Put Your Best Foot Forward

For those who don’t know, I run a promo post on my blog (usually) on Sunday mornings.  There are a bunch of conditions, and a place to send the Amazon link to your book. What there isn’t (ever) is a guarantee that I’ll have read your book. (Why? Because, well… I don’t have that kind of time. Also I often have trouble reading books from friends, because it gets complicated.) I shall paste the rules below.

The thing is, I sometimes get books with horrible covers. I don’t mean aesthetically displeasing. It’s possible for a book cover to be ugly as sin or at least blah and fulfill its purpose. I mean horrible in terms of sales (yes, that shall be explained.) When I come across them, if I have time — not lately — I will offer to make a cover (sometimes.) Last week there was an overabundance of them, and I snapped.If you want to read what my snapping means, it’s here.  Keep in mind it’s the first time I snapped.  And yes, I did so with my usual care and understated gentleness.  No. Not really, because when I lose it I lose it.

So, were they violating any rules?  No. And that’s the worst part. Because the rules are these:

Note these are books sent to us by readers/frequenters of this blog.  Our bringing them to your attention does not imply that we’ve read them and/or endorse them, unless we specifically say so.  As with all such purchases, we recommend you download a sample and make sure it’s to your taste.  If you wish to send us books for next week’s promo, please email to bookpimping at outlook dot com. If you feel a need to re-promo the same book do so no more than once every six months. One book per author per week. Amazon links only.

So, why did I lose it?

Because every time in the past I’ve contacted people sending me books to promo whose covers were fricking appalling, I get this type of response:

“Well, if it made money, I was going to buy a real cover.”


“I don’t think the cover matters that much, does it?”

Or if I contact them about horrible blurbs or typos on the first three pages, I get “Well, I didn’t have money to get an editor” or “I don’t know how to write blurbs.”

Stop. JUST stop.

Note that the woman who used to be my best friend, the person I came up with as a writer, uses the “People don’t care about covers” excuse.

Head>desk, repeat.

Look, what are you doing, actually?  Do you think people have an obligation to buy your book? Do you think that you’re so intellectually superior to everyone else that people will be dazzled with your brilliance and buy you, regardless of how bad your book looks? DO YOU THINK — actually think — there is a psychic service that will make people INTUIT that your book is great, even though you gave it a cover that’s not even in the right genre and slapped your name on it in Times New Roman in letters so small it looks like it’s embarrassed and trying to cower in a corner?  Granting you that every book has typos — the average is a dozen or so for traditionally published works — do you think you can have three paragraphs of unintelligible English up front and people will magically intuit the book is great after that?

And what, precisely, do you think my putting your book up when the cover is horrible do for you?  It won’t get you a ton of sales. You might make one or two sales to the very bored. BUT not a ton.  And in the process, you make every other book advertised with yours look slightly less professional.

Let’s say you have a vegetable-mart.  No, two vegetable-marts, side by side.

One of them is excellent. The owner routinely drives around sourcing local produce, and everything is fresh.  But after all that driving, he doesn’t have much time to actually arrange the produce, so he just sort of dumps them in piles inside, and people have to go looking to find what they want, sometimes under or behind other produce.  he also never sweeps the sidewalk in front of his shop.  And who has time to do a shop window display? He just puts some stuff there. In a heap.

The other supermarket just buys from national distro.  The lettuces are like paper, the tomatoes could be red painted tennis balls. BUT they carefully arrange produce in the window.

Which supermarket do you think will do better? PEOPLE don’t taste the great produce. They see the terrible shop window, and they walk on!

What you’re doing when you have a cover that doesn’t work, or a blurb that makes no sense, or a bunch of typos upfront is turning people away. They’ll never know how great the rest is, they just know what they see sucks, and there’s a lot of other books to read. They might not be as good as yours, but they’ll never know how good yours is! You never gave your poor book a chance.

But Sarah, you say, I don’t have money.  And?  I think at one time a friend who was broke put a book out for $20.  And most of that was buying the stock art.  And that’s only if you can’t find it free. Look, for instance at pixabay with a simple Science fiction search set on illustration.  Or if you have $20 look at dreamstime.

