Until I was about thirteen years old, I had regarded reading as something of a chore. Then, one summer, while visiting family, my cousin gave me some books to take home with me. On the ride back, I cracked one of them open – and ended up reading all four during our 800 mile drive. These books really lit me up against all of my own expectations.
The Bantam editions of the Doc Savage series are the books that really got me interested in exploring the possibilities of becoming an author. Over the next few years, I read seventy-two of these books. Bantam published over 180 of them, at one time putting out one title a month.
There is a complicated backstory about the Doc Savage books. The stories were originally published in pulp magazines in the 1930s and 40s. The author of the stories was listed as Kenneth Robeson, but that was actually just a house name. Though the preponderance of the stories were written by an author named Lester Dent, a number of other writers were involved and contributed to titles in the series.
Dent developed a master fiction plot, called the Lester Dent Formula. Essentially, his approach for producing highly salable 6,000 word stories was to divide the story into four 1500 word parts, each with steps for building the suspense and sense of menace to keep the reader engaged. Ironically, it was likely that formulaic approach that made it possible for other authors to step in and write additional Doc Savage adventures so seamlessly that the reader would never guess there was no Kenneth Robeson.
Dent died in 1959, years before Bantam revived the stories and re-invented them as a series of action novels. I liked the stories, but there is another element to the formula approach that I believe played an important role in the success Bantam enjoyed with these books.
Look closely at these covers. You see a distinctive, stylized type used in the title. You see the same character drawn the same way, differing only in pose. Same haircut, same manly physique, and interestingly, wearing the same shirt always torn in precisely the same way.
It was easy to walk into the local drugstore book section and pick these out. They popped. They caught the eye. You could tell at a glance without even reading the title that you were looking at a Doc Savage book and whether it was one you already had.
It enhanced the experience for me. When I read the stories, the guy on the cover was the guy I imagined. THAT is effective branding. That was as essential to the success and appeal of these books as the writing formula Lester Dent developed.
It is also an incredibly difficult thing to do well. People hesitate to commit to a particular cover artist, motif, title design, cover text placement, color palette, font, etc. Part of the reason for this may be that a number of us don’t like to be pigeon-holed in a specific genre. Let’s face it, a romance cover is probably going to incorporate different design elements than a sci-fi, spy thriller or zombie apocalypse book.
It’s going to be a chore to work your brand into the covers of books with different genres, but it is not impossible. The cover consists of a lot of different elements, not just print and picture, but the way everything is positioned, the typeface used, the balance of color, the number of elements. All those factors are in play when you consider how to send your readers a subliminal reminder that this book is by you.
This is one of those things that traditional publishing did that we indies may not have quite fully grasped yet, and may be something that would make a difference. You don’t have a team of marketing experts working with you to help get this done, but you can still focus-test a cover design with family, friends, fans, writer groups, etc. Stay open to suggestions. Pay attention to what people tell you about it.
Your cover is sending a message whether you intend it or not. Why not put some thought into what you’d like that message to be? Make it pop, make it work for you. The cover will catch a prospective reader’s eye well before your carefully crafted words have a chance. Make sure all the elements of your books are doing their jobs.