Judging a Book by Its Cover

The old adage tells us not to judge a book by its cover. While that may be good advice as a metaphor, people often do just that when it comes to browsing books. An eye-catching cover design can make the difference in whether a prospective reader even pauses long enough to read the book description. While a great cover may not sell a bad book, a bad cover could certainly sink a good book. I talked with two great cover designers who do a lot of work with indie authors.

Rebecca Treadway and Renee Barratt

Renee Barratt has  more than 20 years of experience in graphic design for print and web. Her exclusive focus on book covers started in December 2010. She  estimates she has completed 100 covers in that time. Most of Renee’s clients are indie authors, though she has a few small publishing companies she works with. She notes an increasing number of traditionally published authors are choosing the indie route.

Rebecca Treadway has been an artist for most of her life and started digital graphics ten years ago. She began officially offering book cover design services several months ago. She has two print covers and about eight e-book covers under her belt, with more on the way. Rebecca works exclusively with indie authors and says, “I intend to keep it that way.”

Both the author and the artist have something at stake with the design of a book’s cover. It is easy to imagine some tensions emerging between the two creative types in such an endeavor. I wondered if it was easier for a cover designer to work with a client who gave them carte blanche, or one who knew exactly what he or she wanted. It turns out that cover artists (at least the two with whom I spoke) are flexible in working with either kind of client, though Rebecca adds it is helpful if the author has at least an idea of the concept and effect the cover should convey.

Some novels may be best served by photo-manipulation techniques – such as a romance cover, while others call for a traditional painting effect, such as that normally seen in fantasy novel covers. “Once the author and I establish what style, I usually ask for some one liners from the novel or a synopsis and I’ll start visualizing concepts. Sometimes the author already has ideas in mind and asks me to formulate a rough draft – and we work from there,” Rebecca says.

Renee agrees it is helpful for a cover designer to have some handle on the concept of the book. She says, “Things like a synopsis, character description, pivotal chapter, etc., are all helpful in painting the picture in words that they would like me to paint in images. Then we brainstorm ideas until we decide on a general design.”

After the cover proof is sent to the client, it is not unusual for a client to request some minor changes. Both Renee and Rebecca indicated they are happy to make these changes, but when serial requests for minor edits climb into the double digits, it can become frustrating.

As Renee says, “It makes the process take so much longer because I make a small edit, send a new version to the author and wait for a response, only to find out that there is another tiny adjustment to make. I would prefer to have it all in one serving!”

Micromanaging your cover designer requires more of their time, and could result in additional charges. “When a client is indecisive and changes too many things – the artist will (sometimes) either go with it, or charge a higher rate,” says Rebecca.

What kind of difference can the right cover make? The data seem to be scarce and largely anecdotal.  Scott Alan Rhine, author of “The Scarab,”  and a self-described computer engineer and math geek actually kept track.  He says, “Filtering out freebies, before Renee’s cover, Scarab had 2 sales, and one was the editor. After, it’s been averaging 9.5 sales a month. . . however, when I put a cute girl on the cover for ‘Jezebel’s Ladder,’ I sold 73 copies inside 3 weeks.” He adds that this effect was achieved without review or advertizing on any website.

In Scott’s case, he said the art paid for itself in about 300 copies, but the benefit may not stop there. He believes that this one one success on Amazon created a draft effect, boosting sales for the rest of his catalog. “When Jezebel heated up, the others sold almost as much in those three weeks as they had the last four months,”  he says.

Giving authors the cover they want is not necessarily a guarantee of success. It is reasonable to conclude that the very finest painting of Elvis on black velvet is unlikely to appreciate in value. If you are hiring a cover designer, you are hiring expertise. Take full advantage of that and listen to their advice.

You can find out more about Rebecca and Renee at their websites. Renee is also on Facebook.

Author: Stephen Hise

Stephen Hise is the Evil Mastermind and founder of Indies Unlimited. Hise is an independent author and an avid supporter of the indie author movement. Learn more about Stephen at his website or his Amazon author page.

5 thoughts on “Judging a Book by Its Cover”

  1. Well damn! I was going to use a picture of myself on a cover, but I fear I may not have sufficient 'cute' factor to boost sales the way Scott's cover did!

  2. Bev…. that's what photoshop is for!!!! LOL!

    One of Scott's friends thought the "hot chick" on Scott's cover looked like Lara Croft… I hope he's as successful as the whole Tomb Raider franchise!

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