Then go look at books in your genre and subgenre. See what the covers look like. See how large the font is, and what it looks like. THEN try to do something like it.

It doesn’t have to be a work of art. It certainly doesn’t have to be a scene from your book (HOW would people know before they read it? And why would they care after?)  it just has to be “not horrible” and signal genre and subgenre correctly (I don’t care how beautiful your drawing of your dog is, it does NOT signal science fiction.)

Your cover is a promotional billboard.

As for editing: if what you’re looking for is copyedit, the prices start at around $200. But even that is not a negating factor. FIND SOMEONE WHO KNOWS GRAMMAR.  You should have a buddy or two who will do this for free.  Or give it to ten of your buddies, then collect the results. Between them they should catch most typos.  And then YOU go over it.  Back to front. If needed with a “window” (a piece of cardboard cut so it displays a line at a time) to allow you do concentrate on each line.  Even better, find another indie author and TRADE COPY EDITS. (Make sure you both know at least rudimentary grammar, first. And that both of you understand NOT to edit out the voice.)

None of this has to cost a ton. Sure, if you have money it’s faster and easier (isn’t everything?)  But you can do it on a shoestring.  You just have to work harder.

But if you try to just throw the poor thing out there without minimal effort? You’re not giving it — or yourself — a chance. You’re just throwing it out to fail.

There must be easier, less painful ways to self-flagellate.

So, stop doing it. Give your book — and your writing — a chance.



  1. > you understand NOT to edit out the voice

    Somewhere, an editor probably still produces an occasional high keening wail at the memory of editing Eluki bes Shahar’s Hellflower trilogy…

    > covers

    You should have real *professional* tradpub covers, like when Signet was using photographs of dolls back in the 1970s.

    1. [puts on editor hat; goes to look, having never read Hellflower] The problem isn’t the voice, which wouldn’t be all that hard to emulate; it’s that the voice is *inconsistent*. Both rhythm and vocabulary wobble between in-world and mundane.

  2. Years ago, I picked up a book that had a “sword and sorcery cover” but the book was a science fiction book set in a dark near-future world.

    The author was a Big Name and survived that cover but I don’t think I’m the only person who would (if the author’s future books were on the shelf) who would read a few chapters to see if the book matched the cover.

    Oh, this was a trad-publisher and apparently the publisher “re-used” a picture that they had “in stock”.

    For indie publishers, you are the publisher so you’re to blame if the cover doesn’t match your book.

        1. From what I’ve heard, Ace had that painting for another book (IIRC but hadn’t used it) so slightly modified it for Leiber’s book.

        2. I remember that first cover for “Draw One in the Dark.” (shudders) If I hadn’t seen a bit of the prose first (might have been a snippet on Baen’s Bar), that cover probably would have kept me from buying the book.

    1. I saw recycling like that back in the ’80s. Fred Saberhagen had a MM paperback for the Berserker series with a stylized cyberskull for the cover. About a year later, another author’s book had the cover, with minor changes in the colors. Neither book is on hand, so the guilty/victimized parties will be unknown (to me, at least).

      1. One of the Pournelle and Stirling Falkenberg’s Legion novels published by Baen had the same art for the front cover as a cyberpunk RPG book published by Steve Jackson Games.

    2. I remember one where the cover was Tolkien art and you even could recognize which scene was the original in LOTR.

  3. Totally agree. A bad cover means fewer people will click on it on an online store.

    The most I spent for a cover was $300 (and the series I used it for is one of my worst sellers; go figure). You can get nice pre-made covers for well under $100 (I use SelfPubBookCovers but there are plenty other sites). There are lots of resources out there.

    Indie publishers have to think of themselves as businessmen and be willing to invest either money or time/sweat to develop and display their product.

    1. Hell, if I render a cover for you, with right to re-render if you don’t like it/adjust details, etc. and letter, I’ll charge between $200 and $400, depending on how complex you want it. USUALLY $200 if it’s an ebook cover. And that custom with right to bitch.

    2. But for those who are pinched? Much easier to just go to Dreamstime or Pixabay.
      I once made a cover for a friend for $0 before I could render: it involved a lot of drawing/image manipulation.

