Subjectivity and Fairness

Having concluded the 2010 Best Cover Contest, I want to talk a little bit about subjectivity and fairness. A few comments expressed disappointment that certain covers had been selected and others neglected, disbelief that some covers got as many votes as they did, and even a few inferences that maybe the voting was rigged.

I want to address the last one first. There is always the possibility in any contest like this that people will vote multiple times, using various computers. Or that a publisher will have everyone in their company go vote for their books. Or that the mother or best friend of someone involved will call all their friends and relatives and threaten to disown them if they don't vote in a particular way. I have no control over that and I can't stop it from happening, so we assume good faith and a certain level of integrity here.

As far as I can tell, no one cheated, nor did they apply undue pressure on voters.

What is more likely, however, is that some people just help spread the word about the contest a little better than others, and the natural result is that they encouraged people with similar tastes to come vote. That's just the way of it. The winners won fair and square within the guidelines of the contest—to subjectively select the most appealing covers.

Subjectivity is a fascinating subject. Subjective refers to "relating to the mind of the thinking subject [the person] and not the nature of the object being considered."* It's a matter of personal taste and preference.

I have this compelling interest to know why someone chooses one thing and someone else chooses another thing. Often it's based upon completely intangible and indiscernible preferences, rarely upon the instrinsic value or structure of that thing. I find it fascinating that people voted on book covers based upon whether or not they liked trains, or had a fear of drowning, or preferred the color blue. I happen to have had a passion for mermaids since I was in fifth grade, which may have had as much to do with why I chose The Forbidden Sea as my favorite as did the enchanting illustration.

Such is the case with subjectivity—and again, I say the winners won fair and square.

Subjectivity is also one of the reasons why some manuscripts are accepted and others rejected. Yes, there are certain levels of quality in writing that can be measured objectively—grammar, format, plot line, timing, characterization, etc. But even those can be influenced by individual preferences and idiosyncrasies.

As for whether or not a story is "good"—there's as much subjectivity involved in that evaluation as there was in our book cover contest. Pay attention to the feedback you get from readers. If they all say the same thing, it's more than subjective. Fix whatever it is and try again. But don't let a few rejections cause you to give up on your dreams of writing. Keep submitting until you find a subjective match!



Steve Westover said...

The book cover contest was fun. Thanks for doing it. You are right, sometimes we just like what we like, and it can be a real challenge explaining why. We all have different tastes and preferences, but that makes the world interesting.

Steve Westover said...

The book cover contest was fun. Thanks for doing it. You are right, sometimes we just like what we like, and it can be a real challenge explaining why. We all have different tastes and preferences, but that makes the world interesting.

E.R. King said...

I enjoyed participating in the book cover contest. Although the cover I chose did not win (Queen in Exile), I feel each cover was fairly presented and could compete well. It's too bad you had complaints about cheating because it deflects away from the main purpose of this contest: to uplift writers and congratulate them on their hard work. Thank you for reminding writers that as the book covers weren't everyone's cup of tea, their writing may not be a preferred taste of some publishers and readers. That's what I love about books; there's something for everyone.

Stephanie Black said...

I do find these cover contests fascinating--seeing which covers LDSP found compelling, and seeing how the voting turned out. Tastes in covers are so individual.

Angie said...

That's a very good point. I majored in English in college and the grading always had the same element of subjectivity. In one class,when the TAs graded my papers, I got Cs. When the professor graded them, I got As. Weird. But that's the way it goes.

Anonymous said...

I think art is objective. Whether someone likes it or not is subjective, but something can definitely be designed well or very poorly. I think that's why I have a problem with the outcome. My design teachers always graded on objective goals: typography, use of space, rhythm, emphasis, etc. I think the contest being called "Best Book Cover of 2010" is a little misleading. I think it should be called "The Most Popular Book Cover of 2010," or something along those lines. The covers that were chosen weren't the "best," they were just people's favorites.

Anonymous said...

Dear Anonymous,
So what you're saying is that those people who have not taken graphic design don't know how to vote appropriately and therefore their votes are irrelevant. Do you think your vote should have counted for two?
Another Anonymous

Steve Westover said...

I'm going to take a shot at offending lots of people all at once :>)

Have you ever noticed how the dialogue and comments become more hostile and rude when people write "anonymously".

Write what you think and take credit for it.

We can disagree and still keep things cordial.

LDS_Publisher said...

Actually, Anonymous #1 does have a point.

Although I made it clear in the contest set up that

"Covers were picked based on how attractive I thought they were..."

and that

"We could argue the artistic merits ... but let's don't...

and that

"... [choosing covers] is an emotional response to the visual imagery and it's going to be different for everyone"

the title of the contest could be misleading.

So next year, I'll try to remember to rename it "The Most Popular Book Cover of 2010".

More accurate.

Wm Morris said...

Not to be contradictory, but I hope you do no such thing, LDS Publisher.

While Anonymous is correct that there are certain standards which (some? most?) graphic designers agree on, that doesn't make them objective. Nor is there universal agreement on them. Such standards may be a more informed subjectivity (or at least informed by the disciplines of graphic design and typography) but they are still subjective, located in and coming out of a tradition, trend, technology and personal/community preference. That type of expert subjectivity is something I value as a professional communicator (who is not a graphic designer but works with them), and I have complained vocally about the use of Comic Sans and MS Publisher and even ugly book covers. But I'm also keenly aware that the aesthetic preferences found among this school of discipline aren't shared by everyone.

These are the Best book covers as voted on by LDS Publisher readers, no more no less, and to quibble with that fact is pedantry and to complain about it is ungracious.

If you don't like how LDS Publisher runs her contests, go create your own.

Charlie Moore said...

I agree with Steve. Someone once told me that the customers (in this case, readers) are always right. I also agree with Wm Morris. Keep the contest the same.

One thing I notice on many forums/blogs is the tendency to take things to temporal extremes, especially when disagreements occur. We let the adversary cloud our perspective. Perhaps taking an extra moment to reread your post before hitting submit would be helpful. Would you post similarly on LDS.org or on an Ensign/New Era/Friend forum/blog? Nothing wrong with keeping your mindset in tune with gospel principles.


Th. said...


Even though I'm utterly shocked at your readers' choice for best cover, I agree that the name of the contest is fine as it is. Subjectivity is subjectivity is subjectivity.

Gussie said...

Here's my 2 cents:I wasn't offended by what Annonymous #1 commented. Calm down, folks. The LDS publisher's thoughts on subjectivity and fairness are excellent. Thanks for sponsoring the contest. It was interesting and fun.

Joyce DiPastena said...

I thought we were voting on which cover would be most likely to make us actually pluck the book off a shelf and try to find out more about it? "Objective" criteria like "typography, use of space, rhythm, emphasis, etc" is not what's going to make me pick up a book in the end. No matter how perfect the "typography, use of space, rhythm, emphasis, etc", if there's a World War II airplane on the cover, I'm not going to pick it up because I'm flat-out not interested in books set during World War II. Period. That's what readers do when they walk in a bookstore. They react emotionally, even irrationally if you will, to book covers. If "best book cover" is to be judged by strict artistic standards, then go ahead and change the name of the contest. However, if the "best" book cover is one that will actually prompt the most people to pick up the book and crack it open (or at least read the back cover blurb), then keep the contest title as is. (Just my opinion, for what it may or may not be worth.)

Rebecca Talley said...

I believe that Anonymous #1 is doing exactly the same thing: subjectively judging book covers according to his/her own personal values and what is important to him/her when judging a cover.

I think this is a great contest. I don't want to see it changed at all. I voted for the covers I liked best and which ones would intrigue me enough to pick up the book and read the back cover.

Thanks, LDSP, for this contest and for taking the time to conduct it. Congratulations to all the winners and finalists.