Publishers: Want to Improve Sales?

Elizabeth Bluemle -- October 26th, 2011

I can’t stand it another second: one too many hideous book jackets has entered my life and I don’t understand why. Recognizing an unsellable jacket is not rocket science—or perhaps that’s just true for anyone who works in retail bookselling. When my colleagues and I gather at various conferences and share books we love, we are almost always in universal agreement about which covers are fantastic (or at least passable) and which ones will never, ever voluntarily be picked up by a child or teen (not to mention parents, grandparents, teachers and librarians).

When a bad cover comes in on a book we love, we must resort to all kinds of games to bypass a customer’s automatic rejection. We booktalk it before actually revealing the cover, shielding it with our hands like something radioactive or hiding it in the middle of a stack of contenders. Once the time comes that we must finally show the book to the reader, we are forced to reassure kids that the story inside is fantastic; I’d like for someone from the art and marketing departments to come to the store and just once attempt to overcome the dubious, disgusted, and/or glazed looks on the faces of kids totally turned off by bad covers.

What makes for a bad cover? Any number of things, I’m afraid, from misleading graphics that don’t match a book’s content to amateurish artwork to unfortunate character depictions (for some reason, illustrated close-ups of faces staring out at the viewer almost always are a turn-off for kids; if someone can think of exceptions, chime in; I can’t think of any). Obviously, book cover budgets vary, but it seems like shooting oneself in the foot to pay for mediocre art or design and then expect a book that doesn’t have much marketing support to begin with to sell itself with a crummy jacket.

Another turn-off is the same-old same-old design style. If readers can’t tell one book from another, they are going to skip over them without something distinctive to catch their eye. I understand that it’s a branding/marketing strategy to signal “This is a romantic fantasy!” or “This is a paranormal romance!” by using certain visual tropes that have become, not to put too fine a point on it, lazy and hackneyed. But the problem is, readers have overdosed on these images; they blur together in a mish-mosh of torrid satin and pale (yes, always white) skin. For the love of god, please, enough with the photographs of models in gowns, models’ half-faces, models in gowns lying among leaves or running through forests, or standing on windswept sands by the sea. No one can tell these books apart, and the doll-girls never look like the characters in the books.

I also understand that publishers pay a lot of attention to what the head buyer at a certain chain store (used to be two chains; look how well that turned out) thinks of a cover. If they don’t like it, they won’t buy it, and that can mean thousands of copies unsold. But relying so heavily on one or two people’s opinions is going to result in a narrow field of acceptable designs, and can only reflect a certain segment of your readership. In addition, those buyers are very likely not on the selling floor, and are far removed from the actual experience of placing a book in a reader’s hands.

So here’s what I propose to help save yourselves money: create a group of power-indie handsellers, folks with years of experience who know their business cold and excel at recommending books to readers. You send out a pdf to seven folks, and they give you feedback. The idea of adding yet more voices to the process of designing a book may seem unappealing, but, like listening to other opinions in an editorial meeting, you’re likely to hear some valuable feedback that will end up with a better book, improving sales and beefing up your bottom line, which is what you want and need. Remember, you’re not looking for an intensive critique here. You just want a quick, Absolutely, Passable, or Absolutely not.

Booksellers are in the enviable position of seeing everything that comes out, so we can quickly identify trends and alert you to overused images from the current season. We can tell you things like, “Hey, everyone is doing smoky blue or black-and-white covers this season; those palettes are on overload,” or, “This is the sixth cover design I’ve seen so far featuring a close-up image of a giant key.” Then you can choose to do with that information whatever feels useful to you, even if it’s nothing whatsoever.

One more thing: if you go this route, commit to it for the duration of that cover’s design. I’ve seen publishers alter bad jackets based on bookseller feedback. The only problem is, they never ran the replacement designs by the booksellers, so all too often, the new cover was just as unappealing, or unappealing in a different way, from the original. That left everyone frustrated–the publisher, who didn’t understand why the new cover they’d spent all that money redesigning still didn’t move copies, and the booksellers, who had been trying to get a great book the cover it deserved so they could sell the heck out of it, and were, for a second time, met with a tough handsell.

In our visual society, a good cover can make or save the life of a book, or condemn it to a slow death at the remainder tables. Obviously, publishers can’t run every cover by a panel of kids and the various gatekeepers who purchase and recommend them. It just seems silly to me not to get the input of people who buy and sell these books every single day, year in and year out, accumulating a wealth of experience with those kids and those gatekeepers, who can pretty well predict how handily a book will sell, or not, based on that all-important first impression.

43 thoughts on “Publishers: Want to Improve Sales?

