GUEST POST: HOW YOUR BOOK COVER DESIGN CAN MAKE OR BREAK SALES

Bec-Headshot-02a_201406_600x900I’d like to thank Rebecca Laffar-Smith for contributing this guest post. Rebecca is a West Australian science fiction and fantasy novelist. In 2010 she gave up a successful 12-year freelance career to focus on her three loves: family, community and fiction. Now, she coordinates Write Along The Highway and the OzNoWriMo Young Writers Program, supporting local writers and bringing industry events and awareness into the local community. The Flight of Torque is her debut novel, released June 2014.

HOW YOUR BOOK COVER DESIGN CAN MAKE OR BREAK SALES

by Rebecca Laffar-Smith

“Don’t judge a book by its cover.” But we do, don’t we?

The quote above has become a well-worn adage and while the advice is sage it’s simply not in keeping with normal human behaviour. Humans do make surface judgements. When going for a job interview the way you dress matters; people make judgement calls about the intelligence quota of a blonde woman and the fiery temper of a red-head; those piercings and tattoos you thought were a great idea in your early twenties cause quite a few stares; over-long grass on a front lawn keeps people from finding the oasis in the back yard; and readers do judge a book by its cover.

Today, with billions of books in the marketplace, it’s more important then ever to have surface marketing that catches the eye of potential readers. The right cover sets the tone and voice of a story, it conveys genre, theme, and setting. As much as they might try to deny it, most readers will decide to look more closely at a book based on first impressions. If the cover catches their eye, they’ll read the blurb, but if it doesn’t they slide on by to the next forward facing book on the bookshop shelf.

On side-stacked bookshelves such as the mid-listers in bookstores and 99% of the books in libraries, first impressions come from titles, author names, and spines. These cover elements require careful consideration when preparing a book for publication. These days, the cover design for the spine is almost as important as the face.

Thankfully, most traditional publishers, particularly the big five, have marketing experts well versed in making these hard decisions. It’s usually safe to trust their judgement, but with self-publishing becoming increasingly popular, authors more than ever are in charge of these kinds of decisions. It’s important to approach cover design professionally, invest in a talented cover designer, and think with a business head rather than an artist’s heart. Something I learned in a very expensive and difficult way when I published The Flight of Torque in June 2014.

When I was working on early drafts, I came across a beautiful illustration by Selina Fenech that inspired me. It epitomised my main characters and beautifully portrayed a special something that I became enthralled with. Unfortunately,  the artist wasn’t taking on new commissions at the time so I held off designing a cover while I continued working on the book.

Selina still wasn’t available when I was finishing up middling drafts, so I commissioned another artist whose work I admired. I showed her the image and gave  descriptions based from heart-judgements rather than marketing ones.

FlightOfTorque_Cover_Laffar-SmithJamie Dougherty created a beautiful cover and I absolutely loved it, it was everything I asked for. But when the book was finished and I hit ‘publish’ some of the early feedback from readers and potential readers shocked me.

One comment that most hit home at this crucial time in the book’s new life came from my best friend. I’ve known him almost 15 years and he’s been a staunch support and steadfast cheerleader through my whole writing career. He’s followed the journey of this book and knows how challenging I found the writing of it. And the truth is, even while writing it I had him in mind and wanted to write a book I thought he’d enjoy reading. So when he admitted this, I had very good reason to pause and assess exactly the mistake I’d made:

“I want to read your book, but … I can’t get past the cover. It is … um …. yeah. Well, romance novels are not my thing. I have picked it up many times and … then I have to put it down. I want to be supportive, but …. I just can’t.”

It blew my mind! I wasn’t angry, I was horrified, because I don’t write romance books. I’m a science fiction and fantasy novelist. While there is a degree of romance in the story, it’s purely subplot and not even crucial to the story. But he was right! The cover design I’d commissioned gave the book a very definite romance feel which set the wrong tone for the book. While I know paranormal romance readers will enjoy the book, by having a cover that targeted them I was potentially eliminating my true audience, urban fantasy and paranormal suspense readers.

