The covers we choose for our books are much more significant than many authors think. Over the years I've seen everything from a finely designed book cover, to one the author created himself. Now, there's nothing wrong with designing your own cover -- if you're actually a cover designer. Otherwise, you should leave it to the pros.
I recently had an opportunity to sit down with my friend and colleague Hobie Hobart to talk about the importance of book covers. I think some of his answers will surprise you!
- How long does the average consumer spend viewing a book cover before they decide to buy or not buy the book?
- What are the biggest mistakes you see in book cover design?
- Is it ever a good idea to put your picture on a book cover?
- What do bookstore book buyers look for in a book cover?
- What distinguishes a bestselling, brand-building book from one that practically guarantees your book will never sell?
- How did one of your self-published authors reach bestseller status (over 1,500,000 copies sold!) without being in a bookstore?
- How can authors evaluate and know that their title and subtitle are clear, compelling and appropriate for their market?
- How can I be sure I'm choosing the right cover design?
Bookstore browsers spend an average of 8 seconds looking at the front cover and 15 seconds studying the back cover before making a buying decision where your book goes straight to the cash register, not back on the shelf.
Online bookstores such as Amazon reduce the decision time even further. In mere seconds, your cover sings or is ignored among the other small thumbnail covers in the search genre.
Mobile devices display book covers and branding down to a small image about 58 pixels square!
John Willig, president and literary agent of Literary Services Inc., told me about his agency's "3-Second Rule" which they use in evaluating any book submission. If the cover doesn't grab them in three seconds they pass on it. Only three seconds!
You want your book designed good, fast and cheap. The reality is that you can have only two of these three.
The fast-and-cheap combo is very popular right now but it produces substandard quality and cookie-cutter looks -- not a winning combination if you want to sell a sizeable number of books or if you care how the book influences your brand.
You get a limited number of templates to choose from for your book cover. These book production "factories" have no time in the schedule or room in the budget to slow down and pay attention to quality or your image, let alone other important factors which influence the power of your cover.
The bottom line is when you pay dime store design prices, you need to expect dime store quality books.
This is contingent on many factors so the initial answer is, it depends. It IS a good idea, and nearly mandatory, to use your picture on the front cover if you are a Barack Obama, an Oprah, or a renowned superstar. Many authors think that putting their picture on the front cover will make them famous. This is not necessarily so. Unless you are well known in the media, bookstore buyers will not accept your book which pictures you on the front cover. However, if you are selling exclusively to a tight niche where you are well known, or your intention is to start branding yourself to a specific market, your photo on the front cover or the spine can be an advantage.
Bookstore book buyers want concise, quick information. They are very attuned to various aspects of their clientele and can instantly tell if that group would be interested in a particular book. The front cover (or spine, if displayed spine out) must lure them in with an attractive, compelling visual, and then a sizzling spot-on title which will hold their interest. The front cover works in a very subliminal way. Once the front cover draws the bookstore browser in, it is expected that the back cover will provide clear reasons why this book is right for them.
Nora Rawlinson, past Editor-in-Chief of Publishers Weekly, says, "Why not judge a book by its cover? ... Anyone who has sat through a sales conference can attest to the widely held belief that you can tell a book by its cover. And booksellers are as enamored of dust jackets as sales reps. In our study of booksellers' assessments of publisher marketing efforts, 75% of the 300 booksellers surveyed (half from independents and half from chains) said that, of all the elements of the book itself, the look and design of the cover was the most important ...The jacket is prime real estate for promoting a book."
Though there are many answers to this question, the most important would be that the cover must absolutely make a connection between your book and your chosen target market. The colors, typestyles and images (if you are using some) must be compatible with the preferences of that market to elicit an immediate response that says, "Pick me!" The title and subtitle have to be concise and compelling. The clear visual reference to a series or previous bestseller, the format of the book (hardcover, softcover, large, small), the look of the inside page design, the width of the spine, the weight and feel of the cover stock ... all of these and more need to be right to garner bestselling status and build a brand, and to avoid a garage full of dusty unsold books.
Our client, Ruby Payne of aha Process! self-published her book, A Framework for Understanding Poverty nearly 15 years ago with a completely homespun, generic cover. The colors were red, black and yellow with outdated silhouette artwork. She developed her marketing methods (which were brilliant) in an organic way, totally rooted in her desire to get the message out to as many people as possible. The book sold fairly consistently for many years. Then we redesigned the cover, maintaining the existing brand while lifting it from a down-home self-published look to the serious professional look of a major publishing house. Sales of the book soared with the dressed-up branding of the book and all relating marketing collateral. Although she had no desire to jump through the hoops necessary for placement in mainstream bookstores, Ruby was so good at getting her information out to those who wanted and needed it that eventually Barnes and Noble came to her and asked to carry her book because so many people around the country were requesting it. Today, this book IS in the bookstore and Barnes and Noble is her largest customer!
Evaluating a title and subtitle must be done on two levels. First, it must clearly get the reader's attention while in the midst of a multitude of other competing titles, and clearly answer the question: "What is this book about and what's in it for me?" Second, it must deliver that message in an emotional and a rational way. The highly-successful publishing agent, Jilian Manus, told it to me this way: The title must be a "heart" message designed to elicit a powerful emotional response from the reader. The subtitle is a "head" message that informs the reader as to the primary benefit they will receive from buying and reading the book. Together the title and subtitle must quickly convey the features, benefits and advantages of your book, and that needs to be understood in 8 seconds or less. If the connection is not made by then, your chance of selling your book to that reader is probably gone forever.
Start by selecting a professional designer who has solid experience in creating bestselling cover design that does its intended job.
Second, if you feel a need to gather opinions about your proposed cover design, do so only from a qualified focus group composed of prospective readers in your market segment who are interested in this specific topic. As an author, you are in your forest and it's easy to seek input from people you know, like your spouse, friends and co-workers. They care for you and want what's best for you, so it's safe to trust their advice, right? WRONG! In reality, their opinions are pretty much useless. They are most likely not your target audience so what they think, well, it simply doesn't matter. If you develop your book to make your friends and family happy, you end up with a book which won't appeal to your buying audience.
Third, when surveying your focus group, do not ask "What do you think about my cover design?" Ask this question, and this question only: "Would you buy this book?" Then sit back and wait for the answer. You are not soliciting opinions about design. Don't even mention it. You only want to know if the cover compels them to buy.
If you want to catch Hobie live, join me at Author 101 in Las Vegas October 26-30.
About Hobie Hobart
For over 25 years, Hobie Hobart and his partner Kathi Dunn (known as one of the country's top book cover designers) have created success tools like bestselling book covers and information products that authors, speakers and experts use to build their brands and business empires. Hobie's company, Dunn+Associates Strategic Design and Branding for Authors and Experts, worked for six years with Tony Robbins, developing seminar promotional materials and products including Tony's legendary infomercial product, the PowerTalk series.