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.