How to Make Your Book Look Important

Just like when setting out to claim your kingdom it's important to look like a princess, when setting out to look for bestsellerdom, it's important to look like a bestseller.

Just like when setting out to claim your kingdom it’s important to look like a princess, when setting out to look for bestsellerdom, it’s important to look like a bestseller.


Selling your Writing in 13 Weeks, Week 10

Yes, I know, it sounds like I’m always saying more or less the same thing: “you have to give the impression that you are traditionally published if you want to really sell.”

Unfortunately, this is true.  The public still views traditionally published books as better.  Though there is an interesting effect happening, maybe because I’ve talked so much about indie publishing, in that some of my fans are contacting me about typos and issues with my traditionally published books, forcing me to say “well, there’s nothing I can do about it now.”

But in general, you want to look like the traditionally published books in your sub-genre.  (Minus the typos – which frankly happen in any publishing, and, yes, will happen to you too.)

Only you don’t want to look like just any books in that subgenre.

Look, in the bad old days the publishing houses had to limit their resources. This meant that most of the books got thrown out into that big, cold world with barely enough work put into it to look decent and professional.

For instance, at a panel at a con, a friend and I were discussing her just-accepted book with the two editors who, supposedly at least, worked on it, and it became obvious to us they’d only read the proposal and never the completed manuscript.

This is because my friend’s book was a second novel, and had been slated to be released with as little support and fanfare as possible.

Now, you’ve gone out and got yourself a publishing house name, and you have a publishing house webpage (don’t do what I do, and forget to update it/not settle on a theme for months on end) and you – frankly – look professional.

So… are you going to just release your book out there, with minimal work/support, like any other mid-list book?

I can hear you protesting now.  “But Sarah, you say, I am a shoe-string operation with exactly one editor and one writer.”


Yes, of course, and we will talk about compromises you can and have to make, but there are also things you can do to make it look like the book is “high list” and important to the house.

“But I can’t make all my books look high list!” you say.

Um… why not?

While it's true that not all that glitters is gold, most people just assume it is.

While it’s true that not all that glitters is gold, most people just assume it is.

Look, when you’re looking at a listing, and you see a book that looks like the author is a big name (and we’ll go into the signs later) do you immediately go to the house webpage, or even look up all of the publishing line’s books in the Amazon listing to find out whether they’re also given the big book treatment?  And if you were that OCD – or dedicated – and did that, and found out, yep, they all look like big books…  Would you then think there was something wrong with the house/publishing line?

Look, the big six publishing houses have a countless number of names they publish under.  These are called lists or imprints.

Some of those imprints are for books that are “big” or for books that are “up and coming” or whatever.

Beyond which, really, people aren’t going to look.  They’re just going to get the impression that the book is big (or not.)  And then they’ll buy it or not.

So, how do you give your book the “big book” treatment.

First and most importantly, go look at other books in your genre or subgenre.  (And make sure you have the genre or subgenre correctly identified.  A lot of people will say their book is romance, because they’ve never in their lives read a romance book, and their book has kissing.  Trust me, these days, just kissing doesn’t a romance make.  The same with thrillers, which require more than a tense situation, etc.  If you think you’re writing in a genre in which you don’t normally read, go and read in that genre before you decide on this.)

There is as much genre identification in the cover as there is in the text itself.  For instance, in romance covers, it is not only acceptable but expected to find a picture – often a headless picture of a couple embracing, or a hot male or something.  Not to say there aren’t the occasional “drawn art” covers, but even those tend to be pretty realistic-looking.


Urban fantasy too can have more “drawn covers” but photographs are acceptable, provided they’re artistic.

However unless the book is “like the major motion picture” or tv series, fantasy novels don’t usually have photographs on the cover.

I remember four years ago going to a signing of local authors and there was a self published (before it was fashionable) author who wrote “retirement home” mysteries.  She said that she had gone the self-published route because she didn’t have the time to deal with publishers and the submission process (which is a valid reason.)

While you don't want to look unremarkable, you want to look like you belong.

While you don’t want to look unremarkable, you want to look like you belong.

Her covers were “beautiful pictures” that she had taken on vacation.

I looked at them and thought they screamed “amateur” even though I wasn’t sure why.  Now I could tell you why.  It’s because that sort of book – a mystery that soft pedals the blood and gore, known in the trade as a cozy – always has a drawn-cover, usually somewhat cartoonish and funny.  If it is a “big book” it might have an iconic single-figure cover – say the lipstick the killer writes on the walls with, or a gun shooting a purple bullet, or something – but it never, ever, ever has a picture of a landscape no matter how beautiful.  No, not even if the title is “The end of the road” and the picture shows a dead end.

“But Sarah,” you say – you really are very talkative today, you know – “What if I don’t know any artists?  Where do I find an artist?  I can’t afford to pay!”

Okay, don’t get me started on artists.  They’re hard to find, and you might be like me and have real trouble communicating what you want.  Also, if you have a lot of properties you’re bringing out – like say, you’re putting up a lot of your short stories – you will find that you can’t afford to pay for an individual cover every single time.

Fortunately there are a lot of stock photo sites out there.  Here at PJMedia, we use shutterstock but it is a little too expensive for me (I’m a cheap indie writer) so I use dreamstime.  I also have an account with and use fotolia.