  1. Digiyan

    Totally agree with you! It is so sickening to see practically the same idea reproduced incessantly in both YA and adult fiction. And why is it if the character on the cover is non-white that the book is either urban, or race is a central part of the plot? It is quite unnerving when publishers sacrifice the draw of the story by slapping an unsightly (and oft unrelated) design on the jacket. This is one reason I tend to purchase hardcovers and denude them for the bookshelf.

  2. Kuya Hejo

    agree! Once upon a time I remembered manipulated photo art being rare for a book cover and now they’re everywhere with the same range of poses (cut off heads, full view of the torsos, etc.) What I dislike the most is when some of “newer” editions of book switch to this style when the old drawn artwork was perfectly fine. For example, the Harry Potter books. Yes not everyone agreed with the original covers but I find that they had more character than the ones that are a photograph of a goblet or locket. I remember Mercedes Lackey books having gorgeous covers. The last YA series I discovered had this abstract almost animation style of drawing and it pulled me in more than the neighbouring books. We do judge books by their covers whether we mean to or not but seriously, in marketing, looks do count for something.

  3. C. Stone

    I agree! Once upon a time I remembered manipulated photo art being rare for a book cover and now they’re everywhere with the same range of poses (cut off heads, full view of the torsos, etc.) What I dislike the most is when some of “newer” editions of book switch to this style when the old drawn artwork was perfectly fine. For example, the Harry Potter books. Yes not everyone agreed with the original covers but I find that they had more character than the ones that are a photograph of a goblet or locket. I remember Mercedes Lackey books having gorgeous covers. The last YA series I discovered had this abstract almost animation style of drawing and it pulled me in more than the neighbouring books. We do judge books by their covers whether we mean to or not but seriously, in marketing, looks do count for something.

  4. Dianna Winget

    The scariest thing about all this is how subjective it is. Maybe one reader loves a cover while another is completely turned off. My debut middle grade, “A Smidgen of Sky,” will be out next fall and cover concepts are being discussed right now. This is my first experience with book cover design so I’ll be holding my breath and hoping for a terrific cover.

  5. Lindsay

    As an avid and high volume reader, fledgling writer and professional artisan, I completely agree about book covers. I have seen (and bought!) covers that I wanted on my walls, but there are an increasing number of “eh, whatever” covers. And a good cover WILL make me pick up a book, especially if it seems to have at least a little to do with the book’s subject.

    Recent example: the awesomely cool steampunk dragon on the cover/spine of Havemercy is why I picked it up, and the back cover blurb did the rest of the job of getting me to buy it.

  6. Andy

    A follow up question: I notice that when people rail about cover trends, it’s most often the gatekeepers (librarians, booksellers, etc.). Librarians have said to me, “If I see another vampire book again…” So it seems like this is advice that should be heeded when all the gatekeepers are on the same page. BUT. What about the readers? What about the teens? I read the blogs of several teen readers and they go gaga for the girl in the pretty gown/forest covers. Everything that was mentioned here as a detrimental factor is praised by the actual target audience. Of course, I know there are some teens who roll their eyes at vampire books or froofy covers with no relation to the contents of the book. But I really think they’re in the minority. Publishers are targeting the majority, the ones who want the highly emotional/provocative imagery and don’t blink twice that every single book they have on their shelf looks alike. (Oh, they might NOTICE or even comment about it…but it hasn’t stopped them shelling out the dough.)

    1. Elizabeth Bluemle Post author

      Well, if readers are only given one kind of cover, of course they’re still going to ultimately buy a book they want to read. But that’s like saying if all candy was strawberry flavor, people would still buy and eat it. Sure, but does that mean that all candy should be strawberry? Dumbing down book covers is just as sad a concession to mediocrity as any other artistic compromises we make. I do understand that cover styles are used as shorthand to convey genre; I’m just arguing for some content in these images to connect to the story within. I don’t think that’s an unreasonable expectation, and I really think it would improve sales by hooking a reader’s interest on more than genre shorthand. If all you’re counting on is a girl in a gown, and Reader X doesn’t happen to care for the model’s expression, or eyebrows, or what have you, you’ve lost a sale.

      About what teens notice and care about: they are as diverse a group as we are, of course. In our town, I can’t tell you how many times we’ve heard teens critique covers. They’re not outraged, but they are unimpressed by the lack of originality, irritated when characters or cover images are misleading, and just as apt to notice a glut of sameness as the gatekeepers.

