Which is more important – the content or the cover?
Yeah, yeah, you’d rather read a great book with a lousy cover than a lousy book with an incredible cover.
But that’s not the choice buyers face.
Buyers see tens of millions of books to choose from. Tens of thousands of them are good books with fantastic covers.
If nobody discovers your book, the content won’t matter at all.
Maybe you think the content is so good that once a few people read it, word will spread. Then you have another problem to consider. There are thousands of excellent books, and many of them have fantastic covers. Why should your book sell as well as those other excellent books that also have great covers?
Credibility, for one. If it doesn’t look like much time and effort were put into the cover, why should readers expect that such time and effort were put into the content? Reviews might suggest that the book is good, but the cover might reflect a lack of effort. A poor cover casts doubt in the buyer’s mind.
Recommendations, for another. Many people are more likely to recommend a book that looks good.
And a host of other reasons (see below).
I’m happy to help other authors strive to improve their books. When new authors approach me for help, the most common question I receive is, “How can I improve my book?” Most of the time, my answer involves revising the cover.
Not all of my own covers are perfect. It’s easier to criticize a cover than it is to perfect a cover; there are numerous pitfalls to avoid during cover design. And it’s not always worth investing in a great cover.
There is also the issue of cost versus benefit. Let’s first examine the benefits, and then return to the issue of cost.
There are many possible benefits that can be derived from a fantastic cover:
- Grabbing attention. People can’t read books that they don’t discover. Your thumbnail is one of dozens on pages of search results. Get your book noticed with a great cover.
- Shows effort. Customers believe that a book is more likely to be professional inside when the cover looks professional.
- Proper packaging. The cover has to look like it belongs in that genre. Otherwise, the people attracted to the cover aren’t buying the book, which means no sales. This is one of the most common sales deterrents among self-published books.
- Fashion is important. The reader wants a book that he or she can see him- or herself holding in his or her hands. Does your cover appeal to your target audience? People don’t wear shirts that don’t appeal to them, and they also tend not to buy books that don’t appeal to their sense of style.
- Credibility. Customers often don’t realize that books are self-published when the cover looks amazing. (Even if you use an imprint, if the cover doesn’t look professional, customers will suspect that it was self-published.)
- Review potential. Blog reviewers, newspapers, etc. are more likely to show interest in reviewing your book, interviewing you, or announcing promotions or events if the book looks professional. They certainly don’t want to feature a lousy cover on their websites, in their papers, etc.
- Recommendations. People are more likely to recommend your book to others – by word of mouth or otherwise – if the cover looks splendid. If the story is good, but the cover is so-so, they are less likely to recommend it. But if the cover is awesome, they might just say, “Check out this incredible cover.”
- Visual reminder. Once people buy your book, it might just sit on a table, shelf, or Kindle for a while. Every time they see your book, a great cover helps to renew their interest in reading it. This improves the chances that it will get read, and may help to speed things up a bit. The more people who read your book, the better the prospects for reviews, referrals, etc.
- Branding. The image of your book is a vital part of an author’s branding. A fantastic cover makes a huge difference. If the cover follows the three-color rule, features just one image, and clearly signifies the genre and content, this helps people recall the image – so they recognize your book from your previous marketing efforts the next time they see it. (If the cover is lousy, instead they think, “Ugh,” every time they see it, and the branding detracts from the book’s potential.)
- Art. It’s not just the content that matters. People also love art for art’s sake. People buy prints of artwork or photos that they like. If your cover art is appealing, the cover has its own merit. Coffee table books are decorative and also make for conversation pieces. A great cover serves a similar purpose when people are reading your book in public, like on a bus ride.
- Judgment. Maybe people shouldn’t judge books by their covers, but people do. A great cover is sample of what to expect. It’s a small demonstration of what kind of effort the author (or publisher) is capable of expending.
- Mood. A fantastic cover helps put the reader in a good frame of mind when beginning your book. A reader who starts out with a positive outlook is more likely to enjoy the book. A reader who is doubtful that the book will turn out to be good is constantly looking for details to criticize. This way, a cover can actually influence reviews, on average.
- You. The cover isn’t just to help sales and fit the reader. It’s also about you. You need to be happy with your cover. It’s your book, so you should love your own cover. Put a great cover on the book for you. It has to suit your style. The cover, including how professional it looks, reflects on the author.
Although a great cover carries many potential benefits, it may not be cost-effective.
A fantastic cover doesn’t guarantee a single sale. But a lousy cover definitely deters sales.
You must weigh the benefits against the costs.
Some authors are able to buy nice covers for $100 or less. But you can also find covers for $1000 and up. You have to shop around and shop wisely to get a great cover at an affordable price.
There is no guarantee that spending money will result in a great cover. Unfortunately, some authors invest money in covers and the result is poor. And sometimes the author and cover designer don’t realize what’s wrong. Sometimes, the problem is subtle, but a big sales deterrent. There are many possible pitfalls that one must avoid in cover design.
