Judge a book by (more than) its cover!

comic cover3[1]By Paco Garcia Jaen

I hate to admit it, but it is the truth. We judge books by their cover much too often and much too often it is because we don’t have a choice. Some of us don’t have a shop nearby where we can take a look at our game books before we buy them. That also means we can’t really find out if the contents are any good, which is what sometimes disappoint.

I have been longing to write this piece for a very long time, and always stopped myself for not wanting to sound “arsy” about it. Well, enough is enough!

Let me make this clear. I am sick and fed up of companies, big and small, selling us badly designed books. I am sick and fed up of companies selling us very expensive books we don’t need. I am sick and fed up of companies selling us fluff material that doesn’t enhance the gaming experience enough to justify the expense.

For goodness sake, enough!

I will make a confession. As a graphic designer and photographer of many years and art director of a few, I am demanding when is about layout design and art direction in books. I firmly believe at this moment in time there is no excuse whatsoever for poor design when creating books. There are very few excuses for badly created websites and there are a few more excuses for bad looking or bad working blogs.

So what parts should publishers look into?

  • Let’s start with the covers, shall we? Because most of us buy from our favourite web retailer, we only get to see the cover. Sometimes we can get to see some pages of the interior of the book, but not always. Even when we do, it is rarely at it’s real life size. Getting a true to life idea of what the book will end up looking like is not easy. Needless to say, we can’t get to judge the quality of the binding, the paper and the cover either.Therefore quite a lot of effort goes into getting the right cover image. Although most companies achieve this, it is also the easiest part, so sorry guys, no kudos for that. Too easy!
  • Books are usually designed in colour and then converted into monochrome. Unfortunately this leads to another common oversight. How many times we see illustrations and paintings that lose all their character or atmosphere, not to mention a huge amount of detail, because the contrast has been messed up? Any half competent Photoshop user (other programs available, of course!) can sort out that problem in minutes. Any half competent printer should be able to point out that problems will happen. Artists, if your paintings don’t look as good as they should, tell your publishers. Make them see they’re missing out. Publishers, don’t you get a preview print of your books?… do you give them to other people to take a look at them? If not, then please do!
  • Books are covered in printed words. Make them readable! You’d think that is just a matter of common sense, don’t you? Well, no. How many times we find fancy fonts that are next to impossible to read? Maybe it is too small, the kerning is not correct, the padding is all over the place, words get cut at the end of the a line. To have the lines of text touching the edges of your inserts is not cool. Actually is pretty uncool and sloppy.Like that, many other issues. Get your font consistent. If you’re going to use a font for the main text and a font for the inserts and a font for the cartography, keep the same fonts throughout. Don’t change the cartography font mid book without a reason. If you have a reason, make sure it is a pretty obvious one!
  • Cartography. Please don’t assume anyone can draw a map. It is not the case. Cartography is a very specific area of expertise and there is a great deal more to it than meets the eye. If you ask someone to draw or paint a map for you and he/she doesn’t start asking questions about the world you’re trying to create (not how it should look, but how it will be inhabited and its history) then you have the wrong person. Period.Quite frankly, you might as well download a free action for Photoshop that’s around the Net somewhere and create the map yourself in 5 minutes. You’ll save yourself some money and at least you’ll have a good excuse to have some rubbish in your book.
  • Graphics and ornaments. Make sure they make sense and pay attention to detail. Jagged edges, pixelated images, tacky drop shadows, bad photo retouch, excessive reuse of imagery… None of that has a place in our books anymore. To achieve technical competency in any of those areas is within anyone’s reach, so don’t let yourself down by allowing a badly cut photo to disgrace the pages of your book.
  • Art direction. Please be consistent and be tasteful. Let someone who knows about art direction take a look at the brief and give you some ideas and pointers. Heck, let that person design the elements of your book, like repeating graphics, frames and borders and even the basic layout. A mood-board for look and feel can do wonders. If you’re designing a book and you just use a pre-made Photoshop action to generate a wooden panel, stone or anything else, you’re doing it wrong.

So what should you do?

First of all, look at your competition. there are some companies out there that are producing stunning material consistently and constantly. My current favourites:

  • Paizo. Anything by them looks terrific. Their artwork is slick, full of detail and is powerful enough. Their maps are lovely to look at, full of information and, most importantly, easy to read.
  • Fantasy Flight Games. From the design point of view, they can do no wrong at the moment. The Warhammer Fantasy 3rd Edition set is absolutely incredible. The following modules have continued using the same elements that give the setting its gritty and chaotic feel. Actually this is the perfect example for an art direction that’s been designed with the long term longevity of the franchise in mind.
  • Pelgrane Press. This guys have achieved mastery through simplicity. There are hardly any fancy elements or complex artwork in their books, but they manage to convey, mainly by the monochrome treatment, the perfect dark atmosphere of hopelessness.

Then look online. there are thousands of websites and tutorials out there that will be able to inspire and teach you to create better content. Only takes a few seconds, minutes at worst, to find what you need.

Visit DeviantArt often and look at young and amateur artists, together with professional ones. If you need artwork, you will probably find someone there who’ll be able to create what you need at a price you can afford.

Please, please, please, subscribe to ImagineFX. I seriously can’t recommend this magazine enough. Apart from being extremely well crafted, the tutorials, paintings, interviews, news and reviews will be useful. That much I can promise you.

Send me your stuff. I mean it! I will take a look at it and give you a quick report. I won’t charge you (unless you start doing it constantly!) and I promise I will be constructive and point out how to make your product better. Whatever you do, make sure someone outside your circle of friends, family, co-workers and acquaintances takes a look at your work and they give you constructive criticism.

C’mon publishers and designers, the people who buy your material deserve the best and we all know you can do a lot better. It is not that difficult and it will pay off. I promise.

Let’s make bad design a thing of the past.

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