I recently got into the self-publishing business, sort of on a whim (publishing some children’s stories I wrote years ago as Christmas gifts for my brother’s children). On a Facebook group for self-published writers the question of book covers came up.
Now, some self-made covers that I have seen are genuinely godawful, but still, personally I never judge a book that way. I read the blurb on the back, and browse through, and that is crucial to my decision on whether or not to buy the book (or even borrow it from the library). However, a self-publisher on the group, who happens to be hugely successful and making a fortune from his books, said “try selling a book with a bad cover on Amazon.”
On the face of it he had a point. But the more I think about it, the more I wonder. For one thing, how do we even define “bad cover.” For another, even given that there is some meaningful definition, have any studies actually been done to determine the extent to which people will be swayed by the cover design? Is there any science here?
Rationally, readers dont judge, however, if your book is on the shelf with 5 others and I dont know any of the authers, my eye and hand will be drawn to both the cover and the title. I am unlikely to check all 5, and after one scan of the back cover - once again depending on how the book has been summarised - take it or dump it and move on to the other eye candy out there.
Well, that was the consensus on the FB group: a cover won’t necessarily sway anyone, but a striking cover will help people notice a book in the first place, if it is on a shelf or in the midst of a bunch of thumbnails.
I do wonder though whether a striking cover is necessarily a good one (our eye will be drawn the neon yellow book, with the photo of the topless model, however garish and tasteless such a cover might be). And how did they do these studies? How did they decide what a good cover is? How repeatable were the studies? Once they had decided what a good cover is, how reliably could designers make more good covers, that worked as well as the others?
Of late I have become extremely skeptical of “studies”, particularly in the humanities. I have now run into lots and lots of people who seem extremely confident that they know exactly how to go about this or that, when in fact, for all we know, they were just lucky.
If memory serves, Nassim Taleb goes into this phenomenon extensively in Fooled by Randomness. In short, it goes something like this: thousands of investors try their luck at the stock market. At a rate of attrition of 50% per year, after twenty years one has become a billionaire while the others are bankrupt. The billionaire now writes a book about his “secrets” of success. But blind luck would explain it every bit as well.
Same thing goes for lots of cultural products: books, movies, symphonies, whatever, become spectacularly successful, and after the fact we come up with explanations of why, and what the secret of success is. How can we tell it’s not just luck? Or (probably more realistically) which component was luck? I don’t know if the studies have ways to address this.
Its interesting to observe and discuss, due to books about “secrets” of success in whatever realm, people (who read) as become a tad wiser. There are far more skeptical people around now than ten years ago. We are all still attracted to certain inbedded narratives though. Think about popcorn at the movies, our generation still falls for that every time but my 20ish aged kids couldnt be bothered, they want the movie. Its subconcious. I wouldnt go for garish colours, but a beautifully drawn cover or a striking black background with just the title would have me curious.
For the 50+ ladies reading fiction only, believe it or not, and Im concious of generalising here, subtle sexual undertones will sell the book, those reading the abundance of self help and personal development scripts, want the promise of being “better” or “smarter” just a promise of a one liner somewhere in there that “speaks” to them. Nancy Klein managed to get that one right by fluke. Pure white cover and the title “Time to think”. Billions of introverts made her a billionaire… she stated the obvious.
Me, I haven]t seen a movie in the theatre in ages. Partly due to the prohibitive cost. Partly also because Ster Kinekor updated and “improved” their website in such a way that I can no longer make head or tails of it, so it is impossible to work out what is showing where and when. I’m just not that much into movies anymore, and when I do want to see one, I can now download it from the web for free. But when I still did do movies, I never bought the popcorn - it’s obviously overpriced. I just smuggled in my own snacks.
Its subconcious. I wouldnt go for garish colours, but a beautifully drawn cover or a striking black background with just the title would have me curious.
For the 50+ ladies reading fiction only, believe it or not, and Im concious of generalising here, subtle sexual undertones will sell the book, those reading the abundance of self help and personal development scripts, want the promise of being "better" or "smarter" just a promise of a one liner somewhere in there that "speaks" to them. Nancy Klein managed to get that one right by fluke. Pure white cover and the title "Time to think". Billions of introverts made her a billionaire.... she stated the obvious.
