Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Judging Books

Do we judge books by their covers? Sure we do. It would be dishonest to even pretend otherwise. When I began publishing my backlist in e-book form, I knew going in that covers were going to be an important component. I’d done my homework, plus I haven’t been knocking around this industry for so many years not to have formed a couple (!) opinions. And one of those opinions was that, if anything, a kick-ass cover is even more important for an e-book than it is for a traditional book. After all, when you’re in a bookstore you can pick up a book, feel it, smell it if you like, read a couple of pages, turn it over and read the back; the spine. There are many things you can do before making your buying decision. But with an e-book? There really isn’t much beyond the cover: it’s everything.

Also, when it comes to covers, I have a secret weapon. I’m lucky in that my partner, David Middleton, is a talented graphic artist whose work has appeared in magazines and newspapers around the world. And he’s designed book covers for other people. So I’ve been able to give him a very small design brief (“Make it look like a real book. One everyone wants to read.”) and he’s just gone off and done his thing and I know I’m in good hands because A/ He’s a terrific designer and B/ He’s my first reader, so knows my work as well as anyone and C/ He loves me and has an emotional investment in my success. Also having a physical investment in my success is not pushing things all that much. Add to all this the fact that, over the years we’ve despaired of some of the covers my books have been given by other people and so it’s been awesome to be able to do what we felt was right.

I think the covers of the Madeline Carter books came pretty easily for David. He’d disliked the original print covers and had in mind what the series should look like. In the time before I reverted the rights to the books, when we traveled, David would photograph images he ultimately knew would end up on covers of the Madeline books.

We were in New York last summer, for instance, and stayed on Wall Street. We could actually see the New York Stock Exchange from the terrace of our hotel. So when it came time for David to design the cover for Mad Money, all of the “stock” images he used were his own: the Stock Exchange from that trip, the palm tree from another, the ominous-looking sky from another still.

When it came to the short stories I’ve been publishing as e-books, it was another matter. Though many people have asked if it’s me, the image on the cover of “Hitting Back” is from stock. I could have posed for it but, to be honest, I wouldn’t have known where to get the gun and if I’d gotten my mitts on one, I doubt I would have been able to shove it down the back of my pants the way it is in that image!

Finding the stock image proved to be challenge enough. The main character in “Hitting Back” is a hired killer and David felt he wanted an image of a woman with a gun. Going through multiple stock libraries, though, David reported that he was sickened after a while. He had a hard time finding photos of strong-looking women getting ready to use their gun in a powerful way. What he did find were a lot of images of exploited-looking women holding guns in sexual ways. That wasn’t the look we were going for. At all.

He narrowed his search down to three or four strong images and we both liked the one that made it to the cover best of all. It seemed to me that the cover came together in a real straight-forward way and we were both happy with it.

The first cover for “Dearborn 9-1-1” was a different matter. It took longer than usual and, when David had narrowed it down to a final half dozen or so iterations for me to choose from, I had the feeling he wasn’t delighted.

This time out, not only had he pulled from his own stock, he’d done custom tabletop photography and even created some props: the coffee cup with the money wrapped around it, for instance. And he illustrated the broken road. I liked the cover he finally came up with and we went ahead with it back in late August of this year.

The thing was, though, that while sales of all of my e-books have increased from month-to-month, “Dearborn 9-1-1” remained a non-starter. Had “Hitting Back” not been part of the mix, I would have written the poor sales of “Dearborn 9-1-1” off to it being a short story. But, with all other things being equal, “Hitting Back” was still outselling “Dearborn 9-1-1” 10-1.

When I mentioned this to David, his response was pretty close to instant. “Let me redesign the cover.” That was on Friday. As I write this, it’s Tuesday and the cover has been in place since Sunday night.

This time, he went straight to it and, with no input from me at all, bashed out cover #2 for Dearborn. As usual, he sent me half a dozen iterations, I chose the one I liked best and he went back and tweaked it a bit, and that’s shown here, lower left.
For me, it had to be the red one, as an explosion is central to this book and it seems to imply that. I liked the euro feel of the design and David had no trouble with me choosing that one: as you can see, he’d liked it well enough to render it in yellow and red.

At time of writing, I’m not sure it will make a difference to sales of the book. With luck and a tailwind, I’ll let you know in a few days or weeks. Here’s what is amazing, though: in this brave new world, we can be so lithe! We can respond to the market instantly, make corrections as necessary, change pricing and, yes, even change covers if we want. What will all of this mean to the publishing industry in the long term? I really don’t know. But in the short term, it sure feels wonderful to be in the driver’s seat.

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