Thankfully, as a self-published author I could fix the mistake. Of course, it’s an error one of the big publishing houses never would have made (I would hope), and it’s a costly error to make. By the time I realised the error I’d already paid $1500 in production, marking, and printing. I’d paid for the original design, I’d paid for a 100-book print run, I’d paid for posters and postcards and bookmarks all promoting the book with the original cover. Not to mention the time I invested in preparing the book for publication and uploading files to distributor websites. I knew I would have to invest all of that again to get my book right.

So, here I was, with 100 paperback copies burning holes in their boxes and the knowledge that I needed to commission a new artist to design a new cover that better suited the true genre, tone, and setting of the book. I completely ceased my marketing efforts as I set about finding the right design.

To the rescue came http://selfpublishingpodcast.com/ and their support and promotion of a fantastic e-lance website, http://99designs.refr.cc/LX7GLS6. I signed up and within hours a dozen different designers had mocked together some truly beautiful cover designs. I knew I was on the right track and had a wonderful time over the next week or so working with 26 different cover artists who presented a total of 130 designs. Then I was able to send my top picks to my readers to get their feedback.

Eventually, a cover was chosen and it is stunning, beautiful, and perfectly portrays the book in a way that I hope compels readers to look more closely. And that’s just it, isn’t it? Finding the right cover for your book isn’t as simple as throwing elements onto the page and hoping it works to captivate potential readers. There is an art to it that is something a professional designer has a better sense of than an author does. No matter my 12 years experience as a Web designer and my intimate familiarity with Photoshop, there was no way I could have created a cover as stunning as the one Rio Bagoes Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000039_00004]Nugroho put together for me.

Yes, cover design is an aspect of self-publishing where you really should invest some cash, but ultimately, the right cover will pay you back in reaching the right audience and drawing in a larger crowd of readers. In the end, it’s reader feedback that makes the investment worth every penny.

“It is a gripping supernatural mystery thriller. One should never judge a book by its cover. This is not a Mills & Boon Twilight novel. It is a terrific paranormal suspense edge of your seat read.” ~ Mark Parker-Roy

ABOUT THE BOOK: When investigative reporter, Tori, chases the story of an underground smuggling network, she stumbles into something significantly more sinister. Instead of the illegal trade of exotic reptiles, she finds a temple of devout snake worshipers. Taken by the cultists, Tori is subjected to a savage ritual and irrevocably transformed. Now something dark and primal slithers within. Lucas, charged with Tori’s protection, struggles against an overwhelming sense of helplessness. He should be stronger, faster, and more powerful than any human, but in the past twenty years all of his charges have been murdered. Their deaths and his failures linger in his nightmares. They writhe in his mind like the chilling sense of brooding hunger that floods Tori’s thoughts. Filled with violent rage and dark jealousy, the cult’s High Priestess rears up between Tori and the truth. The only thing protecting Tori from the long, cold embrace of death is the darkness within and the tingling warmth and light of her guardian angel.

Flight of Torque is available from http://www.amazon.com.au/Flight-Torque-Blood-Nagaran-Book-ebook/dp/B00LASCQ58

Meet the Author: Rebecca Laffar-Smith

Bec-Headshot-02a_201406_600x900

REBECCA’S TOP WRITING TIP: Trust your Muse, because doing so always leads to a better story. Even if it feels like she’s being stubborn and uncooperative, look at why she’s doing that. What is she trying to tell you? Let her lead you in the right direction because she’ll never steer you wrong. Your inspiration, your Muse, your inner angels, whatever you like to call that instinctive artist within you is tapped into real magic. They see the story the way it’s meant to be written and if you let them guide you the whole process becomes that much easier. Trust the misdirection, trust the quirky unexpected, just go with it and see what unfolds. Take risks and try new things because it can lead to remarkable discoveries. I’m certain you’ll always be pleasantly surprised; sure it might require you do some editing, but it’ll definitely lead to a richer, fuller story.

