Monday, 1 October 2012

...but you can CHOOSE a book by its cover.

This may seem awful to say to someone who writes horror, but go with the stereotypes when it comes to the cover. By analogy, people take a lot of convincing to buy a car that doesn't look like their sort of car. Imagine trying to sell a station wagon to a sports car enthusiast.

The first horror book I bought for myself had as a cover, the monster who fell in love with the fog horn. I had read that wonderful story once, but didn't own it. I did a double take on the cover when I saw it in the shop. I couldn't believe my luck. There it was in purple, blue and brown hues. I knew it had to contain the story.

I'm the sort of person who walks into a pub and asks for an 'English beer', which means not more than half a thin finger of foam on the top, unlike 'German beers' which have about four fingers of foam. If you pay for it, you might as well get maximum enjoyment. The anthology cost me about three weeks pocket money, and I couldn't let it go at just the one story. I put it down for a day or two and then plucked up the courage to read a few more stories.

Bam! That was my very lucky introduction to horror, and all thanks to a cover. (If not, I might have been reading Ken Follet and Wilbur Smith things, Heaven help me.)

I know that you can't judge a book by the cover, but looking at it from another side, you can choose a book by its cover. If the book has the right sort of cover, for instance something with lots of little bits of interesting detail surrounding a hideous creature, and some spiky red serif type with a silver foil outline, I am at least going to pick it up and look at the page count, even if someone obviously got it completely wrong and listed the author as Barbara Cartland.

Book covers are very important. If the cover isn't great the author or publisher could be shooting himself or herself in the wallet.

This may seem horrible to say to someone who writes, but go with the stereotypes when it comes to the cover. By analogy, people take a lot of convincing to buy a car that doesn't look like their sort of car. Imagine trying to sell a station wagon to a sports car enthusiast.

Covers need designers, or at least people with an eye for design. If you can't or aren't going to stump for a designer, here are some tricks that can help you along the way.

Things that work for horror books
  • Normal fonts: fonts that make you feel 'creative' and 'free' are out because they are hard to read and make you look like a rank amateur. (Every year, thousands of innocent young designers go through agony learning this at the brutal hands of hard-bitten creative directors. Learn from the suffering of others.) A lot of horror covers use bold or ultrabold serif fonts.
  • Black backgrounds: white can sometimes be substituted, something between midnight blue and midnight black, and maybe even a deep maroon, but nothing else.
  • Things that people expect to see: skulls, monster heads, blood, ghostly figures in windows and doors, Cthulhu, fangs, ghastly smiles beneath hard-boiled egg eyes, etc.
  • Photorealism: because when you are on the shelf, you want the decision to be reflexive, so show everything in the clearest possible detail.
  • A walk through the bookshop: those books got to the shelves because they are most likely to sell, starting with the cover. Imagine how you would want your book to look displayed among them.
  • Gold and silver foil, die cuts, spot UV and embossing: but only if you have something big you can mortgage.
Things that don't work for horror books
  • Photoshop and photo filters: it takes years to learn to do Photoshop well, and even longer to learn to restrain your enthusiasm.
  • Artistic depth: see Photorealism above and bear in mind that every moment the person spends trying to figure out the deeper meaning of the art is a moment stolen from reading the blurb on the back or sampling a few pages.
  • Colour grades: If your cover really needs one colour at one edge and another colour at a different edge with a range of hues in between, have you considered writing romance instead? * The only exception to this rule is to fade from black to black, with black in between.
  • More than one image: this is difficult, even for the most experienced designer. One image should sum it up.

If the background just doesn't work, learn how to deep-etch but keep away from inserting a picture into anything but a plain one colour background. Deep-etching is skilled stuff so practice to get it looking right before you begin.

Things to think about for Kindles and online book buying
  • Gray scale images: Kindle DX grayscale is awful. The screen is grey already, and now you want more gray on that? Make sure the artwork is high contrast (see image below).
  • Small images: Get a near sighted friend who hasn't read the headline to look at the cover from a distance of four to six meters. If he or she can't read the typo or make out some detail go back and do it again. That is close to the objective size of a book cover displayed in a web store and will also work for shelves in bookstores. (This amazingly effective test was devised in ad agencies, for billboards, which rarely receive more than a second or two of eye time, sort of like in bookstores and on Amazon.)
Spot the demonic moose.
The problem with Kindle grayscale.

And finally, 'penny wise, pound foolish'...

Don't be ashamed to buy an image. The time you spent on writing the book was money. Don't throw that investment away with a cheap, nondescript image.

Still not convinced?

Here's a site where you can register for a reasonable selection of free photo downloads.

Do yourself  and your words justice.

* Caveat: unless you are Marcus Blakestone.

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