Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Modern Marketing for the Indy Writer Part IV

Branding: Why Your Book Cover Matters

Part One: Evaluate, Strategize, Execute, Re-Evaluate
Part Two: Sales Targets & Solid Foundations
Part Three: The Marketplace, Your Product & You
Part Four: Branding - Why Your Book Cover Matters
Part Five: Top Five Marketing Dos & Don'ts

From the start of this series my goal has been the same. I need you to believe that you can and should be selling more books (because it's true).

Last week we took a long, hard look at our book, our writing and our craft. We did this because if we don't get the book right, nothing we do to market ourselves will matter. 

Today we're going to take a more 'superficial' approach. Today we're going to look at our cover, why it's important, how it can define our brand as an author, and of course, why it can help us sell more books. A lot of books.

Defining Your Brand: Send The Right Signal

Branding isn't a logo. Branding is the perception of value placed on a product. Like it or not, our book cover is the face of our brand, so when people see our cover, we need to ask ourselves, does it raise their expectations of our brand-value or lower it?

Think Covers Don't Matter? Think Again

One of my workshop students recently said to me, "I never buy a book based on the cover."

Rather than argue, I agreed. I agreed, because we're writers. We are book enthusiasts! And because we're enthusiasts, we have a much keener interest in books than the average consumer. We're passionate about writing. We go out of our way to educate ourselves about books as well as writers.

We are the hardcore.

But the average consumer on Amazon is not, and it's for those people that we must gear our marketing strategy.

Here's what we need to accept: the average consumer does look at covers. In large part, this is because of how Amazon works. While we're browsing through the lists of new releases or the latest best-sellers in Space Opera, Amazon is doing its damnedest to present us with as many cover-thumbnails (and as many book-lists) as it possibly can.

Each click on Amazon narrows our search and leads us to another, smaller, more niche-focused set of lists (scifi, scifi-adventure/scifi-dystopian, best-sellers, top-rated, etc.) and yet another series of thumbnails. And if we don't find what we're looking for, Amazon is smart enough to keep us clicking as it brings us closer and closer to the target of our search, and, more importantly, a sale.

Compare this experience with iTunes/iBooks. Forget about it. It's a completely different experience. On iTunes, you'll never find anything if you don't know the exact title you're looking for. Amazon, on the other hand, has done a much better job at recreating the casual browsing experience, with the ability to introduce the casual reader to hundreds of new books.

This is why—with all these click-throughs, all this active-browsing—the chances are actually very, very good that readers on Amazon will see your book! Or at the very least, your book's cover.

Now, whether or not they click on your book is another matter, and the only way that's going to happen is if your book's cover and title can grab their interest.

Can your cover do that?

What Makes An Effective Cover?

The most important thing I've learned about marketing (and I learned this from poker, of all things), is that, whatever everyone else is doing, do the opposite. It's the quickest and easiest way to stand out.

Is everyone else using generic stock photos? Then we'll use original art.

Is everyone else's cover dark and bland? Then we'll go bright, with colors that pop. 

And because most people will be seeing our cover as a thumbnail only (surrounded by other thumbnails), we can't afford to make the cover too busy or too crowded (I see this all the time!). The cover has to be clean and easy to scan at a glance. The font must be especially easy to read.

But what do we put on the cover?

Whatever defines your target market, that's what goes on the cover. Whatever your readers are looking for, put that on the cover. Is your target market character-driven science-fiction with a touch of action and romance? Well then, your cover better feature all of those elements.

  • Interesting and artful depiction of main character: check
  • futuristic/space setting: check
  • weapon/gun/blaster to signify action elements: check
  • love interest to signify romantic overtones: check

Give your readers what they are looking for. Don't hold back. And be original. Let the rest of the world be generic.

It's All In The Name

Don't discount the importance of your title. A title isn't just a string of letters to file your book under. A good title is one that captures the imagination and stirs emotions. A title like that can sell your book just as a good cover-image can. Combine the two effectively and you will have a bestseller.

Ask yourself if Alien (one of the all-time great scifi cinematic classics) would have been equally successful if they'd stuck with its original title of Starbeast? The tone is completely different. It's cheese vs. chilling.

It's up to us to come up with a kick-ass title, one that lets readers know exactly what they're in store for, and that they're in for something special.

Oh, and that title must make sense out of context! Remember, we might know everything about our book, but nobody else does. Here's what I mean:

You've just completed what is considered to be a ground-breaking work in fantasy-fiction. Never before has anyone seen a work so chock-full of intrigue, murder, lust, lies and betrayal.

Unfortunately, in naming your book you've done what thousands of writers have done before. You named your book after your main character, Ned.


Yes, Ned. Not very inspiring, is it. You might know that Ned is a tragic hero with a doomed future, but the rest of the world doesn't have a clue. 'Ned' means nothing. And because it means nothing, people are passing your book by. Which is really a shame, because your book is really that good.

Now, what if you'd called your fantasy-epic Game of Thrones instead? Would HBO have invested millions in Ned? Maybe, but probably not. The messages sent by these two titles are completely different.