      1. The Wife

        Elizabeth, With the advent of ereaders, iphones, ipods, and ipads (as well as other tablets, laptops and desktops), one doesn’t even have to SEE the cover. Most of my eBooks? I’ve NEVER seen the covers for. I have an ereader and I have kindle apps on my devices, so aside from the ~6,000 paper/hardbacks, I have another ~1,000 or so electronic books. I don’t think that, with so many electronic options available and in use, most teens are going to be overly swayed by the nature of the cover.

        And few are getting their books from the library (maybe a few more from the bookstore) so it’s not as if they’re having to be embarrassed by their choice in purchases because of the covers. I mean, think about these ebook releases. Have you seen the covers??? Ellora’s Cave, for example, puts out some of the most HIDEOUS sim/cgi covers you can imagine. And the m/m, m/f/m (or any other combination of “menage”) books are the WORST.

        I really don’t think cover art is going to have too much of an impact on the youth market. I do believe, however, that it will continue to have an impact with “older” readers, since they are more inclined to purchase the physical books as opposed to the ebooks, and are still more likely to be swayed by the cover content (assuming they’re not just purchasing books by the authors they are rabidly devoted to).

          1. The Wife

            I don’t blame you. I also wonder why sellers don’t carry all the books in a series. I was reading a series of Kresley Cole paranormal romances (she has like 10 in the series). The local bookstore had ALL of them — except book 4. And they had no intention of ordering book 4. Even when I requested it. I eventually had to order it online. I guess I just don’t understand how a lot of these decisions are made. BTW, some of her covers are very stereotypical (half-faced, bare-chested men, or a clinch, though the cover for A Hunger Like No Other was a *little* different) and there are a couple where the cover characters don’t resemble those in the book (and in one case was very off-putting). Though in one book, Demon From the Dark, the cover model was almost a dead ringer for the male character — it was really well done. I think her series of books (and the reprints) is a good example of changing tastes in covers. Even when they were better without the “popular” adaptations.

  7. The Wife

    I think people take book covers too seriously. I love cheesy covers. I spend a large portion of my time looking at them. I have a personal collection of ~7,000 books, most of them romance novels. I hear people say that they’re embarrassed by the covers, that they feel ashamed to be caught reading them, that they use ereaders or book covers to hide the covers. But even with all of that, they still buy and read the books at a shocking rate. There are covers that I think are beautiful and artistic, but the reality is that, specifically with regards to romance, the cover doesn’t make that much of a difference. It seems to have more to do with the author. Romance readers tend to be blindly devoted to authors that they like (no matter how horrible the cover or how absurd the writing). The sad thing is that they skip newer, decent authors, simply because they haven’t read their books before (not recognizing the catch 22). Personally, I love bad covers. There’s just something about a silly, goofy, clinch and the wild, windswept hair, and their slightly necrophilic feel… 🙂

  8. Elizabeth Fama

    It shocks me that in such a high-stakes field no one seems to have done any real, statistical research. The sales and marketing people seem to think that it doesn’t matter whether the content truly matches the jacket, because avid readers will choose a good book based on reviews, no matter what the cover looks like. They think they’re capturing additional customers — the browsers or the non-readers — with overly-literal covers that essentially look like magazines (gowns, models, headless torsos). This “gut feeling” seems to be based on no research, nothing quantitative like the focus groups you mention. Personally, I think it’s more likely that a portion of the people who would enjoy the book are passing it up because the cover misleads them. Also, for truly high-quality literature (for instance, CHIME), putting a languid Seventeen model on the cover is not taking into account the longevity of the work. Publishers should imagine that the book will be a classic and ask, “What cover should represent this and call it to mind for the next 50 years?” not “What will dupe 5,000 more people into buying this in the first month?”

  9. Donna @ Bites

    Of course attractive covers are what make me grab for a book initially. But if that book has a half face, with or without hair in her eyes, on it, I’ll probably pass it by simply because I’m sick of seeing that image. I get that a particular theme sells but if you combine a gorgeous cover with something that stands out from the crowd, isn’t it going to do just as well, if not better than the rest, because it doesn’t blend in with the rest? Stand-out covers are what make me grab them. As a reader, I don’t want the same old, same old because, chances are, it’ll be like that between the covers too. More of the same covers are just telling me that it’s a relatively similar story to fit into a now-popular genre and is nothing more than a marketing ploy to sell more books, irrespective of the quality content. Give me something different, inside and out, and I’ll be one happy reader. I don’t want knock-offs. I want originals.

