Friday, September 21, 2012

Selling a Book By Its Cover

Ask any published writer to talk about cover art, and you’re almost certain to touch off a diatribe on the subject. I myself have had my share of bad book covers, the worst of them arguably being the cover for the second volume of the Adept series which I co-wrote with Katherine Kurtz. Anybody who hadn’t previously read the first book would never have pegged The Lodge of the Lynx for an edgy occult mystery.  On the contrary, the cover painting would have been better suited to a teen adventure romp titled, The Fat Famous Five Go Caving.

This raises the question:  To what extent does cover art influence sales figures?  I.e., can a good cover successfully boost sales of a bad book?  Conversely, can a bad cover scuttle the chances of a good one? 

Regrettably, the answer to both questions is “yes”.

In the first instance, an eye-catching cover can occasionally seduce even a canny reader into buying a lemon represented as passion-fruit.  (We’ve all been had, now and again.)  But this trick only works once.  The next time a glossily packaged title by the same author appears on the shelf of your local book store, you’ll know to give it wide berth.

Matters are more serious in the second instance, where the sales credibility of a good author is at stake.  In the perennial scramble for record-breaking  profits, marketing teams are often less interested in promoting a particular book on the merits of its content than they are in devising a cover concept which they can exploit in their annual sales campaign.  Unfortunately, in some cases this results in conveying mixed messages to the reading public. If this happens, you get stroppy letters from disgruntled readers who bought your book on the strength of erroneous assumptions.  Worse, the people who bought your first book won’t buy your second one, and there’s a better than even chance you’ll end up in the publisher’s sin bin.

When this happens, what can the writer do?  To be brutally frank,  where the big publishing corporations are concerned, the answer is “bugger all.”1  Cover approval is a privilege granted only to best-selling authors – whose books, ironically, would probably sell equally well if they were bound in plain brown paper.

Fortunately, writers can now circumvent the “New York Giants” of the publishing industry to make their books available to their readers by various alternative routes, including self-publication or working through small independent publishing firms.  (See Terry Odell’s excellent and informative post of the 17th of July on the subject of POD publishing.)   This means that writers are no longer at the mercy of a professional marketing team when it comes to selling a book by its cover.  On the contrary, thanks to the wonders of IT, books that don’t fit into the marketing agenda of a big corporation can still reach receptive readers.

1 Readers and writers alike can console themselves with the knowledge that, even when the cover concept fails to sell the book, the marketing teams employed by the big publishing conglomerates still continue to retain their highly paid jobs. 
Debby Harris is an independent editor living in Scotland. Please visit her website for more information about her editing services and fees.

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  1. Good post, Debby. I find it interesting that many who dove right in to self publishing for the freedom to have "artistic control"—designing their own covers—didn't know that they would land knee-deep in ineptitude. Like writing, some things look deceptively easy to others—and designing a great book cover is one of them. Yes, there are some clunkers in the world of the traditionally published, to be sure. I just hope that when my cover is designed, it will be by someone who specializes in just that.

  2. I agree about the importance of having a cover designed by someone who actually has experience in the art. It isn't enough to just slap text on a nice photo. I am so happy with the covers my publisher has done for the Seasons Series.

  3. There certainly are a number of wonderful tools and options for writers who want to disconnect from the gatekeepers of big publishing. BUT. A good book still needs competent copy-editing and cover art. It always saddens me a bit when I get a book that obviously has not been copy-edited at all.

  4. I couldn't agree more. I just received the first draft of my book cover and it looks incredible. Will it help sell books? I think so. :)

  5. They say, 'Don't judge a book by it's cover' ... but we still do.

  6. A bad cover can KILL a sale, no question about it. It's also true that not every writer can judge a good cover. It's the same school of thought as "I may not know art, but I know what I like." Don't even think about applying that mindset to your book cover. Hire a professional - there are plenty of affordable ones today. If you have a book that isn't selling, why not re-do the cover? Bet it helps.

  7. Great post - I'm still giggling at the fat famous five going caving. ;)

    I can vouch for the fact that cover art sells books (and bad cover art doesn't). Years ago now, a certain publisher (name withheld to protect the guilty) put out an ebook of two of my gay male stories with a tasteful picture of a female nude on the front cover.

    Needless to say, it sold in tiny quantities and I haven't been back to that publisher since...

  8. As an avid reader and sometimes artist, I agree that the cover aids in sales immensely.

    On a personal/story note, Debby, I have read the adept books and loved the aromas that the "adept's" mother uses: sandalwood and cinnamon. I have adopted using those after reading about it. Very nice!

  9. I've read of several authors who have made lemonade out of their cover fiascos. They used the bad cover as promotional gimmicks. One had what she called "The Pillsbury Doughboy" as her cover hero, another had a heroine who had three arms, and a third had a serious amount of pink on a story that wasn't about fluffy bunnies and moonbeams.

    Each said essentially, "Sure, this is a stinky cover, but buy the book anyway."

    Another had his Western novel's cowboy hero in a pink shirt! He had a caption this cover contest which was really funny.

    I've had my own series of near disasters with covers including an artist who didn't understand that covers are iconic to their genre and wanted to put an action adventure cover on my romantic suspense. One who didn't have a clue about science fiction and wanted to put a flying plate UFO on a space opera. Another gave me the now infamous "Galactic Grope" cover which looked like a man's fingers pinching the nipple of a gigantic breast rather than a man's shackled hands reaching for a star.

    Since someone always wants to see this cover after I mention it, here's a link:

    In one case, I actually commissioned an artist myself because my publisher's artists simply didn't get what science fiction is.

    And I definitely agree that someone who has true talent in graphic design and covers should create that cover instead of the author using some stock photo and bad lettering.

    According to publishing studies, the cover is an author's biggest promotional tool, and it's foolish not to have a good one.

  10. Like Christopher, I'm going to say that most people ignore the advice not to judge a book by its cover. In fact, we do exactly that.

    The cover on my first novel is a real dud, and I still haven't come up with one that suits me or the story. The cover on my second book, however, is a winner with a major "WOW!" factor. Now if I can just apply that to the first one when I get around to doing a revision of the interior . . .

  11. I'm fortunate with my publisher that I actually have some input to what I would like to see on my covers. Many don't with traditional publishers. I agree, you DO judge a book by its cover. I'll often pick up a book because of how it looks.


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