A few weeks ago, I posted an article about whether or not we should use images of people on our book covers. I also displayed two alternative covers for my upcoming novel Poison Bay — one with a person on it and one without.
Today I’m going to talk about the pros and cons of seeking feedback in this way, and some things I learned about how to make the most of it if you do decide to invite feedback for your own book covers.
My novel is a mystery/suspense called Poison Bay, and it’s about a bunch of old friends with a shared secret who go out into the NZ wilderness and, well, start killing each other, really (as old friends so often do…).
I had two draft covers: a very simple one with a crashing wave, and a second version with a woman among ferns with a crashing wave in the background.
The poll delivered a clear winner (not). 😉
The wave received 58 votes, and the woman 61 votes.
Ok, we’re not getting a clear picture from that, so let’s look at the comments.
For the cover with just a wave:
- some said it looked great but didn’t spell “wilderness” to them
- some found it spooky and atmospheric
- some said it was drab
- some said it was too much like a thousand other book covers
- some said the wave looked dangerous
- some said there was nothing to give the wave any scale and it could be a wavelet.
What about the other cover, the one with the person on it? These were some comments about that human figure:
- “the figure is … quite mysterious – she looks anxious, possibly sinister with those slightly arched brows”
- “She gives the impression of being wary and a little fearful and looks like she is trying to stay out of sight.”
- “for me, her expression doesn’t fit with the strapline”
- “I think that the woman appears to be waiting for a date to turn up, rather than being frightened.”
Yes, they were looking at exactly the same image. And there were more comments as disparate these. Hmmm.
CAN YOU SEE MY PROBLEM HERE??
One of my Twitter friends had this to say about it all:
#indieauthors Great post by @Belinda_Pollard on book covers (comments show you haven’t a hope of pleasing everyone!) http://t.co/ebvbtp4bpv
— Wordsmith (@BannerCoPress) October 28, 2014
I can’t please everyone, and that’s hard. I want to honour everyone who pitched in and gave me such valuable feedback. But I have to deal with the fact that I can’t make them all happy at once.
So how to process the information?
Demographics and reading habits…
- I originally tried to find a way to do a more detailed poll, with added questions for age, gender and whether the person reads mystery/suspense. But a website-based poll doesn’t allow any more than one question. (I used the YOP Poll plugin.) (Edited to add: I don’t use that plugin anymore. I might try a Twitter poll instead.) For more questions, I’d have to use a service like surveymonkey, which would take people away from my site to another page. That in itself would create an extra barrier to participation, meaning I’d probably get far fewer votes.
- I thought about analysing the comments by checking who said what, and comparing their age, gender, and genre preferences to see if they add up to my target reader. Many (but not all) of the comments have links to social profiles or blogs, where I could have checked that out.
- In the end, I’m not sure that basic details like this capture the subtleties of why an individual prefers one cover over another.
- I found it interesting that some of my Australian commenters went for the wave. Publishers apply different covers to the same book in different markets. Lots of crime novels on my bookshelf have “setting” as the feature on the cover, and maybe that’s what we’re used to Down Under. 😉
- If I were self-publishing for an Australian audience, that preference might be decisive. Because I’m self-publishing FROM Australia for a GLOBAL audience, I need to be careful to break free of local habits, and think internationally.
Professionals in the industry?
- I could have given greater weight to those among my commenters who are publishing pros. But my instinct is that as readers we all know what we like or don’t like, and what would make us click or not click on an Amazon thumbnail, so the opinions of non-pros are also important.
- Sometimes (but not always) the pros are better at analysing their own response. That can be handy.
- It’s up to me to try to discover what it was about a cover that tipped someone one way or the other, pro or not.
- My response ultimately was to read through all the comments slowly and carefully, several times, and let them marinate in my head.
- I thought about compiling the different views into a spreadsheet, but ended up ditching that idea. For the way my brain operates, that method wasn’t organic enough for the task. (However, it’s a technique that might work well for a different personality.)
- I looked for the undercurrents. Not just what cover they preferred, but the problems they identified in deciding against the other one.
- For example, some of the people didn’t like the second cover because they didn’t want their mental picture of a character to be too controlled. So that prompted me to look harder for a way to have a silhouetted or back-view figure instead of the one I’d used.
- Some people said the cover with the woman could be romance or YA. That raised a red flag for me. Could I find a way to include a figure, but avoid the genre confusion?
- Quite a few on the blog and elsewhere didn’t like the lack of colour on Option A. I quite liked that cover at full 6”x9” size, but I realised the monochrome-y nature of it might be a problem on Amazon where a whole set of thumbnails can appear together. Something has to lure the click!
