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The Importance of First Impressions – Book Covers

Posted on July 14, 2011 by in General | No Comments

We as indie writers carry the burden of promotion. This is no different than a new writer with a big publisher these days. And promotion is just a synonym for sales – a word that makes most writers cringe, or maybe it’s just me. But one of the most effective sales tools in an author’s arsenal is passive. You create it up front and let it go to do much of the work for you. It’s your book’s cover.

First let’s visit the grocery store to learn the mechanics of the sale. We’ve all seen the ladies in the aisles cooking samples in an electric skillet and passing them out to shoppers. Let’s look at what’s really happening and see how it applies to selling books. The first key is attracting attention. You have to grab the buyer’s interest to get them to pause from what they are doing long enough to at least consider your product. The skillet lady has two weapons in her arsenal; aroma and a spiel.

Next, is satisfying customer’s expectations. Vegans won’t want to try Jimmy Dean sausage, and those with shellfish allergies won’t want to sample shrimp crackers. This is usually much easier for skillet lady than a book cover. She can simply tell them what they’ll be sampling if they can’t gather that from the smell and appearance.You have only your book cover and it must speak for you.

Then skillet lady will try to get her potential customers to sample the product. And this is the key. If you have a good product, the sample should cement the deal. But there is a lot that goes on to get customers to that point.

In terms of book sales, the book cover is your skillet lady, your primary interface to customers. It’s out there working on your behalf selling your book even as you sleep. It must do all the things the skillet lady does. It must attract attention and get customers to pause and look closer. It must satisfy customer expectations. Something about it must tell the buyer what they are getting.  Romance enthusiasts who accidentally buy a horror novel aren’t going to be happy. In the brick and mortar world this is easily avoided because your book will be placed in the appropriate section of the store. But in the e-commerce world, your cover has to do most of this work on its own.

Let’s face it, even in a brick and mortar store the wrong cover can turn customers away. No one needs angry customers or one star reviews because of genre confusion. By the same token, an unprofessional looking cover leaves potential readers with the impression that what’s inside is just as poorly executed. Don’t scrimp. It’s too important.

There are four elements that comprise a book cover; the cover image, the title, the blurb/endorsement, and the author’s name. Not every cover will have all four and any one of these might be enough to garner a sale. For most authors, the most powerful thing working in their favor is the cover image. It can set the tone, and if intriguing enough, will make potential customers pause to look deeper

Let’s examine three covers and what about them works.

The Willows: Haven

The first is Hope Collier’s “the willows: haven.” The cover design is by Neil Noah. Hope’s book releases later this summer, but when I saw the cover on her website, it stopped me – job one accomplished. The black and white image, despite seeming peaceful, is stark and somewhat disturbing. Clearly something isn’t right and there are dark overtones. What is a woman clothed in a cocktail dress doing floating in deep water well away from shore? How did she get there and does she have a chance of surviving? Questions raised in the mind of the customer are good. They’ll want answers. There’s a good chance they’ll sample this book based on the cover alone, and if they like what they read, they’ll buy.


Next is Ania Ahlborn’s “Seed.” The cover design is by Jeroen Ten Berge. The art and title do heavy work. The image of a graveyard silhouetted in the eerie first light of morning, the birth of another day, a tree growing amid the headstones, it’s roots deep and a seemingly a transposed negative of what grows above sets an expectation of things dark and dire. The title adds to this disquieting imagery. Seed, the base unit of life, the beginning – and in this case, the beginning of something dark. It works. It definitely grabs attention and draws customers to look deeper. And it sets the appropriate expectation.


Rules for Renegades

Last is Christine Comaford-Lynch’s “Rules for Renegades.”© McGraw-Hill Professional Publishing. Cover reproduced with permission. The cover design is by Jan Marshall, @Jan_Marshall on Twitter. The image of a Japanese woman in full traditional dress and makeup racing on a motorcycle is striking. Again it’s a contradiction and something interesting is happening. She is obviously breaking with tradition and on the run. Is she racing from something, or toward something? Questions again. The title reinforces this; Rules for Renegades – really, what are those. This is another book I’m likely to pick up and read the first page of based solely on the cover.

Titles, Blurbs & Names

Now a little on the remaining elements of book covers; titles, blurbs, and the author’s name. We are visual creatures. Imagery trumps practically everything else, but that said, a good title can also build intrigue and draw attention. I’ll give a few examples of titles the caused me to pick up books and read the first page: Water for Elephants, The Book Thief, and The Art of Racing in the Rain. In each case, the title overcame rather mundane cover imagery and was enough to get me to pick up the book and sample the first page. In each case it resulted in a sale. In an ideal world, title and cover imagery should work together, but sometimes a good title alone can build enough intrigue and curiosity to draw readers closer. Choose wisely.

Blurbs and endorsements: blurbs should be as well written as anything inside the book and in the same tone and voice. They should hit only the highpoints. If you bore readers with the blurb, they won’t buy. Endorsements: wouldn’t we all want, “I absolutely loved this book” – Stephen King, on our cover. This alone can sell your book. But it isn’t vital. If it can be managed, a positive endorsement from a well known author in your genre can go far.

Lastly, the author’s name. For most people reading this, your name means little at the moment. You are struggling to build readership, sell your book, and get a modicum of name recognition. For the big kahunas of the writing world, their name alone on the cover is enough to sell books. People will line up to get the latest Rowling, King or Koontz novel. Not so much for me and you. However, the goal of every author should be to build that kind of name recognition and fan base. I can’t tell you how many book covers I’ve seen by new authors where their name is in tiny letters tucked away in a corner or lost amid the imagery. YOU ARE THE BRAND, not the book title. Your name should stand out and be as prominent as anything on the cover. If all goes as you hope, one day it will be your name readers are looking for, and it alone will be enough to sell your work.

In this age of self promotion, pay close attention to your book cover. It’s one of your best salesmen. It can work for you every hour of every day for decades. Get it right.

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