Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Much Ado About Book Covers

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Your book cover is the single-most important marketing tool that your book will ever have. Forget what you heard, EVERYONE judges books by their covers in some respects. Although a poorly-designed front cover may not stop everyone from checking out the back cover or the first page, those people are few and far between.

I do not profess to know all the elements of book design, but I do know a little bit about the book business now and if I indie publish my second novel, there are several things I’ll be taking into consideration that I did not during the first round. So, I've created "The Four Commandments of Cover Design for Indie Publishers and Authors" A few of these principals are particularly geared toward African-American authors because, like it or not, our books are not necessarily going to be marketed like those in the mainstream. It’s just a reality you’re going to have to learn how to deal with.

1. Know where thy book will be shelved in a bookstore.

When I created the book cover for The Bum Magnet, I designed it in a bubble. I didn’t go to the bookstore to look at other books. I had NO idea whatsoever about how books were shelved and marketed by retailers. In my poor naïve little mind, I wrote a “chick lit” book, you know, women’s fiction. So, I imagined my book shelved with the Sophie Kinsellas, Emily Giffins, Erica Kennedys.

Boy was I WRONG! As an African-American author with an African-American on the cover, your book gets shelved in the African American/Urban Lit section of the store. So, instead of my book sitting among the cute colorful illustrated covers, my book was placed on the Urban lit table right between the following books. Book 1 and Book 2.

Yep! Imagine my surprise.(LOL) It's funny now that I think back on it. I was like, “It’s not supposed to be here!” because, in my head, I had shelved the book in another place in the store. Knowing what I know now, I would probably go with a fun all-text cover, so that the book could reach more mainstream audiences without looking like “Which one of these is NOT like the others?” no matter where it sits in the store.
African-American authors in particular need to understand (if not accept) the fact that retailers lump all African-American books into one big pile, with the exception of the best of the Bestsellers. Terry McMillian and the like will always have a space with other mainstream writers. Most of us will not. So, you should not write a book about women living in the '60s and expect to get shelved next to Kathleen Stockett. It's probably not going to happen UNLESS you become a bestseller. Make sure your book will attract ALL audiences that it's marketed to!

2. Know how thy book will be tagged online.

Thankfully, the big cover debacle did not spill over into the Internet world. That’s the beautiful thing about tags, which are especially important on Amazon. What’s great about tags is that the customer, not the retailer, gets to decide where your book will be shelved. The most frequently used tag on my book is “chick lit” so readers see the book as I intended them to see it. If you pull up the Amazon website and type “chick lit” in the search box, my book will come up on the first or second page. My cover fits in among the chick lit titles...yet it still stands out. That's what you want.

As an aside, make sure that you encourage people to tag your book when it’s listed on Amazon. The more frequently your book is tagged in a particular category, the sooner your book will come up when someone searches by that term. For example, I have 50 tags in the chick lit category, so my book now comes up within the first two pages if someone searches for chick lit. I don’t know about you but I may look at the first 5 screens of books in a given category before I give up, so the earlier your book comes up on a search, the better chance you have to get a sale. Encourage folks to tag your book…and please tag mine if you’re in the neighborhood. :)

3. Design thy cover to look the same as others on “thy shelf” – but different.

You want the cover to stand out, but you don’t want it to stand out in a bad way. You want your cover to be unique and similar at the same time. Sounds oxy-moronic but it’s true to an extent.
As I watched book buyers come in and peruse the books on the Urban Lit table, my poor little book was mostly overlooked. I think because the cover said, “You are waaaay out of my genre.” Even if the story might’ve appealed to from a female perspective, the cover didn’t get them. So, I moved the book over to the mainstream table and covered up another author’s book so I could squeeze The Bum Magnet in between Emily Giffin’s “Love the one you’re with” and another title that had a very colorful “chick lit-ish” cover (can't remember the name). And guess what? It got picked up within ten minutes. I moved two more books to that same table (on top of the author's book--shame on me!) and the entire supply had sold out within two weeks and the store placed a second larger order the next go around. Why? Because the cover was at least “in the family” of the kind of book they were looking to buy.

4. Thy cover MUST reflect something in thy book.

You'd think this wouldn't need to be said, but I've seen a few indie published books, which shall remain nameless, in which I could not figure out what the cover had to do with what I was reading. If your book cover doesn't reflect something in the interior, then that's literary fraud as far as I'm concerned. It should also reflect the tone. If your book is funny, the cover should give that impression. If the book is full of drama but you have a clown on the front--that's not a good thing. If you have a sexy half naked woman on the cover but there's no sex in the book, somebody's probably gonna be looking for a refund.

Anyway, you live and you learn! As an African American chick lit writer, I have a good idea of what kind of cover it will take to sell my book to African-American and mainstream audiences—a catchy title and a cover that literally sits on the fence between the two segments.

So, do your market research and DO NOT design your book cover in the bubble that is your head—the way I did. Trust me, you want your book to find its audience as quickly as possible and a little research will go a long way in helping the two meet.
Until next time
Keep it real...and keep it real cheap!


  1. I'll have to read your whole spill when i get home but I can't stop paughing over book 1 and book 2. What a learning experience for us all! I look at my book cover now and wished i'd spiced it up some more...lol

  2. ...just followed you on network blogs...need more followers...lol

  3. Good sound advice, you sneaky thing you!

  4. I agree with you because when I go into a bookstore, I will often by a book by cover alone. You can just tell when a cover has been professionally done or when I've done it. ha ha ha.


  5. I see that you give good, detailed instructions on making covers. I was able to make a decent cover with what was available with my publisher, but I'm not satisfied. I have a great cover idea, but can't spend a thousand on a cover artist.Do you know anyone or a service that does cover art at a reasonable rate?

  6. What a funny story about placement. I can totally see it and the anecdote contains an important lesson learned. Many valuable posts on this blog for those considering self-publishing. Thanks!

  7. Stupid retailers. As a Canadian, I can't figure out this reasoning - your book's a chick lit and should go with the rest. On the plus side, I would have never found you by traditional routes, so hooray for the new order.

  8. I indie published a novel back in 2000. My writing career didn't take off quite as planned and now I make my living doing graphics, some book covers. From both my perspectives, your advice about the book covers is excellent. All indie publishers should read it.