Spending $1000 on a cover may not result in a better cover than spending $300. It may, and it may not. You have to shop wisely to improve your chances. You also have to decide what you can afford, assess your book’s prospects for recovering the investment, and spend time shopping for help in your price range.
A premade cover isn’t likely to be a good fit for your book.
You may be able to design a good cover yourself, but then you must single-handedly avoid those aforementioned pitfalls. (I’ll outline these in a separate post, and I also have a post coming in the future regarding how to find a capable cover designer.) You can find stock images, yet it’s still a challenge to put everything together professionally. If you have experience with graphic design, Photoshop, or visual marketing, these may help.
A major problem is the author who gets an idea for a cover and insists on sticking to this idea no matter how poorly the result turns out. Wise cover designers scrap the ideas that don’t pan out well, and start over with something else.
Once you determine what it would cost to make a great cover, you must weigh that against the benefits.
Here are some reasons for which it may not be worthwhile to invest in a cover:
- There isn’t an audience for your book. You have to research this beforehand.
- The book isn’t good. This will show in critical reviews, affect word-of-mouth referrals, etc. How much do you believe in your book? Have you received feedback from neutral members of your target audience?
- Your book doesn’t fit into an existing category. Effective marketing can help people find your book. But if they don’t find your book, the cover isn’t going to help.
- You don’t plan to do any marketing and you have a book that will only get discovered through marketing. Most of the books out there require marketing in order to sell fairly well. There are a few exceptions, such as technical nonfiction. Are you willing to learn about marketing and work hard at it? (For the rare author who has a gift for marketing, investing in a great cover is a no-brainer.)
- The book will sell because it provides nonfiction expertise that people are looking for. If, for example, the book says Calculus Workbook in large letters in the thumbnail, the cover doesn’t have to be fancy to be effective. But, on second thought, there are also many calculus workbooks on the market. If two technical books are otherwise equal in merit, the one with the better cover will win.
- You expect to sell most of the books in person following presentations, and almost none otherwise. If you tour the country giving seminars, for example, this could be the case. Still, the cover has to appeal to the customer when you put the book in his or her hands. This can impact the impulsive decision to buy it now. And if people might also buy your book online, the cover becomes more important.
- It’s not the first book in a series. The first book is the most important; that’s the one that hooks the reader. But the second book also has to appeal to the reader, so the cover is still important. And the covers all need to match. So it might still be worth the investment.
It really comes down to how much you believe in your book.
If you have a lousy cover, you’ll always wonder how well it might have sold with a great cover. If you have a great cover, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you gave your book the best chance of success (at least, as far as cover choices are concerned).
A good book with a fantastic cover and killer blurb has very good potential for at least mild success. Especially, if there is an audience for it who will be able to discover it.
But a fantastic cover isn’t going to achieve long-term success for a lousy book.
If you believe you have a good book, take a chance on it. You are anyway, just by getting it out there, so why not go all out and give it a great cover, too?
My own covers may not be the best examples. What I mean by this is that my better selling books have relatively plain covers, and the books with the better covers that I’m most fond of aren’t among my better sellers.
But there is a reason for this. First, I write nonfiction. There is a need for my math and science books, and many sell for my expertise. It’s much easier to make an ‘image’ for an algebra workbook, for example, than for a science fiction novel, and the image (just an equation, in my case) is far less important for the algebra workbook. If you write technical nonfiction, putting together a satisfactory cover is easier to do yourself, and can be much less critical.
My nicer covers are not on books for which there is as much need (and I didn’t compensate with loads of marketing; I do marketing, just not for all of my books). Well, some seasons the need is greater than others. Workbooks tends to sell better in January and June, for example, while it’s always interesting to sell a Christmas book in July.
I have sought cover design help recently. I enjoy designing my own covers, but I have also realized that the right designer can produce eye-catching visual effects that I wouldn’t have been able to create on my own. It’s worth seeing what you can achieve by yourself to help you see if a potential designer is improving on what you can do, and to what extent. It’s also worth shopping around even if you’re set on doing it yourself, to see and understand any limitations that your own design skills may have.
Covers tend to be very important for fictional works. Not all fictional works, but especially novels where there is an audience that can discover it (zombies, romance, mystery – sure, some genres have more competition among books, but this is compensated for by having more readers), and where the book is pretty good. A great cover can’t compensate for a lousy book, but it can really help a great, complete, well-written (and formatted), and nicely characterized story.
I recommend exploring the covers of top selling books in your genre. Ask yourself questions such as these:
- Do these covers look like they belong in this genre?
- Do they follow the ‘rules’ of cover design?
- Do you find them appealing?
- Are there any top sellers that don’t have big-name authors or publishers? If so, a little research might give you ideas that they used to become successful.
- Can you spot important distinctions between different types of books? Like teen romance, clean romance, not-so-clean romance, historical romance, and erotica. If you can see these differences, that will help you design a book that attracts your specific target audience. If you fail to achieve such specific packaging, it can be a huge sales deterrent.
Studying the covers of top sellers in your genre will help you understand what your prospective readers tend to expect when browsing for thumbnails.
Chris McMullen, self-published author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers