Monday 27 August 2007

JPEG Artifacts

Everybody's seen JPEG artifacts, even if they don't know what they're called. They're what you get when a graphics file (saved as a JPEG, naturally) is blown up to a size bigger than that for which it was intended.

What you get are nasty, blocky blotches and lines in the picture, causing general ugliness and woe. It's the kind of thing you'd expect to see in the sort of cheaply made magazine that gets all of its pictures by grabbing them from Google Images, no matter the quality or copyright issues.

It's not, however, the sort of thing you'd expect to see on professionally published book covers. Unfortunately, it seems to be becoming more common. Look at the author images on the inside back flaps of the otherwise beautifully designed books put out by Hesperus. And even, worse, take a look at a recent novel published by Grove Atlantic UK, Serpent in Paradise.

It looks fine at this scale, reproduced on a 72dpi computer monitor. However, the lovely cover painting by Henri Rousseau (viewable here) falls apart when you look at the actual book. The publishers have used a low-resolution copy of the image, and stretched it to too large a size. The result is, unfortunately, rather ugly. Here's an example of how it looks:

This sort of thing does the author, publisher and designer involved no favours at all.

Thursday 23 August 2007


Well, so far I haven't actually been very caustic. How about this then? The following is one of the worst book covers I own--or have even seen.

No one gets hurt? My eyes, my eyes! Lurid and off-putting, this is the cover for Russell James's thriller, published by the Do Not Press in 2003. It is now, perhaps unsurprisngly, out of print.

To be fair, the book itself may well be great. I read a review of it when it came out, and was intrigued enough to order it in at a bookshop here in town. It was not until it actually came in that I saw the awesome hideousness of the cover. The chap behind the bookshop counter also saw it then for the first time. It wasn't really possible not to buy the book--having special ordered it from the UK, it would not have been possible for the bookshop to send it back.

It's quite weird, because the cover is actually quite appropriate, in its own appalling way. The book's heroine "enters the murky world of call-girls, porn and Internet sex [... and] she discovers that she is pregnant. Despite his unconvincing denials, [she] is shocked to discover that the father of her unborn child is involved with the pornographers." So, yes, the grinning, gormless nude blonde on the DVD cover and the pregnancy kit are all relevant to the plot, but lawks, if that ain't the least appealing cover they could have created.

I suppose this cover would catch your eye if you saw it on a bookshop shelf, but would you buy it? Would you be able to hand that over to the person behind the bookshop counter (especially if it was a woman)? Would you be able to read it in public? No wonder the book went out of print--people must have avoided it like the plague. I've had it for 4 years now, and still haven't been able to read it (I do a lot of reading on the bus, and I don't really want people thinking I'm leafing through a catalogue of pornographic DVDs).

Monday 20 August 2007

Joseph Conrad & Phil Hale

Phil Hale is an American-born, UK-based painter whose work I first came to know through his arresting, disturbing comic covers. Since then he has also been featured in the annual Spectrum books, each of which features hundreds of the best pieces of science-fiction and fantasy artwork of that year.

The small Wikipedia entry on him states: "His current work focuses on figure as well, in depictions of slightly surreal scenes with strange characters performing various physical feats, usually in a confrontation of some sort. He seems to take keen interest in tension and emphasis of angular and dynamic aspects of the figure, almost always incorporating slight anatomical distortions to great effect."

This seems an apt summary.

It was pleasantly surprising to me, then, to see that Hale has been commissioned to produce new cover images for six of Penguin Classics' new editions of Joseph Conrad. Conrad is one of my favourites; he writes wonderfully, and (as with the great Nabokov) English was his third language. Interestingly, in his autobiography, Conrad says that it wasn't until he knew English that he felt he could be a writer. A love affair with the language itself led to his career change.

Sadly, Penguin (who used to keep all of Conrad's work in print) has let much of it go in recent years, including that autobiography (A Personal Record and A Mirror of the Sea).

However, I hope that these murkily appealing new editions should gather Conrad some new readers. I love them.

The Dangers of Stock Photography

As someone who, in their day job, works in design and desktop publishing, I understand the need for stock photography. It can be a problem, though. If you work for a very small, not-for-profit organisation, as I do, you usually end up having to use free stock photos, which gives you a pretty limited range.

For bigger organisations, like publishing houses, it's usually possible to buy an image you want for your book covers. The problem is finding an image that fits. Sometimes, however, different designers like the same image enough to use it on different projects. Then you end up with this sort of thing.

The image on the left is the hardcover for the US edition of Margot Livesey's Eva Moves the Furniture, first published on 11 September, 2001. The image on the right is the UK paperback original cover for Lisa Moore's Open, a collection of short stories. This edition came out in 2007; the Canadian original came out in 2002.

The UK edition of Eva and the Canadian edition of Open did not share covers. The feel for the Eva cover does still seem to match the mood of the original, while the Canadian Open cover is quite different. Once you read the book, you're left wondering whether what appears to be a sexy woman in a bikini is actually one of the first story's Italian transsexuals with "perfect breasts".

There is a more dramatic example of the perils of using stock photography, however. It's a shame, in a way, because the image itself is a perfect fit for all of the books it has been used for. Unfortunately, the over-exposure of appearing on four different, unrelated books, plus being inset onto every book in a series, does blunt its effectiveness.

The first book is the collection of Somerset Maugham's World War One spy stories, featuring the downbeat, un-James-Bond-like Ashenden. The second is the first of Alan Furst's wonderful World War Two thrillers about a film director working for the Resistance in occupies Paris. The third is a sample from the US covers for the excellent Georges Simenon mysteries starring Inspector Maigret--the hatted man lighting his pipe is on all the covers. The fourth cover is from a non-fiction book about the French Resistance, while the fifth is from the excellent novel by John Lawton about a police detective working in London during the Blitz.

As I said, the image works well for every one of these books. It's just a shame it has now been so over-used.

What it's all about

So what is it all about, then?
The Caustic Cover Critic is--or at least, will be--one man ranting erratically about book covers and book design. There will be new books, old books, good books, bad books, and (since this is about book covers) regular outbreaks of Penguins.
More tomorrow...