Write it now: six secrets behind a compelling book cover

 There’s an old adage that we must never judge a book by its cover.

My "Illustrated History of New Zealand"

My “Illustrated History of New Zealand”

Actually it isn’t that ‘old’, really. Go back a couple of hundred years and every book had a tooled leather cover – you had to open it to get to the interesting design part. That’s what frontispieces are for.

Some of the classier books still present a frontispiece. But most don’t – the artwork has been transferred to the cover.

Covers are even more important for e-books, where they become the front-end icon – the visual object that sets an e-book you’ve discovered, cold, apart from the others, that makes you want to click on it and see what’s within. A book may well be better than its cover seems to promise, but unless we’re specifically looking for the author or that book, there’s no question that the cover is what draws us to an unknown author and book.

It is, in short, a key marketing and discovery tool. Which, in turn, means it’s amenable to all the usual marketing methods – it has to provoke, excite, pose questions that demand answers. In short, it has to appeal to emotion.

That’s a good news, bad news story for self-publishers. Good news is that professional designers are adept at translating those concepts into visual form. Bad news is they cost.

The other bad news is that everybody’s doing it, anyway – the quality of most covers these days, whether from the main publishing houses, indie publishers or self-published – is stunning. The bar has been raised very high, and if your book doesn’t meet it, then it won’t sell.

History dead? Not when books like this sell so well.

History dead? Not when books like this sell so well.

My take? It’s no different for self-publishers than it is for mainstream industry publishers. Indeed, even though mainstream publishers, by contract, have full authority over  the cover, they’ll often consult with the author over artwork. I’ve provided commissioned paintings or (more usually) my own photos for book covers in the past. Everything has to be planned out. Budgets have to be worked up, designers commissioned, and costs vs benefits assessed. The questions are:

1. What is the cost of the artwork – a bespoke painting, or license fees on a photo? Here in New Zealand, commissioned cover art starts at around $1500 and license fees for photos are $150 each, upwards.
2. What is the cost of a designer?
3. What returns do you require from the book to meet these costs – amortised across sales?
4. Think ahead. Design is part of brand; does this cover span a series, or is it part of a brand look to identify a particular author? (Typified for me by Isaac Asimov’s Panther paperbacks of the 1970s which all said “Asimov”).
5. How enduring is the design? Be careful. Totally up-to-the-moment designs key into an instant audience, but risk looking dated and cheesy in a year or two. The expected life of the book can help in this calculation.
6. What minefield/licensing traps follow?

Bottom line is that quality counts – and quality isn’t free.

Have you had adventures with book covers? I’d love to hear from you.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing tips, history, science geekery and more. Watch this space.

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4 comments on “Write it now: six secrets behind a compelling book cover

  1. L. Palmer says:

    I’m working on self-publishing a book, and am really grateful my sister is a professional graphic designer. For my birthday/Christmas present, she’s working on a cover for my book – saving me a lot of money, and providing me with a graphic designer I know how to work with.

  2. cheisserer says:

    (Late to the discussion)

    I was on a site recently (Deviantart, if you must insist), and I came across a piece I absolutely loved, and exactly what I wanted my cover to be for a novel I’m writing. I mentioned it’d be a great cover, and he told me to “Just take it. Enjoy.” I’m sure there’s a lot more involved if/when I actually use the art. I just wonder if he has to sign something to officially turn over publishing rights to me, for the piece.

    Otherwise, I’m green around the gills with book cover adventures.

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