Me, I have never heard of her, but then, I am not much into the self-help book scene. Usually their covers, showing some dynamic dude in a suit, put me right off.
I do children’s books, where at least for the younger kids, a colorful cover is almost required, but I noticed that with the print-on-demand thing, books with color illustrations are apparently much more expensive than ones published via the established publishers. And thus, it is almost impossible to compete. So I put my ideas for such books on the back burner (I might write some as free giveaways at some point), and decided to focus on short novels for the teen or tween market, because for those you need neither illustrations nor necessarily even a particularly fancy cover. The plain black cover you refer to above might even do.
Of course, with kids’ books one has to keep in mind that it’s often parents who buy the books rather than kids, so they are actually your audience. Hence the continued success of Enid Blyton, despite the fact that most of her books are as generically boring as anything, and I doubt whether any kids actually still read them. This doesn’t bode well for my plan to do things in the line of supernatural scary stories; parents may well be put off, because it’s not the kind of wholesome entertainment they envision as being “good for kids.”
This has been a problem (for kids) for ages: I remember well what boring crap they forced me to read at school, when what I actually wanted to read was Tintin. And then, around grade 6 or 7, I discovered Konsalik, packed with juicy sex and ultra-violence. Good luck to even get school libraries to stock those, let alone schools to prescribe them.
Well, I’m rambling. My own thoughts are this: if one cannot make a really good cover, it is indeed better to do it as minimalistic as possible. But that is just my own personal aesthetics/opinion. I don’t know how seriously one should take most of whatever research has been done on the issue.
My latest book, the sequel to “Moses was a Liar” is titled “Christians, Cannibals and Cannabis” seems to be making the grade on Inkitt publishing platform and has been selected as Preferred Reading. It is still in beta format and free digital copies are available for comment.
IMHO: The “magic” that sells products is an entirely subjective non-rational phenomena. I’ve read, and observed in people around me, that most people pick a car purely on aesthetics or its “image”, with practical, technical, and even monetary considerations usually taking a back seat (pun intended). On critiquing a person’s decision to buy a hugely expensive luxury car that, to me, doesn’t handle very well… and then brand-new instead of pre-owned, an engineer told me: “I know it’s not rational, I know it makes no sense, but I still want it”, and he bought it anyway…
I agree that grabbing attention amongst all those other books competing for it in the book store will give a book an edge, mostly because humans “eat with their eyes”. I would think especially in the case of a child… stubbornly insisting on a pretty-looking book in a store is what sways most parents to buy it, regardless of the content.
But, in the internet age I think what is WAY more important are user review scores and website recommendations (iow: Appearing on the front page). Most people have no idea what they’re looking for, but will happily click whatever pops up on their radar. Once you’ve got that eyeball, that’s where the abstracts, et al. come into the picture. But you can’t get there without that initial pull of interest. As you well note: Success breeds success, and it seems to me obvious that well-known authors do better much as any type of artist with repute does better than arguably better artists with less fame.
To me, word-of-mouth is my main means of knowing what to look for. There’s so much out there, it’s hard to know what you want without some guidance from the society around you… very few people want to go digging through the infinity of amazon’s catalogue for gems.
Even more moreover, even when the content is decidedly sub-par a little momentum often propels books to stratospheric success simply because people want to see what the fuss is about (I’m looking at you “50 shades”). Maybe this is the thing: even if a couple of people buy a book based on its cover, and then read it, if any good they then recommend it to friends, which then becomes a self perpetuating snowball. However small, the momentum has to start from something that has nothing to do with the content, since on launch nobody knows the content.
