Tuesday, June 11, 2013

A Tale of Two Covers: Book Covers and Publishing

Don’t judge a book by its cover. We’ve all heard the advice.

But of course we all do judge books—and lots of other things—by how they’re packaged. If we didn’t, there would be a lot fewer jobs in marketing.

In preparing to publish the new e-book version of my young adult novel, Out of the Wilderness, I learned quite a lot about how to create a book cover—and how the process of book cover design has changed in the past several years, thanks to the digital publishing revolution.

When Out of the Wilderness first came out in print, a lot of book cover art was, well, art. I was thrilled that Clarion Books contracted with Wendell Minor, one of the premier illustrators of children’s book covers, to design the art for my book. (More recently, Minor has designed covers for books by Jodi Picoult and LaVryle Spencer, among others.)

Original cover: beautiful art, though pinks aren't so great for a book featuring two brothers

Protocol at the time was that the author only saw the cover after it was a done deal. There was no back and forth, no discussion of concept or correction of errors. (The cover of my first novel, A Distant Enemy, contained two large errors, but when I pointed them out, I was told nothing could be done to correct them—and they were rolled over to the paperback edition as well.) The practice of keeping authors and illustrators apart was designed to prevent conflicts in artistic vision, but it also made for some unhappy authors once the covers were presented.

Fast forward to the digital age. No more hand-done artwork. Errors could be corrected. Multiple versions could be created. Authors could release their own books, in digital editions.

Since full rights to Out of the Wilderness had reverted to me, I decided to release it as an e-book, for a new generation of readers (and soon, in a softcover edition). In the process of producing the e-book, I’ve learned a few things about covers:

  • Don’t skimp. For grins, I submitted a cover request to fiverr. For five bucks, I got a good laugh. Then I got serious and contacted David Marusek, an author with a background in graphic design who knew about e-book specs and how to create a cover that would look good as a thumbnail.
  • Do your homework. Study other covers in your genre. Think hard about what your book is about, and what you want the cover to convey, not just in terms of content, but in emotional tenor and mood. Search the web—sites like flickrr, corbis, and stock.xchng—for free and budget-friendly, royalty-free images. Save the links and share with your designer so you can talk specifically about what you like and why. A good designer will discuss with you which images will and won’t work.
  • Know your budget. A good cover matters, but it’s no guarantee of sales, so make sure what you spend jives with your sales projections—and make sure your sales projections are realistic. A recent survey found that half of indie authors earn less than $500 a year; 10% of indie authors are making 75% of the total sales. Especially if you’re early in your career, it’s wise to run conservative projections.
  • Get feedback. After posting two possible versions of the cover for Out of the Wilderness on Facebook and in three Google+ communities, I received comments from 38 different people. What I learned was invaluable: with both covers, readers commented that they expected the book to be “scary” or “a thriller.” I realized that while the covers got attention, they were setting up wrong expectations for the book, which is more literary than thriller. Proving how genuinely helpful people in these communities can be, Eric Hubbel contacted me privately with a redesign that was a great fit for the book. David perfected the layout, and a few days later, I had my cover.