1. Word of mouth 2. The cover

On MJ Rose’s excellent blogsite (http://www.publishersmarketplace.com/members/BkDoctorSin/) there’s been some thought-provoking discussion of book packaging and cover design. It’s inspired me to mull over the importance of a good book cover. They say that you can’t judge a book by its cover, but the fact is, readers DO care about covers. If you’re a brand-new author, the two top reasons that a reader will pick up your book are:1. Word of mouth. 2. The cover.

While we authors can’t do much about #1, we may have a certain amount of influence on #2. But what, exactly, constitutes a good cover?

It’s a bit like pornography; while I can’t tell you precisely what a good cover is, I know it when I see it. Some things I don’t like: Brown covers. Dark gray covers. Mustard yellow covers. Covers that are overdone in gold and glitter and embossing, that shriek “Look at me,” because I get the feeling the publisher is resorting to desperate measures to sell a really bad book. I don’t like covers with guns; they make me think the book will be heavy on weaponry and light on character development. And oddly enough, I don’t like covers with medical imagery — scalpels, syringes, masked surgeons. I say “oddly” because my first thriller, HARVEST, had a syringe on the cover and it sold very well. Maybe I’ve read too many really bad medical novels with scalpels on the covers, and I’m shying away from the whole lot of them these days.

What I do like: Covers with human faces, especially women’s, or sensuous views of the human body. Covers that imply secrets. THE HISTORIAN, with a sliver of a face peering out through black, is a good example of that. Harlan Coben’s book cover for TELL NO ONE was another winner — a weird salmon-pink background with only the title on the cover in tiny type, and no other design element. (Plus, it was a great title.) That book practically compelled me to pick it up and look at the flap copy, to find out what the “secret” was.

Maybe it’s my XX chromosomes, but I also like what I call, for want of a better term, “pretty” covers. Covers with lush colors and painterly art. Yes, it may be merely female taste, but since most novels are bought by women, it behooves publishers to appeal to them.

I have one convincing example of the power of “pretty” covers, based on my experience in the German market. My early thrillers there had standard medical thriller covers — scalpels, forceps, etc. And my sales were, to put it baldly, mediocre. But with THE SURGEON, my German publisher decided to do something entirely different and used a gorgeous painting by Caravaggio, of anatomists. From one book to the next, my sales went from mediocre to bestselling, and I’m convinced that the cover had a lot to do with it.

Would that same cover work as well in the UK or the US? Who knows? Every country has its own sensibility, and it’s possible the same cover would be a complete flop elsewhere. If you look at the various covers on my foreign editions, you’ll see how different they can be. In the UK, they’ve chosen clean, bright covers with sometimes abstract elements. In THE SURGEON, it was a blood-spattered bathroom drain. In THE SINNER, it was a crucifix lying in the snow. And those seem to work; my books are LONDON TIMES bestsellers.

I’m just a reader and book buyer, not a design professional. Yet there are times when I walk through a bookstore, see a bad cover, and wonder: “What WAS that publisher thinking?” Recently I read an article about how one particular publisher came up with what they thought was a great “bestselling” cover for a book they projected would be huge. They showed all the various prototypes, and then proudly revealed their finished product. My reaction? What an ugly end product.

The book, sadly for the author, was not a bestseller. I could have told them the cover stank; but then, they didn’t ask ME.

The publishing world has developed a few superstitions about book covers over the years. The word used to be that there were three things you should never put on a cover because they were bad luck: Snakes, palm trees, and bare feet.

The first, I can understand. I’ve polled my readers at various book events and asked them how many of them would not pick up a book with a snake on the cover. There are always a few hands that go up, from people who say they wouldn’t even TOUCH a book with a snake anywhere on the cover. Their fear of snakes is that powerful! As for the bit about palm trees and bare feet, I have no idea how that came about. I suspect that sometime in the past there was a book that flopped miserably, and the publisher decided to blame it on the cover. Which happened to have palm trees and/or bare feet.

Since then, there’ve probably been enough bestselling novels with palm trees and bare feet to convincingly put that superstition to rest.

There also used to be a superstition that green covers didn’t sell. Then John Grisham’s THE FIRM squashed that one.

A cover illustrator for western novels was once interviewed about his work. He said that he read every single book before he painted the cover design, and that you could tell which ones he really liked by what he painted. “But your designs all have pretty much the same elements — a cowboy and his horse. How can we tell the difference?” he was asked.

“If I liked the book,” he said, “the horse is facing TOWARDS you.”

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