  4. I’m trying to get the second book of a trilogy finished. (Hopefully this week.) I’d like to have the entire trilogy finished so that I can put them up on Amazon one per month.

    The need to figure out this cover stuff scares the hell out of me.


    1. If she doesn’t have time, I probably do – depending on the genre. I do fantasy and science fiction only. I’m willing to do the first cover for free to get you started. For an example of my work, you can see Jon R. Osborne’s “The Milesian Accords” series. Most of my work is rendered, but I can do some photo manipulation.

  5. I am a person that looks at the new releases from Amazon daily. I search for new SF&F and sort by publish date. When I look at the summaries I look at the title, cover, author, and price. If book looks interesting and hasn’t been eliminated by one or more of those items I call up the full page summary. I look at the larger version of the cover, read the summary, and if the author is not one I buy automatically, check the price. If the summary looks interesting and the price is $1 or less I buy it. If the summary looks interesting and the price is over $1 I look to see if it is available on KU. If yes I put it in my KU list. If no I put it in the think some more list. If the e-book price is $10 or over I don’t buy even if the author is one that I really like. My usual cutoff for e-books is around $7. For the over $10 I decide if I want a dead tree version from that author.
    For newbie authors, please notice that the title, cover, and price get looked at twice, the summary only once. The first look, on the search return summaries list, gets 10-20 seconds per book. The individual book page gets about 60 seconds each. So at best you have 90 seconds to catch my attention and help me decide to go further with your masterpiece. Make them the most effective you can.

  6. These days I rarely pick up any book by a new author, and then only because of a recommendation by someone I know and trust.
    Given the state of the industry I no longer haunt bookstores given that none of those warm welcoming bastions of literature survived the purges over the years. All either defunct or morphed into knickknack shops with a few racks of printed propaganda.
    But with a couple hundred known readable authors, at least half of them indie, I never lack for a pile of next reads to look forward to.
    And as authors fall by the wayside, mostly those caught in the ravages of trad pub midlist, new and exciting ones trickle in to keep me more than adequately supplied.
    While I understand the rationale behind covers, that is simply not something in my wheelhouse, male pattern color blindness may play into that I suspect. That and my biases hail from those halcyon days when the height of SF art was a bug eyed monster threatening an extremely well endowed female attired in metallic underwear.
    There was a time when I publicly offered to do pro bono beta reads and if I liked the work a full copy edit for anyone who asked nicely. Made several friends whom I will still on occasion do such for, but got burned by others who treated my suggestions and corrections as some sort of personal attack. I still enjoy the actual work of tearing into a well done book that needs just a bit of help, but only from those I know personally or as a special favor to a friend.

  7. I read a lot of KU. If your cover is generic or blah, I’d better have taken an chance on you earlier and liked you. If your blurb is cute, clever and intriguing, I’ll give your black & white line art cover a try. If you strike out on both points, well, my loss.

    Yes, I do judge books by their cover. Those covers in the 60’s & 70’s with the abstract art on them did me no favors. Or the authors subjected to them.

  8. We’re starting to think about moving closer to town, so I’m looking at real estate listings. It’s pretty much the same thing; the first picture for a listing should show the exterior of the house, and then get into the details.

    A house down the road went on the market. It had been a wreck when the current owners bought; left in the winter, frozen pipes, so it needed a full redo. It’s on the market for a reasonable (maybe) price, but the first photo guarantees it won’t get shown. Driveway lined with trash and just a mess. (The interior is slightly better, but it’s clear the owners have no clue about clearing spaces to make them look more attractive.)

    I *think* it’s a well rebuilt house, but that first picture gives me doubts. Joe and Jackie Homebuyer, no way. More attractive houses are there for the same pricepoint. Think of a book’s cover and interior shots and map over to book covers and first pages…

    End of metaphor.

    1. Decent chance mostly naked lady in space would work well with the right story. Japanese light novels can be quasi-pornographic, and English translations are apparently selling on Amazon. I’m pretty sure a well funded indy could sell that way. Profit, I couldn’t say.