Titles Matter.

And if you're title has already been used, please, dear gawd, pick something else. The world does not need another paranormal-romance with 'Bloodletting' or 'Bloodline,' or blood-anything in the title.

Be original.

Tell your story.

Okay, you've convinced me. How do I make a kick-ass book cover?

The day I start writing a novel is the day I contact my cover artist to start working on cover art. This way there’s no rush, no missed deadlines, and if I don’t like what I get there’s lots of time to make changes, or even find a new artist if that becomes necessary.

Start your work early. It can take months. Not days, not weeks—months. Trust me. Your project is not the only one your cover artist is working on. In fact, one of the reasons I quit graphic design was because I got tired of people calling me at the last minute to say that they had a book/tour/record launch coming up in a week's time. The stress and frustration was killing me, and the work was hurting.

Besides, you want your cover finished early so you can start using it in your advertising leading up to your book launch.

Contact your artist early!

Don't Have A Cover Artist? Here's How You Find One

The way I found mine was by simply looking at the best-selling books in my target market. I picked the best-looking book and contacted that artist.

A word of caution. Good artists are busy, and often booked for months (another reason to contact them early). 

Don't panic. If they are too busy (and they often are) they'll most likely be able to point you in the direction of someone else they think will suit your purpose. My advice is to contact several!

Working With A Designer

Once you have an artist you feel comfortable working with it's up to you to tell them what you want. I give the artists who work for me as much information as they can process (and I always ask them if I give them too much or too little).
  • Story outline
  • Setting
  • Genre (action/romance/futuristic, etc.)
  • Detailed Character Profiles (if I'm featuring a character on the cover)

After that, I show the artist specific examples of work I like. Covers, advertisements, movie posters, anything visual that can show them what I have in mind.

Then I tell them what kind of scene I want to feature on my cover. In the case of characters, I'll go so far as to suggest poses (by sending them photos), or even photographs or actors that I think look like them. Again, I send along as many images that they can handle.

Don't Micro-Manage. Let Your Artist Do Their Work

An artist will always come back with feedback and suggestions. I urge you to listen to these suggestions. The more latitude you give your artists, the more enthusiastic they will be. The more jazzed they are, the better the result you'll get back. It might not be exactly as you imagined, but it will 100% be better than if you try to muzzle your cover artist and backseat design each and every move they make.

Remember, at this point you're the publisher. As such, it's your job to hire the best people possible and then let them do the work. Don't micro-manage. The results will suffer, and in most cases cost you more money, and serve you less.

Your cover is important. It can get you noticed. It can make you money. It can even get you a publisher (it has for me, in the past).

Your cover matters.


I only have one chore for you this week:

  • If you don't already have one, find a cover designer you like. You don't have to contact them, just find their web-pages and have a look at their galleries.
  • Start thinking, not about the cover you want, but about the cover you need.

Cheers, and thanks for reading.

Next up Part Five (& last in this series!): The Five Most Common Myths and Misconceptions of Marketing


  1. Excellent post. Even as a writer, I base purchasing decisions on covers. If the cover is amateurish, that says to me that the author or publisher doesn't care about the quality of the book. With so many books to chose from, I'm just going to keep looking until I find something better/more professional/more eye-catching. I'm also sick of seeing the same stock art on covers. Nothing turns me off faster. You've focused on standing out from the crowd and I think that's so important. Well done!

  2. I love my cover artist! I try to get my cover about three months in advance of release so I can start marketing and get it out there.

    I did go with a design that I think stands out, especially for my first one. I write hero-centered romance and his face is front and center on the cover. Every comment I've had on it so far is how it stands out in a sea of sameness.

    My designer does use stock photos, but her composition is unlike anything else I've seen. And I love it! She has a store of premade covers, so I was able to look through dozens of examples of her work and there were very few I didn't find appealing. She can also make banners and stuff for me, with cover art on it. I'm graphically challenged and not afraid to admit it.

    1. I cannot tell a lie! I am not a fan of stock photography, as I find it too limiting in terms of design. I always end up thinking, if only we could get the shot from this angle, or that, or with different lighting (different costumes!), etc. I'd much rather grab a model and go out and take some fresh photos.

      Plus - it's a blast!

    2. And you're very lucky that you have someone who can do all those other design-things. I need to commission some new banners (badly!).

    3. Right now I can't afford anything other than stock photography covers. She does use a site not a lot of other use, from what I've seen, and I have veto power over any images she picks. For my first one I actually found the man's profile shot we used, and it was *exactly* what I wanted.

      She also charges extra for more than three to four elements, which is a great incentive to keep it simple.

      One of my long-range goals is to be able to afford a fully customized cover. But it's a few years from happening. In the meantime I'll get the best I can for my budget.

    4. Budgeting is key. It's one of the reasons I think having structured sales goals are so important. I base my budgets on my sales/revenue projections. This gets me thinking about the money coming in, rather than just about what I might spend.

      I have to limit my cover elements, too. I'd love to do more elaborate backgrounds, but right now spending more doesn't make sound financial sense.


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