Covering This Topic

(I REALIZE) MOST slowly. It’s been some time since I lay down my first marker that I was intending to write about covers. I’ve hesitated to move ahead, for a variety of issues.

But Monday, Passive Guy posted a provocative, if not entirely informative, item — linking to a deeper article at Author Marketing Experts. The title of PG’s post is “Bad Cover = Dead Book,” while the article at AME is headed “8 Mistakes That Will Absolutely Kill Your Book.” I was piqued to compose this post.

While the advice offered is good, (Better be; these people depend for their livings on their judgement being accurate.), I tend to want to expand on one point.

Penny Sansevieri, at AME, instructs that, when you ask for opinions on your book’s cover, you should not mention design. That’s true, and so very, very wise. But that’s not to say you should not consider it when you’re art directing your cover before you expose it to the view of a focus group. In fact, you should consider nothing but the best in design. As Ms Sansevieri observes, if you buy cover art from a cookie-cutter factory, or do it yourself in PowerPoint from stock photos, you’re going to get something worth almost exactly what you paid for it.

And, as pointed out, an online buyer spends very few seconds on the buying decision. So your cover has to connect immediately and with great impact or you don’t have much of a chance for a sale.

So, without getting into specifics of typefaces, composition, source imagery, and the like, how is a poor, bottom-rung indie author to get good cover art? By looking for the very things your high school art teacher taught you about image composition: balance, unity, shape, flow, clarity (or readability), interest (or intrigue), negative space, and color.

Now, I could explain all those terms and concepts and offer illustrations of my meanings. But the bottom line is that, if you don’t understand them bone-deep, my explanation will not help you understand the subject any better. So, for the moment, trust me you need to know about these things, and that you should educate yourself on them. And, yes, it’s hard and a pain in the ass, but that’s what it means to be an independent businessman publishing your own work. Consider it a cost of freedom.

What all of this adds up to is that you must consider the “production values” of your design. Production values will determine the overall strength and impact of your design. Paying attention to them implies that you must look at quality of execution, to be sure, but also that you must not get so ambitious in your concept that you set your sights on something you can’t execute. Unless you have a lot of practice at pulling off experimental techniques, and are good at faking the killer dismount and the extra-points-for-style flourishes, don’t try them. People like me get paid to make it look easy, but doing it wrong can make you look like a chump. Worse, it can kill the sales of your book.

For an example of what production values can do or mean to an image, compare the movie Serenity with the television series Firefly. Same actors. Same writers, director, producer, and the rest. But the movie has ineffably superior production values, and it shows. The visual experience is just… sexier. And, while readers browsing a book store may not be able to articulate it, they do know quality production values when they see them, and will respond accordingly — and in the negative if the values are not there and are not high.

Look at the covers of the Top 100 new releases in science fiction and fantasy at Amazon. While it would be fun to go through them one at a time and comment, I suspect it could also be tedious, so let us pass on that. But you should study them yourself. They vary within a fairly narrow range of aesthetic choices taken for idiosyncratic reasons in each case. Observe both what has been done — and figure out why — as well as what has NOT been done.

Not all of these books will succeed. Just so, a good cover does not guarantee success. Nor does a bad cover assure failure. In either case, the cover — like DNA — is not destiny so much as it indicates a tendency — a probability. When a reader looks at your cover, he will take his 6 or 8 seconds to judge the tendency of your book. Whether the judgement is valid or not is immaterial — the judgement will be rendered, and on it hangs your fortune.

Now go and study your cover(s) and assess where they go right. Or wrong.

Cross-posted at Musings of an Indie Writer.

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