I recently wrote a book called Paint It Black. It is a fictional tale of a young woman who falls into a coma. She ends up living a full life while in that state before finally waking up. The story explores that life from her perspective. It was in this context that I embarked upon designing a cover for the book and so the fun began.
My first cover with which I published the book was plain and simple.
It reflected her beautiful bright blue eyes piercing through the veil of darkness in her mind; that’s how simple it was for me. For other people however, it reflected the face of a Muslim woman in a bourka. I think we can officially consider the conditioning of society as being complete when something can be assessed at a glance.
If my objective was to sell this book, this perception may have created a barrier, if not a challenge, depending on the market. I don’t really know this for a fact but if it was a possibility, I didn’t want that. As an author, I wanted my precious words in the hands of as many people as possible. Therefore, I needed to make sure it was inviting.
I must admit that I’ve never really paid much attention to book covers. Whenever I’ve walked into a bookshop, it’s not the imagery that catches my attention; it’s the title and perhaps the subtitle if there is one. The old books never seemed to worry about eye catching imagery or flash covers and you’ll only see the spine of the book in a library. To me, these are just like all the cars we have today – they all look the same. Gone are the days when you can easily pick out a Jag from a Merc from a Toyota (unless you are car enthusiast perhaps) – at least I can’t and so it is with books in a bookshop.
There is the argument that we have to work hard to try and distinguish our pieces in a crowded market, especially a digital one which is very visual. However, from my point of view, and it is just my opinion, we’re all going to the same places for cover design so, as a result, we risk ending up with something generically acceptable but not really distinguishable. Don’t get me wrong. There are amazing artists doing amazing art work and they easily put my stick figures to shame. But that’s just it – it’s all amazing - so amazing and so perfectly crafted and so perfectly indistinguishable to my bleary eyes.
When everything in a bookshop sparkles and glistens, I look for what contrasts but that’s just me. This also gets me to question whether our market is so dumbed down now that we need eye candy for everything to attract people’s attention. I tend to think that people are more discerning so am happy to give them the benefit of the doubt.
There’s also the argument that authors should not do their own covers. This is related to the argument that one should have a cover professionally done. As one commentator indicated, she would most likely pass up the offer unless the cover is professionally made. This is because the lack of skill on the outside may indicate poor writing on the inside. I might point out that this is not an uncommon view.
But honestly, no one knows the book as well as the author. So many book covers in bookshops have nothing to do with the story in the pages and I find it extremely disappointing to hold a book with a cover that does not reflect something of the story. In addition, we end up with generic covers that are employed as a sales gimmick as mentioned earlier. They’re all very pretty and properly manicured according to some established formula and it’s hard to push pass the feeling that I’ve seen all this before somewhere.
I’m all for encouraging people (especially our youngsters) to have a go on their own as I think our bookshelves could do with the diversity. To hell with professionalism (whatever that really means) I say. I’ve worn a suit and tie and hung out with others who have worn a suit and tie. It doesn’t take much to start looking and sounding the same.
I would also point out that you cannot judge an author’s words based on the cover art. These are two different disciplines. A beautiful cover does not guarantee creativity within. The old adage of judging a book by its cover comes to mind.
This leads me onto the second cover I designed for my book.
Boy oh boy, this evoked an extreme of love and hate on a couple of different groups I asked to comment. “honestly, this is right up there with one of the worst covers I've ever seen. Sorry”, said one commentator and I appreciate his candour. It’s always good to go for the jugular while the blood’s pumping. To be honest, I received a lot of wonderful constructive feedback so it was well worth asking and I extend a very big thank you to all those who said something.
For me, the image reflects a scene from the story where the young woman is travelling through her mind. All those bright colours are not fireworks but neurons firing in her mind – yes I know but just buy the book and you’ll understand.
If the first cover is thought of as somewhat challenging, this cover could be said to be “shouting”. It could be likened to the salesperson in the car sales yard eagerly trying to encourage you to step into their lot. As you may appreciate, many are unlikely to be tempted and may step away quickly. On the other hand, it is bright and colourful and some people did indicate that they liked it. In fact, I may have sold my very first book because of it (thank you first buyer and I hope you enjoy the story).
All this really got me thinking – I hate thinking. It occupies so much space but I digress. Should I bow to pressure and get something off the shelf or give designing (with my very limited skills) another go. If you’ve seen my website E-Phi-Inspired, you’ll see plenty of do-it-yourself stuff on it. It also says on the site, “If I can do it, so can you”. Well I couldn’t really argue with myself could I and so, with that in mind, I had another go and this is what I came up with.
The dreamcatcher is layered with neurons reflecting the inner world. The crack in the wall reflects either the broken mind or the thin veil between the inner and outer worlds. At least that’s what I tried to capture. I’ve also added subtitles so that the reader can tell a little of what they are picking up. However, if you are like me, you'll just turn the book over and read the back. It's even easier online as the descriptions are only a scroll away.
The cover of a book is like a door to a house. If you know the people inside, it doesn’t really matter what the door looks like. But assuming you don’t, you want it to be inviting or welcoming. Depending on the nature of your work, sometimes you do want to shout and sometimes you may want to challenge. At other times, you just want to say, “come on in and get comfortable”. I decided that this book fit the last category.
Does any of this really matter in a digital world that is saturated with images? I’m not sure. I only know what I do and what I’ve seen others do. I read the title and if it interests me, I scroll down and read the description and so on. It’s even simpler if you are familiar with the author. The simple fact is that the door is wide open to every book online and people are stepping through for a gander. I think they are readers first and foremost and artists or art critics a distant second.
So, as an author, the writing matters knowing that that’s what readers want. The cover, although you want to try and make sure you do a good job, is small stuff and as they say, don’t sweat it too much.
Also, if I’m going to be true to myself, I’ll stick with doing my own stuff where I can. It may not be the slickest but it will be mine. That doesn’t mean I wont go out and shop; after all, in the wise words of Harry Callaghan, “a man’s got to know his limitations”. I should also point out that the cover for my second book is based on an image from Pixabay. Sites like this are great for sourcing images and you just upload images that you want to share as a way of giving back. I think our shops could do with less glitter as it is hard to see the inside when you’re blinded by what’s on the outside.
Having done all this hard work of creating a cover, do I think that this means that my cover will stand out from the crowd? No, no and a big fat no. I’m under no illusion about it just blending into the masses. All our efforts are, first and foremost, to please ourselves and a nice cover completes our piece of art, especially if it also reflects the pages within. It gives us that sense of being done so we can cast it out into the world.
So what does make a book stand out? The simple truth of the matter is “getting known”. There simply is no way around this. This is where the rubber hits the road. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got the most expensive and beautiful cover or that you’ve written the most magnificent piece of prose if no one knows about it. If the angels ride your shoulder, it may be a breeze. If not, it could be a hard slog. Either way, there are no guarantees. Carmen Baca wrote a nice little piece about this called online-marketing-through-trial-error. It's worth a read.
My final words are to restate “don’t judge a book by its cover”. You may end up missing the opportunity of a lifetime.
Thanks again to all those who provided feedback and I wish you good fortune with your writings and books. Thanks also to those who have stopped by to read this and hope you enjoyed the telling of this little adventure.
Don't forget to check out my other writings on my website and my books are available from the Amazon bookstore here.
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