first ISP arrived here. You already know that I noticed the URL, because I mentioned it in my post–and I still did NOT connect “CSC” with that name.

          Mostly because typically, people don’t use the “.com” or “.net” or “.whatever” in their site acronyms. LBC isn’t “LBCC.” (Lousy Book covers). is MUA, not MUAC. Are there some? Sure–but the typical usage is not to include the domain extension. I actually went and LOOKED, to find out what “CSC” could stand for, and inferred–all things being equal–that it was Canadian Surface Combatant.

          Only you can answer whether or not “CSC” is such a big draw that it’s worth all that prime cover real estate. I mean, it’s your site, so you probably do–but I wouldn’t put that there, nor the URL. As a buyer, my instant reaction is: is this a book, or an advertisement? We see books that are thinly-disguised advertisements for websites all the time, so that would actually make me think that perhaps it was.

          I’d recommend that you remove both of the website references–put them on the back cover, or the copyright page, etc., inside the book, where they really belong–and reduce the font size of the title. Then use the recaptured space to create a subtitle or tagline that makes the subject and use of the book clear, even if you do nothing else. “Extraordinary (exclusive, if they are) photos from Yadda-yadda,” or something. At least that starts to get the concept of the book across to those seeking.

          It’s unfortunate that you’re stuck on Lulu, but, yes, the same background color situation exists, and a simple 1px-wide border (I use a medium gray color) will solve that expeditiously. Perhaps your publishers would at least allow you to publish your e-Version on Kobo, so that you could get some additional exposure. After all, the point of the book is to intrigue people into ordering images, or getting them from you, right? So, digital format wouldn’t be a bad move for you, and if people see the book on Kobo–and want it in print–they could find it via searching or your website, and then buy it at Lulu.

          I mention this last part because even though this is CC, and not “bookmarketing critics,” I note that when I searched on your book, it appears to only be available on the Lulu website, itself–it’s not even getting distribution through Lulu–>IngramSpark and thence out in the world, which means it has a teeny audience able to stumble across it. If you got the book out on Kobo–since you apparently can’t/won’t use Amazon–at least you’d give it more exposure. I confess I was surprised to see you say that you work with publishers that don’t want to publish on Amazon, as in 10 years and 3500 books, I’ve never–never–met one that didn’t, as it’s the cash cow to end all cash cows, in terms of books and ebooks. But, hey, we all labor under different burdens.

          Good luck.

          1. Thanks for the response, much useful stuff there. My website is not about roadsigns, but you make a very good point that the cover might come off as just an ad for the site.

  10. Hmm, maybe something along the lines of a reel of photos then, with none visible, just something that says look inside and see what signs are available to you. Or maybe tiny thumbnails evenly sized and spaced (maybe as if they hung on a display wall) with the contents written slightly bigger beneath them to entice to buy the book. Like a line of photos labeled, common road signage and where it was used and another labeled, obscure warning signs. But none big enough to see on the cover just teasing glimpses but streamlined and professional looking. Something that says this book will save you a ton of work searching for this information.

  11. Trying to get across the idea that the book itself contains a very large number of images by putting a large number on the cover comes perilously close to the kitchen sink school of book cover design: the urge to include everything of importance. If the cover contains so many images that it is difficult to read visually, then it defeats the purpose of a cover.

    I also appreciate the fact that the title is meant to emulate a period sign, but it also takes up nearly half of the cover—and much of that is white space. The result is that the large number of images you have chosen—eight in all—need to be far too small. As I mentioned in my original post, if you were to reduce the space between the two lines of the title and bring the black border in closer, it would be just as readable—and more sign-like—while at the same time allowing you more space for the images. And if you were to use only half as many of the latter they could be larger and more easily seen (especially at thumbnail size) without losing the point of illustrating what the book is about.

    You want your cover to get across the idea of your book—its subject and nature—in a glance. You should not depend on people reading the back cover or introduction in order to discover these things. If the cover doesn’t attract and intrigue them enough to want to stop and look at the book, then all of the additional explanation is for naught.

    By the way, Hitch is absolutely spot-on in her last two posts.

    And speaking of which, I have to join her in her puzzlement about why you have a publisher that is unwilling to sell through Amazon. I make most of my living creating books for traditional commercial publishers and there is not one that would be unwilling to sell through Amazon (let alone any other online retailers). To say nothing of the apparent fact that they are putting the responsibility of selling a book on the shoulders of the author.

    (By the bye, if I were designing this cover, I would probably take a clue from the upper left photo showing the large mass of signs. I would use that for the cover image. I would make the title an additional “sign” among the others but much larger—perhaps with the text in red to make it stand out from the B&W image—with a subtitle as a slightly smaller “sign.”)

  12. Thanks, good info there, Ron. Re: Amazon – well, it may be that my publisher was a bit of a crank. 🙂 He has unfortunately passed away recently but it was a small publishing house catering to niche titles like this one. I don’t recall the conversation but I seem to recall he was soured by his dealings with Amazon who are a pretty big organization and in many ways faceless. I’ve seen some questionable stuff from them also. Two examples – they were pulling articles from a military history journal available for free online, and selling them on their website, my impression was without the authors’ permission. Not saying they were doing anything wrong per se, but seemed a bit greasy to be getting money for stuff that was already available (legitimately ) gratis elsewhere. In my own case, lulu does have some options to have titles appear simultaneously on Amazon. I probably am not reading closely enough but somehow one of my titles ended up there – I don’t recall giving permission – and when the book sells through Amazon I receive a report but am apparently cut out entirely from the royalties. It’s such a small amount it’s not worth my time to investigate and I sell far more copies via lulu (for which I am compensated) but definitely annoying. I guess I enjoy more the idea of additional copies being in print than I am the notion of making a few dollars more on royalties so I haven’t bothered to look further. If I was going to market something more mainstream (i.e. it was a project with a chance of reaching a broader audience) I am sure I would investigate more closely.

    I like your idea for a design and will try something out. Thanks to all who took the time to reply.

    1. Hi:

      FWIW, I can almost absolutely guarantee that Amazon didn’t take “articles” from anything and sell them on their site. They don’t sell articles, firstly, and secondly, it’s more likely that some slimebag grabbed them, made an ebook out of it, and started selling it there. They try pretty hard to eliminate any PD (public domain) stuff, but of course, they keep some of the early publishers that put up books like Pride and Prejudice, etc. But they, themselves, don’t actually publish anything. (n.b.: in the last few years, they started up their own imprints, but that’s for new, previously-unpublished books.)

      Also: when Amazon pays out royalties, it’s paid to the publisher–which is the entity that puts it up for sale, on their site–in your case, Lulu. They don’t, in any circumstances, pay the author and publisher. It’s the publisher’s job–again, in this situation, your publisher OR Lulu–to pay you. That’s true whether you’re self-publishing (in which case, you get all the dough, anyway), or with a small publisher, or Random House. If you use an aggregator/distributor, like Lulu, IngramSpark, etc., THEY get paid by Amazon and again–it’s up to them to pay you. Amazon would never be the entity paying you.

      Hope that helps.

  13. Wow! So much advice for a book that’s actually a lot simpler to market than most: literal title (more literal than I expected, in fact), a very narrow subject (“niche” is the word for it, all right), and the content is mostly just more pictures like the ones on the cover. Making it recognizable to what target audience it has should be a cinch.

    Mainly, the only problem I’m seeing here is that the cover’s too cluttered. To be sure, putting some “teaser” photos on the cover makes perfect sense, but the massive montage here makes individual signs too difficult to see (and read) in the thumbnail. A montage like this would actually make a much better back cover for once you’ve already got a prospective reader’s attention. You want not merely the words to be legible, but the subject at hand to be visible without people having to squint.

    My recommendation? Move most of the photographs and finer print and such to the back cover, and just pick one of these photographs to blow up so that it’ll fill the whole front cover with an image instantly recognizable in thumbnail, and then slap some big readable text–not so different from what you have now–over it along with maybe a sepia tone effect or the like just to make everything look even a little more antique. As long as we’re being literal-minded here, a book that gives readers the big picture on the strange history of these World War II signs should have a literal big picture on its front.

  14. First and foremost: Subtitle. You’ve pretty much written it already; you just need to put “A Photo Study of WWII Road Signs” in a smaller font under the main title. (I think the exact army group, etc, can be relegated to the back cover description. Same with the website information.)

    Once you have that, you don’t need to put a billion photos on the cover (although I like Savoy’s film strip idea); one or two large photo(s) emphasizing that these are high-quality, well-presented, and informative photos is more important. (The photo survey books I own use this strategy.) I like the bottom right photo with the guy on the motorcycle, personally.

    As for the type treatment, I’m not down with the “make it look like a road sign” strategy because it doesn’t look like a road sign (to me). It looks like a stencil font in a square black outline. And the signs depicted don’t even use stencil fonts. I’d forget the sign idea and just use a large, sensible sans serif nonfiction font.

    Other than that, there’s not much to say on a book this simple. You probably want a cover color other than white, and beyond that, it will pretty much sell itself to the sorts of people who are interested in this book.

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