  10. Marina Richards

    I hear what you’re saying, but I disagree with some of your points. First of all, YA covers are some of the most gorgeous in the business. Many are absolutely stunning and have original artwork. Second, not all covers are meant to be purely original. They are derivative. (Girl in gown in forest). This is purposeful for a reason. It sells. It fits the story. It makes the book look and seem Big and shiny and important. Yes, you’re right. There ARE many similar ones, especially in the purple/midnight-blue arena with the familiar lost girl and dark colors. But maybe that’s because the stories fall into that subliminal category of “Paranormal” YA-food started, as you said, by Stephanie Meyer. Are they selling? Yep. The MORE difficult books to market, I would think, are realistic YAs. But even those have great covers. (Thirteen Reasons Why; Story of a Girl; Fall for Anything).
    I think the covers that fail are those in the adult fiction sections with the partial torsos, girl’s necks/pearls; and especially those (YA and otherwise) that simply do NOT fit the story. I wish you has focused more on the latter issue because that is where I find the achilles heel regarding this matter.
    Thanks for an interesting article!

    1. Marsela

      I’m sorry but I have to speak out here. I’m an avid reader, I’ve read nearly every YA paranormal book for the past 2 years. There is no YA book from a decent publisher that I do not know the blurb of.
      And I have to say the relevance of the pretty girls and the forest? THERE IS NO RELATION to the content in the book. I don’t want to go into the specifics so I don’t offend anyone. But all you have to do is flick through goodreads and you’ll find it.
      I agree that YA covers are very pretty, and many of them tend to have gorgeous girls dress in these lovely victorian gowns that have no relation to the book at all. Or they just have completely the wrong hair/eye color to what is described in the book.

    2. Elizabeth Bluemle

      Oh, I agree that some of the covers are gorgeous. But when they all look the same, nothing of the story itself is communicated to a reader. Why should someone pick up THIS girl in the forest instead of the three sitting next to it? That’s what I want a cover to achieve — something unique about the unique story inside. And, as you know, Twilight sold legions of copies without a single girl in the forest, and those covers were quite striking and original.

      1. Elizabeth Fama

        Another side point: I would prefer that the cover implies that there’s a story here. It shouldn’t just be window dressing, there should be something intriguing that makes you want to know what the narrative is behind it.

        1. Jessica Leader

          I don’t think that’s a side point at all! I want a cover that intrigues me and wonder what the story’s about.

          In addition, when I’m teaching literature, I always ask students to get themselves into the story by looking hard at the cover. If the cover’s a wash, or just a mood with no relation to the story, that can be confusing. So many young readers have a hard enough time getting inside stories as it is, and a purposefully designed cover could get them hooked.

          I still remember, years ago, leading a 7th-grade class through previewing the “To Kill a Mockingbird” cover with the tree, the hollowed-out trunk, the mockingbird… Some of the students hit on events that turned out to be in the story, and some WAY-overanalyzed certain visual details to the point of my giggles, but they got themselves involved, and that made them love the book even more.

  11. MrDisco

    You know what I hate? (yes HATE in 300pt size font). You decide to invest in a book series. Buy vol 1, then 2, then *BAM* volume 3 comes out and the artwork, particularly the spine, no longer matches.

    WHY?! WHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHY?!

    We live in the age of miracles. I can be sipping mojitos on the beach in Hawaii and with my wireless connection operate a robot arm to perform delicate surgery in Dubai, yet publishers can’t something simple like consistency right. It drives me absolutely bonkers.

    With eBooks the need to purchase a physical book now comes down to the visceral. How it looks on your shelf and how it feels in your hand. Publishers better smarten up and start releasing books that book lover will be proud to own (it’s no surprise that the original Steve Jobs bio cover art was nixed by the man himself. We need more perfectionists like Jobs in this world).

  12. Maureen Crisp

    I completely agree with you….Yesterday I walked in to a popular bookstore to check out book covers for 9-12 year olds…..the shelves were shades of brown grey and black…….No primary colours….I couldn’t believe it…I thought i was in the teen section…so I started pulling books out for a closer look….warrior poses shadow action figures….and quirky illustration…in dark graphic novel style….and they were the books marketed to girls…. Somehow I must have missed the goth revolution among the tweens…None of the kids I know in this age group fit this…maybe my book cover in purple and red will stand out after all…..

  13. Rhys

    Totally agree with you! It is so sickening to see practically the same idea reproduced incessantly in both YA and adult fiction. And why is it if the character on the cover is non-white that the book is either urban, or race is a central part of the plot? It is quite unnerving when publishers sacrifice the draw of the story by slapping an unsightly (and oft unrelated) design on the jacket. This is one reason I tend to purchase hardcovers and denude them for the bookshelf.

