This article, written by Patricia Burroughs is from the October 2021 edition of Nink, the monthly newsletter of Novelists, Inc. (NINC). Nink, which is packed each month with informative articles for career novelists, is a benefit of NINC membership.
Following up on my August 2021 Nink interview with Guido Carotti, senior designer at Harper Collins Mass Market Paperbacks, I interviewed Christine Foltzer, associate art director at Tordotcom Publishing. Then the voices of indie authors, who serve as their own art directors, were added to the mix.
In the beginning, marketing?
For Christine Foltzer, everything begins when she receives a cover memo from the book’s acquiring editor. The cover memo includes genre/subgenre, story summary, notes and/or visuals of locations, objects, characters, and comp covers of existing books that are representative of the mood, style, format, art, or other elements the author and editor like.
But before arriving in the art department, Tordotcom Marketing has already had input in the book’s future, including determining which catalog the book will be in—spring/summer, fall, or winter—and thus its publication date. Work on the cover begins about a year in advance.
Foltzer adds the book to her bullet-point list of upcoming books. Many NINC authors also recommend scheduling far in advance, for many designers are booked solid for months.
Some authors are so prolific they also have to keep their version of a bullet-point list to keep up with multiple covers at a time.
But marketing is always the priority.
The purpose of a book cover is to market the book, which means visibility to the target readers.
That’s where comp covers come in for the indie writers, too.
One NINC author spent “hundreds of hours” studying recent bestselling covers in her genre to find comps for the covers she DIYs herself. Again and again, our members stressed the importance of comp covers, of studying the competition, knowing which cover trends are current, and, most of all, understanding the common elements of your genre’s/subgenre’s covers.
Important and overlooked aspects of finding and choosing comp covers
- They shouldn’t be written by authors whose names alone sell books. King, Rowling, Patterson, etc. Those books fall into an entirely different category.
- They should be successful. You don’t want to emulate a cover with minimal sales and an unknown author. It’s already not working for them.
- They must be in the exact genre/subgenre.
Too obvious? Not really. It’s easy to fall in love with a cover or a style and know it’s perfect for your story and want it—even though it fails the above tests. It’s even more common to dislike the cover conventions of a genre/subgenre and decide to use something to your own preference.
You’re the art director. And unless the author’s going to buy 100,000 copies of their own book, our authors overwhelmingly say, kick that “author” to the curb and let marketing rule the day.
Regrets, we have a few
NINC indies mourn the money and time squandered on covers that didn’t work yet could have had they understood the importance of genre conventions in a book’s visibility and sales.
Several authors ditched the bare chest covers common in romance. Low sales changed their minds, and with new covers sales have surged. Readers can now identify them as “their kind of book.”
The reverse can also be a problem. Without realizing it, some authors sent the wrong signals with their book covers. Reviewers told two authors that they expected a different kind of book from the cover. Coincidentally, both books—one a mystery and one a comic thriller—looked YA.
Book covers are labels, and readers expect to get what the label tells them is inside, whether authors like that labeling or not.
Foltzer shares cover ideas with editors, who consult their author. After adjustments and getting approval, Foltzer then starts the cover on its way to the actual art. She commissions original art for some, commissions freelance book designers for others, and does some in-house.
Regrets, we have more
The other top regret shared by many indie authors? Not commissioning professionals who are experts at book cover design and also the genre/subgenre of the book.
This is a three-pronged error:
- “Knowing Photoshop” isn’t enough.
- Even knowing graphic design isn’t enough.
- Even an award-winning book cover designer isn’t a good choice if their portfolio is in an entirely different genre.
You wouldn’t take your Corvette to a diesel mechanic. So why would you put your career and bank account in the hands of your neighbor/niece/coworker unless they are experienced, successful book designers in your genre? Most indies reported regretting that kind of early choice and would do it differently today.
