Sunday, March 15, 2015

How Important is a Book Cover?

The old saw, you can’t tell a book by its cover, is by-and-large wrong in today’s publishing environment. It’s true that you can’t tell the quality of a book, unless you know the author, but you can tell a lot else about a book by its packaging. A book’s cover can indicate its genre, its story premise, its setting, and its tone. Think of all of the components of a cover: the art, the dust jacket text, the promotional quotes, and even the title. In fact, the type of edition, hardback, trade paperback, mass market or eBook tells us something.

A cover for a Stephen King book is distinctly different from an Alan Furst cover. And authors beware, if your cover sends mixed messages that will confuse the reader and lead to disappointment. Imagine if a Stephen King cover were put on an Alan Furst novel, or vice versa.

Covers change over time, to be sure. Google The Great Gatsby and see how the cover art has evolved, but it’s always appropriate to the story, just updated in style.  

I contend that a writer should be just as particular about a book’s packaging as about its contents. But the cover, except for self-published books, is usually the prerogative of the publisher. The conflict between author and publisher over covers, when it does come up, is usually between the publisher’s desire for the cover to make an immediate impact, and the author’s aim to have the cover make an appropriate impact. These are not necessarily conflicting goals, of course. Hopefully, whatever tension arises between author and publisher over a book’s cover is resolved to produce one that serves both ends, catching the buyer’s eye and reflecting the content.  
Douglass Seaver, Author 
The Fourth Rule


Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

Good post, Doug. And often with a big name author all that's on the cover is his/her name in huge letters and the title a bit smaller. The author's name is what's important. Not so much with the rest of us.

Nancy LiPetri said...

I really enjoyed finding just the right kind of wooded path for my cover. Billie and I evaluated various photos until we found one that conveyed mystery and uncertainty. And I have had readers say the cover made them want to find out what that path was about. Yeah!

Shalanna said...

Again, I disagree wholeheartedly. I think the cover is really not very important, as long as it isn't gross or misleading as far as genre/style. Most readers will check out the opening paragraphs and perhaps flip through to see if the book is going to be to their taste. They will be in deep doodoo (IMHO) if they go by the cover of a book.

I generally ignore all those pull quotes and endorsements, because I know how they are obtained. (LOL) I suppose some readers may be influenced by that. The back cover copy is useful--but that's not the front cover, which is what we generally mean when we refer to the cover and not judging a book by the cover.

E-book buyers don't ever see your cover after the first glimpse of the tiny icon on Amazon. Most of the time, you are hand-selling the book at a table at a festival, signing, or whatever, and the cover will not have as much influence over the buyer as YOU will. On the rare occasions (blessed be they!) that your book is on a bookstore shelf, your cover will be important as far as catching a buyer's eye and signaling to them what the genre is. (That is about the only part of this discussion where our Venn diagrams intersect: I do think that buyers expect certain types of covers on certain genres.)

However, the adage is "Don't judge a book by its cover," and I still believe that readers are discerning and do not choose books because of their covers. Readers want particular content, and that's what they will go after. If your cover doesn't upset them or turn them off, you're probably OK. It's always nice to have a "pretty" cover, but as Marilyn says, most of the big names have covers with their names in a huge font (Tyrannosaurus 25) and the title in a slightly smaller font, and then some vague sort of image or another. It used to be that covers were based on the story inside the book, but that ship sailed years ago, for the most part.

A proverb of adage becomes part of the culture because it contains some essential truth. This one is saying that you'll be sorry if you DO judge a book/person/group by the obvious shell such as the cover . . . including that people are not always what they seem, even if they're shiny and pretty on the outside (they can be tarry evil on the inside). And that a book with a rotten cover may be a really good book. You will be ripping yourself off if you go by the outer shell and never look inside, with books as well as with people and situations.

