Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Year in Review: Part 2

Today: covers!

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!


  1. I LOVE covers. The only thing I love more than covers is titles. And, having seen the sausage made, I live in fear of the lack of control I will have over the creation of covers for my books. All the various scandals of the whitening of characters on book covers not only outrages me but worries me. I have stories where the main characters are not white. I don't want to be a victim!

  2. I totally judge books by their covers. I think covers are far more important than many people want to admit. I wish I could have more say over what cover I will have on my books. I dream of Alan Lee doing my covers, but I wouldn't mind John Howe either!

  3. Eric, with my novel coming out from Forge in April 2011, I really appreciate these posts. I haven't talked Co-ops yet but I have been in touch with local bookstores. I'll make more connections with them and with others in neighbouring cities (road trip!) I have seen a tentative cover and while I liked the image, I was concerned about the type style. I mentioned it to my editor and he felt the same way and had already asked or something different. Thanks for all this info, it's really helping.

  4. On an agent blog some time back, the agent said that the only thing that will convince a big publisher to change the cover is the cover won't attract the targeted audience for the book. The agent, not the author, should approach the editor about this with specific details.

  5. Congratulations on your one year blog-iversary, Eric. I remember when you first started "by public demand". You've been on my list of favourites ever since. (I see you suffer the usual comment spam problems as the rest of us.)

    My choice of a book often depends on my first impression, and the cover is key. I'm not published yet but when I reach that point I'll remember your suggestions about to how to make sure the cover is as effective as possible.

  6. I try really hard not to let a cover influence me, but you're right about browsing. Sometimes I don't know what sort of book I'm after when I'm shopping, so it certainly helps if a cover pops out. If I don't have all day to hang out in the bookshop and scan covers, I'm more likely to pick up an eye-catcher.

    The same goes for titles, actually. I'm less likely to grab a "Taken" or "Haunted", and more likely to go for something unique like "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy".

    Thanks for the great post!