Author - Nina Cordoba
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6/24/2011 9:50:11 AM

Don't Blow Your Cover! Know Your Goals Before You Design

(If you haven't already, I suggest you read my previous blogs "A Title By Any Other Name" and "If You've Got it, Font It" before reading this one.)

I've been involved in a lot of conversations lately about covers for authors who are self-publishing. Writers often find that covers have something in common with blurbs, synopses and loglines. They wonder, "How am I supposed to represent hundreds of pages of manuscript on one little cover?" The possibilities seem endless. The mind reels.

If you're in this position, there are several things you need to keep in mind to stay on track.

First, remember that traditional publishers put out some very compelling covers, but they also release many books with covers that just don't hit the mark. The advantage you have in self-publishing is that nothing is set in stone. If you come to believe a cover is not working for you, you can upload a new one later. Now breath a big sigh of relief so you can read the remainder of this post calmly.

There are several problems that have come up lately, so I'd like to get the "nots" out of the way first.

1. Your cover is not meant to win a popularity contest among the authors you know who may not write or even read your genre. (Also, the majority of fiction writers I've met are not natural marketers, so going to a writer for cover advice is like going to Steven Tyler to get your taxes done.)

2. Your cover does not need to be the "prettiest" ever in the history of the universe, or have the most cutting edge artwork. It needs to get the job done.

3. Your cover is not just a book cover. It is THE advertisement for your book. You must treat it like you are designing an ad.

4. Just because a graphic artist likes something does not mean it should be on your book. Graphic artists are the visual equivalent of authors. Most are not marketing people. They probably haven't even read your book and may want to put whatever they think looks the coolest or most artsy on the cover. The artist is a tool for you, but not the ultimate decider. You are the decider.

5. A cover is not a problem with only one right or wrong solution. There may be many options that would work, but you need to keep your goal in mind with each decision you make.

6. Your book is not for everyone. If your writing is good, then there is a percentage of the population who will want to read it, but don't expect everyone to like it. Your book will not be loved by all your fellow writers, all your old high school friends, or all your relatives. There may only be 1-2 people in each of these groups who "get" what you write. The rest of your readership is out there...somewhere in the great beyond, and your cover needs to help identify them for you.

So, assuming your goal is to make money on your books, it's important that you follow the basic precepts of advertising when creating your ad (a.k.a. your book cover).

When I was in college, the advertising concept the professors drummed into us over and over, was "target market, target market, target market." The best type of advertising is not the advertising that is seen by the most people, but the advertising that gets the message across to the particular consumers who are likely to be interested in what you are selling.

You increase your chances of hitting the target when you make each decision based on one question: Will this appeal to MY readers? (If you have no readers yet, this is where you must imagine the types of people who will want to read your book.)

Here's an example of a lovely cover from a publisher that I thought missed the mark and did a disservice to a wonderful, heartbreaking, heartwarming, gutwrenching, yet humorous, women's fiction novel.

Although all the elements on the cover appear in the story, when placed together like this, the story seems rather flip, when it is anything but.

I tried to tell people how great the book was, but after I gave a description,they'd ask the title or look at the cover, if I was holding the book. When I'd show them, they were turned off. The story was at odds with the title and cover image. (If you haven't read this book, I beg you to do so. It is women's fiction at it's best.)

Here's a more recent example: My friend Jennifer Bray-Weber--a very talented author, and RWA Golden Heart finalist--was using my daughter Sierra to help design a cover for her in Photoshop. She had a hero/heroine photo she wanted superimposed on a photo of a storm-tossed ship. She'd gotten a draft of the "finished" cover from Sierra and Jenn began showing it around to authors, a graphic designer, etc.

The more she showed it, the more confused she became, trying to combine all the suggestions. I received a distress email, and decided it was time to be very blunt. (Luckily, Jenn is the kind of person who appreciates honesty and doesn't hold it againt you...for long.)

The professional graphic artist's advice would have been good if this were another type of romance, but it wasn't, and the artist had no way of knowing that. Other advice Jenn got about the font not reflecting the tone of her story was also good, but you couldn't take an appropriate font for her edgy story and use it with the original title (Upon a Moonlit Sea).

Bottom line was, her title didn't go with the gritty, action-packed feel of her pirate romance novel. After some brainstorming, she settled on Blood and Treasure, which is much more in line with her story. It also allowed the title to be placed in a combination of a "piraty" font with a "romancy" font. The result is a cover that reflects what she wrote. A pirate romance novel with lots of action, danger, and hot lovin'.

This image did take a bit of photoshop work to lengthen the guy's hair, fix the back of the woman's head, which was cut off in the original picture, and mist the pictures so they blended into one image.

However, a cover can often get the point across with a much simpler image, without paying for any photos. Let's go through the development of Cheri Jetton's cover. She sent Sierra a regular scanned in photo (below)... 

and asked her to put her title on it: Crimson Snow, which I thought was a good title for a suspense novel where the heroine gets gunned down in the snow. Below left is the photo with the title.

However, Sierra thought it needed a little something more, so she made another option for Cheri, turning the shadows and footprints red.

Finally, she added more red, hinting that the snow was saturated in blood and that was the final Cheri chose.

This simple ad (okay, cover) gives potential readers the idea of what type of book is being offered, so they'll read the blurb and decide if it's something they're interested in. Although Photoshop is complicated, there are now other free photo editors on the Internet that are simpler and there's a good chance you have a young person in your family or neighborhood who will do this for you inexpensively like my daughter does, or you could hire a professional graphic artist. (You will still need some idea or image to give the artist. He/she is not likely to read the book, so it's up to you to ensure the genre and tone are conveyed appropriately.)

Remember, when your book is up on Amazon, it will be offered in thumbnail size on various pages, so you want to convey a message about the genre and tone as clearly as you can. This is why my romantic comedies (Not Dreaming of You and Don't Make Me Make You Brownies), which are heavy on the humor, have cartoon-style covers. It was the easiest, clearest way to reach out to the types of readers who would be interested in what I've written.

Again, there are endless possibilities and many options that could work for any given book. Although marketing may be new to you, you can help design a cover that will work for your book, if you just keep its purpose in mind.

posted by Nina 5 Comments