It’s a Cover Up I

Most indie authors have rolled, with relative ease, into hiring content editors and even copyeditors, (just don’t put either under “editor” on amazon. That editor tag on Amazon is for anthologies. You also shouldn’t put your cover artist under “illustrator.” Before I figured out that clueless authors were doing that, I passed up a bunch of books because I thought “An illustrated hard boiled mystery? Too weird for words.” That tag is there for actual illustrated books.)  or figuring our how to swap with other indies for these services (which amounts to hiring) or other more creative arrangements.

One stumbling block remains in most writers’ publication schedule: covers.Let’s face it, most writers aren’t artists and those who are aren’t usually at cover level.  Which is where I was 5 years ago when I did my first indie novel.  My art teacher at the time told me I was 2 years of concentrated, daily practice away from cover level.  She wasn’t wrong.

So I tried hiring an artist and ran head first into the biggest problem writers run across when they do that: what he delivered was unusable.

The market has changed since then.  You can hire someone to do your covers, from someone on fiver for under $100, to a professional artist who will set you back $2000.  The most common price charged by cover artists is around $400.

With all of them, but more so at the low and median ranges you’ll run into the second problem: you need to know more than they do about what makes a good cover.  And most writers don’t.  Heck, most editors don’t either, but that’s a completely different matter.

This post was precipitated by seeing covers someone ordered and paid a lot of money for which completely mis-signaled subgenre.

This is not unusual.  A lot of the younger cover designers are better but if you hire people who were doing covers for small presses, pre-indie, your books are going to look “literary and little.” And if you don’t know the signaling you just plain WON’T know.

This is important because signaling genre (or worse, subgenre) wrong is the most common cause of lost sales on Amazon (I know. I’m a  — voracious — reader of ebooks.)

So I thought I’d do a mini-course on covers, in case you have to make your own, or even to supervise someone making yours.

The image is my own most recent cover for Witchfinder and you’re welcome to the curse of the cover designer. Having upgraded the card on my render computer, I’m looking at it and going “I can now make those figures so much more realistic.”  My ten year old computer had to be stopped after about half the necessary rendering iterations, and so made the figures a little more obviously rendered.  That’s okay. The wisdom of the cover designer is to go “good enough, I’ll upgrade that cover when I have a weekend off.”

Which of course is the good side of indie. You can.  I’ll add the only reason I still do my own covers, and the covers of a few friends is that I found the process a good way to satisfy my art itch without having to setup an entire studio and getting pastels on everything and/or when I can’t take the time to.  Oh, yeah, being able to have precisely the scene I want also helps. But that’s secondary.

So, this is the most basic and rudimentary level: most writers think the cover is supposed to be a scene from a book.  I’m not 100% sure why, except that we’re story people and think from the story out.

If we think as readers or better as marketers for a moment, we realize that is utter and complete nonsense.

I don’t care how fascinating the book scene you have in mind is: if it’s a really good scene, there’s no way you can put it all in and do it justice.  And even if you could, you must ask yourself “is it the best scene to convey what the book is about?

For instance let’s suppose that during your contemporary spy-thriller your characters attend a masked ball. Is the best scene to put on the cover a man and a woman in evening clothes, wearing masks and standing against a palatial background?  Well, not unless this is a ROMANTIC spy thriller set no later than the early twentieth century.  Because a cover such as I sketched will read “historic romance.”

And the problem is, with writers being so bad at tagging their own books, any reader is used to some very odd things showing up in the middle of a search.  If you’re lucky, they’ll read the title and the description and realize (if you signaled well with the title, but many authors also don’t. Self included) that the book in fact is a contemporary spy thriller. But many won’t even do that, just glancing at your image and going on to the next book. You’ll lose probably most readers looking for a contemporary spy thriller with that cover.  Even the ones who realize it’s a contemporary spy thriller might not buy it, even if they would otherwise, because they will think such an incompetent cover cannot possibly foretell good contents. (No, that’s not always true, but it’s often the first cull level for those of us reading indie. Because it so often is related.)

Also from a rational point of view, think about it: if the cover were supposed to be a scene from the book, how would that work? Before people read your book, they don’t know what’s in it. After they read your book, if you hooked them they don’t care that the cover is a mismatch.

Things like hair color or looks of character, or what they’re wearing (unless it signals period, or can be mistaken as such) or their features likewise don’t matter because the reader won’t know before he/she reads the book. And afterwards he/she won’t care.

