What's up with new books w/ bad covers at amazon.com?

Over the last few months I’ve noticed more and more books in the “Customers who bought items in your recent history also bought” section which have really crappy-looking cover art. It often looks like someone stole a stock photo from somewhere and slapped the title and author’s name on top of it.

Here’s one of the books

Here’s another that’s pretty clearly a stock photo

I think I recognize the source for this one

It seems particularly common in alternate history, for some reason.
So what’s up with the books appearing with the low-quality cover art? Did amazon change its offerings sometime in the last several months to start putting out different kinds of books? Maybe self-published?
I know, don’t judge a book by its cover. I won’t - it’s the difference in the covers that caught my eye and inspired this question though.

Nothing has changed. You’re just noticing something that started years ago and has now become omnipresent.

All three of those books were published by CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, which does “Self Publishing and Free Distribution for Books.”

They offer a range of design services for books. Those start at $99 for a basic cover and soar to $1199 for a one-of-a-kind cover. Guess which package most of their customers choose?

Dozens of companies exist to provide these services. The vast majority of books published today use them. It’s too soon for 2013 figures, but an estimated 400,000 self-published books were produced in 2012. My guess is that the number is well over 500,000 for 2013. Just a few years ago, the entire industry put out about 50,000 titles. Covers don’t sell ebooks in the same way they sold print books - and nobody was ever sure of how much a cover contributed to a book in the first place. Slapping any relevant cover on a book is cost-effective when the book is sold through keywords and word-of-mouth.

You can self-publish and have nice covers. I design my own covers working with an artist to provide the images. One was a friend who did it for free, another was from an artist’s image bank and cost $75. They get praised by strangers, which is the only true way to know. Good cover design is hard, but the results can be even better than what I did. I’ve been part of those projects, too, and the designers were driven crazy by continual requests for revision as we struggled to hone in on a vision. In the end I’d say some came out better than I did and some not quite as good. All were better than some of my books put out by large mainstream New York publishers.

You can tell a book by its cover - as long as the cover is a image generic to its genre. A tank on a cover is all that a book needs today if you’re selling war. Why do anything more? It won’t pay.

Ah ha! Thanks, Exapno. I didn’t realize this had been going on for so long. I actually have this weird urge to purge the off-putting covers from my page, but I think that’s just a mind OCD. :wink:

Yes, book quality has been declining precipitiously for the last decade. Besides the book packagers that work mostly with amateurs, most of the midlist publishers have gotten very sloppy about putting together books for Print-on-Demand and short-run printing. Cover art is, to put it mildly, the least of their concerns and merely the weakest of many weak abilities. Much of it looks like stock illos from half-talented artists looking to make a reputation (and oh, they are) with composition in something like Powerpoint or Paint.

I have a friend, a long-time sf/f writer, who now sells his minor work through a well-known PoD publisher. I pick up every title, but the interior and exterior design make my eyes hurt. The publisher has been in business long enough to know the trade, but these look like self-published (or packager-published) crap. That’s a special case and I’ve suggested to my friend that I’d be happy to do the book design and layout for, say, an autographed copy, but both he and the publisher can’t see any problem with the books, so I just sigh and try not to look too closely. (It’s not just fussy esthetics; many of the books are hard to read without fatigue.)

The removal of all barriers beween someone’s copy of Word 97 on an XP system and books for sale on Amazon is NOT an entirely good thing. I’d remove ‘entirely’ from that sentence but there are a few people who can actually function as author, editor, publisher, publication designer and sales department. A very few. The rest are… wearing hockey pads. And posing for their own cover art in them.

No question that using a proper type design system produces better results than trying to tweak Word to its limits. I did one book and it looked OK, readable, but nothing special. Then at the last minute we got a designer who agreed to reset the type in return for getting paid to do the cover. The changes were subtle but noticeable, to me at least and I had sweated long hours because every change in Word results in five unwanted changes.

It probably is worse now than it used to be, but I own huge piles of books from mainstream publishers with type so bad I questioned the designer’s sanity. Some designers obviously don’t read.

People are cheap, and buying art and hiring designers cost money. People are cheap.

And people who self-publish aren’t interested in all of the aspects of publishing. They may not care about anything more than CreateSpace’s cover-bot, or using the default Word font. They just care about their art, man. Or exploiting the market.

