Why Photoshop artistry makes boring book covers, even when they’re mine…

I don’t know if it’s just me, but I can’t help thinking that book covers these days – the ones that appear on Amazon and elsewhere – are all rather homogenised.

No Photoshoppery here. It also isn’t a book cover, but hey…

Literally, in a pixel sense – they all seem to use one or another Photoshop layer-and-blend technique to float words, ghost-like, amidst artwork which – often – carries a fairly standard airbrush look. More Photoshoppery, usually.

Blending layers is a fairly trivial exercise if you know Photoshop. I’ve been using that software professionally myself since 1988 when it first came out – I think the first version I used was v 1.01, which needed a whole megabyte of RAM to run properly.

It’s got a lot more capable since, of course. And it’ll do a lot more than layer-and-blend. But that’s what seems to be being used, more often than not, for book covers.

Where are the variations? Where are the artistic styles that do something – different? Something else – still classy, still honed – that’ll stand out from the pack?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016


10 thoughts on “Why Photoshop artistry makes boring book covers, even when they’re mine…

  1. I do agree with this- it’s a problem I see with a lot of self published authors (particularly on Amazon like you said). Personally, I’m of the opinion most people secretly (and some not so secretly) judge a book by its cover. So the idea is to hire someone that can do a bit more than just photoshop I suppose…?

    1. I think a lot of books are judged by the cover – not just online but also in shops. It’s the first tangible thing a prospective buyer sees. I know publishers put a lot of effort into getting it right.

  2. Hello Matthew, thanks for the thought provoking post. I think you’re correct to a degree but there are reasons for this replication, IMO. Photoshop is just a tool – software – one of many used to cast shadows & vectors etc. Real creation comes from a vision, hopefully inspired by a book. You have a point, not everyone can pull off a unique cover but with the right tools it’s easier.

    However, there’s a reason why covers look alike – they are designed purposefully to label them as belonging to a particular genre. This ‘look’ helps the reader identify the genre. The concept to use a certain ‘feel’ for genre identification is deployed by most publishing houses and then the others follow their lead, IMO. For example many ‘horror books’ use similar color schemes and dark backgrounds similar to the popular Koontz or King books. I think overall, it’s more about branding than aesthetics.

    1. I agree that branding plays a part in the design decisions. However, I think the nature of the tools used also shapes the end product and the point I’m making is that there is a lot of ‘sameness’ on the back of them – be the tool Photoshop, Illustrator (both of which I have been using since v1 in 1988) – or whatever. The tools, for all their flexibility, do guide what is possible and often produce styling trends, as evidenced a few years ago when InDesign made it easy to do drop shadows, with the result that lots of big-format illustrated books ended up with them. Briefly.

  3. It’s gotten to the point where clients are actually asking for the “photoshop look” because they feel that if they don’t look like all the other books (or ads, etc.) then it won’t be taken seriously. It’s a herd mentality that makes them feel safe… obviously this also applies to publishers. Whatever is selling is the look they want – just like the stories inside the covers. Assembly-line art goes with assembly line writing. Cookie-cutter album covers with cookie-cutter music. It’s something a creative old production guy called “Mee-Too-ism”.

    I had a lot more energy to fight the herd when I was younger, but sometimes you just need a check, and you feel like a one man army fighting the zombie apocalypse.

    Whew! Thanks for letting me get that off my chest.

    1. I agree. And it’s difficult to buck the trend. If it’s done right, the cover stands out and helps sell the book. But it’s tricky and the usual outcome is a cover that doesn’t quite work commercially.

  4. I hadn’t noticed, although it does happen that Ursula Vernon (T Kingfisher) has been experimenting on her blog with book-cover design. The first ones did look like everything-out-there but that pretty rapidly changed. Probably that’s because Vernon’s got a strong sense of graphic design and isn’t just looking to get something done quickly and easily.

    The academic-press books I wrote had standard covers, but there the convention is for a standard cover: a long title that describes the contents and maybe an attractive picture. I complied with that, with pictures based on the (mathematical) work inside.

    1. Yes, the academy has its own style required both of covers and titles (the latter carefully crafted to avoid other academics insisting that the author is so incompetent they can’t even write what the title promises). A friend of mine wrote a fairly technical re-analysis of probability math that Cambridge UP published a few years ago, which ended up with a quite attractive cover within the genre.

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