March 23, 2012

Book Covers – Why do so many books fail?

Yesterday I talked about poor marketing, and today I want to discuss book covers. There is the age old saying, “don’t judge a book by its cover.” Pretty much anyone who knows English has heard this line, mostly because it’s true. The cover of a book has no bearing on how entertaining the story between the binds actually is. The cover does not make the story.

However, covers are still very important. Specifically talking about fantasy books here, when I walk through a bookstore, looking at the shelves to each side of me, I scoff at most of them. Scoff – not laugh – scoff. Why? Because the covers are so horribly made and generically designed.  I don’t understand how so many covers come to fruition. Books go through the author, editors, publishers, and dozens of other people. How is it possible that these bad covers are allowed to exist? How is it that so many people went blind at the same time?

I know that many publishers choose the book’s cover, and the author basically signs away his say in the matter. Do they do this because they’re afraid the author might choose a bad cover? Why do they have to worry about that when they’re already designing horrible covers in the first place?

What makes a bad cover?

And what are you looking at?
*Pictures of real people. This may just be me, but I find it very awkward when the cover shows a picture of an actual person portrayed as one of the main characters. It just doesn’t feel right. When I read a book, I like to imagine the characters in their fantasy world, doing their fantasy things. This is limited once you give me a real live person on the actual cover. You’re being a detriment to the ONLY thing that books have over movies and video games – the freedom to imagine. Once you put the main character on the cover of the book, it’s just always a reminder that he’s there. Now, if the book is made into a movie, it’s different, because you’ve already thought up your idea of the main character. You’re done with the reading part, and you don’t really mind anymore.

At least with Dora you know what
you're getting.
*A cover that shows nothing, usually with a person staring somewhere blankly. This second point is usually incorporated with the first point I mentioned. So an author spends half a year writing a book, and another half getting it published. And then, when everything’s said and done and all your hard work is about to pay off, you have a cover slapped onto it that has less meaning than a cover of a “Dora the Explorer” book. I’m not saying simple covers are bad, not at all. But at least have a reason for your cover. Don’t just put a picture of some red-headed woman holding a gun with sassy eyes. What is that supposed to represent? How is that supposed to lure me in?

*Dated covers and fonts. I don’t know how they do it. Go to a bookstore and look around at the fantasy section. It’s like you walked back 50 years in the past. All the artworks and colors feel like they’ve gone through 50 years of wear and tear and fade, and only now they’re being put up to be sold. As for fonts, it’s like so many books chose Arial and were just done with it. Be creative or something. If you look at the first print of Harry Potter you see they used a pretty normal font, but once it got famous the publishers took it back and redid the font. There’s no reason you can’t make/choose a good and original font in the first place. You may think it doesn’t matter, but it does. It stands out, it catches people, it turns their heads. This is what you need to happen.

Oh, how awesome.
You're riding a horse in full armor!
*Lame covers. Yes, I said it: lame, a word with more ambiguity than the recipe of a casserole. I don’t read many fantasy books anymore, just the big ones that I hear about. I don’t like picking up most fantasy books, I don’t like giving many fantasy books a chance, because so many fantasy books just look lame. You may call that an ignorant point of view, but hey, sue me for not willing to waste my time on what may be an experience I regret. Walking through the bookstore, you see fantasy covers with talking animals, kids carrying weapons, a dragon here and there, a landscape – cliché. All you see is cliché after cliché. This is why the fantasy market is so often accused of being derivative, because the only thing most fantasy publishers and writers are capable of is cliché after cliché.

What makes a good cover?

A mixture of things. It’s hard to point out specific things that makes a good cover, because everything has to work together for it to work, and so what may be considered effective one way, might not be very effective another way. But, just to give out my general opinion on what makes a nice cover:

*Font that stands out
*Color theme
*A picture that makes you think and wonder, but doesn’t tell you anything
*A cover that doesn’t make fantasy look lame. Yes, this is the second time I’ve said it.

Covers I like? I always appreciate the Inheritance Cycle covers, how they stick to one color theme and how each dragon has a story to be told (except for the last one; that was rather ridiculous). I also like the A Song of Ice and Fire covers, because they also have a color theme, and the object in the middle represents something to the story.

I know if I ever get signed to a publisher, I will not be giving over my rights so they can mess up my cover. If the fact that my cover is suspiciously similar to the cover of one of the best-selling games of 2011 isn't enough to win them over, then I'd rather not waste my time.

"This looks like that game we love! Let's buy it!"

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