Born to the magical beauty of her sunburnt country home in Western Australia, Rebecca Laffar-Smith always yearned to explore the wonders of this world and beyond. After 12 years as a freelance writer and editor, she gave up writing about the non-fiction world in favour of the fantastical creatures and fanciful things she could create and immortalise in fiction. Now she writes in the moments she can steal away from homeschooling her son, raising her daughter, and volunteering as an events coordinator and mentor for her local writing community. She dreams of someday running a farm-stay writer’s retreat on the outskirts of Perth and writing her stories in a detached, hexagonal room with floor to ceiling bookshelves and plenty of natural light.

Rebecca welcomes comments, questions, and feedback. Readers can find her on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/craftingfiction and Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/laffarsmith

For more information about Rebecca and her writing, visit http://www.flightoftorque.com

 AUTHOR INSIGHT

Why do you write? There are a million answers and no answers to this question and I’ve asked it of myself hundreds of times over the years. Usually I ask it when I’m having those bad “can’t write” moments, especially when the anxiety is looming and I feel overwhelmed by it all. Or when a bad review comes in. Or when it’s three in the morning and I can’t seem to make that vital scene work. Or it’s three in the morning and I can’t shut up the ideas and get to sleep. OK, you get the idea, there are a lot of times when I ask myself that question although it’s phrased more like, “Why do you do this to yourself?”

When it comes down to it, I’m just not happy when I’m not writing fiction. I’ve gone through periods in my life when I put the fiction aside to pursue other things (like paid non-fiction freelance work), but deep in my heart I was always yearning to come back to the stories. Whenever I wasn’t writing I had a lingering sadness, a void, like I wasn’t living into the person I was meant to be. Writing fills the void and lets me create lasting meaning and connection for myself and for my readers.

What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer? I’m not really sure because it’s never been a real option. I’d wanted to be a writer since I was six years old and other than a short school-leaver dip into retail, it’s all I’ve done professionally. For years I worked as a freelance writer, editor, and Web designer before giving that up to focus on family, community, and fiction. I think if I weren’t writing I might gravitate toward education. I was in Uni finishing the first year of a Bachelor of Education degree when I decided to homeschool my son and I really love the topic. The opportunity to homeschool has been fantastic for our whole family, not to mention finally giving me an excuse and opportunity to focus on my fiction. So, if I weren’t a writer, I might be a teacher.

What was your toughest obstacle to becoming published? Perfectionism. I was too obsessed with making everything perfect. That’s the only way I can explain spending eight years on my debut novel. It was by no means my first book either; there were several that are buried deep in my archives because they weren’t perfect.

I had to learn to put aside that need to get every detail perfect and instead focus on telling a good story. The important thing is to get the good story onto the page, because it can then be crafted into a great story. And that’s what readers really want, great stories. They don’t care if it’s perfect, they just want to be entertained. Once I got over the need to tell the perfect story it became much easier.

I think one of the toughest obstacles authors face these days is a traditional mindset. The industry is changing so rapidly that you have to be willing to jump in feet first, make mistakes, get messy, and be willing to do things a different way. There used to be only one long, cold, lonely road to publishing, but that’s not the case any more. Find your supporters, work on your craft, and chase your dreams, because there is no one right way to get there.

What’s the best aspect of your writing life? I love exploring stories. That’s the best bit. I think it’s why the outlining process is my favourite part, because there is so much to discover. I get to meet my characters and get to know them. I get to look at how the story moves and grows and shapes. During the drafting process there are still some discoveries and I love how the story changes and evolves through the drafts, but outlining is like seeing the world for the first time. I’m a toddler, eyes bright and wide, in awe at all the wonder. Feeling like that is pretty amazing.

—the worst? OK, there are a few downsides that leap to mind. Hitting my head against plot holes can be pretty nightmarish. I’ve found writer’s block stems from trying to force the story to go in a direction it’s not supposed to go. And I can be pretty stubborn so I’ve been known to do that a good dozen times per draft. I’m learning to be less of a control freak and to let the story change and evolve, but sometimes when I’m being particularly stubborn the frustration and depression of not being able to get the words on the page can be painful.

