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WHAT’S IN A COVER?

May 6, 2020

            I originally posted this article in 2014, right after our Las Vegas Writer’s Conference that year. After receiving the draft cover for my latest book, Spanish Gold, plus seeing a few posts on my Facebook forums about covers and blurbs, I thought it would be a good time to resurrect this post and update it. Plus, it fits right in with my recent article on blurbs.

INTRO

            One of the things we talked about at the 2014 writer’s conference was book covers. My section on The Cover -Eye Of The Beholder discussed that a bit in my last post (Conference Aftermath – What I Learned), but I thought this would be a good time to talk a bit more in detail

YOU CAN’T HAVE A BOOK WITHOUT A COVER

            Whether your book is a tangible item or electronic, it’s going to have more than a plain brown wrapper (reminds me of how they supposedly used to ship porn). I’ve seen books in a plain brown wrapper as a marketing gimmick for real. Have no idea what these books were, or if they sold. Since I used the plural with that, you can see that it wasn’t a unique idea.

            A hard fact that seems to be borne out by many market researchers is that great covers help sell books, while sucky ones can kill book sales. I must say I have a big issue with that for one simple reason:

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

            Let’s take the analogy to another favorite of mine, music. I’ve always been and still am convinced that any old schmuck can go into a recording studio, fart in a paper bag, and it could be a big hit.

            Beauty is in the eye (or ear) of the beholder. That’s just as true with art as it is with music.

HOW I USED TO BUY ALBUMS

            Back in the day, I used to buy albums by unknown bands based on the album cover. It was usually photos of the band with some kind of background. Once in a while, there’d be some kind of artwork. What I looked for were either the ugliest, or the freakiest looking musicians, with the longest hair, and bought the album based on that. Looking back on some of those album covers today, the “artwork” would be considered pedestrian, but I still love those albums. I rarely caught a dud. On the other hand, they were still a form of art, just not paintings, per-se. Your book cover doesn’t have to be a painting either, but I digress.

            Over the years, very few albums impressed me with their artwork in the artistic sense. Certain albums had great visual appeal, but I didn’t really care for the music. Some of the best artwork was from an African band called Osibisa. Their first and second albums, with these flying elephants were fantastic. Their music was meh, okay “world music,” but not my usual style. The band Yes had some great artwork, but I couldn’t stand singer Jon Anderson’s voice, and he ruined some otherwise great music. At least the artwork looked great. Eye and ear of the beholder.

            On the other hand, one of my top ten albums of all time was Hard Attack, by a New Yawk hard rock band called Dust. Their artwork was done by none other than Frank Franzetta. That album cover is wow! This was about a decade before that became the standard artwork for Molly Hatchet.

            We used to see a band in Madrid, Spain at a local club. This band was called Greenslade. David Greenslade used to be the keyboard player in a jazz rock band I loved called Collosseum. His albums had great artwork. In fact, my wife painted their first album cover and it’s still hanging on the wall in our living room. In this case, the music matched the album covers, at least for me.

            Whenever I look through my album collection, I can get just as much of a thrill with the album covers as the music because I can tie the two together. I’ve never been able to do that quite the same way with books. I cannot always visualize story details with book covers.

BOOKS DIDN’T QUITE WORK THAT WAY

            Very few books have impressed me with their artwork except certain series. The Doc Savage series had a look to them. The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series were the same. Then there was the Andre Norton series writing as Andrew North. They had a great pulpy atmosphere to them. Otherwise, the look of a book had and has very little lasting impression except in a more utilitarian way. It’s an initial attraction on the shelf for a few seconds, but once I get past that, it’s just art with writing all over it. In fact, some of my favorite covers are more technical books like several of my favorite books on telescope making, or analog synthesizers. The “artwork” is letters and a few modest graphics. However, I’m able to correlate very fond memories to those familiar words and graphics.

            There are many great fictional stories I have loved over the decades since I started reading. Lots of favorites used to weigh down my bookshelves. Yet when I finally had to let them go, I received a nasty surprise when I eventually found some of them reissued. Yeah… have you ever noticed that most reissues always have a different cover? It’s like either the publisher or the author never liked the original cover and “wanted to do it right” the next time, or they wanted to try and reissue, rebrand and make it seem like a different book. I don’t know for sure.

I’M NOT EVERYBODY

            You, or everybody else may go totally Bozo over cover art and more power to you. I’ll say this. Something ugly or just functional isn’t going to do you any favors!

            On the other hand, who is to say what’s ugly? Eye of the beholder…

            You don’t have to use an intricate or artsy fartsy high-dollar cover that’s going to break your bank, if you’re in charge of that. If it’s the publisher, they’ll be footing the bill. However, if you have a say, let’s hope you can steer them a bit from something ugly. Of course, a big publisher has marketing wizzes that should know better than to defeat the whole purpose of putting the book on the shelf. If you’re a self-publisher, the onus is on you.

            The key is, it’s up to you to determine what’s good or bad, if you have a choice!

UNIVERSAL CAVEAT

            The one thing I’ve seen proven over and over again, since I wrote this in 2014, is that an amateurish cover screams self-published. This is the universal caveat.

            Nothing will kill book sales more than screaming self-published with a crappy cover. Using cartoonish or amateurish graphics on your cover and expecting people to see the same quality writing inside are just not going to happen. While the story and writing may be fantastic, if you scream amateur with the outside, when people get that initial glance as the first judgment, it places an immediate roadblock in front of your book before you even get out the gate.

            While I have a big issue with eye of the beholder, as I said at the beginning of this article, what’s almost universal is that the majority of people can spot amateurish artwork right off. They may have differing opinions on different graphics, different artwork and colors, subjects or whatever, but when it comes to amateurish, it’s way too easy to spot. Cheap is cheap. That’s different from art. I shouldn’t have to explain that.

BALANCE IS BEST

            A few tips.

  1. Make sure your cover art fits your genre.
  2. Make sure it stands out but isn’t too gaudy.
  3. Make sure it doesn’t look like it was drawn or painted by a third grader.
  4. If you have it in a galley proof, put it on a shelf and walk by. See if you notice it, and what it looks like next to others.
  5. Make sure the artwork fits with what’s between the pages (see #1).
  6. Finally, balance is best (goes with #2). Just the right amount of flare and simplicity so you stand out but not slap everyone in the face. You want to stand out, not annoy them!

            Until next time, happy writing!

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