Tuesday, February 12, 2013

When a book’s “calling card” falls flat

Time to return to that evergreen topic of book covers. I’ve written extensively on Type M about covers, and while none of my postings have become classics in blog-dom, many readers have told me they have found them informative.

As e-book sales started their ascent, many graphic designers were wringing their hands at what might be the death knell of a large part of many’s income. That worry was proved baseless long ago. Every book needs a cover, whether it lives only electronically or is physically sitting in a stack next to one’s bed. The craft of fashioning an arresting and intriguing cover will continue to march into the future.

But there is another worrying trend: the covers of self-published books.

Self-published books have always been around, but in the computer age, they are sprouting up at an alarming rate, like so many weeds in a pristine English garden. I don’t mean to disparage those who self-publish. I started out that way myself in 1992 with my first novel, Knock on Wood, in an attempt to jump-start my career. I haven’t been able to bear to read even a page of it for many years. It had a reasonable storyline, but the quality of the writing… How about we just draw a veil over this artifact of an ongoing writing career and move on, shall we?

The one thing that almost always gives away a self-published book is its cover. Sometimes that’s really unfortunate, because being self-published doesn’t necessarily mean a book is bad. I’ve read a few that have been stunning. One in particular sticks out in my mind. If it hadn’t come recommended by a friend with taste, I never would have cracked the spine. Why? Because the cover was beyond terrible. It screamed amateur hour. It did not inspire confidence.

That’s not to say that just because your book is published by a major house that it’s guaranteed to be good. Sometimes, they are inexplicably bad. We’ve all seen examples of those. For instance, Ian Rankin’s books’ current cover design is really quite appalling. Fortunately, he sells on his name alone. If he were not known, I believe the cover design would work against sales. But you all know how I feel. I’ve spoken about that already.

When readers are in browsing mode, the single most important thing to get them to look more closely at a book is its cover. If the cover is uninteresting, indecipherable, or off-putting, it won’t get a second glance. Publishers at least understand this truism and give their best efforts into supplying their books with at least a professional treatment.

Self-published authors often don’t really get this. The book is “their baby”, and they want to be involved with every step of its creation, which usually means that they design the cover or are heavily involved in the process. They may have a bit of skill with a computer; they may have a good cover concept, but often the results are appallingly bad.

I offer this compendium of bad attempts at covers, some, unfortunately, hilarious failures. Did the world miss something good because the cover of these books fall so short of the mark? That would be sad indeed.

I have been hesitant to share these, because I don’t want to hold these authors up to ridicule. Heaven knows I’ve inflicted that on myself enough to know it isn’t fun. Instead, to those of you who want to be involved in book cover design, whether it’s your own production or one being produced in a more mainstream fashion, know the dangers and don’t be blinded the process. Give your proposed cover to people who know good design and will really give you their honest opinion. Allowing them free-rein to be accurate in their assessment may spare you the pain of being ridiculed or causing your book to fail.

Click HERE to see the unfortunate gallery.


j welling said...

This essay is a great reminder to me for the "leave it to the professionals" approach. I'm content. Someone else is packaging.

Sad though.

I always liked the old Chrysler ads. Maybe I can have a leggy blonde in an evening gown on the cover of my book.

Alas, there are no leggy blondes in my stories. I can't write about them. I believe them fictitious digital creations. They're as elusive in the wild to me as the lessor Kudu is to you.

Hannah Dennison said...

Great post Rick. A good cover is crucial. My USA covers were really disappointing ... my UK covers (same series) are fabulous. The outcome: disappointing sales in the USA and stellar sales in the UK. I rest my case.

Charlotte Hinger said...

Rick, I can usually tell a self-published book by its cover immediately. There is a look to the ones by iuniverse and all the others.

A local author here self-published a book with her husband. It was called Phoebe's Sweater. It was a childrens story book and had a sweater pattern in the back. The sales were phenomenal. Every knitting grandmother in the country bought it.

She was on national TV and sold out of the 3,000 first printing in no time flat. A second and third book followed. It was hardcover and the illustrations, color, design everything, was top notch. Her husband is an illustrator and the drawings had a Beatrice Potter quality.

They sunk their life savings into producing this first book. Everyone craft publisher turned them down as well as the NY crew. Now everyone wants to get their hands on this copyright and they are saying "why should we."

My point is that a great idea, beautifully executed produces results. Of COURSE I knitted Phoebe's sweater for one of my own granddaughters.

Rick Blechta said...

Thanks all for writing in. You’re correct, Mssr. Welling. Working with professionals should at least get you professional results, but there are professionals and then there are professionals, if you know what I mean. Always ask for samples of a designer’s work.

Hannah, I view covers as a poster for a book when I design one. The interesting thing is that I've had a lot of trouble selling this idea to the "marketing people" at my client publishers. I urge them to stand around a few bookstores and watch how browsers interact with the books there.

Hannah, your experience is so typical. I good friend (who shall remain nameless) has three publishers: one in the UK, one in Canada, and one in the States. Each one wants to edit the novels and each have very different feelings about what works and what doesn't, and often they conflict wildly. Marketing at all three publishers have exceptionally different concepts of cover design for the novels, and here, too, they conflict wildly. All are professional, experienced, big-name publishers. What's going on here? The answer is they really have no idea what works.

No one has perfected a formula for what makes a great, sure-fire cover. I recently designed a cover for a book about which I was really pleased. I showed it to some designer friends for comment. They thought I'd hit a home run. Result? Marketing turned it down flat. My second try at a design looked like just that: a second try, and to my mind was insipid. The client loved it. Put side by side, I bet my first cover would have gotten picked up by browsers far more often than the design that was used. On a website, hands down, my first cover would win the attention-grabbing sweepstakes. It has a definite WOW factor.

I feel sorry for the author.

Charlotte, I rest my case. The path to success in publishing is such a twisted thing. If you’re going to attempt it, at least give yourself a fighting chance with a professional presentation. If executed that way, you at least give yourself a fighting chance to be taken seriously – as this person was. I love stories like this. Good on them!

As for getting turned down by main stream publishers, I’ll turn to my favourite story: JK Rowling. Do you think all those agents and publishers who rejected her and the first Harry Potter book are kicking themselves a teensy bit now?

Oh dear. I do believe I’ve just written a completely new blog post here...

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