Your laments remind me of this passage from “Shibumi”:
But we are in the age of the mediocre man. He is dull, colorless, boring—but inevitably victorious. The amoeba outlives the tiger because it divides and continues in its immortal monotony. The masses are the final tyrants. See how, in the arts, Kabuki wanes and Nô withers while popular novels of violence and mindless action swamp the mind of the mass reader. And even in that timid genre, no author dares to produce a genuinely superior man as his hero, for in his rage of shame the mass man will send his yojimbo, the critic, to defend him. The roar of the plodders is inarticulate, but deafening.
So true Boogie: 50 shades was the 2nd book in my life I COULDN’T FINISH READING…and then you have Dan Browns books that not only were poorly written but he plagiarised research of the series about the historical Jesus (I forget the name of the authors now), but he made zillions. To have a best seller is extremely rare as about 1 million new books are published each year so if 1% make it we’re talking about 10 000 best sellers…real best sellers are a fraction of that. Some Marketing agents push a book that sells 1000 copies as a best seller which is obviously rubbish, but then it’s all relative (wtf!!)
… ably helped along by the website/business owner’s ill-disguised bias that dictates, “Selling products/services is the top priority; in fact, everything else is irrelevant, just don’t ever admit that in public.” On principle, we no longer purchase from Amazon because its ranking of product reviews is hugely and brazenly lopsided in favour of positive reviews, which, though understandable given the profit imperative, constitutes an utter and repulsive disgrace for such a huge company that really can afford much more impartiality—and more so because people will in any case choose their favoured reviews based on their own a priori prejudices.
For a dark take on where this Information Age may be headed, watch a series called Black Mirror.
Indeed, though apparently one should be careful about asking one’s friends to go write positive reviews. Not sure why.
To me, word-of-mouth is my main means of knowing what to look for. There's so much out there, it's hard to know what you want without some guidance from the society around you... very few people want to go digging through the infinity of amazon's catalogue for gems.
Yes, but your chances of being visible on Amazon at all are pretty slim until such time as you have already achieved at least minor success. I saw a web page that gives away the “secret” to getting huge numbers of fans, and on the face of it, it makes sense (and I notice that lots of indie authors agree). Says the bloke, you have to have a mailing list, and get people to subscribe. You do this by putting some freebies on your website, and if you have software that can do it, create a “conditional freebie” or two: the visitor to your site gets the first one for free, but has to subscribe to the mailing list before he can download the second. Such freebies can be almost anything, but are usually free stories or whatever.
And voila, you suddenly have more and more people who get an e-mail every time you announce a new book or special deal.
To get this information, I had to watch the guy’s videos, and to do that I had to subscribe to his mailing list. I wouldn’t mind in principle, but then I got spammed by an absolute torrent of e-mails every single day, trying to get me to watch more and more videos and sign up for courses and stuff. So I promptly unsubscribed.
Still, I think the guy has a point in principle. If he hadn’t spammed me to hell like that I would still have been on his list. And thus, I put a mailing list on my website, plus some freebies, though with my available software I can’t do the conditional freebie thing. Not sure whether it has up to now made any difference; no one has subscribed, but then, the site has only been up for a week.
What I’m thinking of doing is to announce a raffle for a free original painting by yours truly, once or twice a year, and the name of the winner will be drawn from the mailing list.
And how do you get your website visible? You do what we do: lots of social media activity, with your web address in your sig.
Even more moreover, even when the content is decidedly sub-par a little momentum often propels books to stratospheric success simply because people want to see what the fuss is about (I'm looking at you "50 shades").
And that hideous vampire series, which also became a blockbuster series of films. The books were utterly unreadable.
Maybe this is the thing: even if a couple of people buy a book based on its cover, and then read it, if any good they then recommend it to friends, which then becomes a self perpetuating snowball. However small, the momentum has to start from [i]something[/i] that has nothing to do with the content, since on launch nobody knows the content.
Yup, and this is also responsible for the 20/80 thing, that is to say, 20% of authors sell 80% of the books. And 20% of authors get 80% of the income. Except nowadays it is probably more like a 1/99 thing. Even so, with even very moderate success one can get a useful extra income. I know at least one bloke who makes his entire living from indie publishing. And I’m not sure whether he even advertises at all. I should actually go ask him how he goes about it…