Now, if you search dreamstime, right now, most of what you’re going to find are photos.  But if you check off “photos” you’ll get illustrations .  Remember (I discovered that most people don’t know this last week) that most of these stock photos (or illustrations) can be altered/combined and rearranged.

If you only find photos that match what you want, when you need illustrations, you might want to consider a program called Filter Forge.  Download a demo and play around with it to see if it does what you want. (Filter Forge also acts as an add-on to photoshop, which, alas, I don’t have.)


This illustration is from a Dover Book (and CD) called 120 Great Fairy paintings. this one is called Fairy Lovers and it was drawn in 1840 by Theodor Von Holst, who died in 1844. It is safely out of copyright.

Yes, there are also free photographs out there, in more than one place, and even paintings.  If the painter died before 1927, you should be free to use old paintings.

Beware though that using an old painting in its entirety gives a book a “too scholarly for you” look.  This is fine, if you’re reprinting Dumas or Jane Austen, but probably not great for your urban fantasy.  It is however acceptable to us an altered clip or detail of an old book.  A great resource for this are the Dover books with 100 romantic paintings, or 50 art deco posters, or whatever.  I buy them when I find them at a good price, and I’ve amassed an impressive collection.

Let’s assume that you got that cover right for your genre.  (And I have promised and will deliver a more detailed post on covers – which honestly could turn into a whole cover series covering various aspects.)

How do you subtly signal “big book” after that?

Well, part of it is the author’s name.  First, there’s the size of the name.  Since publishing houses arrange the covers to catch people’s attention, if the author is a bestseller, his name will be in a large font, so people can see it across the room.


But the thing is, there are so many “best seller” writers these days, that no one has heard of them all.

I’m not recommending you lie and call yourself a bestseller, but go look at the size of bestseller names, and use the same size, relatively, for your name. (In literary books, this is often not true, and the names are very small.)

People just browsing will see the size of the name and subconsciously assume you’re known.  Putting, beneath the name, “author of” – whatever your last work was – helps with that impression, because surely, if you have that, that work is known, right?  Other things that help are quotes or “teaser” sentences on the cover – you know something that relates to the story: “He was a man without a past; She was a woman without a future.”  That sort of thing.

One big way of giving the impression you are well known and traditionally published is to have your book come out in paper at the same time it comes out in ebook.

No, you won’t sell a ton of books in paper, at least not through traditional outlets or Amazon. (And yes, bookstores can order your print on demand Create Space books.) You might sell a few if you attend genre conventions and get a table (perhaps sharing the cost with other indie authors.)  In fact, indie publishing of your back list (at least) has become so ubiquitous in my field, that I found at the last convention I attended that I was confusing the fans by not having a table.  (There was nothing I could do. At the time rights to my back list hadn’t reverted, yet.) People would come up to me and say “We didn’t know how to find you. You didn’t have a sales table.”  It’s also becoming common for people to show up at conventions with no books, because they think they can always buy them off the author and get him/her to sign them.

But even then, your business in paper books is likely to be minimal.

People's perceptions take time to adjust.  If you're not published on paper, they still tend to think you're not, somehow, real.

People’s perceptions take time to adjust. If you’re not published on paper, they still tend to think you’re not, somehow, real.


The point of having a paper edition is two fold:

1. If you have a previous edition with another publishing house, bringing the book out in paper and ebook will break it out of the link under the other house’s book.

Right now if you look for my Shakespeare Fantasies, say, Ill Met By Moonlight, you need to look specifically for ebook to find it.  And meanwhile it will bring up a ten-year-old edition and a lot of cheap used books.  Even I am not that dedicated to converting to ebooks (though I want to make most of my library digital) that I will pass up a much cheaper used book, particularly if it’s something I don’t intend to keep after I read.

2. Having an e-edition only practically screams “self published” or very small press.

This might be changing soon, as a lot of the traditional publishing houses are doing e-only contracts. Still, those books the traditional houses will bring out in e-only are probably not their headliners.

From talking to friends who have done it, I’ve found that having a print edition is definitely the best way to sell your ebook.

These are some of the signs, obviously not all.  Yes, yes, to give the impression you are a “big name” you also want to have as good a copyediting/editing, etc. as you can command.

Go and look at some bestsellers.  Go to Amazon and click “new and popular” and look at the paper-books (because they’re more likely to be what big houses are doing) in your subgenre, and see if you can figure out how they signal “bestseller.”

And why do you want to look like a bestseller, if you’re not one?  Easy.  This is an elementary fact of salesmanship: people prize more what they think everyone else wants.

If you look like you’re already successful, people will read you with a different frame of mind than if they think you’re new and struggling.

Trust me on this.  Once, about five years ago, I entered a publishing contest to help out a friend.  My friend was running it, she didn’t have enough entries, and asked if I had anything to throw into the pot.  So I sent in a proposal I’d just sent to my agent. I didn’t even pass on to finalist.  Why?  The person evaluating the proposals for what got sent to the judging editor took all my slightly-more-difficult words for mistakes.  One of my favorites was her changing stolid to solid.  Then she wrote this prissy letter about how the author of this submission didn’t have a good enough vocabulary to be a working writer.  I got that at the same time my agent told me the proposal had sold.


Perception counts.  If people think you’re already famous and tons of people love your writing, it might not convince them to love your books, but it will at least make them give you a lot more leeway.

So, go out there and look like a success.  It will increase the chances success will come.

All photos but the fourth courtesy of shutterstock and ©Atelier Sommerland

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