  9. see, the cover for the book i am working on, y’all are going to think i am spending a ridiculous amount of effort on it… I’m literally modelling an entire suit of powered armor even tho the cover is only going to show a little bit of it. Its also, tho, part of the process for the book. Once i have the model i can describe parts of its design consistently (and use the same suit for other books in the series) Really, tho, i am almost doing the model to decide the fine details of the suit…

  10. A couple of thoughts about covers. First of all, a camera. My good camera died and I can’t afford to replace it right now, but there are pictures that might fit. Or that you can make fit. Need a giant robot? Try the toy section at the thrift store. Some rattle cans paint and somestrange lighting and it might do the trick. Model railroad stuff too. Try the tag sales and see what you find. You can do wonders with a cheap camera, some cheap lights and a tripod. There are also train shows and most of them have people selling pictures. Find a generic steam loco, a guy in a trench coat and something that says alternate history and there you go. Do some trickery with your graphics program and nobody will know where the picture came from. You can also for check pictures on various archive, library and museum sites. One thing to remember is that detail does not matter with a picture like this. people are going to see something the size of the picture on Amazon and if they are interested, click the ‘Look inside” button.” You are not creating the mona lisa, your creating something that is trying to attract eyeballs for ten seconds or so. So bold and dramatic works.
    Also there are great tutorials and books online for free. The internet archive has the loomis figure books, for instance. Even if you don’t intend to draw your cover, there is good stuff and mocking whatever it up can help. One thing to remember, no matter how bad you think you are, Look at Trade covers and cry.

    1. Er… okay. There’s so much wrong with that answer it’s not even wrong. It’s just “other universe.”
      “A good camera.” Uh…. 90% of the coers aren’t supposed to be photographs. Go look at the covers.
      Second “Nobody will know where the picture came from” — wanna bet? HOW MUCH MONEY DO YOU WANT TO BET. There have been lawsuits on this. You’d not win.
      “Take a picture from a thrift store” …. You do know TOYS ARE PROPRIETARY right? DO NOT put a picture of a Disney Robot into ANYTHING.

      1. Somehow the entire point of what I was trying to say got lost. I did not mention the Evil Mouse. That would be stupid. Anything Disney, Star wars, whatever, you don’t use. On the other hand other things do show up and sometimes you find gems at a tag sale or thrift store. The other day I saw a cool spaceship that somebody made starting with a vacuum cleaner. the toy is where you START, not finish. I said to hit whatever with new paint. I probably should have made it clear that you hit the craft store for hot glue, bits and pieces of plastic and some metal tubes to make your robot armed to the teeth. You also take power tools to it. Then you take it out and shoot it on a generic background and insert into the stock art. You do not use any toy unmodified. My point was that with a little work, less time than building a model in 3D you can get something reasonable cheap and fast. As for the steam locomotive picture, I said to go to the dealer at a train show. The reason you do that is that railroad pictures are by and large, sold by small dealers that are the copywrite holders and are impossible to contact unless you are at the show. That is if unless you know them personally. What was talking about when I said that nobody would know where the picture came from was the clowns like me that obsess way too much about what type of locomotive it was and if it was in the wrong place. In any case the rules for publication for railroad picture are fairly well established and the dealer should be able to give you the permission. There are picture that the original photographer is long dead, there are no rights holders that can be found and you are stuck. That is why I said to go to a train show. as for the library of congress and other sites like that, the rules are on their webpages. Sometimes they are free, other times they have a fee. If you need a historical subject, a ship, say, that is a good place to start looking. As for model releases, I was talking about things or scenes without people or distant people.
        What seemed to miss is that I was trying to point out that you can work outside the box. I was looking for cover material for my mermaid story. Spaceships, easy. Lobster pots, not so easy. Cape Cod not easy. Picture that inspired the thing? Norman Rockwell, yeah, I’m going to use this:
        That will put me in jail. So no go with that. At least not as a big cover picture. My point was that if your book is slightly unique, your cover should not look like something that Jane Gallo put together. her opinions of the Sad Puppies and insulting Sf fans has nothing on her art direction skills.

        1. The entire point of what you were trying to say was “ignore the actual post, let’s play fast and lose with images. Oh, and here are some very bad ideas.”
          GUYS DO NOT FOLLOW THIS “Advice.” DO NOT. Seriously.