- Even though we always say the most important thing is to choose a cover that potential readers will like, I realised that in self-publishing it’s quite important that I like it too. It will make a big difference to how eagerly I promote the book.
Rather than settle for either of the original covers, I ended up looking for a third option that combined some of each cover’s best features and dealt with some of the weaknesses.
Am I glad I held the poll?
Was blogging about my cover options a good idea for me, considering all the conflicting feedback I had to process?
I’ve been pondering that one, and my answer is YES!
People were very generous with their opinions, and some even took the time to write very detailed responses that have been amazingly useful. (Thankyouthankyou! 🙂 )
Some even posted it to their social profiles and started another discussion there, then let me know it was happening so I could eavesdrop. It was wonderful to see people’s instinctive reactions, especially when they weren’t feeling constrained by trying to be nice to me.
Also, from a blog traffic point of view, it’s definitely been worth it. That aspect took me by surprise. Blog comments began pouring in quite soon after the article was posted, and within days it became my fourth most commented article so far.
But for me, probably the most wonderful part of this process, even above the things I’ve just mentioned, was the sense of being part of a community.
As an editor and author previously sailing happily on the cruise liner of traditional publishing, debarking into the sea kayak of self-publishing for one of my own books has been terrifying. 😉
Much more terrifying than I expected, in fact (and I’ll be blogging more about that in coming weeks… subscribe using the form below if you want to know about my fears and what I’m doing to deal with them).
At a publishing house, there’s a gang of people pitching in to help make choices about book covers. One of the things I find hardest about the self-publishing gig is the sense of alone-ness in making some of the big decisions.
Yes, I’d run the covers by a couple of people I trust before I wrote the blog post, but the blog response supplied a whole extra level of involvement from others. I felt supported and encouraged and “heard” and helped.
It was more than just being up against similar challenges. It was as though we were actually in this thing together.
My tips for you
If you decide to blog about your own cover options, these are my thoughts:
- Wait until your concepts are fairly polished, rather than using very rough drafts. Many people find it hard to see beyond the execution to the concept. It does take a lot of time, of course, to develop two options, and you may have to pay for multiple stock photos.
- Be genuinely open to the feedback. If you have a secret favourite, you might be thrown into chaos!
- I’d beware of offering MORE than two options. I suspect that way lies confusion and despair! It was hard enough with two. 😉
- Brace yourself. The comments will contradict each other, and some might be hard to hear if you feel very invested in your cover design.
- I presented the covers at thumbnail size, and asked people to tell me which one would get their click on Amazon. That was valuable, as it seemed to direct people to think purposefully about the feedback they were giving me.
- However, next time I’ll put the thumbnails first, and the larger images further down the page, to try to avoid skewing the results too much.
- I also specifically asked people to tell me what drew them to their favoured cover, and that question seems to have prompted some thoughtful comments that have proven very valuable.
So, thank you to all of you who took the time and trouble to give me such useful feedback. It really has made a difference in so many ways.
I entered the final cover in The Book Designer’s ebook cover awards. I was quite nervous about doing so because the awards are meant to be educational and the comments can often be less than flattering. I decided to go ahead and enter anyway, because even if the cover were to receive some feedback I’d find hard to hear, it does give another snippet of exposure to a new book, and that’s always valuable.
I’m still a little in shock that the cover won a Gold Star Award! The comments were: “A near-perfect ebook cover that has great balance, drama, and a clear hook into the story. Very accomplished for a cover by an author.” (We might add to that, “for a cover by an author and 100 of her closest friends”. 😉 )
I can say with some confidence that neither of my original two covers would have performed so well. The hard work of making sense of all that conflicting feedback was definitely worth it to me, and I would do it again if I were in a similar situation of trying to decide between concepts, and not happy that either of them was working.
On NetGalley, where the book is listed for reviewers, the cover has received 32 thumbs up, and only 2 thumbs down. So that’s another positive.
Thank you team! I really appreciate you.
The book is also now out in the German translation, using basically the same cover with a German title, and added colour to make it easier for online book buyers to tell that there are two books, and alert them to pay close attention so they don’t buy the wrong language.
The German edition has been listed for review on NetGalley.de, where the cover has received only 6 thumbs down, but 85 thumbs up. So it seems to be working well for a different language market as well.
