Wednesday, November 23, 2011

What's up with the covers?

Q: What’s with the dingbats and old-school type on the covers? And why two covers, anyway?

A: Re the number of covers: Are you complaining? You got two covers for the price of one!

Patriots was initially released with a front and an inside-front cover. Subsequent revisions may see the addition of a back cover and other art. (Which is one reason you should register your copy - early adopters will be offered free ‘upgrades’ and discounts on future volumes in the series.)

The reason for the two covers is this: Patriots was originally released as an e-book and sold via online booksellers (mainly Amazon, along with iTunes and Barnes & Noble). Therefore, the way most potential readers would first encounter the book would be in postage-stamp size. 

If you’re inclined to observe such things (and if you’re asking this question, you clearly are), you’ve already noticed that many (most?) of the books written and released in this e-book era (as opposed to older books that were merely scanned and repurposed for e-sales) have covers that are primarily type. Many of them just shout out the book title and the author’s name, and it's because that’s all you’ll be able to make out at the postage-stamp size you’ll first see them.

When I first saw volume after volume with nearly-type-only covers displayed online, I thought it was the result of cheap or graphics-averse self-publishers. But while many of these authors might indeed be those things, their decisions now strike me as largely pragmatic. 

Something similar happened when CDs replaced LPs as the primary media for music. CDs were so much smaller than LPs that album covers were bemoaned as a lost art. There just wasn’t the same room for the message, and art that had been designed for 12” LPs often looked ‘wrong’ when shrunk down to CD size. 

Eventually, musicians and graphic artists figured out how to make the CD format work for them. Well-designed CD covers conceded the smaller size and conveyed less information, but image-conscious artists began to include extras such as booklets tucked inside the jewel case. (Ultimately, most music came to be sold online, and we have come full-circle to the point where album art can be displayed at any size one cares to display.)

Where books are concerned, I felt that although an all-type cover was appropriate for the circumstances, it fell short of what a reader needs a cover for. Which is: To convey a sense of the book before committing an investment of time and money.
That’s why Patriots employs what I call a ‘wrapper’ (mainly type, for easy ID) and an ‘inside cover’ (an illustration and some additional text, for a feel of what’s inside). Here's the inside-front cover:

...and here's the front cover:

Re the old-school dingbats and type choices: I believe this follows a fairly recent but established trend in sci-fi type treatments. Over the years we’ve evolved from ‘3D-colossal’ type (Forbidden Planet, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Flash Gordon, The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, etc, etc) to various stabs at high-tech-slick (most everything from Star Wars and onward… Blade Runner comes to mind, but there’s tons of examples). 
Year after year new sci-fi books and (especially) films have attempted to out-futurize what came before it, until the conceit inevitably had to collapse. (And to accommodate this demand, typefaces have been trying to out-future each other since at least, well, Futura.) I’ve noticed WIRED magazine bucking the trend now and then with retro-type used, I guess, somewhat ironically and (I believe) quite successfully. J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek used a pleasingly worn metal logo (along with far too many ‘accidental’ lens flares) to give that film a lived-in, almost retro-tech look.
I thought this look was appropriate for Patriots, so I adapted it. I used old-school fonts (slightly modified) for the cover along with modified dingbats, and used visual clues that married old ideas to new in the illustrations. Patriots isn’t about the glamor or glory of getting to Mars. By the time the story takes place, all that stuff’s been worked out of our systems, and we have bigger fish to fry.
It’s sort of like the having a cell phone today. Sure, back in the 1980’s, having a cell phone (probably in your car - they were the size of bricks back then) suggested a fast-paced, high-tech life. Today, they’re pretty much an everyday occurrence. Well, that’s what being on Mars is in the time of Patriots. It’s not about being ‘futuristic’ or high-tech, it’s just a part of life, and I thought the graphics should somewhat reflect that. 
Of course, Patriots portrays a different world, and a different way of life. But it is that way for socio-political and human reasons, rather than ‘high-tech’ ones.

from F.A.Q.

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