        2. John, I suggest you go back and read the posts that have been done here and elsewhere on cover design, cuing genre and sub-genre and that little thing called copyright. Much of what you said in your first comment could get someone into trouble. Now you are just digging in.

          Everyone, there is a reason why we always suggest you do your homework. That includes having at least a passing knowledge of copyright laws when it comes to the use of images and people. If you don’t there is a very good chance that somewhere along the line you will get not only a cease and desist letter but a demand for damages.

          The use of the cover of a game box can violate copyright. The use of a picture you buy somewhere without knowing the provenance and getting a release can violate copyright. The use of an image you take that has people in it can and will get you in trouble if you don’t get releases from anyone whose face is visible.

          So for the love of all that is holy, do your homework.

          Also, as a caveat to cover our butts here at MGC, we are not lawyers. We are not offering legal advice. And we most certainly do not endorse any advice given in comments by any who who isn’t an expert and/or lawyer who specializes in IP law.

          1. takign a picture of a cheapie chinese made robot toy with bits stuck on it isnt going to go well esp if the bot is a copy of something copyrighted.

          2. In the course of doing my homework, Otherwise known as the Google search I found this:
            Which sort of goes the way I figured it did. As long as you make alterations, you come into the realm of fair use and deriviative works. If it didn’t work that way, photography of just about anything would be impossible. In any case, the sight is great and he seems to know what he is talking about.

            1. Oooh, a google search is now legal advice. John, really, listen to the rest of us. This is murky territory at best. Add to that the fact there are predatory attorneys out there who make a living from filing copyright violations against authors and bloggers for using images that fall into that gray area. Because of the cost of litigating, most will simply settle for tens of thousands of dollars.

              I really do suggest you not only quit relying on google for your answers but talk with copyright attorneys. Or, better yet, don’t give advice that hasn’t been vetted by an attorney. Trust me, those games and toys you talk about are copyrighted and there are certain manufacturers that will go after you, especially if they see you profiting or if they feel you are doing something to damage their brand.

              1. I would also point out that in the specific case in the article linked, the dolls were being used for political and social commentary, something I believe the courts have been much more reluctant to squelch than commercial use like a book cover. That’s like #1 in the factors used to determine whether a use is “fair use” or not: “The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for non-profit educational purposes.”

                https://www.printmag.com/design-education/online-design-courses/fair-use-or-infringement-a-look-at-politics-copyright/ lists some cases going both ways “fair use” and “not fair use”.

                It’s a lot more complicated than you might think and you really do need to consult a copyright lawyer on the issue.

              2. I’ve passed over fonts to use on book covers which would have been a near perfect match for what I’m trying to do because the license was “free for non-commercial use”. Don’t need the headache.

                  1. a lot of ‘free for non commercial work’ fonts are such because they are copies of someone else’s copyrighted font.

              3. Amanda, it is obvious that you did not bother to actually look at the link I provided. Because, if you had, you would have found a very interesting blog post, by a copyright attorney, referencing a case where Mattel sued, and lost, badly. I actually found several posts asking the same sort of questions and several references to Mattel vs Walking Mountain Products. I was providing the link as a favor, since both it and the blog were relevant to the post you were planning to write. Sigh

                1. making a work of art like instanced in the article, and using the toy robot as the centerpiece for your illustration, will be treated differently. there’s a reason you aren’t seeing Barbie on book covers.

                2. John, what it is is a Cliff-notes sort of condensed version of what the law was at the time the article was written. I have spent quite a bit of time researching the law when it comes to the use of images. Your examples in your original post are prime ways to potentially get in trouble. Perhaps instead of getting upset because I didn’t jump up and down and pat you on the back for finding the link, you should consider what I and others have said.

                  Copyright is almost as full of twists and turns as tax law. Taking something that is subject to copyright and “making it your own” is much more difficult than most people think. And, as I said in an earlier comment, there is a cottage industry of sorts of attorneys who are searching out blog posts, book covers, etc., looking for images that haven’t been transformed enough (by their definition). They then send cease and desist letters with demands for damages for their clients. The attorneys take these cases on as contingencies because they know those they are going after will settle because the cost of taking such cases to trial is prohibited for the bast majority of people.

