Authors write brilliantly-complex, nuanced stories every day. They take life and somehow distill it down into these wonderful book-size adventures just waiting to be picked up by the right reader and lived in for a bit. It’s magical. And any writer can tell you just how firmly stories can get tangled around your heart, especially when the story is one you yourself have written.
This is what makes it especially hard for an author to step away from all the beautiful complexities they so carefully wove into their story, and consider the book the way it needs to be considered to design a cover that will do its one and only job: Get the right readers to pick up the book.
Because nothing matters about your cover, not how beautiful it is, not how much it cost, not how perfectly it details your characters or how much you love it, if nobody picks it up. Or worse, if only the wrong readers pick it up. (Ever wonder where some of those 1 star reviews come from? Put a “clean romance cover” on a steamy romance or a hard sci-fi cover on a sci-fi romance and you’ll find out quickly.)
To a certain extent, this is why writing back cover copy is so difficult for authors too. Because covers and back cover copy are marketing. There’s no room for complex nuance, for mentioning all the subplots you carefully threaded in, or for adding the many little, subtle things that make your story so… well, wonderful.
And that’s ok.
Your cover only gets about 3 seconds of a reader’s attention, before they’ll move onto the cover after it if your cover doesn’t make them click for more. Just 3 seconds. That’s not enough time to convey all that beautiful complexity. That’s not even enough to convey a tiny slice of it.
But it is enough time to showcase your book’s PROMISE. And that’s all it needs to do.
By promise, I mean the genre, the tone or the “feel” of the book, and maybe a rough idea of the main character and the setting, all wrapped up in one giant gut feeling hint to the reader about the kind of book this will be.
And that’s all your cover needs to do before it passes the reader on to your back cover copy to finish the job of convincing the reader this is a book they HAVE to read.
So how do we do this? How do we convince your ideal readers that this book cover is showcasing just the book they’re in the mood for?
We do what we should always do when we’re trying to communicate a message: We make sure the message is as clear and professionally-delivered as we can.
For a book cover, that means learning your subgenre’s language (i.e. the design elements that usually appear on a cover in that subgenre). And you learn this by studying other bestselling covers in your subgenre because you want to see what’s working.
And so much more.
If it sounds like a lot, that’s because it is. It takes time to learn a new language, and the language of each subgenre is no different. The good news is that it takes far less time to learn to recognize a language than it does to produce it. And if you’re hiring someone to create your cover for you, you only need to recognize it. (Technically, if you’re hiring the RIGHT person to create your cover, you would only need to identify your book’s subgenre and then force yourself to leave what they create alone. That said, it can be hard to know the right person to hire if you can’t recognize the language of your subgenre, and I personally always recommend making informed decisions, so I always recommend at least learning to recognize covers that match your subgenre.)
This sadly is where most authors mess up. They don’t learn the conventions of their subgenre, or they do and they ignore them. When you do this, you can end up with some absolutely beautiful art. Beautiful art that tells all your ideal high fantasy readers that your book isn’t high fantasy at all. Maybe the cover has enough symbols that suggest it’s urban fantasy or steampunk or epic fantasy. Maybe your urban fantasy comes off as the wrong type of urban fantasy (which is a completely different reader audience). Or worse, maybe nobody can actually tell which subgenre it belongs to.
Trust me. You ignore genre conventions and the language of your genre at your own peril. Readers are busy people, and they’re not studying book covers when they browse, they’re scanning. Quickly. Some subconscious part of them knows what type of book they’re in the mood for and is looking for something that looks like it. If your book doesn’t look enough like the other books in its subgenre, your ideal readers will scan right over it and keep scanning until they find one that does.
I promise, you’ll have a chance to show your readers how unique your book is from the others in the subgenre they’ve read. But first you have to show them how it’s the same.
Your book can’t stand out as a brilliant book if it never fits in enough to get picked up and read by readers who would like it in the first place.
If you found this helpful, make sure to check out the busy indie author's guide to book covers where I discuss genre matching in more detail and discuss the other two fundamentals a book cover needs to be successful.
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