Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Judging a Book by its Cover

We’ve all done it, walked down the aisles of a book store in a desperate search for just the right thing to read. In the mood for something different, a new author to try. So we reach out and grab…

Wait. Stop right there. Why are you grabbing that book?

Most likely because of the cover. Which happens to be a bit of a sore point for me right now because my debut release, BLINK OF AN EYE, has been delayed because of problems with the cover. That’s right, not a single word in the book has changed, but since what’s on the cover can make or break a new author, BLINK is on hold.

As much as I was anticipating BLINK’s release (and those who know me were anxiously awaiting it so that I could shut up about it already, LOL!) I see this as an opportunity. A chance to get a really smashing, eye-grabbing, you must buy this book or die! cover.

But, hmmm….what to put on the new cover? One thing my editor did ask was that I send her a new head shot. The one they’d previously chosen made me look “too kind”. Kind is bad? I asked. For an author who writes dark, edgy suspense it is, she answered. That’s what we want, a picture of you that’s dark and edgy. After all, all your books are about how no one’s immune to danger.

Oooookay, I sigh. Despite the fact that having my photo taken ranks up there with root canal in my list of things to avoid, I sign up to have another photo taken by a professional. Although by then, I’ll probably be so dark and edgy after waiting for BLINK to be released, that I might pose with a scalpel pressed to my throat or clenched between my teeth!

BLINK has been blessed with fantastic cover quotes (Sandra Brown, Heather Graham, Susan Wiggs, and more). The short synopsis of the book on the back cover and inside flap were good, catchy and compelling without revealing too much of the plot. The main problem was the actual cover art—the one thing on the cover totally out of my control, of course.

So what makes for a good cover?

For a look at some fantastic ones, check out our own PASIC finalists in the Houston Bay Area RWA’s cover art contest. Now those are some eye-grabbing works of art!!

As for what I want, I told my editor the only things I was opposed to were a woman running away or an image of a woman being victimized. Isn’t anyone else out there sick to death of frightened women racing down dark alleys, the shadow of a menacing man following them? The women in my novels are strong, smart and stand their ground, a fact that can get them into trouble, but that’s another story. And I’ve worked with far too many real-life victims to have that kind of image broadcast on my book covers.

But how do you make a cover strong, smart, sexy, appealing and able to sell an unknown author? What kind of images grab you? Make you want to plunk down $25 of your hard earned cash and take a gamble on a new author?

Anyone with the answers, please share them! And who knows, your ideas might end up helping to create a new cover for BLINK OF AN EYE!

Thanks for reading!


Nancy Morse said...

I don't necessarily know what makes a great cover, only that you know it when you see it. Sometimes it's the colors that strike me. I'm partial to purple. If there's a horse or a dog on the cover, I'll pick it up and read the back cover. Other than that, it could be something as simple (or complicated) as the mood I'm in that day. Dark mood, dark covers. Bright, cheery mood, bright covers.

Ann Roth said...

I'm with Nancy--

Colors are important. Doesn't research show that readers dislike green covers? (Now that I've said that, I'm betting there are best-selling books with green covers.) For me, the picture or sketch on the front catches my eye. And the author's name, too, but I do try new author all the time. And the title... and the back cover copy.

But the whole what makes a good-cover thing is sort of nebulous to me. Which is why the art and marketing departments are so important. They know what sells. Or at least they're supposed to.

I was at a writers' meeting recently that featured Susan Andersen. She said that she was the second author ever to have those cute cartoon-like covers. Remember back when those first came out? She swears that that cover boosted her career the way nothing else did.

CJ Lyons said...

Interesting! I think Nancy's right, that your own mood plays alot into it. But we all know that Madison Avenue specializes in changing our moods for us.

Oh boy, I'm starting to sound like George Orwell, LOL!

But Ann's point that something new, like the cartoon-chicklit covers can also influence sales.

Hmm...I think from looking at the books I've just read that I like covers that make me ask questions. Just like a good opening line acts like a hook, the cover should as well.

What do you think?

JoAnn Ross said...

I long ago came to the conclusion that what we writers might think is perfect for our stories, may not be what grabs readers. I did beg and beg not to have the now almost ubiquitous Nancy Drew running heroine on my BLAZE cover (a book we called Backdraft meets Silence of the Lambs. With lots of hot sex) and Pocket honored that, then surprised me by giving me a heroine with very visible nipples. (The one that came in second in the Houston cover contest.) First thing I asked the art director, btw, when I saw the cover was how he got a photo of me in my jammies. ;)

They continued the sexy theme in this next book, going with blue for the cold in Wyoming, and I like it a lot. They also always give me a lot of input, and I try to listen to their reasons for why they believe something will sell. Would I personally rather have had a field of bluish white snow with blood on it? Sure. But this cover goes with Blaze and works as a bit of branding, so it made sense to me.

