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.