B(u)y the Cover: Two Things to Judge

This is the second half of my library-series redaction on the importance of having a good cover for your genre fiction book. As indies, we have a lot of control–read that as responsibility– over many aspects of the soup-to-nuts production of our tales. Don’t shy away from working on the cover just as hard as you did on the mystery reveal or that incredibly cool plot twist halfway through. Give the reader a powerful image, to help them get there.

Send a Message

Last post I put up two covers by authors I know and who I think did at least a fair job. Don’t bother to click back, here’s the first one again:

 Patrick Rockefeller writes a spooky, intellectual brand of horror that is really tight and effective. He hit a no-doubt home run with that image.

This is a horror story.

And that’s the first goal of your cover, to send a message.

About genre. Damn it, yes!

But, But, Unique!

Yes I know, your story crosses genre lines. It brilliantly bends all such staid distinctions drawn ages ago by stuffed shirts from Big Pub. Listen, I don’t doubt that, it wasn’t sarcasm (I use italics for sarcasm). EVERY story worth the read is going to tip-toe into other genres. Horror with a touch of romance, fantasy epics with mysteries to solve, spy novels where the gear starts to look sci-fi. As they say in court, the state stipulates to the facts in question.

And it doesn’t matter at all, my friends. Remember Africa?

Bookstore categories will not reflect your subtle genius. Customers, readers never answer this question with “I need my historical zombie romance to have a spice of the paranormal with a strong underlying theme of alternate genders, and preferably set in the third world”. (See? Sarcasm!)

Those readers do just what you do- they take all their fond memories of masterpieces they’ve read, the admiration for those specific, original moments and every ounce of their personal tastes in reading… and they head for the sign that says “Fantasy/Sci-Fi”. Or “Horror”, “Mystery” or one of the other aisle titles they’re used to seeing.

Messaging Helps the Reader TARGET You

Your cover needs to show them that center of gravity, the best place out of the whole store it belongs. Once you get them in the right area, THEN you can start to entice them to YOUR specific book. As long as you think you’re up against every title from the Bargain Bin to the reptile magazines, you have no shot.

Look at these images. They’re JUST IMAGES. But if they were the primary artwork on the cover of a book, one you found on the floor of the store, could you put them in the right section?

I won’t belabor the point with writing: if you want to give me blow-back, come at me in the comments. But I think it’s clear what I mean.

Sending the Signal Starts with Embracing a Genre

Don’t make selling this tale harder than it already is. The impact of Big Pub is never going away: they’ve put certain stereotypical images into the market and you can’t change that by running at them yelling “booga-boogah!” Study your “home” genre’s best selling covers and keep that closely in mind. You want to sprinkle in some of your book’s unique flavor? Sure, but realize you’re taking your chances. Save it for the blurb. Or better yet, Chapter Six.

A Professional Look: Is Truth-Telling More Important than Book-Selling?

If you’re reading this and asking yourself “who wouldn’t want to put a professional cover on their book?” I need you to go back and look at some of the examples in the previous article again.  So yes, a professional look is crucial though it’s not a guaranteed home-run. I have examples from my own history to use here, but first, let’s gaze once more on the work of Ms. Le Roux:

I think this is a marvelous cover, great execution, font, all the elements in a good place and also very attractive art work. Ms. Le Roux, a South African author, was disappointed with the initial sales results of this YA fiction piece, and was very much aware that she was asking for genre confusion because as she admits, “I don’t have a kickass girl or a brooding male on the cover.”

But it’s a GREAT cover! I asked her if the existence of Big Ben in London was important, and she replied not only that it was but that the rainbow is also precisely drawn from the tale. To my knowledge she is sticking to her guns- the next tale in the series moves to Paris and will have a picture of Notre Dame on the cover. All the best Sunee!

Because When is a Good Time to Show a Bad Cover?

Years ago, when Kindle was taking over the world and print was supposedly dead, some pundits quipped that you didn’t need a great cover because it was only a thumbnail online. And I listened to those people… But engage the brain a sec. Forget about just online e-book sales through Amazon, you want to go narrow that’s fine. But people can grow the screen- you do realize that, yes? And if you pursue the local marketing, what will the radio station put on their website to advertise your interview? What will the indie bookstore have on its posters to draw people in for your author day? Your photo, sure maybe. But if not your cover, then what, all of chapter 1!

Read This- If You Can

Here’s a cover I think illustrates the point very well.

It’s called… um, the title of the book is, ah… it’s Details of Deception, right by, um… it’s by…

See the point? Of course you don’t! Did this person deliberately decide it was a great idea to give us all vertigo just trying to see the first words? I mean, the genre is fairly clear- this is some kind of robbery/embezzlement/hoax thriller where there’s a shortage of honor and oversupply of thieves. But apparently there are no eye-charts because, hooey! That’s a trial.

BTW, imagine how much fun the thumbnail-size of this would be!

Don’t bother, here it is:

 

 

Looking Professional Takes… Wait, Let Me Think…

It’s in the name, people. Pro work involves spending. If you have the talent, great, then your money is time and that’s fine. Otherwise… find someone and get this job done.  As an indie author you will probably take on the writing (in fact, I assume you will be pretty good at it!). Editing? Lots of authors accept the responsibility to edit their own work, and I could go on another blog post just about that–don’t tempt me, I might. Formatting for publication, choosing platforms, arranging the business models, deciding to buy ads, using social media and a zillion other things to push your platform: all of these present you with a choice of DIY and Hire, with variations between.