Where to find a designer
- Word of mouth from successful indie authors in the same genre/subgenre
- Sometimes listed on copyright pages
- Reddit and other online communities where authors and artists gather
- Genre-specific Google searches (book cover designers + subgenre)
- Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, etc. (Twitter hashtag #portfolioday)
Rights and licenses
Questions to ask; not all necessarily apply to any specific situation:
- The prices of print and audiobook covers?
- Does your license include using the cover on web pages, store sites, social media, merchandise?
- Is the art/photo exclusively yours or also available for other authors?
- Can you share in-progress drafts with your readers to vote on options?
- How many sample designs, drafts, and revisions are provided?
- Do you provide other options, such as behind-the-scenes videos of photoshoots that the author can use in promotions?
Designing your own covers
DIY is a growing trend and one that, while tempting, can be as disastrous as using an inadequate designer.
Some respondents admitted that they liked their early attempts and were proud of them at the time. But down the road, they recognized the work was amateurish, which hurt sales. Readers assumed the insides were as amateur as the cover.
Many authors are thrilled with the skills they’re learning and the new covers they are making. The learning curve on Photoshop, for example, has been tough but gratifying, and they know their covers will only improve as they learn more.
BookBrush and Canva
One writer says the combination of graphics experience and BookBrush has led to replacing older mystery covers.
Stock photos and premade covers
Book designers use stock photos as a starting place and then manipulate, layer and add objects or characters that are also digitally changed. But unadorned stock photos with text can work in some genres. Book designers often have premade covers on their websites. Authors sometimes find covers there. Two writers regretted snapping up premades, assuming they could write something to fit. They acknowledge they’ll never do it again and wish they could have that money back.
It’s amazing how many of us decide to learn to create book covers without any knowledge of Photoshop and go for it anyway. Some look at the many long hours of frustration and less-than-stellar results and consider the experience time and money wasted. Others take courses to learn or watch YouTube videos and ask for help in Facebook groups.
Several members can’t visualize what they want until they play around with the elements themselves, which led to them finally acquiring enough skills to take on the task for good. Some take on DIY because they can make effective covers. Others are happy to turn the job over to the professionals when they can. And some take the hybrid road in covers, making some for themselves and hiring professionals to do others. One such author mentioned hiring a romance cover designer because getting those right is imperative, whereas some of her other book covers are less demanding.
How do you know a cover works?
Crowd-sourcing your readers is a popular method to test covers. Some share on social media and may even let readers vote on options or models. Some create a private Facebook group or subset of their email list for this use.
One author showed three different male models to readers to choose between, only to have one of them dismissed overwhelmingly because the readers said he was on too many covers already.
Authors ask for the above feedback as a way to build anticipation for their new book, even if they’re already pretty sure what they’re going to do.
Keep in mind:
- If there’s a free promotion and not a lot of downloads? Very likely, the cover isn’t doing its job.
- Reviewers saying they expected a different kind of book from the cover? Again, the cover isn’t doing its job.
- Some people change covers and sales surge.
- How many clicks an ad gets may be indicative of your cover’s appeal.
- Your cover reveals on social media or in your newsletter should get responses.
- One author tested her covers with Facebook ads. Once she found the best, she went ahead and recovered an entire series.
Once is not enough
Several authors say they update covers every few years. Others change covers as soon as they suspect one isn’t working. All say updated covers usually boost sales.
Indie authors relish the control they have over their own covers, despite the learning curve they may hit and hard lessons learned through experience. If something isn’t working, they have the flexibility to change it. And if it is working, they can enjoy the profits and perhaps use the lessons learned when designing their next cover.
Patricia Burroughs is a novelist and screenwriter. She is an Academy Fellow, having received the Academy Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting (awarded by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences). She loves Pratchett, Aaronovitch, Dunnett, and Heyer. She desperately needs a maid.
Christine Foltzer is art director at Tordotcom Publishing. She has overseen the development of covers and marketing since the launch of the imprint in 2015. After graduating from Pratt Institute with a BFA in Illustration, she also worked at St. Martin’s Press, Oxford University Press, and Grand Central Publishing.