YET ANOTHER UPDATE:
Four years after publication, I still like this cover and am happy to promote the book with this look. That’s saying something, as I tend to change things. A lot! I’ve changed my other book covers sooner than that. Thinking deeply about why I’m happy to keep this one, it’s NOT because I imagine this cover to be the world’s best cover which could never be surpassed. Instead, the process of wrestling with the feedback seems to have led to a level of contentment, for me. We’re all different – it might not work that way for you.
What’s been your experience of receiving feedback on a book cover? Disaster or triumph? Or just a bit meh? How did you make the most of it? Any tips for how you’d do it differently next time?
B.L. Alley says
As indicated, the mistake people make when seeking feedback is to submit their work for a polls. All that tells you is how many people like it and how many don’t, or how many like A versus B.
As with writing you need honest, informed critique motivated by the goal of helping you improve rather than telling you what you want to hear or massaging the ego of the person offering the critique (there are plenty of self-appointed literary masters willing to sell advice in spite of their limited body of work).
There are very few sites that offer real help. In fact, Cover Critics and an authors forum on Goodreads are the only ones I found where they will be honest but helpful, as they are populated by people in publishing, are graphic artists themselves, or fellow DIY-ers who have already been through the process and learned from their mistakes.
The key is being willing to accept genuine criticism and use it to improve your work. There are far too many forums that claim to offer such help but are really enabling sites full of people praising one another on their sloppy work. In fact, many are actually hostile toward anyone offering real help.
If you’re afraid of criticism you shouldn’t be a creator. No matter how harsh a potential tutor or editor might seem, readers will be much more brutal in their feedback, and that feedback is inversely proportional to the amount of effort you put into your work.
If you want to see what not to do with your book cover, visit Lousy Book Covers, run by the same guy as Cover Critics.
Belinda Pollard says
So true that there is great value in feedback, but also that it needs to be carefully weighed. Thanks for your comment.
Lynda A Dietz says
I’m late to the party on this one, but I saw this post shared on Twitter this morning. I wish more people would put that kind of time and thought into their covers. Too often, writers rely on the story selling itself, but the hard fact is that a book IS judged by its cover, and a diamond on the inside might still not be spotted if the outside is still rough.
Belinda Pollard says
It’s so true, Lynda. Book covers do matter. I create my own book covers because I have the Photoshop and InDesign skills, as well as the motivation to do the research into other covers in my genre, and to see what’s working and what’s not. I spend more time on book covers than I probably should. But it gives me joy, and increases my sense of connection to my books… so I’ll probably keep doing it!
T.T. Thomas says
“…and it’s about a bunch of old friends with a shared secret who go out into the NZ wilderness and, well, start killing each other, really (as old friends so often do…).”
Belinda Pollard says
Patrice Shaw says
Hi Belinda, I’m weighing in a little late here but I just wanted to point out that when I’m buying a book the cover is about the third feature I use to make my decision. First is the author’s name (is it familiar, have I read their work before), second is the blurb, third is the cover. I realise with ebooks that the cover is the first thing a buyer sees, so it must stand out from the other millions of books for sale, but it is the third thing I will study in depth. More proof that we are all different. Congrats on the book cover design.
Belinda Pollard says
Never too late, Patrice! Thanks for your thoughts. The cover’s job is probably to get that first glance, especially for an unknown (to the reader) author, whether lined up as thumbnails on Amazon, or arranged on a bookstore shelf. It’s a whole combination of things that decide us, isn’t it — and it’s a different combination for each person.
I love your final book cover as it sticks in my mind more than either of the first two you were originally deciding between. It is dramatic, intriguing and mysterious and makes me want to find out about the young woman on the beach, why she is there and what lies just beyond the cliff. Congratulations on finding a book cover which worked for you, and also on the publication of Poison Bay. I look forward to reading it 🙂
Belinda Pollard says
Thanks so much, Kendra. I only just saw your comment! I love hearing your feedback, as it helps me understand what does and doesn’t work for others in a book cover. 🙂
Marianne Wheelaghan (@MWheelaghan) says
Hi Belinda, thanks for such a helpful summing up. I agree it is very scary sharing your ideas and facing the feedback. I did it for the cover of my last book and found the process almost immobilising. And in retrospect I didn’t get as much from it as I could have because I was so daunted by the info I got. So much so I was unable to process it for the best. I now realise I was not specific enough in asking for general feedback. Next time I will be more specific and try to take a step back when I process it, if you see what I mean? As for the new cover. I love it! Especially the way nature dominates and dwarfs the female character. It’s intriguing and beguiling. Almost haunting? Very much looking forward to reading it!! Do you have a publication date? I will be able to get the ebook here in Scottyland, yes??? Thanks again 🙂
Belinda Pollard says
Marianne, your book cover blog post sticks in my memory, and was one of the reasons I decided to take the plunge and do the same thing for mine. haha you didn’t TELL me it was immobilising at the time, now did you??