  14. BETH

    Here, here. If I see one more YA title with the girl in the gown running through the forest, I’ll going to put the darn title in the collection without the book cover. Come on folks. There are so many wonderful artists out there, both the painting kind and photography kind, with wonderful imaginations. Surely the publishers can do better than they are with the covers. We have many a book that never circulates in the YA collection and I know it’s because the young patrons are turned off by covers. Your solutions seems pretty straight forward and forward thinking to me.

  15. Theresa M. Moore

    The problem is that formula often dominates a publisher’s judgement about covers based on what sells. But if I see one more ripped torso without a head on paranormal romance covers I will scream. I go through a great deal of work to make my covers different, interesting, and have something to do with the content, rather than just colorful formulaic hype. I am in competition with the designers of Christopher Moore’s books, which are nothing more than the same amateurish image with a slight modification, and the ripped bods modified with a little Photoshop. Each of my vampire books has a different cover altogether because I designed them to stand alone in the series. Vampires come out with pale skins because everyone expects them to have pale skins, and that has nothing to do with Stephanie Meyer. Blame Hollywood for that. But at the end of the day, if the book is not that good, a cover by Y Craft is not going to redeem it.

  16. C Hernandez

    I literally minutes ago sent an email to two librarians about how tired I am of girls in long dresses on the covers of young adult books. Some of them have nothing to do with the story. Why do we need a person on the cover. Let us th ereader imagine what the character looks like.

  17. Trish Heinrich

    I hate to say it, but I’ve passed up book with horrible covers more times than u can count. Some I’ve read eventually on the recommendation of a friend and found then to be pretty good. It’s unfortunate that authors don’t have mire in put, we’re the ones who have envisioned and lived in the world we created the longest before the book is published.

  18. Marco

    If only it were that easy. I have a handful of booksellers I run things by, but it’s rare that I get more than one or two responses. It’s not just a matter of publisher commitment, it’s a matter of getting these viewers to commit to commenting, which is not easy, especially if you’re a small press.

  19. Christina Dudley

    I wonder how publishers can avoid cultural “brainwaves,” however. Sometimes it just seems like a slew of similar covers appear simultaneously, not as intentional imitations of successful books. (Consider the wave of back-of-a-woman’s-neck covers.) This must be why millions of expectant parents all decide at once to name their kids “Jacob” and “Olivia,” or “Ethan” and “Emma.”

  20. Sue Kelso

    Oh so true. Susan Pfeffer’s book “Life as we Knew it” had a horrible first cover. It sat on my shelves at work for years before I picked it up. And that was only after seeing the cover for “Dead & Gone” (much better) and realizing they were a series. Whereas Rohinton Mistry’s “A Fine Balance”, I bought as soon as it came out of the box.

  21. Terry Tegnazian

    As a small independent publisher, I like this idea very much and would value such feedback during the design process.

    If there are any indie booksellers who might be interested in participating in such a “cover art focus group,” please email me at info at aquilapolonica.com

    Because of our own niche, we would be interested in connecting with booksellers who have strong history and/or military sections.

  22. Carol Schneck

    You are absolutely right. This is so true, and so sad. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline is just one example of a book that was read and loved by tons of booksellers, then was released with the most god-awful jacket and sank like a stone.

  23. Andy

    It’s true. If you go into a certain chain bookstore and browse through the YA section, all the books look the same because the buyer has decided he likes a certain “style” and won’t buy books that deviate from the template in his mind.

  24. Stephanie Scott

    Great ideas! I also detest bad covers and copy-cat covers. The worst part is how authors have little to no control over the covers of their books. I would be mortified if years of my sweat and tears ended up with a bad art cover.

    1. Ruth McNally Barshaw

      Not all publishers operate without author voice — my publisher (Bloomsbury) always gives me a say. (Though I’ve been a professional designer & illustrator in other fields for 30 years, it doesn’t mean I know book covers; I trust their judgement more than my own).
      Sometimes authors who did have a say in their covers suddenly turn on them when the public decides a cover stinks.
      I think a focus group for book covers is a smart idea — but I thought it was already being done. (In advertising, a new product isn’t launched without focus group input. Saves tons of money)
      And what I’d *really* like is to observe the book cover focus group process — I’d learn a lot.

  25. Rosemarie

    Great article. I know we shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover, but most of the time I do find myself drawn to the covers I think are most attractive – at least to read the flap and see what the book is about. I love Sci-fi/Fantasy and they seem to do the best, as a genre, in having interesting/attractive covers.

  26. Julie Worthington

    Thanks for the advice, I hope to design my own jacket when my book is published. I have seen some bad or just down right ugly book covers and yes I usually pass them by… I hope publishers listen to your advice!

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