Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Book Covers and Marketing

Blechta in command (God help us).

Vicki has brought up several good points and I'd like to riff off them, if I may.

I am indeed one of those rare birds: an author who gets to design his own books covers.* As a job, it's fun, scary and a hell of a lot of work. We did 47 designs of the cover for Cemetery of the Nameless before we took that timorous step of showing it to the client, er, my publisher. I came up with a 48th after that and submitted it, but she'd already fallen in love with the previous one, so that was that.**

Now, I'm going to let you in on a deep, dark secret. Sit closer to your screen because I don't want anyone to overhear us. Good.

When an author is shown the cover of his/her book, usually by the editor, he/she had better like it. Why? Because that's probably all you're going to get, even if you're a very big name. The reason is because the company has already spent a chunk of change for that abomination you're holding in your hands -- and they're not likely to spend any more. The worst ones are those covers that contain an illustration or a custom-shot photograph. Those suckers cost a lot because not only does the illustrator or photographer need to be paid, but also the graphic designer.

If the author really digs in his/her heels about the cover, the editor will invoke the following magical charm: "I'm sorry. This is the cover we're going with. It's a marketing decision."

There is no comeback to this. Case closed. Print that cover.

I'm here to tell you that's so much bull patootie. It's not a marketing decision.

You see, I've been involved with book covers other than mine. Here's a flashback scene to illuminate how we got to this place...

[Phone rings on Blechta's desk at work] "Castlefield Media. Whaddaya want?" (I attended the Annie Potts School of Phone Answering Charm)

"This is Ron L'Editor down at Really Big Books. We'd like you design a cover."

"Sure. If you got the bucks, I got the time. What's it about?"

"There's this guy who lives on the coast of Scotland."


"That's all you really need to know. Marketing thinks if you put a boat on the cover, that will be enough."


(exasperated) "Because there's a boat in the story."

(The feeling is that boats look good on covers. People also find bears on covers to be eye-catching. Perhaps I could put a bear in the boat...a baby one! That ought to sell some more books!!)

"Can I see the manuscript?"


"Because it might help me come up with a really good design."

"I suppose I could send you a few pages..."

"Not the whole book?"

"Sorry, no. We're in the middle of the edit."

"Can you at least tell me a little more about the story? Is it a biography? A book about nature? What?"

"It's a mystery novel. Put a boat on the cover. Make the cover mostly blue."


"Marketing thinks it will look good."

"What kind of boat?"

"Look, do I have to tell you everything? That's why we're hiring you!"

(sighs and picks up pen) "All right, what's the name of the book and the author's name?"

"Oh, right. Guess you'll need those."

There you go. I come up with probably two designs for what they're paying. There's much too-ing and fro-ing with the editor (or whomever hired me), several revisions most likely and finally we settle on The Design. Not knowing much about the book the cover is going on, I have no idea why my effort is suddenly successful, but there you go. After all, it is a mystery.

The really frightening thing is that I actually had a conversation similar to this one. I have changed the details and genre of the book to protect the not-so-innocent. I received a one-paragraph description of the book and had a short phone conversation twice, and that was it. Oh, yeah, and they sent me over the 50-word blurb that was going to go on the back cover.

So you see, Dear Donis, how important that #$(@% 50-word blurb is!

*I have help in the form of Andre Leduc, my photographer buddy who also has an amazing eye for making that photograph just pop on the cover. He is frighteningly brilliant.

**Why is everyone using footnotes all of a sudden?


Anonymous said...

Oh!!! Aha! Now I get it! I really didn't like my book jacket AT ALL ... I felt quite faint when it was emailed to me with a cheery "WE like it" kind of email.
I think designing a book jacket is incredibly challenging!
I'd better polish my blurb skills.

Rick Blechta said...

You do see some incredibly poor book covers that can only lead to one thought, "What in heaven's name were they thinking?"

What makes covers so difficult to design is that they only have three components that can be used to make a prospective buyer pick a book up and ultimately buy it: the title, the author's name and the image.

Unless the title is one of those very few jaw-droppingly intriguing ones, that's knocked out. If nobody knows who the author is, that's knocked out.

That leaves the image. Through that image, what are you trying to say? Are you selling the sizzle or the steak?

I cannot stress how important an arresting image on a book cover is.

Now these are all my opinions, but with the amount of time I spend in book stores, I think they're very valid. I cannot say how many times I've watched people pick up the same books over and over because the cover is so darn intriguing. I've also seen the opposite: books that are almost shunned because the cover is hideous. Vicki can vouch for one in that category, because I saw her have that reaction myself.

Does anyone want me to go on with this discussion? Believe me, I have a lot more to say!

Vicki Delany said...

Yes please! I am very interested in covers. I never buy a book because of the cover, but the cover will definately influence whether or not I pick it up to read about it. Bad cover - you don't even get the chance to sell me your idea. The incident Rick's talking about... I picked up a book - and literally dropped it back on the table, the cover was so off-putting.

Donis Casey said...

Nan Beams, who is in charge of covers at Poisoned Pen Press, told me once that she visualizes a cover as much like a movie poster - the point is get the prospective reader/viewer to want to see what's going on inside. She's going to do a guest post for us on covers coming up in October, by the way.

Rick Blechta said...

This is exactly what a book cover is: a mini-poster. I look forward to hear what Ms Beams has to say!

Debby (Deborah Turrell) Atkinson said...

I'm looking forward to hearing from Nan on the topic of covers! I fretted about the flowers on the cover of my latest book, thought the cover was too "romantic." (The story was an anti-romance, if anything) And that was the cover that won an award. So what do I know?

Rick Blechta said...

I think in this case, Debby, the cover won an award as a piece of art, which is a completely different beast from what the intent of a cover should be: selling the book. Yes, a pretty cover is a lot better than an ugly one. To quote Vicki: "I picked up a book - and literally dropped it back on the table, the cover was so off-putting."

Now answer this question (or maybe you should ask it of others who read this book -- preferrably people who don't know you and therefore have no knowledge or expectations about your writing: did the cover represent fairly what the book was about? Were they confused or disappointed because the cover said one thing and the content said another? That's the key.

I'll be the first to admit that we designers sometimes get irrationally attached to our designs. The way I go about executing a commission for a cover is to try to figure out how my design can reflect the contents of the book in an intriguing way, but the consideration from the beginning is to build in a "come over and pick me up!" factor. I can and do "mis-fire" and it's always difficult to toss that one away and begin another. Face it: I wouldn't have submitted the cover in the first place if I didn't think it was really good.

If the cover to your book caused people to pick the book up, then it accomplished it's primary task. After that, it's up to the sell-copy to go to work. That's why that blurb on the back is so critical. That's where the publisher seals the deal.

The design company I work for does a lot of magazine circulation work, both in Canada and the US. Do you know those letters you get from magazines that contain 1) a letter from the editor, 2) an order form, 3) a brochure showing you the publication and 4) maybe something called a "lift note" or "buckslip" which is a secondary selling tool (usually involving a free something-or-other).

That's what we do and we're very good at it. Guess what the most time is spent on? The envelope. Why? Because if the person receiving the direct marketing package doesn't open the envelope, you're not going to make the sale. Your dead in the water.

And that's exactly the purpose of a book cover. Sure, I'll sell some books to those few souls who spot my name on the cover and immediately buy the book, but I sure wouldn't sell many if I was relying on that!

I'd better stop here or I won't have any cannon fodder for my next blog entry.