Since here of late I’ve been playing “art department” for several of my clients, I’ve been thinking a lot about ebook covers. What works, what doesn’t, and more importantly, Why? I do a lot of browsing for books on Amazon. Why do some ebook covers catch my eye and cause me to click on the listings, while others are merely clutter on the page? What is the real difference between a “good” ebook cover and a “bad” one? Is there a way to ensure an ebook gets the perfect cover?
Perfection? Probably not.
A cover that does exactly what it is supposed to do? That’s doable, each time, every time.
I read an article the other day about one writer’s quest for the perfect covers. She did market analysis using surveys (read it here). I found it fascinating and admirable. I also spotted right off the mistake she is making. It’s a mistake I see over and over again with indie publishers. The writer is designing a cover for herself.
Now, you are probably saying, “Jaye, what’s the point of being an indie if you can’t do things your own way?”
You can do things any way you want to. It’s your book.
Here’s the problem with designing an ebook cover for yourself. You have lived with your story for weeks or months or years. You know the plot, the characters, the emotional arcs. You know your own vision. What excites you. What you want the world to know. You want a cover that captures all that nuance. All the wonder and beauty and drama that is your story.
Potential book buyers don’t know any of that. Until they actually start reading the book, they have no context, no point of reference, and thusly, they don’t really care. All that love and knowledge the writer holds in her heart is wasted. In many cases, it can so miss the point that it fails to catch attention of potential buyers or, worst case, turns them off completely.
An ebook cover has one job: Induce potential buyers to click on a listing. That’s it. Once the ebook is purchased, it’s done its job and, like the packaging for a new gadget, it can be discarded. It won’t be displayed on a shelf or coffee table. It won’t be taken out to be studied and admired for its art. In fact, once it’s loaded on Kindle or Nook or smartphone or tablet, it’s almost irrelevant. It’s already served its major purpose and no longer matters–except for one very important aspect: the cover can serve as a trigger that leads readers to other books.
What I see are ebook covers that miss the major Sell Points.
Sell Points are simple. Maybe it’s their obvious simplicity that make them so easy to miss. To figure out the sell points, you have to ask: What are readers looking for? To answer that, you have to know who your readers are and/or who you want your readers to be. (If you say, “My book is for every reader from 8 to 80!” you are doomed. Sorry. It’s true.)
GENRE: If you’re writing genre fiction, your task is fairly straightforward: Make the cover look like it belongs in the genre. It truly astonishes me how many covers miss this mark so completely. Genre book browsers are scanning quickly, not necessarily reading titles, looking for visual clues that something is worth clicking on and exploring further. Your pastel colored cover with blooming flowers might be stunning, a real piece of art and perfectly depicts the theme of “winter always ends and the cycle begins anew” but it’s a crime thriller and it doesn’t look thrilling at all, so potential buyers will pass. Spend a few hours browsing online retailers for your genre. Make lists of common elements. Even, or especially, those that seem cheesy or cliched. Cheesy cliches work because they shout, “This is a thriller! This is a romance! This is horror! This is what you’re looking for!”
Example of a cover that not only hits all the sell points, but perfectly targets the humorous horror sub-genre market. The title and color work together to set the tone/mood. The design looks simple (it’s not–this is carefully thought out and crafted). It’s legible and eye-catching. (and no, I didn’t do this one, but I wish I had)
MOOD/TONE: Reading fiction is an emotional experience. Readers are always on the lookout for something to either fit a current mood or create a new one. The tone and mood of your cover MUST match the description. The cover and description MUST match the story. If there’s a disconnect between the cover and the description, no sale. If there’s a disconnect between the cover and description and the story itself, you’ll have disappointed and possibly disgruntled readers. Never, ever forget your readers’ emotional experiences AND expectations. If you set them up for a light and amusing read but then hand them Hamlet, your cover–and the book–has failed.
Example of a cover that fails. Found under a search for “political thrillers” it doesn’t look like a political thriller. It’s dull. Bad enough to tack on a photo, but it’s not even an interesting photo. The image is static and out of context. The typography is illegible in thumbnail. It looks amateurish.
TITLE: In my rarely humble opinion, publishers should spend more brain time on titles than on artwork. A truly great title can sell books all on its own. (Personally, I am total shit with titles, so I have nothing but admiration for people who come up with great titles.) What makes a great title? It’s snappy, it’s memorable, it tells a story in just a few words. This isn’t the place to be cute or esoteric or lofty. In the article I linked to earlier, one of the problems I noted was the author’s title. THE SCARLET ALBATROSS. Interesting visual, but taken all by itself, what can it possibly mean? Who is looking for a book about a big seabird painted red? (And the author must sense there is something off about it because the cover is bogged down with extraneous tag lines and explanations.) Contrast that to Larry Correria’s MONSTER HUNTER INTERNATIONAL.Says it all. Anyone looking for a story about monsters is going to at least click on the listing. When it comes to titles, subtlety is not your friend. Nor are lofty literary allusions (unless you are targeting the really tiny market of literary snobs). Wordplay is only going to work if your intended audience is in on the joke. If you’re going to invest time and/or money in market testing, forget the artwork and test your title. Once you have a title, make sure it’s readable on the cover. Yes, I know, the book title is right there in plain text on the browsing screen. But browsers are looking at the pictures first, then when something catches the eye, the text off to the side. If your title is illegible on the listing then it doesn’t exist.
AUTHOR: I am always appalled by writers with audiences whose names are not prominent on the cover. It’s a HUGE sell point. The majority of readers are fairly risk aversive. They might say they want something new and different, but if given a choice they’ll usually go with a sure thing. A writer who’s made them happy in the past might very well make them happy in the future. The more prominent your name is on the cover, the more important it looks. Even new writers should make their name stand out.
A word about artwork. I’m not going to say “pearls before swine” but… Fabulous artwork is NOT a sell point. (Fabulous artwork can sell print editions because sometimes those books aren’t even opened, they are displayed, and in brick-and-mortar stores customers actually pick up books and study them front and back before opening the pages–an entirely different way to shop for books.) Crappy, amateurish artwork can hurt your sales because readers will assume the interior is also crappy and amateurish. But when you’re making decisions about artwork and illustrations for an ebook cover, look at it in context of the sell points. It’s far more important that the illustration imparts information than that it looks pretty.
Gorgeous artwork that is utterly wasted on an ebook. The image turns to a muddy splotch in thumbnail. If not for the author’s name, this cover would be a total fail.
Another word, this time about typography. Choose your typefaces wisely and don’t junk them up with too many effects. Make sure your title and name are as legible as possible in thumbnail. Make sure the style of the typeface matches the design.
My number one suggestion for indies designing their ebook cover is to HONESTLY assess whether they can objectively wear the “art department” hat or not. If your mind keeps turning to themes and symbolism and all the many (many!) wonderful elements you want on the cover, and if you keep forgetting to consider what your potential readers are looking for, then it’s probable that you need to turn the job over to someone else. And then let them do their job.