As I've mentioned before (and once or twice or thrice since), cover art is important for your book. Yes, we've all heard that age-old adage about judging a book by its cover, but really, who doesn't do that? I don't know about you, but I go for that foil-stamped hardcover at the front of the store every time, and I'm inundated with the marketing back-and-forth that got it there on a daily basis.
To briefly rehash my initial post on the subject, a good cover should do at least three things:
1. Tell us what the book is called and who wrote it;
2. Give us an idea of the book's genre (thereby already telling us whether we're likely to enjoy it);
3. Provide an iconic, interesting image, so as to—as Seth Godin puts it—"tee up the reader so the book has maximum impact."
Occasionally you can break a rule or two; for example, it's not always a cardinal sin to omit the author's name from the cover of the book (assuming the cover image is sufficiently arresting). But a major misstep here (such as broadcasting the wrong genre or creating an easily forgettable cover) can tank a book's sales.
I'd like to add two more items to the List of Three (rendering it now, I suppose, the List of Five):
4. The cover should "pop" on a large display table;
5. Don't forget about the spine.
In yesterday's comments, Adam wondered whether thicker, fancier spines might be good investments for publishers. While thicker could be a problem (shelf dimensions are pretty standard, meaning the book would either become too tall or too wide for regular bookstore shelves; additionally, thicker books tend to warp more easily), I'm all for more eye-catching spines. It's tricky work, but if you're stuck without co-op, a unique spine design can get you off the shelf and into readers' hands.
As for "popping" on a display table—well, I look for our front-of-store titles on a pretty regular basis, and there have been a few that I've missed that were right in plain sight. If I can't find them when I'm looking for them, how are you, the consumer, supposed to find them when you're just casually browsing? Successful books stand out from the crowd, and the only way many books will get into browsers' hands in the first place is for them to distinguish themselves through eye-catching, unique cover art.
What can you do if your cover doesn't blow your mind? Again, rehashing an earlier post:
• Tell your agent as soon as possible. (Preferably during business hours.) He or she will be able to discern whether your concern is 1.) appropriate and 2.) something that can be addressed/fixed by the publishing house, and will then do everything he/she can to communicate the problem to the editor/publisher and get it fixed.
• If your agent is temporarily unreachable, write an e-mail to your editor. Please calm yourself down before you do this. Don't send an e-mail or make a phone call in anger or panic. This is never a good idea.
• Look on the bright side. Best case scenario: the publisher eats the cost of a cover adjustment and all is well. Worst case scenario: nothing changes and your sales may suffer as a result, but it's very unlikely your career will be seriously damaged. Most likely, some in-between scenario will occur, and you're likely to emerge from it relatively unscathed. And if your book is coming out in hardcover, remember—there's always the paperback.
I'll also add:
• There's always the e-book. The cover counts here, too, but not as much as in the world of physical books. It's far from optimal, but you can still see good digital sales numbers with a bad cover.
Monday: comp titles, revisited!