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A Cover Story

Judging books by their covers.

Sarah Hoyt


January 23, 2014 - 2:00 pm
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Sometimes covers are supposed to create an impression

Sometimes covers are supposed to create an impression

A supplemental series to Selling Your Writing in 13 weeks.  Post 1.

I’ve been meaning to do a post on covers, as a supplemental to my 13 weeks posts on selling your writing, but I couldn’t seem to do it, until I realized that I was in fact trying to cram several posts worth into a single post.  Whenever I do that, I get highly bizarre comments, from people who read their own stuff into what I elided.

Part of this is a problem that I don’t remember what lay people know and don’t know anymore.

By lay people in this case, I mean people outside of publishing.  Even avid readers might never have noticed consciously that covers are meant to signal genre, nor all the other subtle signals they give.

Before I start, I took the cover workshop with WMG publishing, and that made me aware of things even I hadn’t noticed, and I’ve been a professional in the field for several years. For anyone doing indie publishing, if you can afford the workshop take it.  We’re right now scraping up the money to put older son through it.  A I don’t use the same tools they do (I judged it was easier for me to use less professional tools than to spend a lot of time – more important than money – learning InDesign.  So I use tools that I’m used to, the highly outdated but very familiar to me JASC paintshop. The newer versions, by Corel, which I own, aren’t nearly as good, but the last JASC version I can make sit up and sing, because I’ve been using it for ten years.  And what it can’t do GIMP can.  Both programs I’m familiar with and therefore find preferable to a program that I found oddly counterintuitive and would have to learn to use.) But even so, what I learned transferred. I won’t say it made me an awesome cover designer.  That is an actual profession and you need years of practice and usually specialize in one genre.  But it has made me a decent cover designer.

The other thing I should say is that every time I make one of these posts, I get people offering to design my covers.  Most of these people have a background in art and design and usually some experience in tiny presses (or advertising layout.)  All of the offers I’ve had, when I look at their samples, they’re very pretty… and all of them signal “literary and little” which is inappropriate for my books which are, unabashedly genre.  Looking over the covers, I see myself at a con, passing the tables with books for tiny presses with names like Necrophiliac Duck Press.  This is not the image I want to project, since my books were once published by big publishers, and I want the same feel for the re-issue.  Also, I’m still publishing with one major publisher, and don’t want people to think everything I bring indie is “too precious for words.”

Some of it will be, but when it is, I shall so signal.

Fortunately for me, the big houses don’t usually give midlisters like me experienced cover designers.  (I’m not talking of Baen here. They’re always an exception.) They usually hand the job to the first under-designer just hired from community college.  And that level I can imitate.

However, to know where we are and what we’re doing, let’s start with a look at some bestseller covers in some distinct genres.  And pointing out how they signal genre/subgenre.

This is something you should always do before you start designing covers.  Go look at what other people are doing.  Look at the bestsellers under paper (because that’s usually the professional books, that got lavish attention) and their covers, and figure out what to do for yours.

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I looked up that last cover just to see why it was so bad:

Apparently, K.R. Columbus wrote this "novel" (actually more like a porno) for a rather specific niche of homoerotic fiction about bears, i.e. big stout hairy dudes... which explains a lot, though not why the naked big stout hairy dude on this particular cover appears to have been computer-generated from an old World of Warcraft model, or why he isn't very well anti-aliased with the background.

Here's the supposed summary; see if you could have guessed any of this from the cover:

"Alaric is not like other teenagers, he has an unnatural affinity to nature and he is not affected by cold or disease. Sharing similar problems, Ralph; a handicapped teen, becomes his friend and together they try to discover the secret behind his nature, and the amazing reality of where he comes from, all after surviving a terrible tragedy that gave him a vision about a horned man-beast seated on a throne of stone calling him to go back home, claiming to be his real father; The Mountain King."

Moreover, if you think that's bad, try looking in the "Customers Who Viewed This Item Also Viewed" section, which has such gems as "The BBW and the Space Lord" and "Ravished by the Triceratops" in it.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Wow, this is good advice. Up until I read it I thought my artistic and design skills were my secret weapon as an indie author, despite the contrary evidence of miniscule sales. I now see that although my prose is of professional standard I've been selling it behind covers that are 'vanity' projects.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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