Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Pssst. Want to See What's Inside?

Terry Shames, here weighing in on what makes a good book cover.

We all want our books to be read, and the first look that people get is the cover. Here are a few tips about good book covers:
When my first book, A Killing at Cotton Hill, came out in 2013, I was puzzled by the cover. It had a photo of an old car on the front. There was nothing about cars in the book. Worried, I took the photo to my local bookstore. The bookseller took one look at it and said, “With this cover, this book is going to fly off the shelves.” She said it gave the flavor of the book, and that's what was important. She was right, which led me to understand that I knew nothing about book covers.


Tip one: Unless you are experienced in cover design, or really have a strong opinion about the cover your publisher has come up with, trust the pros. And if you are the publisher, get some opinions about the look of the covers you’re considering. Author Hank Phillipi Ryan always gives her Facebook community a choice of covers to vote on. It not only drums up interest, but gives her a chance to figure out the cover that readers find most appealing. Trusting your publisher doesn’t mean you have to accept a cover you really don’t like, or that you shouldn’t at least try to have input. James Ziskin’s last cover for A Stone’s Throw was brilliant—and he came up with it himself. Luckily, his publisher agreed. But of course that isn’t always the case. You may have to compromise.


Tip two: Covers should be consistent for a series. After my first book came out, my publisher, Seventh Street Books, stuck to the basic “look” of the cover, with blues and greens. Readers told me they had only to glance at my covers to know it was one of my books.

That said, when I wrote a prequel, the cover designer changed the look significantly. That was to emphasize that it wasn’t chronological in the series. And now, my eighth book, A Risky Undertaking for Loretta Singletary is coming out with a completely different look. Why? Because after books seven, A Reckoning in the Back Country, was so dark, I decided to write one that was lighter. It was instantly put it in the “cozy” category, which was fine by me, as that’s what I was aiming for.

Which brings me to tip #3: Don’t be afraid to change up the established “look” in order to signal that a book departs  from its usual fare. Also, just because a cover “look” should be consistent doesn’t mean it can’t get stale and need a new interpretation.

Tip # 4: Be specific about the contents of the book. If you’ve written a cozy, having a cover with a gun and a body covered in blood probably isn’t the best way to advertise what’s between the covers. Romance novels almost always signal their contents by their covers. If you see a young woman looking lovingly into the eyes of a handsome man on the cover, you probably won’t expect to settle down to read a fast-paced thriller.

Tip # 5: The cover isn’t everything. I once read a Goodreads discussion about what drew people to books. I assumed it would be word-of-mouth, author name, or even title name. But the overwhelming reason given for selecting a book was its cover. That isn’t true for me. I generally choose a book by author, but sometimes I’m simply browsing and looking for a new “voice.” After reading the discussion, I started paying attention to the kinds of books I selected when I was browsing. I noticed that when I chose a book , the name of the book was more important than the cover, but  I was more likely to a pick up cover with a brooding element--gloom, or a shadowy figure.

 Tip #6: There will always be a bit of mystery to the process. Even the best covers won’t appeal to everyone. And some covers that don’t look particularly exciting, may do quite well.I had a chance to be an Edgar judge last year, and was interested to see how covers differed—and how many of them were the same. It was fascinating to find that there were a lot of the same “look” in covers. I wondered if there are fads. A few of the books I thought were among my best Edgar reads had covers I probably would have bypassed if I had been choosing at random. These were books with generic “scenery”—a picture of a mountain or an ocean or a woods.

I’ve observed that the fourth book in my series, with a cow on the cover, will be picked up more often than any other in a display of my books. I’ve never figured out why. These are urban people. What appeals to them about a cow? Not only that, some people see the cow as looking malevolent; others as neutral.

At the moment I am on an anthology committee and we have to choose a cover. It’s interesting to see what grabs one committee member’s attention over another’s. I tend to like strong geometrics, while another prefers a human element. So it’s tricky to declare that one kind of cover is “greater” than another.

Tip #7: One last tip. When you are James Patterson or Louise Penny, it probably doesn’t matter what your cover looks like. I looked at the covers of some huge best-selling authors and noticed that inevitably, the most notable element of the cover was the author's name in BIG letters. So if you really want to have covers that sell, become a best seller!


Dietrich Kalteis said...

Right on the money, Terry. Well said.

RJ Harlick said...

A terrific insight into what makes a good cover, Terry.

Terry said...

Thanks guys, I never got around to titles, because I nattered on so long about covers. Maybe a separate post!