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The Lounge > Defining the Book Cover's Job

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message 1: by Richard (new)

Richard Sutton (richardsutton) | 110 comments One of the most difficult, yet most enjoyable components of producing your own book is selecting a cover. For most of us authors, your book's cover, wrapped around a few solid signatures of text paper is the fulfillment of a dream.

Still, this dream is not without its ragged edges and troublesome moments. One of the most important things I learned in my more than thirty years as a corporate graphic designer and adman, is the difference between an idea and a product. It can be a hard series of negotiating sessions with especially a client who is marketing a new invention, to let go, just a little bit of the dream-side, and embrace the product.

An author's dreams live on in their words, but it is the product that is placed before potential readers in the market-place. Even in the new world of eBooks and diminishing book sellers, a book remains a tangible product. Like every consumer product, a very big part of the pitch securing a sale lies in the packaging design.

The cover is a book's packaging, pure and simple. It must reflect on the book's content, of course, but more importantly, it must motivate the buyer to make a purchase. There are specific steps utilized in packaging design since it became a recognized step-child of the advertising industry that can be applied directly to book cover design.

Yet as packaging design pervades our lives and culture, most of us remain "out of the loop" when it comes to the mechanisms at play. Why do you pick up that particular box? Why is that cover illustration more attractive to you? Why is the title more catchy? What made you turn the book over to read the back cover? How does the color scheme make you feel? All of these are calculated, engineered responses, not exclusively a matter of chance or even personal choice.

There are a series of very specific exercises that Indie Authors need to embrace before they begin the task of pulling a book cover together. Some of these are discussed in a series of articles I wrote two years back, for under the guise of the Indie Curmudgeon, but we can discuss them all here.

The first exercize is to spend a lot of time browsing eRetailers' sites for the books that are selling well in your genre, to readers of your target age group and gender. Sales are not always the exclusive domain of recommendation. Cover art has a lot to do with it. If a particular cover grabs your eye more than another, note it, copy the image (Right-click, Save as...) to a page on your hard drive where you can spend time comparing them. Ask yourself questions about what made you think you'd like to read this. More importantly, conduct your own mini-focus group sessions with readers, asking them which book they would be most likely to pick up in a book store, or follow the links to an excerpt online. Compile some notes, and after a while, you'll see elements common to the books that have a cover that motivates.

This exercize alone will save lots of time and aggravation when it comes to communicating what you want to a graphics professional, if designing your own cover is not the hat you're wearing today.

message 2: by Richard (new)

Richard Sutton (richardsutton) | 110 comments Well, that is the old saw... however, once a book is in print or published to eFormat, the cover is needed to package the product. It's nice to try and keep a literary viewpoint when it comes to book covers, but it just doesn't stack up with the history and fact that once a book is put in front of the market,the publisher (or you if you're an Indie)must use every tool at your disposal to market the book. While the cover should reflect something of the content, I believe that the primary thing a cover must do is SELL the content, otherwise, a simple file folder label with title and author's name would suffice! That doesn't diminish the importance of the cover -- it makes it more important to the overall impact a book makes in the reader market. I see the covers reflection of the content as more of a post-sale, affirmation for the reader, bringing back memories of what they read and cementing their relationship with the author. I find myself viewing past covers with fondness for the stories, and if in a book store, I can generally get a feeling of whether a given book is for me by the way the cover is handled.

A perfect example is the often riotous color and salacious subjects on many romance novel covers. Someone looking for a romance novel to get swept away with will see this an an invitation, while others (like me) will turn away from it to find something closer to what I want to read. That is marketing, in it's best form of information dispensing. There are many other facets, too.

message 3: by Richard (new)

Richard Sutton (richardsutton) | 110 comments It's true... as is the converse, that many debut authors' names seem like an afterthought on their covers. The cover has to also establish the writer's "brand" as much as anything else.

I hate marketspeak... but it is the lingua franca of publishing.

message 4: by Chrysoula (new)

Chrysoula Tzavelas | 47 comments My study of covers has suggested that the primary point of a cover is to tell the onlooker what the novel is. The same goes for a title, to a lesser extent. There are trends in covers and those trends are important, and varying from them should only be done if you feel like the message being sent is important. For example, my urban fantasy does not, in the slightest, have a standard urban fantasy cover. (It was mostly chosen by my publisher.) And it's a great cover that a lot of people have praised-- but it doesn't clearly inform on what the book IS. We went with a distinct cover because the book varies from traditional urban fantasy in a lot of ways, and we had access to some really eyecatching art. But if it ends up on bookshelves in a generic 'Fantasy' section, nobody who sees it is going to think 'urban fantasy. I like urban fantasy, and that cover is super awesome, I should pick it up and read the blurb and see if I like it'.

Luckily, it does have a title sort of in keeping with what's popular in UF, so there's that.

I'm planning on renaming a book I originally intended as Epic Fantasy when I wrote it. Renaming it and picking a cover to fit in with YA trends, since I think it could work there.

message 5: by Richard (new)

Richard Sutton (richardsutton) | 110 comments Trends are, of course, there for the taking and using. I'm sure your publisher chose your cover after examining the genre's most popular covers. It proves that conveying something of what is inside does not need to be a picture book report. If a cover conveys the emotional hit, and motivates the reader to give it a shot, then it works!

message 6: by Robert (new)

Robert (robertdownsbooks) | 11 comments Great points on covers. It's your reader's first introduction to your book, so you want it to be a good, distinct one. What troubles me about some of the self-published work out there is that the covers aren't distinct or unique enough to help sell the novel. If the cover doesn't sell the novel, then there are a number of readers who won't even bother with the content.

I do like a solid cover combined with solid content, and a description that helps grab my attention. Otherwise, I'm liable to skip right over your book and move on to the next one.

message 7: by A.G. (new)

A.G. Claymore | 27 comments I think, for eBooks, we have to step back from our story and come up with a cover that places our work in it's intended genre while giving a hint of it's content.

Too often, we want to tell a story with the cover art and you just can't get away with that on an image that displays at roughly an inch in height on the Amazon 'Also bought' widget.

It seems like the ideal cover for the online bookshelf is something that you can recognize at one inch but it reveals a bit more when you click on it to see the 2 1/2 inch version.

I'm not quite there yet...

message 8: by Richard (new)

Richard Sutton (richardsutton) | 110 comments I agree, AG -- in my experience, a cover design should "hold up" legibly, in the smallest size it will be seen in. Of course, when seen larger, more detail becomes clear. If "detail" is critical to the nature of your book's kernel, then it should catch and hold the eye of the viewer, but if the story/feeling/direction/texture can be told in less detail, then it should be as simple as you can make it and still sow the seeds. The whole idea is to insert a question in the viewer's mind -- one, that only by opening and reading, will be answered. Of course, it's easy to see how important the typography is to a design working well, small.

That's how packaging makes sales!

message 9: by Richard (new)

Richard Sutton (richardsutton) | 110 comments I'm offering all Indie Authors a free critique and consultation on your book covers. I can offer suggestions, and provide the opinion of a guy who spent many, many years in advertising and packaging design and marketing. I do covers, too, but I'm not an illustrator although I work with them. Go to: and click on the Free No strings Book Cover Evaluation Ad, down to the left.

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