Cover design for indie vs traditional published authors (why most books fail)

Cover design for indie vs traditional published authors (why most books fail)

I haven’t talked specifically about cover design in awhile, and I usually ignore those raging Facebook diatribes where everybody has loud opinions and gives bad advice, but I got involved in one tonight that is important enough to share.

The reason authors get their covers wrong is not just an educational gap. They’ve never designed a cover before, or studied design or branding or packaging or marketing, but they’re still sure they know what they want to do on their cover.

It’s exactly the same thing they were told to do with their book.

Don’t listen to what everyone else is doing.

Don’t follow the rules.

Listen to your heart and passion and be original.

Almost always, they finish a book nobody wants and then design it in a way that attracts nobody. They’ve never considered who their readers are or what they want so they have no idea where they are or how to reach them.

But they think, “my cover should stand out.”

Often these authors have a deluded sense of aesthetic integrity. They know their book is different, and they assume it will be successful because it is different – because they think even if readers don’t consciously want something new and original, they’ll appreciate it when they see it. They assume readers just don’t know any better. Because why choose something crappy if they could be reading something amazing.

Overlooking the fact that most people choose to read to relax or for entertainment and aren’t looking for a challenge, and overlooking the condescension inherent in a worldview that prescribes what people need rather than creates what people want, or the implied integrity judgment that the majority of the populace is the lowest common denominator (while being the greatest numerical force) – overlooking all that, the truth is none of it matters until readers actually start reading their book.

Ode to Cover Design

And that’s where the cover design’s power is universal. It’s a shield that protects your book from the wrong readers, while only allowing through ideal fans who will write rave reviews. It’s also a magnet, hooking the right readers from across the room by immediately communicating genre and emotion (with appropriate fonts and colors). 

Yes it has to stand out, it should be better and more eye-grabbing than its peers; but it also has to fit in. It needs to look similar to the other 10 bestselling books on the same shelf, rather than some random topic 3 aisles down. Readers don’t have time to figure out what your book is about or why they should read it. That’s your job.

But you aren’t there.

It’s just the voiceless book, by itself, hoping to impress silently the benefits of your reading experience – the little mermaid on land. Imagine if it was a chameleon in a pet shop trying to get you to take him home. If he could read your mind, maybe he would try to turn into your favorite things, the things you love most.

Luckily, we can read readers’ minds. Why know exactly what type of books they like – they vote with their wallets, and they leave reviews on their favorites. We can also see exactly how many people are searching for specific topics, which is how I know that a vampire book should sell 10x better than a fallen angel book (so, assuming that fans of these two genres appreciate both, would I rather design to attract vampire lovers or fallen angel fanatics?) You want to hit your target genre hard, while considering a larger market for a potential sub market.

Unfortunately, most authors do none of that. Because their book isn’t really a ‘vampire book’ or an ‘angel book’ even if it has both. It’s original. It’s new. It can’t be boiled down to its individual elements. It’s ART, dammit, it will not be defined!

Good luck with that.

Indie vs. Traditional (people vs. symbolic cover art)

Let’s consider the up-and-coming YA releases everyone is excited about. Keep in mind, these are all covers with POC (people of color) which is a huge topic in YA right now; these are also nearly all contemporary YA (realistic stories about Things That Matter told in a fresh POC voice). That’s what a lot of trad publishers are looking for, so these covers do a good job of selling that. (Even those that are mostly symbolic have people, are fun, fresh, colorful).

But that doesn’t mean that’s what most readers actually want to read. 

At the time of this… here are the bestsellers on Amazon:

  • YA Fantasy – 6 of the top 20 are indie. 6 have people.
  • YA Sci-fi – 9 of the top 20 are indie. 9 have people.
  • Ya Romance – 14 of the top 20 are indie. 13 have people.

If you try to compete with the covers meant for bookstores (which your book probably won’t be in) rather than trying to compete against the indie covers that are actually selling much better than traditional books, you’re making a mistake.

So on the one hand, you’re comparing apples to oranges (print books designed to sell contemporary fiction in bookstores vs. exciting scifi/fantasy indie books readers will find on Amazon). There are two different markets, for two different audiences, and it’s very easy to see that they perform differently.

The trad published books perform well because they are marketed well and get lots of press. The book cover is rarely the first point of contact; it’s always bolstered by credible recommendation.

The indie published books live or die based on how well the book covers attract the right readers enough to read the description. This is not a philosophical debate about the purpose and integrity of art. You can have one of those with someone else if you want to. It won’t change the statistics of what kind of covers actual sell. I recommend covers that sell because authors already have a huge uphill battle and will be frustrated for years, and then I’ll have to listen to them whine about how hard the market is or how publishing is a game of chance or how nobody appreciates literature any more, when often a $100 cover could solve all their problems (you can pay a designer $100 to make a cover that sells. The problem is, few designers know what sells. If you don’t and they don’t, you’re not a very strong team. I charge much more than most other designers, but it’s not just for my skill with photoshop or the time it takes me to create covers.)

A lot of readers will tell you, they hate people on covers, and prefer hardbacks, and love symbolic covers. That’s because, probably, they equate this style of cover with reputable, trad-published bookstore quality books. So you might think, we’ll, I’ll just copy that. 

The thing is, while those cover are representative of a certain industrial backing, they don’t actually perform as well on Amazon against more obvious, even “cheesy” covers. For example, a recent youtuber cited a bunch of indie covers with the title “these covers look suspiciously similar“. Here point was that all the big indie published fantasy novels looked like clones of each other, or clones of successful trad published books. Leaving aside the fact that even trad publishers use stock photos and that books in the same genre SHOULD look similar, the implication was that these books were poorly designed or unoriginal.

However… all the examples chosen were indie authors were were making tens of thousands of dollars a month, and multiple six-figures a year: far more income than most trad published authors ever realize. There’s an impulse to suggest that it’s better to be original and creative, even if the books fail to attract readers and earn money. 

I would argue, the only thing that matters is getting as many readers into your story as possible (the STORY matters, the cover is a roadsign that should be changed, updated and tested often).

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