Monday, September 5, 2011

Opinion — Can you Sell a Book by Its Cover?

How important is a book cover? In a crime writing discussion group recently organized by Len Wanner, interviewer, blogger and author of Dead Sharp, this question was raised. Several writers posted their thoughts. Most, if not all of them agreed that a good cover is not only important, but even more critical now that ebooks are a huge chunk of book sales.

I’d guess that it probably matters less to the brand writers of the world — Forbes Magazine’s top earning authors —James Patterson and Janet Evanovich, for example — because people will buy their books because they buy their books. I do the same with some authors. I’d read the next Michael Connelly if it came in a brown paper wrapper. But if you are one of the many unknowns or not particularly well-known writers vying for attention, the cover is one of the few opportunities you have to stand out and court the potential reader from your spot in or near oblivion. And this is true whether your potential reader is browsing in real or virtual space.

However — and this is for readers, rather than writers — before the question of what makes a good cover, I want to mention what one author experienced. She heard from an angry reader who claimed the writer was a fraud who conspired with the publisher to make more money by releasing the same book with different covers. Apparently, the reader bought a book at an airport store and got the British cover and later bought the same book with the American publisher’s cover thinking they were two different books. The fact is that the author probably played no part in it.

It was an accidental deception on the part of the publishers too. It’s just that even in countries speaking the same (nearly the same anyway) language, there are enough cultural differences for publishers to take different approaches to marketing. Sometimes not only is the cover different, but the name is changed. A German translation of my short novel, Eclipse of the Heart, set in Mexico, caused marketers to determine there was a need for a drastic change in cover art. Not only that, but the title was also changed. It became Die Tequila Falle, or “The Tequila Case” — though a case of tequila was never mentioned in the book. If my royalty statement was any indication, the name change didn’t increase sales. Perhaps they should have called it “The Taco Caper,” or the “Sinister Sombrero Stereotype.”

At any rate, unless you are a Patterson or Evanovich or are self-publishing, you probably have no say in what the cover will look like. The early Shanahans, published by St. Martins, had covers that completely perplexed me. Frankly, I wouldn’t have looked at the books and therefore, would not have purchased them. Whether the covers were smart choices or not, the point is that, like most authors, I had not been consulted. And maybe, just maybe, I shouldn’t have been. In theory, publishers have professional marketers who have the training and resources (focus groups, for example) to guide them through these competitive, though I suspect still very subjective, waters.

However, if you do have some say on your cover, what would make it “good?” First, stating the obvious, it should be a visual statement that encourages the browser to do something more than glance at it in passing. You want them to pick it up, look at the flap, read a few paragraphs. On a bookstore shelf, for the most part, that means the spine of the book needs to have appeal. Hard to do, but some definitely stand out while others don’t. Second, if the writer is lucky, the book will be face out on the shelf or face up on a table. In that case the browser will see something in roughly a rectangular space of eight inches by five inches. This is good — a kind of miniature poster. However, on Amazon, as seen on my relatively large computer screen, the cover image is slightly less than one and a half inches by less than one inch. I keyed in “mysteries and thrillers,” on Amazon’s “search,” and 12 of the nearly 68,000 results were displayed on the first screen. I breezed through several pages. I could not read the title of some books, or the author’s name, let alone get a sense of the tone of the book. In some cases, the image was no more than splotches of color. And this is on a large desktop computer. How about an iPad, Nook, or Kindle? So, the ebook phenomenon suggests we create covers with those graphic limitations in mind. Perhaps we should look at postage stamp designers.

While the most important thing about a book is the story, the second most important thing about a book, in my mind, is the cover. Maybe you can or maybe you can’t tell a book by its cover, because the cover can be dishonest, actually downright deceitful. But you can sell a book by its cover — or at least initiate a possible sale. So, don’t skimp. Work with a talented graphic designer. I hope that you and your designer make it an honest reflection of what’s inside. The quality and style of the cover speak volumes about the quality and style of the writing. Honesty is the best policy if you want to build an audience. Yet not all writers have the interest or innate skill to make their crime fiction stand out graphically among the 68,000 other books in the mystery and thriller category without a little help. But if we as writers are involved, we need to at least know what the cover is supposed to do: Call attention to our books, and make the potential reader want to know more.

Caption: Here's an old cover that works well in the virtual world. Thanks to Killer Covers.


r2 said...

Interestingly enough, when James Patterson started out, he redesigned all the covers of his books--he hated what the publishers did. He based his "look' on brand-building principles he learned in the advertising biz.

BTW: I think the cover is one of the most important marketing tools a writer has.

Ronald Tierney said...

Interesting about Patterson. Do you know if it was after a best seller that he was allowed to do that?