If it makes you feel better, this is a really common mistake even among professional cover designers.  For instance, my art circles some years ago were passing around a set of “really clever” covers for classics. (I wish I remembered where the link went.)

They were. They were superb. If you’d read the book and knew the contents.  For instance, the cover of 1984, the typography was heavy and dictatorial (and really the star of the cover, which usually signals non fiction) and there were these little rats all over.  Of course if you’re familiar with the book you think “how clever.” And granted, 1984 is a classic and assigned in schools so most people are probably familiar enough with it to make that a good cover.

The problem was the designers were talking about it as “an example to all these trashy indie cover makers.” Which made me roll my eyes so hard they hurt. Because if 1984 were an indie book I’d have never picked it up with that cover. I’d have thought “1984 had a rodent plague and this is a non-fiction book. I wonder why it came up on the search for science fiction.”

Only I wouldn’t even have thought that or anything really.  It would all be at subconscious level, while I looked at it and away to the next book cover, all in the space of a second.

Other things to realize when considering a cover is that the new chic, iconic image (look at Hunger Games) is not for you.  For the same reason, honestly, that the covers of classics can be all clever and cute.

Unless you’re entering indie with a ton more money than most of us and can afford the publicity campaign a big traditional publisher puts into a mega bestseller, you cannot and will not do well with something simple and enigmatic on the cover.  Which is a pity because those covers are gorgeous and really easy to make.

But if you look at them they really say nothing about genre or what the book IS.

The aesthetics don’t matter a hell of a lot, either. If you’re an artist even a part-time one like me, you fall into THAT temptation. If you know how to do something and like the effect, you’ll get so smart you’ll cut yourself and create BEAUTIFUL covers.  There’s nothing wrong with this, except many of the covers I see that are visually breathtaking are also lousy sales covers, as the designer forgets, in the middle of it all, what the purpose of the cover is and fails to signal genre, subgenre, and sometimes … well, anything at all.

Meanwhile an ugly-and-serviceable cover will often stand you in good steed. A lot of my covers are or will be consciously old-style Baen, simply because I think that particular book would sell well to the Baen audience.  And yes, Baen covers were mocked for decades throughout the field. But Jim Baen who introduced the style knew something about selling. And his covers signaled right and sold books in a field in which other houses had the advantage of much more promotion money.

So, remember: If it’s not something you’d know before reading the book, the people buying it won’t know.

And: It doesn’t have to be beautiful. It has to sell books.

The cover is an advertisement for the book.  That’s it. You have maybe two seconds to capture, or at least not to scare away the reader before he goes on to the next book.  There’s a lot of choice on Amazon. And most of the decisions are made at the subconscious level.

Don’t waste the opportunity because it “must be a scene from the book” or you have no clue at all what the covers in your genre/subgenre look like.

Next up: Signaling Genre.  Till next week.



  1. In the sections in all my graphic design classes wherein book covers were discussed…signalling genre NEVER came up. Ever. It was always about ‘good design.’ (Which is important, yes.) But until I read your posts on the subject, I’d still considered it in the light of my professional training, which had zero to do with the genre and everything to do with being clever about the design.

    And sometimes that can work…but not often, I think. (I admit that I rarely give covers a second glance, on account of there being quite a lot out there that are poor design, and so they make me cringe and I ignore them. But that’s the me-the-designer talking. Me-the-reader looks at the blurb.)

    So in short: thank you! If I ever kick down the creative depression that’s plagued me for years and decide to, for example, dip my toe into freelance cover design, I know I will do a better job for the authors–because now I know how important the genre-signalling is. 😀

    1. A striking cover makes me pick up the book to look at it. Then I’ll peruse the blurb, and then read the first few lines of the story.

      Though if a new book comes out by a fave author I’ll just buy it (mostly–there have been covers that made me think twice about buying a book).

      So it’s six-of-one and half-dozen-of-the-other. Fickle reader that I am.

  2. Complaining about horrible covers seems to have been a favored author pastime forever. Which makes sense back when authors got what they got and had no say over it. And sure, some covers were horrible. But thinking back, a lot of the complaints were misplaced. The author, naturally, wanted a pretty cover. And sometimes the cover was weird or awkward and often, very often, was not a scene from the book. But it didn’t matter what the author thought and everyone enjoyed the commiseration and fellowship of complaining about the artwork.

  3. Ooooh, I look forward to the signalling genre post.

    I think I got it right for my debut trilogy, and if people don’t know them, and if they ask and it’s OK, I’ll post a link for you all to weigh in.

