Sixty second writing tip: covers do sell books

I don’t often blog about the books I’m working on – but today my publishers sent me the cover of a book of mine they’re releasing in September.

You can track my phone, but you don't know what I look like. Oh wait a minute, yes you do...
What I CAN reveal is that this author portrait is being published in the book too. May cause me to be recognised and have people take a poke at me for writing in their territory, but hey…

It’s been professionally designed and looks fantastic. Cover reveal? Sure. When the moment comes – this is a commercially published book and there’ll be a marketing campaign. Soon.

Keep checking this blog…daily… 🙂

It got me thinking. Covers sell books, including e-books. The days when a publisher like Victor Gollancz could brand their sci-fi in plain yellow wrappers, or when Penguin could release every book with that classic orange-and-cream design – are over.

I thought I’d share the criteria for a good cover these days. It has to be:

1. Distinctive.

2. Modern – which can also mean retro.

3. Classy and professional.

4. Reflect the content, symbolically or literally.

My covers have all been handled by my publishers – it’s part of the standard contracts. The problem for self-publishers is that the cost of hiring designers and buying rights to photographs or commissioning artwork gets pretty steep. Few authors are also designers and artists and the DIY answer is getting harder to achieve as the quality bar lifts.

A knotty problem. I don’t actually have an answer.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

19 thoughts on “Sixty second writing tip: covers do sell books

  1. Covers do make a lot of impact on me as a buyer or library user. My favourite kind of light reading is the historical novel. A good cover that reflects the historical period in question will tempt me to take a look at the blurb, and then hopefully lead me to buy or borrow the book.

    But, conversely, a bland, or (even worse) historically incorrect cover puts up a barrier. Not an insurmountable barrier because, after all, the content is king. But a barrier nevertheless.

    Some of my favourite historical covers are those that use either period paintings or period artifacts in a well designed format. Some modern artists’ works are also good – the wonderful Patrick O’Brian novel covers by nautical artist Geoff Hunt immediately spring to mind.

    I find full colour covers much more engaging than single or two-colour, especially when making the most of those period paintings.


    1. The O’Brian books are just fabulous in every sense! Have you read the ‘Flashman’ series? Again, wonderful ‘period’ pieces written from modern perspective with great covers to match. Full colour’s absolutely vital these days.


      1. The Flashman books are one of my favourite series. They’ve had a number of cover styles over the years, generally all very good.

        And, yes, full-colour is important. And the spine design is also vital.


        1. The Writing Historical Fiction blog is good for getting an idea of the current trends in historical novel covers, as each posting is followed by images of that particular poster’s published works:

          I note a snarling reenactor set against a period background seems to be much in vogue!


    1. Thank you. It’s a second edition of one I wrote a few years ago, completely re-written & I hope will sell as well into a new audience…and maybe the same audience wanting an update.


  2. I won’t know what I’m going to do about a cover if I self-publish until the time comes. Until then I check the yard each day to see if money is falling from the sky. Not yet. Who knows, maybe I’ll wait so long that there’ll be a backlash against lavish covers. Not likely.


    1. The bar certainly keeps being raised apropos covers, and it’s expensive – here in NZ the cost of commissioning bespoke artwork for fiction is up to $1500, plus designers fees. Even the non-fic I write has to use pix which are licensed at maybe $150 each. I’m lucky in that these are covered by my publishers (who also have full say on what the cover design will be, but that’s fair). But it’s very difficult for self-publishers. Grinning and bearing the costs is an option, but then you either have to accept the book is a loss-maker or hope that sales will somehow exceed those costs. Very difficult in any practical sense.


  3. You are spot on. The artwork, layout, and design have to have all the qualities you mentioned. I won’t pick a book up (that I haven’t heard of) if it doesn’t. A great cover entices me to look inside. With so many titles in every genre to choose from, that is a huge step toward a sale.


    1. Thanks! It’s also getting difficult, these days, to get a cover that can stand out from the others…they are all rising up to top quality. A few years ago, Penguin switched from their ‘trad title-with-historical-art’ for my history books to a much more modern look – typified by the ‘Guns and Utu’ cover at the top of my blog page. The books stood out & looked good in the shops. And now everybody’s doing it…

      I have a curious story about one of my covers. Years ago I was driving back to Wellington with my wife and mother-in-law. I spotted a truck park. Stopped the car, whipped out the camera and took a photo, to the guffaws of my family. What I never guessed was that I’d be able to supply it to my publishers as a cover photo – and yes, it was used. A completely chance snapshot which just happened to have the right composition, look etc that they wanted for my book. Absolutely more to do with luck than intent on my part, I might add!


  4. I self-published my first book. The company I used sent me sample pictures to pick from. I selected one, asked for a few minor changes, and sent it in. They could not make all the changes I wanted, but they did a beautiful job on the cover. All of that was included in the cost of publishing.
    One suggestion might be to find a student who is studying design. He might do it for you with a small payment and credit on the cover. That credit will look good on his resumé. He might even do it for a free book and the credit.


    1. Indeed! There are ways of getting around these obstacles – requires lateral thought. And, perhaps a favour or two from a friend with the right mix of talents.


  5. There’s a pretty good book titled Rolling Thunder, fictional, about the mid-60s air war in South Vietnam. The cover features black-silhouetted palm trees against a red sky with an F4 Phantom rolling inverted about ten feet above the treetops. Plainly, pilot and GIB in the Phantom have about two seconds to live. The airplane primarily featured in the book was the F100 Super Sabre; nary a Phantom in sight.

    Didn’t you have a nonfiction cover about the RNZAF? I seem to remember an A4 Skyhawk against a snowy mountain backdrop.

    The point: historical aviation fiction for some reason doesn’t have a great track record for truthful and relevant detail, at least in the past. Unlike nautical enthusiasts, which seems a bit strange to me. (And yes, O’Brian is a favorite author of mine!)

    As far as covers for self-publishing, I think one way might be to find one or more people who do graphic design and get them to work with you. Maybe for a piece of the action? Anyway I think it will be more about professional networking eventually. Graphic designers want work; authors will have it; the only problem will be coming up with a mutually agreeable price for same.


    1. Hi Tom – good to hear from you! I have the ‘Rolling Thunder’ novel and its sequels – wonderful, wonderful stuff. Tom Berent was the author, I think.

      I’m inclined to agree about aviation fiction in general though Berent’s stuff is definitely an exception, So too was Stephen Coontz – his ‘Flight of the Intruder’ was pretty authentic, but he was also the real deal himself.

      I did indeed have a Skyhawk on the cover of my RNZAF history – I commissioned the artwork and still have the original oil painting. I’ve got a post coming up in a few days on the artist, actually, he’s just re-launched his website and a shout-out seems in order.

      Those aircraft were languishing for years at RNZAF Woodbourne in the South Island, clad in leaking white ‘coccooning’ plastic, but I believe they’ve just been sold to a buyer in the US. Might need some refurbishment…I remember once crawling all over the Kahu Skyhawk at NAS Nowra, one very very wet week in 1992 – I was on a journalists’ junket and one main recollection, other than that, was the quality of the beer in the officers’ mess – except a couple of the other journos couldn’t get in as they’d omitted to pack dinner jackets.


  6. Well, thanks a lot! 😆 Here was me tripping over to this from your latest post looking for the ANSWER and right at the bottom you blithely tell the reader you don’t have an answer.

    However, you have given me a laugh, which on a day I am sitting at home wrapped in my PJs and dressing gown nursing a head cold and tummy bug is a very good thing! 😀


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