Sunday, 6 March 2011

Ten Things the Small Press Can Do As Well (Or Better) Than the Professional Press, Part 2: Artwork

I pretty much always judge a book by its cover.

What else am I supposed to judge it by?  It's not like I can read it before I buy it.  But even if I could, I'd still be wary of any story that was trapped behind a lousy piece of art.  Because my gut instinct tells me that anyone who truly, devotedly, unconditionally cares about their product gets everything as near to right as they can.  If the cover looks like it was drawn by a six year old with nothing better to do, how can I expect the editor to put care into anything else?  How can I trust them to present me with a story I would want to read, in a format I could stand to read it in?

I know that's unfair.  I realise how unreasonable it is to ask anyone to get everything right, and how next-to-impossibly difficult it is to do in practice.  There's only ever so much time or money or energy.  But that isn't going to stop me judging books by their covers.  Because, like I said, how else can I judge?

If cover art is a big deal for books, it's even more important for magazines.  Even the most well-informed reader is unlikely to be familiar enough with all the writers a magazine publishes to buy solely on the promise of its content.  A cover, a piece of banner art, is the bridge that lets a reader know that here's something they're willing to invest time in, that's worth their time.  It's first contact.  And you only have to get it wrong once to lose a reader for ever.

I think that's an obvious point, though, and something most serious editors get right to a greater or lesser degree.  In my experience, the magazines and sites that neglect artwork altogether rarely last that long.  What's perhaps trickier is interior art or, for web-zines and podcasts, story-specific and other more transitory pieces.  I suspect there's often a feeling that this is something to be skimped on, a money-sink that isn't really that necessary in the first place.  If someone's hooked enough to be reading, they probably don't need to be seduced with pretty pictures.

There's probably a degree of sense to that.  But here's another one of my readerly traits: I fear full pages of text.  Oh, I can manage one or two, maybe even half a dozen, but an entire magazine's worth?  Hell, no.  Nor do I think I'm alone in this.  One of the biggest trends in publishing over the last half-century has been a drift towards more white space, larger fonts, clearer typefaces, shorter paragraphs, more dialogue ... in short, towards breaking the page down, moving away from a page-sized chunk of cramped text.  Call it dumbing down if you will, but if, like me, you tend to read in low light and your eyesight sucks, it's a blessing.

This is a big point, and one I'll be coming back to it in at least one more of these article thangs, so for the moment I'll just say this: I love an editor who thinks about my poor strained eyes.  Really, I want to hug them. I would love them even if they were only randomly inserting pictures of their wife and kids (in fact, possibly more so.)  I like to look at cool pictures of spaceships and crazy monsters and ladies in furry bras wielding broadswords, but my number one requirement is that I get to the end of a magazine no more blind than when I started.  Anything that breaks the page up makes me that bit happier.

So ... onto the vaguely-useful observations bit.  See?  It's even bullet-pointed.
  • Artwork doesn't have to be expensive.  It doesn't have to cost anything except the time and effort of attracting artists and offering them a spotlight.  As evidence, I offer Futurequake Press, a venue that's won awards without paying its exceptionally talented artistic fold in anything more than exposure and love.  Because in my experience, artists aren't that different from writers.  They want similar things.  They'll work for the promise of an audience.  They like to be told how great their work is.
  • That above was a good hint.  A quick and easy way to find talented artists who'll work for little or nothing is to look at the indy comics press.  An art-heavy magazine like Murky Depths is a worthwhile stop-off too.  I know there are fantastic artists out there who'll put huge amounts of time into anything that will make their CV that bit better because I've been making comics with them.
  • Anything is better than nothing.  There are many, many sites that provide copyright-free art and photographs*.  So long as it's in a good enough resolution that it doesn't pixelate, where's the harm?
  •  When I said "anything that breaks the page up"?  I meant anything.  I'm perfectly happy to see good-quality, eye-catching adverts for products that might potentially interest me as a genre-fiction reader.  By which I mean, not Viagra or Kalashnikovs.  Personally, I think ad-swapping and banner-swapping are great ideas.  Free advertising for both parties, and free graphics to boot.
  • If you're going to review a book, film or computer game, why not include an image of the cover / poster art?  More free graphics, less blocky text.  Easy win!
I don't doubt that are plenty more quick, cheap and relatively painless ways to art up a magazine or webzine, but those are the ones that occurred to me on the spur of the moment.  And each and every one of them have, on some past occasion, made me like a magazine that little bit more.

* Not to say photography isn't art, like.


  1. Fair point about not wanting magazines with pages of text. That's what we had with Escape Velocity. Yes we had excellent cover art, the occasional cartoon and some pictorial articles but by and large it was a short-story publication. I would have liked more art to break up the text but surprisingly some readers actually didn't want the distraction. Sadly, it is all academic now. Putting a magazine together in your spare time is a huge job. Lack of revenue to advertise Escape Velocity eventually led to its untimely demise and I am missing it already! I hope the anthology is a fitting homage.
    Geoff Nelder

  2. Hi Geoff,

    Whenever anyone comments, I'm reminded how subjective this blog series is. I'm sure there are plenty of readers who, as you say, either don't want the distraction of graphics, or feel that lots of text equals better value for money.

    Either way, I always felt that you guys had some wonderful covers - simple, effective and very eye-catching. I can't wait to see what you've come up with for the antho!