Book cover design

Judging a book by its cover

From Scott:

It may seem mundane at first, but the choice of a book’s title and cover can be critical. A smart, relevant title and a sharp cover can draw a potential reader to your work, while a plain, symbolic title or dull cover can leave your novel floundering on the virtual shelf without a sale. What authors need to realize, especially as we move into the age of ebooks, is that there are literally millions of choices out there for readers to peruse. Whether it’s on a shelf in a bookstore, or a webpage for an online retailer, something about your book needs to set it apart from all those other selections.

I speak from experience on this. My first novel, The Killing Frost, is a glaring example of a bad title. Once you’ve read the book, you’ll understand why I selected that title. In fact, I gave it that title before I even started the first page. I wrote the novel around the title, and in the process created a great story. And I have to say, my publisher created a sharp cover. One look at the artwork, and the potential buyer knows this is a military space opera, along the lines of Star Wars. But what does “frost” have to do with science fiction? Nothing, and that may have helped to keep sales low.

My second novel, The Piaras Legacy, had a better title. It’s in the medieval fantasy genre, and the word “legacy” suggests a generational connection. Medallion hired the artistic talents of artist Dave Dorman for the cover art. Mr. Dorman has worked with George Lucas on projects like Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. The cover for this novel is one of the best I’ve seen. And my sales reflected the improvements in the excellent cover art and relevant title.

A good title should give the reader an idea of what the book is about. It should make him want to pick up the book and read the back cover, or click on it online to read the full description. Terry Brooks accomplished this with The Sword of Shannara. The title leaves no doubts as to what the plot will be about. David Eddings wrote a novel with a similarly crafted title: Pawn of Prophecy. Again, the title makes it clear that if books of prophecy interest you as a reader, you should read the cover blurb to see if this novel is for you. Similarly, Robert Vardeman’s series, Cenotaph Road, has a title that leaves no doubts. A cenotaph is an empty tomb or monument in honor of someone who has done some great deed. If you assumed that empty tombs played an important role in this series, you would be correct.

Vardeman’s cover art is similarly well crafted: a man with a sword, kneeling near a cenotaph. A giant spider is hanging above – a spider that turns out to be his companion. And a magical gateway in the middle of the cenotaph . . . a facet that is central to the story. When I first saw this novel years ago, I knew this was a book I would enjoy, and I was not disappointed. Had he named it something more mundane, such as Lon’s Journey, or if it had a boring cover, I might have passed it by. But I picked it up, and eventually read over a dozen Vardeman novels. He had a fan for life.

Following my first novel, I have taken a different route with my titles. I write character information and back story first, then begin the novel. I’m usually several chapters in before a title occurs to me. And I refuse to become attached to that title–a better idea may yet come along. When I wrote my police thriller, Martyr’s Inferno, I thought I had a great title. Looking back, with a little help from my friends, I realize this was a poor choice. Again, I went with a title that means nothing until you’ve read the novel. And the cover art follows a similar parallel. The photograph of the St. Louis Gateway Arch is relevant to the plot, but means nothing until you finish the novel. I should have chosen a cover and title that make a reader want to pick the book up, not something that seems clever after the fact.

So choose well. Pick an interesting title that makes it clear what your work is about. Select a cover that makes the novel stand out, online and in stores, and is relevant to the work. This isn’t the only secret to rising sales, but is certainly a great first step.


NOTE: Next week’s post will continue the topic of book titles and cover design and offer some ways to help you craft them.

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