A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

5 May

We are often exhorted not to judge a book by its cover.  Makes you wonder why all books don’t come with plain covers, doesn’t it?  Of course, we would still look at them and wonder what the difference between a plain white cover and plain black one was.  Is a red-covered book spicy; is a blue one cool? And what to make of fuchsia?

Book covers remain an essential part of marketing. E-book covers may be rendered in shades of grey but the web-sites that sell them still display a full-color version.  Covers matter – if they didn’t big chain bookstores wouldn’t take an extra cut to display books cover forward as opposed to spine forward.  A cover tells a potential buyer a great deal.  Most importantly it tells them whether it might be a book for them.  The right cover increases the chances a buyer will pick the book up and that immediately increases the chance they will buy it.  On-line book covers are less effective that way since on-line books are harder to browse – at least the way people browse books in bookstores.  I’ve noticed that both Indigo and Amazon have changed how they display books when you search – from lists that focus on books titles and authors to rows of covers.  More books offer a look inside as well – though here’s a free bit of advice: let people look at the first few pages of the book PLUS a random few from the middle of the book – which is often the deal clincher in book stores.  Along the lines of: interesting start, oh and look, interesting stuff in the middle, too.

So what does the cover tell you?  Genre, of course, is the first thing that comes to mind.  Space ship on the cover – must be science fiction.  A warrior with a sword in hand might be historical fiction but make it a female warrior or add a dragon and it is certainly fantasy. (Yes, I know that were historically a few women warriors but they didn’t wear chain mail bikinis – check out pictures of Jeanne d’Arc if you don’t believe me.  And the objectification of women is a whole other topic that wiser and funnier people than me have blogged about.)   Mysteries used to show a guy in a fedora, often carrying a gun.  These days, a cityscape – tall buildings wrapped in smoke or flame gives the same message.  You can often have some fun with this.  Take Dan O’Driscoll’s cover for Stealing Home.  The guy in a fedora is looking at a cityscape but instead of a gun he has a metal, tentacled hand.  We get both science fiction and mystery.

Non-fiction books (textbooks don’t count – a plain blue cover that says Introductory Thermodynamics usually works) often feature an image related to the subject matter or the time period being discussed.  Picking at random from my book shelf of Paris books I find a biography of Josephine Baker with a sultry picture of the subject staring out of a darkened background; another “Policing Paris” has mug shots and police records spread across the cover, all toned in sepia to remind us it is a history book rather than current affairs.  My favorite is Future Tense – an art deco pattern in grey with a single photo of a couple in twenties’ evening wear and gas masks.

But back to fiction.  The cover image tells you something about the genre or the mood of the books. It may hint at an element of the story.  The Paris Wife by Paula McLain is a novelization of the life of Hadley Hemingway (Ernest’s first wife) or, more specifically, her life in Paris with him.  It was published with two different covers (different national markets often use different images to sell the same story). One is a photo of a couple at a Paris cafe circa 1925; the other of a woman in profile in a 20’s style bonnet.  In neither picture is the woman’s face visible; in both coffee is prominent.  A (missing) cup on the table in the former; rings from a coffee cup on the cover of the latter.  It evokes a sense of absence – a person whose presence is obscured by another figure.  Both lovely covers; both highly evocative even if you aren’t, like me, a Hemingway aficionado (a Spanish word that Hemingway was largely responsible for bringing into English in his bullfighting book “Death in the Afternoon”).

Covers tell you other things – sometimes in a subtle ways.  The relative size of the font between the book’s title and the author’s name as well as the placement of these, one above the other.  Well known authors or writers who are as well known for their personalities as their books might see their name at the top of the cover in a much larger font than the title.  I’m not sure what my publisher was trying to say about me on the cover of Stealing Home.  I’m not a household name – even in my own home.  Perhaps better examples might be Richard Ford whose name is twice the font size of the title of his latest book “Canada,” (though that may just be an American putdown of my home and native land).  John Scalzi gets a similar treatment on his new novel, “Redshirts.”  John writes great books but, beyond that, he is a massive presence in the SF community.  I’ve seen John several times but only met him once (at SFContario) – a very witty and generous guy.

There is one last thing a cover tells a potential buyer.  Are you professional? You may not like a particular cover – that is, it may not be to your aesthetic taste – but most people can tell the difference between one executed by a professional artist or book designer and one slapped together by cousin, Bob.  I can’t tell you how often I’ve looked at a book cover, even by traditional publishers who should know better, and said – ‘amateur effort.’  And guess what I immediately thought about what was between those covers.  Unfair?  Maybe – but true nonetheless. 

So I’ll end with a piece of advice. Go pro.  Even if you decide to self-publish, pay some money to an artist and to a designer (not necessarily the same thing) to create a cover that people want to look at.  It won’t make you a million seller overnight, but it will improve your chances.

One Response to “A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words”

  1. Peggy Blair May 5, 2013 at 8:42 pm #

    Agree. The Beggar’s Opera was relaunched by Penguin with a new cover, and sales have been up ever since. Jade does covers for ebooks if anyone needs a spectacular artist (shameless plug) — she’s done an ebook cover for me that is pure awesomeness!

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