  4. “An illustrated hard boiled mystery? Too weird for words.”
    What, you’ve never heard of graphic novels?
    And I swear I’ve seen that lovely young lady on the cover of Witchfinder somewhere before.

  5. When I did the cover for Shiva’s Whisper I wanted to make sure it signaled genre appropriately. So I did an impromptu survey, put the base cover art (no title or text) up and asked people what genre and subgenre they’d expect from that cover art. There were a few oddball responses but mostly “Mil-SF” and “Space Opera” which was what I was going for. It’s been moving maybe a little better than my other stuff at the same point after release so maybe that worked. 😉

  6. Some Baen covers can be goofy, but they make me interested at least opening the book to see what it’s about. A lot of other publishers have covers that say, “keep moving”. And that’s not even getting into all the lazy Shutterstock covers I’ve seen from the Big Five.

  7. I just realized that Sukura: Intellectual Property is illustrated. I’d actually very much like to see a growth in illustrated novels. An “illustrated hardboiled mystery” would be awesome.

    1. Now I’m imagining something like a Where’s Waldo illustration of a crime scene, where the detective-narrated text misses a clue that’s right there for us to see…

    2. Japanese Light Novels. Illustrations are basically one of the defining features, from what I can tell.

      You have the color pages bound into the front, then the black and white pages, by the same artist, are spliced in with the scenes they match.

    1. Sounds familiar… And the only reason I’m confident in that much is because I learned how to fix bad photoshops when I was working as an editor! (Well, and played around with using GIMP to make pretty maps. That I can’t use without paying for a full-color interior. 😑)

  8. When Nora Roberts started the first slightly-fantasy Celtic trilogy, the first paperback cover left me scratching my head. IIRC it was a photo of a landscape, with her name and the title, and a pull-quote. Not romance, right? Not fantasy, because photo that was not modified… But what was selling the book was the author name, not the cover.

    I grinned when I went past the YA shelves of a used bookstore today, because you could spot all the Twilight-inspired covers. I’m glad that phase has mostly passed – black shiny background, single red or shiny white or silver object. No matter the actual genre.

    1. Did you ever see the classics they did up in that style? I remember seeing Pride & Prejudice, Jane Eyre, Romeo and Juliet, and some others. All of them had weird, overly dramatic taglines on the covers as well.

      All I could think when I saw those was that teens who picked them up expecting “something like Twilight” because of the cover signaling were bound to be confused and probably somewhat disappointed since the books in question do not fall into that realm.

          1. I will say that, as far as base cover design goes they are quite nice. But yeah, totally not signalling the right things, and shamelessly copying the Twilight series covers. (Which also did not signal genre AT ALL. And then they did some more with the Fifty Shades abominations and their millions of imitators.)

            On the other hand, maybe someone picked up Pride & Prejudice because of the cover and became a Jane Austen fan as a result. One can hope. 😀

            1. We can indeed hope that someone picked up Pride & Prejudice or one of the other books (via searching I have found Emma, Persuasion, and Sense & Sensibility also done in this style) and became a Jane Austen fan as a result.

              By the time these versions were released, to me they read “this is like Twilight” rather than anything else, which made them even more of a signalling mismatch than they might have been otherwise.

  9. Covers are indeed an art form I know little about. My wife loves the rather abstract cover of her novel. I’m sure it doesn’t garner her any customers, but I don’t know if it turns any away. The blurb I think does a great job of signaling to the reader if it’s their type of book however. I’ll have to deal with the cover problem when I start putting up my own work.

    Also Amazon key word/sub-genre stuff can be really confusing for a book that isn’t targeted into a specific sub-genre. From the “sponsored products” and “related to this item” sections though I think it isn’t misplaced.

  10. Signalling genre is doubly important if your title is ambiguous, though both ought to be clear.

    Titles also being marketing tools. I changed the title of “Lady In Waiting” to “The Maze, the Manor, and the Unicorn” because while the first — which is a bit of a pun — would work in a fantasy magazine or anthology, it would not as a stand-alone fantasy story. (I put it in a collection, too, but also on its own.)

          1. Well, this one was suggested by an incident in the life of one of Queen Elizabeth I’s ladies-in-waiting. Don’t know if the era came through strongly enough to make this even historical fantasy, though.

  11. Looked at this one and almost passed on it until I remembered this post, gave it a second look and will be reading it and a few others by Scott in a few days.

    Paper Doll: Ani Maxima Salvation #2 by Scott McElhaney

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