We judge all the time. Our eyes are the first point of contact with the world, and in a second your brain has already decided how pleasant, or not, something is to us. We grew up being told 'don't judge a book by its cover', and yes, it still holds true when applied to the opinion we make of others. But can we honestly say that this also applies to the publishing world?
True enough, there have been many cases of books with glorious covers and insipid content, and vice-versa. Still, I think that the cover does work as a book calling card to an extent. Think about when you browse the book stalls at a fair - where are your eyes drawn to? What makes you stop? Is it the title? The tag line? The images? So, in one word, is it the 'cover'? In which case, we need to ask ourselves: what must a book cover do?
It seems that most of all, it has to make an impact. An impact can be made in many ways: the combination of colours, the use of one bold colour, a simple line art drawing, a full-blown landscape, one element, etc.
Hint: your cover must stand out and look good in tiny icon form - thumbnail - which is how most people will see it, through Amazon, Goodreads and other retailers' websites. If you have something with too many details and intricate writing, the reader will miss the info. It risks appearing as an indistinct mass of lines and letters. That little icon-sized image is your first point of contact with a potential reader.
Covers can also be manufactured to point to a genre, no matter how many stereotypes are used. A fantasy reader may have never heard of a book, but if the eyes see sword/dragon/castle/hooded figure in any combination, the brain will probably register and perhaps push for a blurb read.
1. Working with a designer.
If you are working with artists you will be able to trust their instinct, after all, it is their job to be visually creative. Don't stop at the first one though. An artist will need to be paid, so you must be positive that he can deliver something you are proud of. Once you have a few in mind contact them, find out if they do cover work, and if so how much they charge. You need to know this in advance because if they show you a gorgeous image and a bill that means remortgaging your house and selling your dog's liver, there is no point in wasting time there. If the price is right, pitch them your idea and ask to see a quick sketch before committing. A good, interested artist will be able to provide you with one, and even if it is only a sketch, it will 'talk' to you if it's the right one.
2. Cover DIY.
If you are doing the cover image yourself, because you are one lucky multi-talented human, it would be a good idea to: a) take a look at covers for similar genre books and decide if you wish to follow the current trend or if you rather take a new direction; b) discuss your ideas with other people, as they may help you develop a seed into a full-grown concept and c) prepare different versions and get others to give you feedback - your social media are a great place to look for feedback. Obviously, if you want to surprise your readers with a new cover, and keep it secret until the end you really have no choice but employ the help of your friends.
Next week I'll tell you more about creating great covers even if you can't draw for ****.
A DIY cover may be cheap, but it can also be very easy to spot. I have seen things on Amazon that made my blood curl: titles truncated in half, the writing on the spine bent over the edges, blurbs written in four different fonts. The old adage 'don't judge a book by its cover,' gets ripped apart here. Someone browsing online who sees that is either going to move to the next one (the majority of cases) or is compelled to click on it to the first page, just like drivers slowing down when they pass a car crash ... Please ask for feedback from people who read a lot of books, especially mainstream books, because let's face it, you're up against them.
4. Think Series.
No matter who does the cover, if you are writing a series, you must remember this word: continuity. This extends to lettering, to the way you position your text all around, and of course to the style of the design. Readers collect series and recognise one by all the details mentioned above.
Let me give you an example with my YA SF series, Tijaran Tales. I started off as a self-published author and made the covers myself. At the time they seemed pretty cool to me, and no one threw up on my stall at fairs when they saw them. On hindsight though, they had nothing on the current ones. In my defence I would say that at least I picked the same background and style for the sake of continuity - I wasn't a total loss :)
Take a look at the first two covers I created, White Child and The Oracle of Life.
When I was about to release the third book, The Nuarn Rift, I crossed path with artist Jay Johnstone, who, as a designer as well as a traditional painter, taught me a thing or two about the importance of a cover. The series was slowly taking off, and I was adamant I should continue on with my dream, so I decided to give it a cover overhaul. Jay took my input on board. At the time I was bent on going down the route of anime style, so he prepared different versions: what I asked for, and what he 'saw' from his personal, creative point of view. Needless to say, we went with his instinct. As soon as I saw 'Julius McCoy' on the cover, I fell in love. I had found him.
By then the first two books had already come out. In Jay's mind, he knew he was working with a series. It didn't particularly matter how many instalments there would be in the series, the important factor was 'continuity'. When he showed me the first three covers, two for the existing books and the new one, the common theme had been developed, it was visible, it was bold, it was high impact.
You may think I'm partial because it's my series. Be as it may, take a look, judge for yourself and remember the concept of continuity.
What changed once you got new covers, I hear you ask. Sales went up, and I was signed up by Canadian publisher, Oloris. So yes, from personal experience I can tell you that the new covers did make a difference: they helped a self-published author getting noticed.
Next week we take a look at 'Creating a great cover even if you can't draw for ****'.