I'm expecting much the same, probably in red, for the 2007 book. One problem is that the art departments start copying one another and pretty soon you get all the legal mysteries with marble pillars, horror and suspense with the stark black, white, and red, and the dark blue and purple of romantic suspense.

One thing I do strongly disagree with is that suspense needs a stern looking author photo. (I don't think they hurt; just don't believe they're needed.) The guys certainly don't feel the need to do that as a rule. And Iris Johansen, Kay Hooper, Catherine Coulter, Heather Graham, Lisa Jackson, and Linda Howard (and those are just off the top of my head) haven't. And while I own two leather jackets I wear a lot, you're not going to see me on a cover wearing them. (Especially not the pink one, which may admittedly be a bit too Barbie-like for edgy dark serial killer books, lol) Personally, I'd think you in a white lab coat with a stethoscope would make the most sense if your editor feels the need for a medical suspense theme author photo.

Allison Brennan said...

Cover art matters, but I couldn't possibly say what works or doesn't work. I leave that to the experts. In my previous life, I wrote copy and worked with art designers. They asked me lots of questions about what the copy was, but more what I wanted people to THINK and FEEL when they read it. I think the art is a lot like that, it needs to bring out emotions from the reader so they'll pick up the book, whether it's happy, sexy, scared, whatever.

I think art goes in trends, too. There's a lot of sexier covers out there. My books aren't quite as "sexy" as others out there, but they're scary so I think that's why my art ended up more on the scary side than the sexy side.

Regarding author photos, JoAnn, I love my black leather jacket so I wore it in my photo. :) And since I hate my smile, I didn't open my mouth (but I'm sort of smiling, so it's not too stern.)

JoAnn Ross said...

See, though, that's my point about the photo. If the leather jacket is something that works for you, I think it's great and it'll work for the book. (Which is definitely did in your case.) I just think the rash of suddenly having all suspense writers wearing black and scowling at readers is overkill. Even for books that are about killing. *g* It just seems to me along the samelines of having romance writers wear boas and tiaras. Which editors don't think of suggesting. (Though, I have to admit, for my two hardcover glitz books, St.Martins insisted I wear sequins and diamonds ala Danielle Steel. I thought it was silly at the time, but I was more easily intimidated in those days.)

I used to not mind my smile. Until the wrinkle fairy came. Now my eyes are starting to disappear on the bottom, rather than the top like a lot of people's do. I think I need to take some fat from somewhere -- anywhere! -- else on my body and have it injected beneath my eyes to fill up that space. Just kidding! Though I'll bet I could find lots of doctors willing to do it. Hey, CJ, know any plastic surgeons? ;)

CJ Lyons said...

JoAnn, I have my copy of BLAZE in front of me. Your smile is great!! No surgeon needed!

And Allison is right--I want a cover that reveals that these are books where NO ONE (least of all the H/H) is immune to danger, but smart and sexy doesn't hurt at all.

I also have Lisa Gardner's GONE in front of me and I love her cover--bold but definitely makes you wonder, how did this happen, what's going to happen next.

I'm holding out to finish my last RITA book before reading it, but I won't last long. Everytime I look at the cover I itch to pick it up and sneak a peak inside....NOW that's the kind of cover I'm hoping BLINK gets!!!

Thanks everyone for the ideas!

JoAnn Ross said...

CJ -- I just took a closer look at your cover and to me it looks far too busy. There's really nothing for the casual browser to focus on. In fact, it reminds me of the non-fiction books written by doctors or nurses (and I think I probably have every one ever written). So, I have the feeling that you and the publisher are definitely on the same page about getting that edgy thriller aspect into it.

Good luck!

Allison Brennan said...

JoAnn brings up a good point, CJ. If you look at both her covers for IMPULSE and BLAZE and my covers for the trilogy, you can see that there's something that draws the readers eye. For example, in JoAnn's covers (which remind me a lot of Ballantine's covers for Linda Howard and Julie Garwood) you get a "feel" for hot or cold, then you have to look closer to see the image which is perfectly melded to the "hot" or "cold" feeling. Great cover design, BTW.

In my covers, the title stands out more than the image . . . and I have great titles that draw the reader in, then they look closer at the image and see something scary, but familiar. An ocean. A forest. A street.

BTW, check out Mariah Stewart's new hardcover cover (okay, I've been celebrating a little too much an that certainly doesn't sound right ;) for FINAL TRUTH

THIS is a fabulous cover. I love it. I'm totally jealous. (in a very good way)