I definitely agree that asking a specific question — “which one would you click” — helped keep it under control. But I did find that the way everyone “pitched in and helped” was actually very encouraging, ultimately.
And thanks for your thoughts about the new cover. Your comments were very useful to me. 🙂
DEFINITELY it will be available in Scotland the Brave. I haven’t settled on an exact date as yet, but it will be mid-December. Stay tuned!!
Anne Ketchen says
I’d say your survey was ultimately very successful. You ended up incorporating the strongest elements of each design into a third one, which I am drawn to more than either of your other designs. Well done!
Belinda Pollard says
Thank you Anne. 🙂 It was scary to put myself out there this way, but I’m glad I did.
Robert Kenney says
Thank you, Belinda, for such a terrific follow-up post. It’s really interesting to see the details of the responses you got and your reaction to the feedback. Congratulations on a successful experiment and a fabulous final cover.
Belinda Pollard says
Thanks so much, Robert. I really felt I owed my community an explanation for how a completely different cover came about, and also an acknowledgement of just how much they helped me. 🙂
MM Jaye says
It’s a WINNER, Belinda!
You surely did away with all issues troubling those who were not in favor of the cover with the girl. You’re also very brave. I wouldn’t expose myself to commentators’ opinions on such a matter. Yes, comments came pouring in because everyone loves to weigh in on everything, but you will get a few who will feel offended if their opinion is not respected. Maybe to the point of resenting a decision that didn’t take into consideration their viewpoint, which will (possibly not necessarily) cast a shadow over the way they vew the entire project. So, yes, you’re brave but also talented and perceptive to produce a result that will definitely please everyone: from Aussies to Greeks! (That’s me.) 🙂
Belinda Pollard says
Thanks Maria! Yes, I also feared that effect, but because I really did have a dilemma to solve, I decided to go ahead and ask my community. And it created a lot of internal conflict for me, dealing with the issues raised, I found that it ultimately helped me a lot.
I’m glad you like my final cover. Phew! 🙂 I also love your idea to have two covers for your own novel: for the clean and spicy versions of the romance. Very creative! It will be interesting to see how that translates into sales and reactions. In one sense, you are splitting your audience in two, and therefore your Amazon ranking. And yet in another sense, it’s an inspired idea! One of the really exciting things about indie publishing is how we can experiment.
I’ll look forward to hearing how the experiment goes for you, and hope it’s a winner! 🙂
Elle Knowles says
Just gettin in the loop on this one. Those first two book covers took you to the third and the third has a WOW factor in my opinion!
I’m in the process of republishing my first book – Crossing The Line – with a new cover and updated edits. Thinking of using 3D instead of real people. What’s your thought on that?
Belinda Pollard says
Thanks so much for the feedback, Elle. I feel a lot happier with the third cover too, and am glad I took the process to get there.
That’s an interesting idea about the 3D… what would they be like? I’ve seen people use 3D modelling with great effect to produce characters for sci-fi and paranormal, and they’re often so real you can’t even tell. How were you thinking of using them?
Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt says
Thanks for sharing the process, specifically how you used what you got back.
I have already decided to do something similar – take the sunset cover which is my current placeholder, and add the silhouette of a woman leaning on a railing – so it is nice to see what you ultimately chose. Essentially, make it a more specific cover, rather than a general one.
I also like your current cover better because your name – and the book’s title – are larger. I think that works.
Last thoughts: telegraphing the genre is critical – I’m writing a mainstream novel, and one of the comments I got on the current cover when I asked for them was that covers with sunsets go to books that are inspirational.
Now, while inspirational isn’t bad, even for this novel, it is NOT what I’m aiming for. I’m so grateful this person made the comment – and I see now how sunsets ARE generic, but putting a person on the cover (especially one who is reminiscent of the main character and her home – which plays a big part in the story) may allow me to keep the feature I hope will become my signature/brand (amazing sunsets), but still signal to the reader ‘mainstream novel.’
As they keep saying (‘they’ are the wisdom of generations, distilled): ‘You only get one chance to make a first impression.’
Belinda Pollard says
Thanks for sharing your process, too, Alicia. Sometimes we can think we’ve nailed the genre, and other people will see it differently.
That certainly is a gorgeous sunset you’ve got there. And sunsets give you the ideal excuse to use a silhouetted figure, since that’s was naturally occurs in that lighting situation.
Hope your new cover does really well. 🙂