I spend about $60-75 per cover and $200-300 for layout. My authors pay nothing, of course. If they did, they probably wouldn’t.

Still, it’s inexplicable that typeface can be so bad. I know a company that printed their books looking like this. WHY.

//competitor has the worst coverart imaginable, and high sales
///le sigh

I kinda want to read Ernest LaFlure’s “Dr. Mraovic,” now…it looks like kind of a detailed, if dry, medical technothriller.


It’s a conundrum, and been happening for decades. One of my favorite books is Of Human Bondage. I’ve got a first edition, but for reading I picked up a Penguin Classic - it proved unreadable. My reading copy now is a Pocket Library edition that’s as readable as the original (all the PLs are, I’ve noticed).

You’d think e-books would be better with no worries about page and paragraph breaks adding costs, but I can see the reticence. An author I like who is published (Tor, I think) killed a series when the last installment sold about 600 copies - they took a bath on that one, no doubt.

I strongly suspect the crappy covers are self-published.

My husband has several novels published through a small imprint and now a medium imprint, and with both companies, the artwork process has been stellar (although I might be biased).

A decent book interior can be done in Word - it’s not easy and it won’t come from dumping text into a template, but with some patience and skill a reasonably good layout can be achieved. It won’t have the typographic sophistication of one done in a proper tool - e.g., no ligatures, much poorer control of kerning and type flow - but it will be okay.

The problem lies in “skill” as well as even a rudimentary sense of esthetics - most who do books in Word lack both. I mean, here’s how hard it is: find a similar book with a nice interior and copy it. Even if you munge the details getting the gist of the layout correct will be an improvement.

It’s not just money. Most people neither understand nor appreciate what goes into skilled graphic/technical/publication design and honestly think they, or their arty spouse, or their 12yo niece who can draw horses does just as well.

Oh, yes, they are. But it’s “someday”… after they get rich and famous selling schlock between two generic slices of cover.

Yes, so many books would be improved by just resetting them - otherwise unchanged - in one of those, y’know, book faces. My poster child for that is an old copy of an sf/f fandom parody (Bimbos of the Death Sun), set in a totally eye-shredding Friz Quad. I keep trying to read a whole page without my eyes spinning out of control. Haven’t succeeded yet.

Nope. There are quite a few fairly legitimate publishers that clearly don’t know, don’t care, or don’t care that they don’t know. They could do better within the same amount they spent on the drek that hits the shelves, but…

Skill and esthetics. Unfortunately, most of the copy that goes into these books isn’t much better. Back to my comment about having all the hurdles to publishing removed NOT being a good thing.

Sooo… I’m obviously a total philistine, 'cause I’m not seeing anything all that horrid about these covers? I mean, they’re nothing special, but they don’t scream “cheap” or “self-published” to me. (Ok, the font on the very first one in the OP is kinda cheap looking.) I could probably rummage around my shelf and find something similar. Heck, the book I’m currently reading has, let’s face it, a generic picture of infantry advancing.

Care to fight my ignorance (or lack of culture, perhaps)?

A lot of these cookie-cutter covers I associate with public domain materials that have been scanned in and dumped to a publishing service so that someone might actually pay money for them. I see that a lot working with Latin. There are many garbage books out there, and many garbage editions of good books being printed on demand. I have, in less wary times, actually spent money on CreateSpace crap.

And leading. Leading is the amount of white space between lines. Even the books that give the type details at the back of the book usually fail to talk about leading. Yet that’s one of the absolute top determiners of readability. Too little leading and the page looks squished. (Paperbacks often suffer from this, especially older ones with page length restrictions.) Too much and the eye wanders between lines. There’s a proper amount of leading for each point size of type in a font, and you have to relearn what’s proper as soon as you switch fonts. I’ve been amazed to find when looking at design sites how little emphasis is placed on leading.

Word is actually pretty good for that. You can do a lot, and my books look just fine on the inside. They’re designed to be extremely readable. But it takes the patience to go deep inside Word, and the time to fuss over all the little details, and a huge amount of work to realize how many details go into a book, and tremendous amounts of cursing as Word changes things unexpectedly and ruins all that patience and time and work.