But the cover– that’s one area I would say is close to non-negotiable. Maybe you’ve schmoozed an aspiring artist. Possibly you can swap services with your confidants. Perhaps you can find a royalty-free image that speaks to you. You could possibly get the software and learn to do it.

But you can’t let the reader wonder whether you’re telling a joke or not:

This cover sends a clear (enough) genre message. It’s paranormal romance. It might also be hilarious, and I rather hope it is. However…

When do two people ever stand like that? Is he going to propose? Or maybe start eating… or was there a crucial moment when she asked him to help find a blackhead.

The title font color? I mean, is it SUPPOSED to look like chewed-up fiance, is that part of the intent? Or is the idea just to make it harder for someone to read it, because you figure if they hold the book long enough they’ll buy it?

Finally, I’ll give you a quarter if the name Ms. Hart’s parents put on the birth certificate was spelled “Crymsyn”. Thanks to Nerine Dorman for pointing out the online treasure that is the Changeling Press for covers like this.

Telling the Truth, and Losing

But enough of laughing at other people’s mistakes, let’s get this blog back to where it belongs, humiliating me.

Like I said, I fell in with a bad crowd at first. I wanted to spend zero money on this new hobby, and I believed the know-it-alls of 2011 when they said I could. I arranged to swap beta-reading for cover art help with a colleague, but I retained full control of the idea for one of my first tales, The Ring and the Flag. In all its glory, here it is from 2011:

So wow, yeah, so many problems. It’s not formatted to the right proportions of a book (too square), the writing is all over the place. And worst of all it’s hard to read. The map looks faded. Here’s the bad news- that was intentional! The original is much crisper and has straight edges. I ASKED for the burn-marks and the smoky effect.

Because that’s the truth. There’s a precise moment in the tale when my hero has a vision of this map bursting into flames, representing a civil war that will rend the North Mark, unless his desperate mission succeeds. Which is cool, the truth is always cool.

It just doesn’t sell any books. But I was only thinking of e-books, and thumbnails, and nothing else back then. Because stupid.

There is Always Hope- For Your Cover

But then the unsinkable Katharina Gerlach sent me the greatest, most author-friendly one-page contract in the history of doing people favors. And as soon as I had signed it, she spilled her plans to redo the covers on my books. Which ones, I asked? Basically, all of them was the response. But let’s start with this one. Here’s how Kat punched up my cover in 2014:

Now that’s what I’m talking about, yeah? Clear contrast, better placement of various title phrases. Actually MORE words on the front. And now, notice the branding elements: this is the often-lost part of good cover design. The Lands of Hope logo in the upper right, the publisher’s imprint in the lower left. Nothing seems in the way, and the mysterious monster is also telling the truth for that’s another theme in the tale.

This is a very proper cover in my view- love to hear your thoughts. But I’m not done.

A few years ago I met online a nice lady named Erin Michelle Sky, who wanted to try doing marketing work for indie authors. She offered me a free marketing plan in return for honest feedback. Last things first, I loved the plan: and my publisher loved it even more. Erin observed that the books in the Shards of Light series were novellas, fairly short and less expensive. Also they are well paced with strong action elements reminiscent of playing a RPG. So, why not try to sell them in the gaming stores! And the cover could even reflect this, maybe a collectible card game look.

Great idea, my publisher cried. BTW, what’s a collectible card game? I gave her some pointers and she ran amok again. Take a gander at the THIRD iteration of my book:

Boom, baby! Now there’s a bit less of a mystery to the monster, but the cover art is the definition of “jumps out at you”. And note the branding elements, essentially suggesting that this is a playing card from M:tG or some such, yet puts all the important information out there.

One important aspect of branding as part of a professional cover design is that it can emphasize the series-look, which circles back to sending a message to the reader that here is a tale they can trust. The two feed each other in a virtuous cycle that drives more people laying down more coin to pick up more titles. That’s the idea. See what you think:

Two Things to Judge the Cover

In summary, the cover of your book deserves your time and your money, if anything does. It tells the first thousand words of your tale whether you like it or not: make sure you’re the author of those “words”. Because people make judgments on less.

Send a Message: Embrace the home genre of what you’ve written. Let the uniqueness and the category bending, the brilliant deconstruction and form-inversion be something they discover in the, you know, writing that comes later.

Look Professional: Or at least not like a collision between MS Paint and your refrigerator art. Not that your kids don’t draw really well, but I think you know what I mean. Use whatever you must to get it right. Including money.

Give me your thoughts! Link to your covers, critique mine, go for it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

B(u)y the Cover: Your Tale’s First Thousand Words

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.

Boom.

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

Image courtesy @SimonMStevens
Image courtesy @SimonMStevens

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:

  1. Cover art
  2. Title
  3. Author name
  4. Sub-title and/or Series Name
  5. Praise and Plaudits
  6. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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:

  1. Send a Message
  2.  Look Professional

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.