                  Because of that, and because of personal ethics, I would rather see our readers err on the side of caution.

                    1. Then you should look into them and their Friends. What a bunch of Jackals.
                      Also the CASE act seems to be a big thing right now.

                    2. John: WHY are you here?
                      You’ve repeatedly maligned us in public in other venues (Yes, people tell us). You choose to come to my post last week and give outright crazy and trouble-making advice. You seem to think we’re all kinds of awful.
                      We don’t like banning people, but you’re behaving like the drunken uncle at the wedding. This is my trigger to ban someone: You will not be able to spoil it for everyone else, by continuing to be a crazy and abusive asshole.
                      So, go back on your meds or be banned. We are not here to be the focus of your obsessions. Find another hobby.

                    3. Sarah. I said some things about what I was thinking after I was reading the cover series, Which since I want to do a cover, I though was very good, since I am struggling with it. I don’t think that my suggestions were trouble making or crazy. I think that every point I tired to be clear that you should NOT violate trademarks. I wanted to point out there were sources that had images in the public domain, Ie the Library of Congress, that people could use. That was the beginning and end of what I was talking about. Somehow, that was crazy and troublemaking.
                      As far as I know the, only time that I have said anything about you or Amanda was when I mentioned that you blocked me and Amanda and the rest dumped on me when I was thrown out of the group, when I poste on facebook about Amanda’s post where I was agreeing with it. Being called crazy and essentially a liar hurts, a lot. You don’t need to ban me, because I won’t bother to comment again. I just don’t need the stress and I is obvious that having a reasonable diverse conversation about the tools available and creative alternatives is not something that you want do. I would say that perhaps, before hitting send, that you should take Amand’s post to heart.

                    4. Here’s a big part of the problem: You’re not listening when people try to explain why what you want to do is a very bad idea. Look, I pointed out one major difference between what you want to do with covers and what the folk did in the Mattel site referenced at your link: they were doing political and social commentary. A book cover is a sales and marketing tool. The purpose for the use (whether it’s “commercial”, which a book cover most definitely is) or not and such issues is the first thing listed as a consideration for “fair use” or not.

                      In the Mattel case they were awarded lawyer fees as part of the settlement. But, until it was settled and they got that money they had to pay the lawyer themselves. Whether they had paid the lawyer up front or not, they would certainly have been on the hook for it if they’d lost. That the defendant won that case is no guarantee that someone with a different case with different details (like, the use being for commercial use vs. political and social commentary) would go the same way. The link I provided (which had that non-exhaustive list of factors that go into whether something is “fair use” or not) listed a number of cases. Some went one way, some went the other.

                      Do you have $1 M to gamble that any case will go your way? I don’t. Not taking that change.

                      If you tried to use somebody else’s copyrighted/trademarked work claiming “fair use”, then maybe you’d get away with it and maybe you wouldn’t. It’s a gamble. And losing that gamble can cot you big time.

                      Don’t. Take. That. Chance.

                      There are low cost alternatives out there. Even custom covers. Richard Weyand had Oleg Volk (both friends of mine, BTW) do a photo representative of the main character in his debut novel “Childers” which was not horribly expensive. Portrait photo (my daughter happens to have been the model–yes, I brag) overlaid over a starscape. This has apparently been effective for him. I’ve done what I think is some nice stuff using Daz3d. I’m particularly proud of Shiva’s Whisper (less so of The Unmasking because, well, the original art somehow got darkened when it transferred to both the print and the ebook and the background detail got lost). Sarah has done some great work taking pieces of publicly available art (with proper licenses) and putting them together in a graphics program into a coherent image.

                      It takes some work, but it can be done. Just really don’t do things that are questionable from a copyright perspective and trust to it either being overlooked or a “fair use” ruling happening to come down on your side. The cost of being wrong is just too high.

    2. I’m going to second what Sarah said. Much of the above advice can get you in trouble with copyrights and with the lack of a model release. We’ve got posts on this on the blog and an updated one will be coming. Before taking the above advice to heart, please wait for the upcoming post. I promise it will be sometime this week.

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