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This is part of my library-talk series around the writerly life, and I must say at the outset– it works much better there.
I like to talk to individual attendees, hone in on the genre and elements that concern them, and hear their feedback. Online, I can only hope for the last of those three if you leave me a comment. I guarantee I’ll come back to you!
Start with the Bottom Line:People will absolutely, positively, and mercilessly judge your book by its cover. Fair, schmair, they are going to. You did. We all do. Remember the cover of your favorite books? You bet. Remember any of the ones you didn’t buy? Bet not.
You’re Focused on the Words, Great: But Don’t Skip the Ones that Come First
Quite properly, you’re thinking about getting to that final page of, you know, the writing: popping down the period and adding “The End”. It’s a worthy goal! But you know it’s not done. This book has to be published and marketed too. It hardly matters if you have an agent and a major publisher lined up, that will still be largely (mostly) (alright, fine, ALL) your job. Most authors I speak to are aware of this and they work at (or at least fret about) the use of social media, query letters, promotion. But I think in the stampede to get from book to back shelf, there’s one crucial chore where many authors spend too little time and energy.
What the heck will be on the front?
The cover of the book often gets short shrift from aspiring and independent authors for a variety of reasons. Most don’t feel they have the talent, and that’s in part because they think the cover is nothing else than the artwork. Some don’t think they have the time, which is kind of odd because no bestseller in the last century went to the Barnes and Noble under a clear plastic binder. What, exactly, do you think writing a story comprises if you don’t believe there will somehow be a cover on it?
Like it or not- and I’m sensing you don’t- the first words of your tale are the picture the reader sees on the front. In fact, it’s the first thousand words of your tale. But you haven’t written that yet! You hadn’t honestly thought about it at all, perhaps.
And that leads to a dangerous idea about book covers: that someone else is going to handle it for you. Dangerous because, in the end, they might.
Traditional Publication Can Help: But Maybe You Shouldn’t Look!
There is nothing wrong with looking for traditional publication. And if you get a contract, one of the most likely aspects of that deal will be that some load of cover design will be taken off your hands. Whether you like it or not.
Because face it, you might not have thought much about the cover, or thought that you personally could do it. But there’s most likely an image there. Or several. And a SLEW of images that are Not My Cover, yes? Your book is unique, a genre-shattering masterwork and the cover deserves to reflect that.
But trad-pub will resolutely not care. They’ve got their own people and will quite likely impose the view of the ones they’re paying over yours.
And here’s a thing: you can accuse them of being conservative, or even chicken. But this stuff seems to work. Traditional publishing knows there are certain images, colors, effects that work to suggest to a potential reader that this book is for them.
Making it Rain Down in Africa
Take a gander at this image, with thanks to Mr. Michael Silver who assembled it years ago. Thirty-six bestseller-type books from all genres, which happen to be set in or concern the continent of Africa. Fifty-seven countries, 900 million people, millions of years of human occupation. And this is all that means to trad-pub. Orange to red backgrounds, sun ALWAYS setting, banyan trees, giraffes and guys who haven’t shaved. Must have three of those elements, and then you’re good. Everything from Singing Grass to Solomon’s Mines, but don’t try to tell THEM what means “Africa” to a reader. Deal with it.
But hey, trad-pub! I’m not spitting on winning a nice deal and getting their help. Just something to consider about the way you control the tale. So, what happens when you don’t win a deal and yet still want to publish? Still think you don’t have to do the work?
If so, you’re not alone. There are some, shall we say, incredible book covers out there these days, from authors who I guess just figured people would flip open and read the story. Don’t be one of those authors. Or actually, these…
More to It
First off, let’s recognize something I hinted at earlier. A book cover is more than just the artwork. Hard to be precise but certainly most book covers include:
Sub-title and/or Series Name
Praise and Plaudits
Other Branding and Design Elements (⇐ Yeah, this is the big one you’re missing)
Let me briefly say, you should also attend to the spine (whether you would turn the book sideways to read the title, that kind of thing) and of course there’s blurb material on the back, with maybe a cover-wrap of the art work, a photo of you, etc. But for now let’s stick with the front cover only.
Who, in their right mind, thought it was a good idea to run with this cover for a book?
I mean, can anyone out there tell me what it’s about? Children’s story? But then why a word like “Drover”? Fantasy (purple dog)? One attendee suggested “maybe it’s a sticker book” and I think that’s genius, because look at the peel-n’-stick quality to the icons! I mean, real cow, miniature sheep and then cartoon kid?
Let me stop and make two disclaimers:
I have never met any of the authors whose covers I’m using as bad examples here. I mean them no great harm, and I did not search them out. The oh-no covers I use in this series are all at least three years old to my knowledge. These are drawn from a site called, no really, LousyBookCovers.com. Every week or so they put up new “winners” and if you don’t listen to me you could be getting some extra exposure there.
My own work will also be used as an example of the not-so-great in this series, so hold onto your flensing knife until you get there and see if I’ve been fair. Look it up, it’s horrible.
Two Things Your Cover MUST Do
I’ll go into more detail and use examples in the following article, but since you’ve all been so patient I’ll give you the sneak peek now. Your book cover needs to do two things, which in the end are quite closely related:
Send a Message
My early covers did neither. I feel better about them now and by the way, they sell better too. But, you ask, what kind of message? How do I KNOW it’s professional? I’m very glad you did, and will give you some thoughts next time.
For now, look at these two and decide– really good, or sort of good? Kind of bad, or “Drover’s Luck” level bad? HINT: These are authors I HAVE met.
I think maybe we have kids so we can be reminded of that time we forgot, back when we were children- that phase where every answer was followed by another “why”? Our parents all gave up, just like I did, when it got somewhere around Bill Cosby’s immortal question “why is there air?”. But just this week, my daughter got on the phone with me- during a rare business trip- all in a lather about an ending she had just seen on the TV, one I knew very well and which doesn’t make sense. She’s sixteen now, the pace of “why” has settled down to where I almost miss it. I was rather busy, and this was too tough to answer on the phone. But I promised her I’d talk it through when I got back.
Before that happened, I finished the book I was reading on the train. And I answered a question for myself. WHY was I writing?
I Hate Not-Writing: Makes You Think Too Much!
Not that I’ve done much recently- things have been quite unsettled but I think the new normal is coming around. And I never stopped feeling the hunger, to get back to this particular story and face its intimidating and alluring heroine again. Once I got started, I never really needed motivation to write- I wasn’t asking why in that sense. But I had honestly lost my compass a bit- this priestess, she’ll throw you for a loop too! And I’m very thankful I decided to read the book I had with me. There are no accidents…
It’s called “Epic” by John Eldredge and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to write, especially any kind of fiction. Fair warning- the author is a religious man and his thesis is rather startling. I’d be sorry if that drove you off by itself- the book is very accessible, and it flies right by even for a moderate-pace reader like myself. But I’ll give you a couple of points from it by way of explanation.
John wasn’t asking why we write, but why we read, or watch, or listen to tales ourselves. His answer was alarmingly simple.
We go after these tales because at their heart ALL good stories are showing us elements of OUR story.
And our story, of course, is a part of THE story: this is where he gets more spiritual, but as a Catholic that doesn’t bother me a bit.
We feel the thrill of the heroism, the struggle, the romance in tales- and we recognize, deep down, that somewhere something has gone seriously wrong in the tale we’re living through. Who can fail to notice how much suffering, frustration, and yeah, betrayal exists? For us and for the world, I mean. We work for the happy ending- yeah, the happily-ever-after ending, any good person does that. We often don’t feel like it, but our lives are epic! That’s a meaningful word, of course to me- in epic fantasy the likes of which I’m trying to chronicle, things come around, the story means something, lots is at stake and needs to be saved.
So There IS a Reason
It thrilled me and brought me back to really focus on my current tale. THAT’s why I’m writing- because it helps me to chronicle the specific aspects of my world, the characters I’ve come to know, gives me clues about how to bring my own epic life to a happy conclusion.
And we all do this for each other. Probably Eldredge’s best quote is the way we likely feel, at least sometimes, about the story we are starring in:
For most of us, life feels like a movie we’ve arrived at forty-five minutes late. Something important seems to be going on… maybe.
But we’re lost, or behind the plot so often, and here’s the key of all human existence. (Pretty cool claim, huh? When you write epic fantasy you get to go after stuff like this) We cannot find our place in our story- in THE story- by ourselves. So we turn to each other and ask “what’s happened?” We watch romantic TV series, we can’t get enough super-hero movies, we check out the horror titles in the bookstore; and we listen to that crazy uncle who’s never told the truth in his life but man, can he spin a yarn after dinner.
I need an answer; so I read and I listen, and most of all these past five years, I write. And I think it’s a big part of why you read or write too- I can’t wait to see your next part, because when I enjoy it, you’re helping me to get “there” in my own epic tale.
Do It For Yourself–And For Humanity!
Don’t think so? Hey, free country- but I really recommend this book. It restored my spirits, and that has to be good for me. One more quote from Eldredge- I don’t think anyone can deny that we devour tales (and with fiction tales especially, that begs the question why), or that we have this haunted feeling of being lost. Where else in the alleged-real world can we find THIS kind of answer? Eldredge quoted a fellow named Neil Postman:
In the end, science does not provide the answers most of us require. Its story of our origin and our end is, to say the least, unsatisfactory. To the question, “How did it all begin?”, science answers, “Probably by an accident”. To the question, “How will it all end?”, science answers, “Probably by an accident”. And to many people, the accidental life is not worth living.
Like I said, there are no accidents. It may not matter whether there is a guiding mind behind the cosmos of the alleged-real world. Maybe I’m mistaken, maybe Eldredge is. But that point about the scientific view is dead-on, to tempt the pun. And to not wander around feeling lost on the plot, to live a life with some purpose, is surely better. I’ve remembered that recently- and I will certainly begin to write again soon.
After all- my life is EPIC.
How about you?
P.S.: What ending did Genna want to know “why” about? The ending of Monty Python and the Holy Grail which her mother and I had finally allowed her to see. We talked about parody and satire, and I said things a bit like I have here. Maybe straight-out medieval virtues don’t exactly “fit” in our story today- Arthur and his knights would probably have to go to jail. But if that’s true, why did we laugh so hard? What was so TRUE about courage, and faith, and even chastity that we can chuckle when it’s made fun of? And more importantly, what ending are we replacing the quest for the Grail with? That might be more analysis than the troupe figured it could stand- the Muppet-master Jim Henson once said of his comedy sketches “When you’re stuck for an ending, you can always blow something up, or if that doesn’t work, throw penguins in the air”. Sometimes the ending is senseless, but it doesn’t make the story worthless- it just means it isn’t truly over yet. If you’re still alive, you know what that feels like.