I’ve been “traditionally published” many times. Many more times, in fact, than I have self-published. The whole world of being an author/publisher is new to me and at time I miss the simpler days when I just wrote books. “Other people” worried about my grammar mistakes! “Other people” figured out the marketing. Sometimes, “other people” chose the titles. And always “other people” figured out what would make an attractive, meaningful and sales-inducing cover.
Now, though, choosing a cover is one of my many responsibilities. I’m going to share with you the top 5 mistakes I’ve made along the way with the pictures to prove it. Are you ready for some ugly and some obvious? Here we go:
5. DON’T design it yourself or hire a friend– unless you or they are an experienced cover artist.
Trust me on this. I’ve learned this one the hard way. You see, I had what I thought was a brilliant idea: to hire a teenaged artist to do the cover for a book about teens. She’d read the story and loved it and I fell in the love with the idea of it all. The result was a very nice illustration… that completely fell flat beyond the audience of the two of us!
I still like this illustration a lot (and if you’ve read Liam’s Promise, you probably can understand why it appeals to me!) But the image reads muddy and the black and white just didn’t capture readers’ attention. I had to abandon it. Sadly, I think I hurt my teen artist’s feelings in the process. She wasn’t ready (yet) for this kind of project. I needed a professional, who understood the book biz in a way that she didn’t.
Lesson learned. Falling in love with your own “concept” is a nice exercise in ego, but book covers are designed for one purpose: to sell books. I’m a writer, not an artist. And I (still) have a lot to learn about what images appeal to readers.
I needed an expert with experience. I needed someone who could explain all the reasons my cute “concept” wouldn’t work. And if you want an eye-catching cover that sells, you do, too!
4. DON’T ignore what you see on bookstore and library shelves.
Shortly after I realized that my first cover for Liam’s Promise wasn’t going to work, I did what I should have done FIRST: I went to the bookstore, plopped myself down in the Young Adult section and then the Science Fiction section and looked at covers.
I quickly realized that if I wanted to appeal to a hard science fiction audience, a wild, fanciful illustration could work. But if I really wanted to appeal to YA audience, I needed a clear image of a young person on the cover. Photographs were “hot” in the market I wanted to sell to–in fact, they were everywhere!
This can be a tough line to walk. You want your cover to be unique and different…but not so unique and different that it repels rather than attracts. I was stumped for a while. I didn’t want to just “follow the crowd”–especially since I’ve spend my life doing the opposite. But I’m smart enough to understand that being contrary just for the sake of being contrary isn’t going to achieve my goal: which is to share the stories that come into my head!
But before I abandoned my illustrations, I had to get a little more help from, of all places, Facebook.
I ran a “cover test” Facebook ad with a photo and another one with an illustration to see which one got more clicks. Yes, I spent some money (around $100) but it was worth it. The results made it pretty clear that the photo reached my target audience in a way the illustrations just didn’t (and The Doomsday Kids’ facebook page got a few new fans as an added bonus). I was convinced.
With the help of a couple of pros and a few hundred “real people” on Facebook, The Doomsday Kids cover concept started to evolve. After a few more evolutions, I ended up with this:
I like it. Readers like it. It prints well and “pops” on the web. It illustrates what the book is about. I think it works– and it certainly fits in other covers that seem to be selling in my target market.
3. DON’T be afraid to invest money on feedback from your audience.
TEST, test, and re-test! Your readers are your friends… and they are honest!
I’ve made lots of revisions to the cover of Liam’s Promise over the past year and in the process carved out an “identity” for The Doomsday Kids series. Each of the elements on the cover are there because of feedback I received from the book series’ target audience.
For example, boys and young men really liked the explosion in the background. Girls really responded to the face. So we combined them…and repeated that kind of effect with subsequent covers for books two, three and four.
I wouldn’t have known that without the Facebook ad tests. I know many author/publishers try to invest as little cash as possible in their creations in the hopes of maximizing the bottom line. What I did won’t be right for everyone. But for me and my long term goal for the series, investing in real market feedback from TOTAL STRANGERS was important and worthwhile.
I read a lot of blogs and talk to a lot of authors who complain that their books aren’t doing well. While there are lots of reasons for this (and the biggest one is just the sheer NUMBER of books being published right now) good covers and good content are things directly within our control. Investing in finding out what people really think of your cover is a good use of funds… and in my case, it made more money than I spent.
2. DON’T ignore copyright laws! You wouldn’t like it someone did that to you!
If you use photos or artwork, don’t forget to obtain the proper rights to use those images.
It’s amazing to me how many authors don’t want to pay for cover art! I mean, photographers and illustrators are our kin: they are talented people who hope to make some kind of income from their gifts. If writers don’t understand that, I don’t know who does! We are in the same boat as all other creative people: in exchange for our gifts we need to be paid or we can’t afford to continue creating!
Pay for your images. Get releases and copyright permissions that protect you so that if (when!) you hit it big, your vast millions will be protected from infringement lawsuits! And it’s good artistic karma, too! As you sow, so shall you reap!
1. DON’T follow the same old cliches and stereotypes.
Sterotypes are the short-hand of our culture and they are everywhere. We’re all steeped in them and it takes awareness and sensitivity to recognize them and crack them wide open. The best writing avoids cliche– and the best covers should, too. Since diversity is so important in The Doomsday Kids series, I’ve had to be especially careful that the images I chose didn’t inadvertently strike chords that were stereotypical at best and offensive at worse. This was particularly true with Amy’s Gift.
Amy’s Gift is told by Amy Yamamoto, an Asian American girl who was a popular cheerleader and athlete in the “Old” world. Her grandfather (who, you’ll learn in the book has been the primary “father figure” in her life) pressed her to learn about firearms, which she reluctantly agreed to do. Her skill proves useful to the Doomsday Kids as they journey to reach a survivor’s camp by the sea… but that just scratches the surface of who Amy is and what she struggles to overcome. Knowing that much about Amy, my designer came up with this image originally:
I liked it. It’s consistent with our brand and I don’t think I’m giving anything away to say it works with some elements of the story. But something felt off and instead of rushing to post it on our Amazon pre-order page I showed it to a few trusted readers and bookish friends on The Doomsday Kids facebook page. None of them loved it. It wasn’t until a week later that I realized that the elements of the image stereotyped Asian girls by presenting a “Geisha Ninja in black” vibe. It isn’t overt, but that “echo” in the image contradicts with my goal of writing a diverse and stereotype-busting series! Read my bio again: I’m a poster-child for #weneeddiversebooks!
Here’s the redesigned cover. I think it conveys Amy’s strength, but her vulnerability and fear, too… but I’m going to test it before we commit! I might still be missing something.
And that’s my top 5 mistakes! Got some others? Want to comment on the covers or give some other ideas. Please comment! I love hearing from you!