Maybe 1% of those who self-publish have any understanding of what goes into a book or care. I’ll bet most of those are people like me who’ve been around since before self-publishing. And why bother? Ebooks kill all that work instantly. The reader sets the size and font. Bang. All those hours of work wiped away. Why bother? Designing for print is like knowing how to make paper. It’s an obsolete art. The only time and effort worth bothering with in the future will be how to better format e-readers.

Ah, but there’s a difference between the cover of a non-fiction history book using a historical photograph as a cover and an historical fiction/alternate history book using a historical photograph as a cover (especially a not-particularly-interesting historical photograph.)

It’s only an aesthetic difference, of course, but it’s enough that I notice it right away.

Leading is a trivial thing to set even in WordPad… no special typographic capabilities needed. However, an understanding of type spacing overall is what most would-be book designers lack.

Word’s biggest problem in this respect is that it continually wants to override hard settings. Paragraph by paragraph you can get good typographic results, but then some damned autofeature or another overrides it, silently, elsewhere. It just wants to be So Helpful (for clueless users).

I don’t think book and page design is going anywhere soon, e-readers or not. We’re slowly moving towards a merger of the sort of free-flow layout that originated with HTML and the more rigid, formal page layout of traditional books and PDFs. Eventually Kindle et al. will have a sophisticated enough flow algorithm that we can set up a formal page structure and still allow reflow for font resizing, different screen sizes, etc.

As a page designer, I absolutely hated the “content is a liquid” model that HTML brought with it, and in the early Oughts I had a running battle with a guy who (1) wanted me to send him page proofs of a book I was working on but (2) bitched endlessly on purely theoro-esthetic grounds that I didn’t provide them in liquid HTML. He simply couldn’t (or refused to) grasp that I could bang out a PDF of the pages in a few seconds, or spend hours converting it to HTML and laboriously checking the (essential) formatting. We’re just now coming out of that model with e-books. I still prefer to issue them as PDFs but have made the necessary bend to HTML-based material for Kindle, Nook etc. Eagerly awaiting the next generation that will do what HTML/CSS did, allowing more embedded formatting without compromising <fx Roy Baty voice> your precious fluidity. </fx>

There are two layers here: art and content. There is no reason - none, not the slightest - that a book can’t have an attractive, readable, functional cover design; functional in the sense that it immediately conveys the information a buyer, reader or shelf-searcher needs. That’s content.

Art… it should be an esthetically attractive whole for the reason that the whole world should be esthetically pleasing unless there’s a damned good reason not to be. For fiction, the art should bear some relation to the interior. For nonfiction, I think it is completely bogus to use unrelated or semi-related images. A stock photo of some soldiers is not appropriate if the book is about some specific set or era of soldiery.

Hear, hear! :slight_smile:

Um… you mean is appropriate, right? :wink:

Ooops - my bad, emphasis in that sentence was on the stock, wasn’t it? i get what you mean.

Boy, even major publishers would flunk a lot of these. Paperback covers in the 1950s and into the 1960s often bore little resemblance to the content. This was especially true of science fiction, where it seemed to be common practice for imprints like Bantam, Ballantine, Ace, and Lancer to use stock covers, or some generic “abstract” design. I suspect that Richard M. Powers was popular as an SF cover artist because a lot of his stuff was appropriately abstract and nonspecific, and could be used for anything*.


I have a large collection of old SF paperbacks with plenty of completely inappropriate covers. I’ve seen a lot of them re-used (like the cover to Asimov’s Foundation and Earth, now being re-used for a Year’s Best SF cover. Or the volume of Jules Verne short stories that has a cover that must have come from an edition of Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama.

Ace was pretty good at aligning their covers with the content by the early 1960s, and the other companies were doing a pretty decent job by the 1970s.
I agree that I’ve seen some awful stuff used as covers for e-books and self-published books recently. But it’s not restricted to small companies and first-timers. I’ve seen some great stuff from small press. And some awful stuff from big companies.
I’m grateful for the guys who have done my covers. They took my suggestion for my first book, and threw out my suggestion for the cover AND the title for my second one. I’m grateful in BOTH cases.

*Yes, I recognize that a.) not all his stuff was like that , and that b.) he’s considered one of the SF “Greats”. I like his stuff, too. But I stand by the above.

On the “related to content” angle, oh yeah, especially with fiction and ghod yes with respect to sf.

But at least they’re usually pretty and competently done.