Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Thing About Covers

Oh, the book cover. I don't think there's a writer out there who hasn't imagined the day they have an actual book cover—one that represents their book exactly, while also being eye-grabbing, bestsellery, award-winning, and all around perfect.

Yeah...that's not really how it works. But like the magical publication stories about writing a book in a month, getting an agent the next day, and selling in one week, we writers like to dream it's that pretty and simple.

Now, this is just one writer's semi-outside view of the process, but I think it's slightly unhealthy to idealize covers and I want to bring it down to a practical level. It's important to be prepared for how your cover will likely be handled instead of romanticizing it.

Note: I'm not saying this is how it should be, that this is bad, or anything of the like. I'm just saying these are some things that go into cover creation that you may not like to think about but should.

Most people think covers are meant to represent what's inside a book. While that's partially true, it's not the core intent of any cover.

A cover is designed to sell the book.

I hate to shatter the dream, but that is the #1 objective. Your cover, or future cover, is an ad. Everything that goes into it is meant to boost its chances of selling. Yes, what's inside is a factor, but it's not the only one or sometimes even the most important.

Since your cover is an ad, a certain demographic will likely be chosen based on where the marketing team thinks your book fits. You might think your book will appeal to boys and girls, or men and women, or sports lovers AND video gamers, or all of the above. But marketing doesn't work that way—it's too hard to make a product universally appealing.

Your book will get a box, most likely the box marketing thinks will be most inclined to buy your book. Your cover will be designed with that demographic in mind. Your jacket copy, blurbs, and maybe even your author bio/name will be created based on it. You will be a brand, essentially.

Your Place Among Titles
I don't think anyone likes to talk about this, but the truth is you may not be as "important" at your publishing house (or future house) as you want to be. Yes, publishers pick books to be bigger sellers than others based on a ton of factors I won't pretend to know. It kinda sucks. Get over it.

The practical fact of the matter is not every book can be a bestseller. Just like not every singer can be a grammy winner or insert-whatever-other-comparison-here. Publishers basically bet on their titles. Sometimes it pays off, sometimes not. Of course they're going to put more into their "best bets," so to speak.

Your book may not be as important as you hoped for, and the cover might get treated accordingly.

Note: I am not saying editors take on books they hate or think will fail. Not true at all. I believe all editors buy books they truly love, but that doesn't mean they have control over how a book gets treated in house. I'm sure every editor works hard to get their titles the attention they deserve—but you just can't win every battle.

Not every cover is created from scratch. Your cover could get stock photoed (aka: slap a typical image on the front that is shown to do well within your determined demographic, but with a few tweaks and changes).

I think we imagine getting our own personal model for our covers, or a commissioned piece of artwork, or whatever. This does happen, but don't be surprised if it doesn't. And I would say don't be sad if it doesn't, too. There are a lot of amazing books that have done very well with "typical" covers. It's not necessarily a kiss of death or anything.

You could think you have a final cover, and it could get changed completely based on feedback from booksellers and reviewers. It happens more often than you might think. If a major seller says they won't stock it with a certain cover, you better bet it'll be changed. That could be good or bad depending on how you feel about your cover.

Okay, some of this might be depressing. I know it's hard to think about your creative work being boiled down and packaged and marketed, but here's a few good things.

You Can Build Your Brand Now
If you don't want someone else branding you, then you can do it yourself. I think that's why publishing seems to be looking for writers who are already out there networking, etc. They'd rather not spend time making you a brand if they can have someone who has already made themselves one.

The beauty of that? You can be what you want to be. Then you just need the patience to wait for someone to notice.

You Can Prove Them Wrong
Just because you get put in a certain demographic or your house decides you aren't going to be a bestseller doesn't mean it won't happen. Just like books poised to be big sellers flop, there are novels that break out unexpectedly.

Do everything you can for your book—the number one thing being writing a really good one.

Chill Out
If you're to the point that you're worrying about your cover, that means you're getting published. Dude, you're getting published. Maybe it's not exactly how you pictured. Maybe the whole journey isn't. But figure out how to work with what you have and try to enjoy it. Have faith that your writing will shine through.

*Insert Your Own Conclusion.*
(Sorry, my kids decided to get sick again, and I've been trying to write this for like three hours. I've basically forgotten the whole point of this by now.)


  1. "In conclusion: Never judge a book cover by the innards."

    Or something with less suck-age.

    Thanks for the post. Great information here!

  2. Lots of great information here. Thanks for taking the time (even in between all the sick kids and mommy-hood. That's tough to do.)

  3. This was very informative! Thank you!

  4. I loved what you said about building your own brand now and doing everything you can to keep yourself out of a box.

  5. Hope the kids feel better soon. :-) I think you have the right idea about covers... a lot of it is out of your hands, a lot of it you just have to hope will go the way you want it to, but at the end of the day, there is still PLENTY you can do to ensure your book is neither defined by your cover nor stuck in a demographic 'box.'

  6. Great post, Natalie! So true about not having control over your cover or getting one that's specifically catered to your book, but that's the way it is. It isn't the most important thing either, if you're getting a cover that means you're getting published, so always look on the bright side!

    Thanks for sharing! And I hope the little ninjas start feeling better. :)

  7. excellent post! I worried about my cover a lot, but when I saw it, I felt good about it. It wasn't what I expected at all, and I don't know what was put into it. But I knew right away that it would get attention and attract my target audience.

  8. Great info. I try not to think about it too much; I've long ago realized that much in the publishing biz is out of our control as writers. The best thing we can do is try our best and hope that we have a great agent that will guide us through the process :)

  9. Oh, if only I had cover problems... :)

  10. It's funny how much angst a cover can cause. I think I would feel ill if the cover decided by a publisher represented something absolutely contrary to the heart of the novel. But, you're right. I know you're right. The thing would be, "You're getting published." All great relationships require compromise.

    It's just so HARD.

  11. You so smart. Srsly!

    And I hope the kids get better soon!

  12. Excellent post, thanks so much for writing this!

    I'm still many months away from being allowed to hyperventilate about what my first cover will look like, though I'll admit it's crossed my mind once or twice or 87,643 times.


  13. Yep, the cover is pretty much out of the author's hands. I've been very lucky with mine and have loved them. I'm keeping my fingers crossed on the next one. I should see it in May or June.

    Great info about branding. I'm hearing more and more about this. It's so important.

    Thanks for a wonderful post! Hope your kids are better. I've had a sick hubby home the last two days. Don't know which is worse, kids sick or husband?

  14. That's so interesting! The cover is to sell the book, even if the author isn't too pleased with it.

    I hope you all feel better soon! =)

  15. We're kind of cover obsessed lately. And honestly, I'm not sure how it's going to all end up. At this point I'm not sure any publisher on the planet could possibly create a cover that will be perfect in our minds, you know? I don't think we even know what the perfect cover would be. Anyways, this post is perfect. At some point you've got to trust your publisher to create a cover that will SELL BOOKS. It's still really freaking scary, though.

  16. I still can't help but hope that some time in the distant future Kinuko Kraft will paint a cover for me. She works in my genre so its possible. If she's not dead by then.