An awful lot goes into making a good book. You need strong, well-developed characters that people care about, a deep and fascinating story to draw the reader in, and a solid and consistent setting to tie it all together. You need to read and reread your work, ironing out continuity errors and correcting typos. A finished novel is the culmination of countless hours of hard work and intense planning. If you’ve done your diligence, and the stars are properly aligned, what you’ll end up with is something that will make you proud, and something that will certainly be worth reading. Unfortunately, the end of the book is just the beginning of the battle, because before anyone will ever know what a fine job you’ve done, you’ve got to convince them to give your book a try. And in order to do that? Well, you’ve got to find a way to catch their eye.
Now, I realize that the old saying warns us not to judge a book by its cover, but in the age of eBooks, that is almost unavoidable. Look at how Amazon or Barnes and Noble present their catalog. The title and the cover are frequently the only things you’ve got to entice the prospective reader. Even the synopsis is usually a click or two away, so a great deal relies upon a decent cover. Picture it like this: Imagine there is a bake sale. On one table is a bare sheet cake. On the other is an elegantly decorated butter cream concoction. Guess which one is going to get sliced first? It doesn’t matter if the sheet cake is a masterpiece of culinary brilliance and the iced cake is a pile of sawdust with a fancy paint job, the pretty one will always get the first look, and that is a huge advantage. Granted, it won’t be long before people with their mouths full of splinters start spreading the word about how awful that cake really is, but a bad review will only send people away from the bad cake, not necessarily toward the good one. The same goes for an online bookstore. A placeholder image representing the greatest book ever written won’t attract nearly as many clicks as a tangled up mess of plot holes and typos with an attractive thumbnail. You owe it to yourself and your prospective readers to spend a bit of time on presentation, and that means putting some thought into a good cover.
Mind you, a good cover doesn’t necessarily mean an expensive one. The Book of Deacon Trilogy has had more success than I ever could have expected, and it first started getting noticed back when it had a very basic cover. It was little more than the title of the book, my name, and a symbol, all against a parchment background. It wasn’t beautiful, but it was clear (some have even said classy), and it suited the tone of the book. That is all you really need. Less than an hour in a free image editor was all that it took, and it served me well for months. You may not be comfortable working on your own cover, but a few seconds with a search engine and as little as $15 will earn you something as good or better from a freelance cover designer. Even if you don’t want to do that, take the time to make sure the cover is the right size and shape, that it isn’t stretched, squashed, pixelated, or otherwise digitally abused. You will be amazed at how much your book will stand out even if you’ve simply paid better attention to the submission requirements than your fellow authors.
If you are lucky enough to start earning money, or if you’ve got a budget set aside, I strongly suggest that you consider commissioning an artist to make a custom cover. I cannot recommend this enough, particularly if you are in the science fiction or fantasy realm as I am. Seeing a character, object, or setting that has only ever existed in your mind’s eye suddenly come to life on the computer screen is nothing short of spectacular, take it from me. Not only that, but the process of talking an artist through the details of your vision is a great way to spot opportunities to improve the descriptive language in your writing. If the artist, a person who uses his or her imagination for a living, can’t picture your character without further prompting, surely your readers could benefit from a bit more detail as well. Finding an artist is simple and fun, too. Just head over to deviant art, cghub, flickr, or any other artist collective and start browsing. Enter some search terms, check out some categories. I bet it won’t take long before you see something that could have been plucked from your own imagination. Then it is just a matter of finding out if the artist is taking commissions. I can’t vouch for all artists, but the one I stumbled onto, Nick Deligaris, is a consummate professional and really helped me through the process, guiding me away from designs that were cluttered or busy, and toward designs that engaged the viewer. A good cover from a skilled artist can cost a tidy sum, I usually expect to pay between $100 and $1000, but I’ve never paid for one that didn’t pay for itself within a month. I saw my sales triple within thirty days of Myranda taking her rightful place on my cover. Honestly, though, even if I hadn’t made a dime, just having a gorgeous image like that, and having gone through the process to create it, was worth the price of admission.
Once you’ve got a good relationship with an artist, covers are just the tip of the iceberg. Decent artwork opens up a world of possibilities. Strike the right deal with your artist and you can start experimenting with advertizing or merchandising. My readers have been asking me to provide a map of my setting, and they’ve been fairly begging me for depictions of some of my more popular characters. A picture truly is worth a thousand words, and a captivating cover is an invitation to open the book to find the thousand words that inspired it. Once you’ve got them browsing, your writing will finally have its chance to shine.
Can a good book make up for a so-so cover? Absolutely it can. Can a great cover make up for a lousy book? Not in the slightest. The cover is just a way of getting your foot in the door. When all is said and done, it is the quality of your writing that will earn you your high rating and word of mouth. The story should never be neglected, and a masterpiece of a cover can never justify a travesty of a book. But if you’ve got the time or money to spare, consider doing what it takes to make your cover as beautiful as your words. At best you’ll see sales and interest soar. At worst, you’ll get to meet face to face with that character you’ve had locked away in your head. What have you got to lose?
From Pure Textuality – A gret big thanks going over to Joseph Lallo for his time! For more information on Joseph, The Book of Deacon trilogy or any of his other books, pop on over to www.bookofdeacon.com or follow him on http://www.twitter.com/jrlallo