That's why I wouldn't worry too much about the cover. I've heard this mess from romance writers for 25 years or more, but that was more important back when readers would walk up to the supermarket rack to choose the five romances/SF books or whatever they would read that week/month. The cover was an attractant at that time. Now, it is not that way. If we could get our books into supermarket racks--then we could talk about catching readers' eyes. But if we could get our books into the supermarkets, we wouldn't be here--we'd be throwing a wild party at the beach to celebrate! (LOL)

I often wonder how many readers even remember titles/authors. My husband has been married to a writer for (ahem) 25+ YEARS, and he still doesn't remember who wrote the last book he loved or the books he likes. He remembers a FEW names, and that's ALL. I despair, because I am sure many chronic readers are the same way. Remember the name of the writer, people! (sigh) Branding can work very well for writers and musicians and other artists. Sometimes it's all we have going for us.

Ann K. Howley said...

I'm reminded of an author I know who cried when she saw the cover her big NY publisher chose for her first novel. I didn't think it was so terrible, but it devastated her. Nice post, Doug.

John Gordon said...

Before a book buyer can check out your book in a bookstore, the store's buyer must be sufficiently attracted and willing to read the story. Only then will the store stock your book and their patrons have an opportunity to be similarly hooked by the cover - to read the back cover blurbs - and, finally, to peruse the first couple of paragraphs!

Beryl Reichenberg said...

With children's books, the covers and illustrations often sell the book. These are the first things that catch the eye of a kid or buyer. Young children like bright colors and characters they can relate to on the cover. Thus how a book is displayed becomes very important. Once children become older and start to read chapter books and series, they begin to collect and read books in the series like adults. My six year old grandson has just started reading and is now reading the "Bad Kitty" series. What kid wouldn't want to read about a bad kitty, especially if he has a cat or two at home? These books and covers are lively and funny and, of course, about a cat, a perfect combination for a kid. And of course we all want him to read, read, read!

Sharon Arthur Moore said...

I love my "food on a fork" cover for Mission Impastable. I hope we can keep that up with sequels. I disagree with Shalanna in that when I buy a Kindle book, the cover is right there for me to see and evaluate. Additionally, I always start with the book cover (you have to back up on Kindle to do that) to remind myself of why I bought this book. And when I delete it, I do so from the cover page. Covers do help sell a book. Thanks for starting the dialogue, Doug.

Shalanna said...

The only exception to the rule about covers (for me, anyway--that I never really notice them because I am checking out the content of the novel) is UNLEAVENED DEAD by Ilene Schneider (a fellow OTP author!) The book's cover is patterned after the classic, iconic Manischewitz box of matzo meal. (They have apparently redesigned their boxes--but anyone who has ever seen those boxes around Passover on the supermarket shelves will recognize it.) I think readers WOULD buy that one just to get the cover! But for the most part, I think readers are text-oriented (at least the ones I know are) and really don't pay much attention to the artwork on the cover. Anyone who chooses a book based on the cover . . . is making a mistake, IMHO. It's the story and the quality of the prose that really count.

Billie Johnson said...

This is a great discussion! I always go for pleasing the author with the cover design. I believe that for our press, the authors are the front line sales force, and they need to feel good about the product, and more than anything, that is my goal...that the author feels good about the book.

That said, sometimes you run into authors who will just not get happy, and insist and even demand, nuanced change after nuanced change, and come up with all kinds of challenging demands often wanting to bring in their own designer (the worst!) until the do-overs make me want to throw myself off a bridge. I try hard to stop such scenarios ASAP since, when I am bogged on one task, hundreds of other tasks go without attention. To put it another way, a high maintenance author, in effect, cheats all you other authors, and I see this as not fair to our authors in general.

I think a lot of this discussion comes down to ART vs. Commerce...and in order to stay in the ball game, I try to stay more focused on the commerce side of things.

Now, a few comments on the WOW factor. Newsflash...not everyone experiences WOW in the same way, so trying for a universal WOW is not a worthy goal. I don't think book buyers place all that much requirement on the presence or not of WOW...I think they look more at the likelihood of whether the book will sell in their environment, and the strength of the marketing plan, if one is included with the package.

I think a cover's job is to be get the reader to look further, some people look at the back, some read the opening, or the end. It needs to be adequate. And if it can suggest the genre, that is good too, though I am amazed at how many big house books have text-only covers.

My personal habit, though, is to read the blurb...I like to get an indication of the story that a picture just doesn't give me. Also, I read a lot of books by authors whose other works I have enjoyed, and this is why name recognition is really a better place to put your efforts than endless fiddling over the fonts or whatever on your cover.