There’s a lot of debate in self-publishing circles about whether book covers should have people on them or not, and how this impacts sales.
This is an issue close to my heart as I prepare to self-publish my debut novel.
Most of the discussion focuses on covers for novels, but it does also affect many other types of books, including memoir, self-help, history and so on.
In some genres – romance, for example – it’s almost compulsory to have people on the book cover. For many others, a more evocative or even abstract type of cover has been standard.
How do we find the way forward?
I’m preparing my first novel Poison Bay for publication in December. It’s with my editor now, and we’re counting down. (Yikes! So much work to do!) [UPDATE: It’s out now, and you can check it out here.]
I have two alternative cover designs: one with a person on it, and one without.
And since I’m the Publisher, I have to make The Choice. *trembles in fear*
These are some of the issues I’ve been wrestling with, in case it helps you on your own publishing journey.
Thoughts from indie specialists
Russell Blake – a force of nature who churns out a new bestselling thriller in the time it takes me to remember where I put my phone – wrote a blog post generously revealing the steps he went through to sort out the cover for one of his titles.
Go and read that article to see the evolution of the cover design through three different montage-type covers that are typical of thrillers. And then, he ended up with this one:
It’s a gorgeous cover, simple enough to have impact in Amazon’s tiniest thumbnail size, and yet with plenty of texture and detail once it’s enlarged.
Russell credits this cover change with a leap in his book’s rankings from 18,000 to below 5,000. (The smaller the number the better – it means more sales.)
His experience raises a number of unanswerable questions for me. Did the cover work partly because it’s so different to many others in the genre, and that grabbed people’s attention and earned that first important click? How many factors we know nothing about might have played a role in the rankings leap, including the actions of other authors at the same time, and weird shifts in the Amazon algorithms?
Whatever the answer to those questions might be, the only thing Russell did differently to get the ranking surge was change his cover, and his take-home for us is this:
“Figure out what the story is, and then choose a theme that communicates it clearly.”
And yet difficult.
Another indie who has weighed in on this is Joanna Penn, one of the world’s top self-publishing bloggers, and thriller author as JF Penn.
In an article about how she changed her book covers, Joanna shows us how one of her covers went from light and arty to dark and specific, and also how she’d added a person to one of her previous designs. (I notice that she has since added a woman to all her other designs in the series.)
Joanna says she made two mistakes previously: prioritising theme over character, and failing to meet genre expectations.
That raises a conflict for me… at the mystery and suspense end of the bookshelf, where Poison Bay will sit, a lot of industry covers feature setting or landscape, but no people. But I think her point about character is important, especially since my novel is character-driven.
What to do?
Derek Murphy of Creativindie has written a useful article on design secrets used by publishers to get us to buy books.
He mentions the Odd Thomas series by bestselling suspense author Dean Koontz. I find it interesting that these books have different covers between the Kindle and paperback editions.
Personally, I like the Kindle cover on the left. It’s moody and intriguing and classy (and it’s in the cover series Derek gave his tick of approval). The other one looks like a trashy supermarket novel to me (and what is with that really weird tall-skinny shape?). But the flutterings of my artistic little heart probably don’t trouble the publisher all that much. The question they care about is: which one triggers sales?
They both have humans on them, and as Derek says “people sell. Having a person on/in the cover creates intrigue and interest. But only if done right.”
Hmmm. “Only if done right.” That’s the tricky part.
How do traditional publishers figure this out?
This fascinating article by Jeff Kleinman of Folio Literary Management goes into a lot of detail about how publishers research the effectiveness of book covers. He discusses what book covers have in common with other forms of product packaging, and where they differ.
It’s a woefully inexact science, not least because the reader often doesn’t know what prompted them to like one cover over another, anyway. All we can be sure of is that a “good” cover (whatever that may be) can really sell a book. Often, we only know it was a good cover after it’s proved itself!
Obviously, online book purchasing works differently to the physical book shopping Jeff mentions. People can’t pick up the book, feel embossing or silky matte celloglaze, turn it over in their hands.
They’re restricted to seeing a small thumbnail image, and using it to decide whether or not to click to see a slightly larger image, and a book description.
From there, they can click the “look inside” feature. If the publisher has had the presence of mind to add the cover art, and the reader thinks to scroll UP, they will see the book cover even larger again.
However, they’ll never see the cover in its full printed glory until and if they order the paperback, AFTER they’ve made their purchasing decision.
Online bookstores do have one advantage over the bricks-n-mortar alternative as far as we authors go: all the books are shelved facing out! If anyone ever does happen to see our book among the gazillions of them on Amazon, it won’t be just the spine that they see. 😉
Rather than thinking about whether they “love” or “hate” their book cover, Jeff poses three questions for authors to ask themselves when they receive the cover art from their publisher:
- Will this stand out on a crowded shelf? [i.e., is it distinctive?]
- Is the cover’s message clear?
- Does this engage me emotionally?
They sound like good questions for self-publishers to ask themselves, too.
I’m asking those myself, right now.
I’ve got two cover designs to choose from.
My book is about a bunch of people with a shared secret who go trekking in the New Zealand wilderness. Let’s just say, they don’t all come home. 😉
The tagline is: When the wilderness is not your only enemy, who do you trust?
**EDIT: In response to some of the comments below, just as a test to see if it changes people’s reactions, I’ve changed the tagline for the Wave version to “When the elements are not your only enemy, who do you trust?” (Yeah, I know, awkward singular/plural thing going on there…)
Cover Option 1 has a breaking wave that looks like it’s about to eat you alive. It’s simple and delivers the message that nature can be dangerous.
Cover Option 2 ticks the “character” box Joanna Penn mentions by having a person in it, and also gives more indication of the specifics of the book.
As my own Publisher, I have to not only decide between the different emotions and content reflected in these covers, I also have to consider which is more likely to earn that first “click” at tiny Amazon thumbnail size.
I can always try one, and if that doesn’t seem to be working, switch to the other one. That’s the beauty of today’s self-publishing. We’re not necessarily stuck with 4000 books in the garage.
But there is a fee involved in switching the cover with a print-on-demand outfit like Lightning Source, so it’s not something I’d want to do every second day. 😉
What do you think? The wave or the woman?
Take the poll!
EDITED: The poll is closed now – thank you all so much for your input. I’ve written a follow-up post that shows the poll results, how I processed them… and the finished book cover that emerged! You can find it here: https://smallbluedog.com/book-covers-processing-feedback.html
Please leave a comment, too. What has your experience been? I’d also love some feedback on my two covers, and what it is that draws you to either one.
What types of covers influence you to click to read more? Have you been through the process of working this out for your own books?