by Gail Z. Martin
Back when the only place to get books was in bookstores, browsing the shelves for new and interesting covers could be a pleasant Saturday afternoon pastime. Even before bookstores added coffee shops, it was easy to while away several hours just perusing the covers of books, looking for a hidden gem, a new adventure, or a tempting tome.
Now, much of our book buying has moved online, either to purchase paper books via Internet booksellers, or to download ebooks. It’s gotten harder to leisurely browse, in part because there are fewer brick-and-mortar bookstores than there used to be, and in part because those physical stores that do exist have often cut back on their range of books in order to feature profitable extras like gifts, music, movies and coffee.
So in an age when shoppers may only see the cover as the size of a webpage thumbnail, do covers really matter?
I believe they do. I know that some people lament the death of book covers in the same way they lament the passing of music album covers in the age of CDs and iTunes. And I agree that books do face some of the same threats that music has faced, although there are significant differences. All the same, I think that the reports of the death of book covers, to paraphrase Mark Twain, has been greatly exaggerated.
We’ve often been exhorted to not judge a book by its cover, yet covers are often the first connection an author makes with a reader. This is especially true if the author has not yet reached the superstar ranks of name recognition, or if the reader has never read anything by the particular author in the past.
It does appear true that the better known an author is, the less effort goes into their covers. Make it to the pinnacle of success, and covers often feature only the author’s name and the book title with a solid color background. But for most books, the cover signals the reader that this book is part of a particular genre, like other books the reader has enjoyed, and begins the job of shaping expectations before the book even gets lifted off the shelf.
A good cover–one that accurately signals the reader as to the genre and type of story–plays a major role in attracting an audience for the book. The quality of illustration and bookbinding also tells a reader something about the book, as many small press and self-published authors will attest. Watch readers move through a book festival or the vendor room at a genre convention, and notice which books get handled more often, and which ones never get picked up. Good covers make a difference.
What makes a good cover? It’s a complex mix of elements that starts with a professional quality illustration. Poor art is a stumbling block few books can overcome. Appropriate illustration is the next hurdle. Readers understand the visual shorthand that signals mystery, thriller, urban fantasy, epic fantasy and other genres. Send a miscue, and you’ll lose many potential readers while disappointing those who buy expecting a different sort of book.
Type font, placement and color matter, just as it matters to have a catchy title for the book. I’m not a graphic artist, but I can tell when the placement of the words on a book cover doesn’t look professional. Traditionally published authors don’t have to think about these things, but it’s a detail that many small press and self-pubbed authors struggle with as they strive to gain legitimacy in the reader’s eyes.
The back cover matters, too. I have my books face up on the table at signings to attract readers, but when I engage prospects in conversation, I’ll hand the book to them back cover up, encouraging the person to read the book summary and endorsement quotes. A gripping teaser of a recap goes a long way toward pulling in a reader and building a hunger to read the rest. If the reader has never read a book by a particular author, endorsement quotes by familiar authors or publications decreases perceived risk. While not every reader is swayed by blurbs, those quotes matter a lot for a certain type of book purchaser, and as an author, we want to send good cues on as many different levels as possible.
Authors like to believe that it’s the words between the covers that really matter, and they do. But without a cover that grabs the reader’s attention and makes them pick up the book, those words never get read. I can’t count the number of times a reader has told me, “Your cover made me buy your book.” I make sure to profusely thank my cover artists, and I work as closely with them as possible to provide the details necessary to do justice to the story inside. Covers matter!