I also have problems with the fact that it’s entirely self-directed. I’m having to learn how to set deadlines, plan and manage projects with time, and develop more discipline about treating my writing self as a professional. I’ve been a pretty slack boss in the past; I give myself too much leeway and it’s not an efficient way to work. It’s important to be a fair but firm boss of your writing self, set your boundaries and act professionally within them.

What would you do differently if you were starting out now as a writer? I would focus more on quantity. I spent so many years obsessing about the quality of one story that I missed fantastic opportunities and left so many stories untold. The thing about being a writer professionally is that it requires more than one book to succeed. The more you produce the faster you’ll learn and grow as an artist, the faster you’ll develop your own voice, the sooner you’ll acquire a degree of mastery.

This is one of the reasons I am now so deeply involved with National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). I’m the Municipal Liaison for Australia :: Perth :: South and an advocate for the literary industry across the state. NaNoWriMo promotes the idea of writing quickly to produce a good book that you can turn into a great book with editing later. It challenges writers to write a 50,000-word novel in the 30 days of November. That’s a pretty impressive feat but thousands of writers around the world do it every year. (In fact some do it in months other than November as well!)

I’m definitely planning to focus the coming months on increasing productivity. I’ll be writing more words faster, and hopefully that’ll mean it won’t take another eight years before the next book.

What do you wish you’d been told before you set out to become an author? I wish I’d been told that the best way to stay motivated is to immerse yourself in the writing community. I spent a long time thinking that writing was something you do all by yourself. After all, surely writers are tortured hermits and drunks holed up in their basements bashing away at their typewriters, right? The truth is, the more people you bring into your writing circle who encourage, support, and inspire your writing, the easier you’ll find the whole process. Yes there are times when you need to close the door and get the words written (although I also do really well writing in the company of others at our local write ins), but if you open the door and spend time with others in the industry you’ll find the community helps you maintain your enthusiasm, excitement, and motivation.

What’s the best advice you were ever given? “Write. Publish. Repeat.” – This is actually a book by Sean Platt and Johnny B. Truant with David Wright, three hyper-prolific writers who have the Self Publishing Podcast. The book itself is targeted specifically to authors (particularly indie or hybrid authors) who are ready to look at their career with a business mindset. There are lots of great tips in it for building your writing business but what it breaks down to is exactly what the title says. The way to succeed is to “Write. Publish. Repeat.” And more specifically, write good books, publish professionally (be it traditional or self-publishing), then jump right back into the fire and write the next book. The key is to never stray far from production. Many writers get stuck in the promotional circuit trying to play up the marketing for their latest book, especially if it’s a debut novel, but the best marketing for your latest book is actually the ones you write after it. Build your catalogue because every book exponentially increases your reach.

I also had an eye-opening experience at a workshop with film producer, Karel Segers, a couple of years ago where I first discovered The Hero’s Journey concept. If you’ve never heard of it I recommend checking it out. It’ll blow your mind and make you see books and movies in a whole new way. I’ve found it’s also done wonders for my own writing process and led me to write richer stories.

BOOK BYTE

FlightOfTorque_Cover_Laffar-SmithThe Flight of Torque

When investigative reporter, Tori, chases the story of an underground smuggling network, she stumbles into something significantly more sinister. Instead of the illegal trade of exotic reptiles, she finds a temple of devout snake worshippers. Taken by the cultists, Tori is subjected to a savage ritual and irrevocably transformed. Now something dark and primal slithers within her.

Lucas, charged with Tori’s protection, struggles against an overwhelming sense of helplessness. He should be stronger, faster, and more powerful than any human, but in the past 20 years all of his charges have been murdered. Their deaths and his failures linger in his nightmares. They writhe in his mind like the chilling sense of brooding hunger that floods Tori’s thoughts.

Filled with violent rage and dark jealousy, the cult’s High Priestess rears up between Tori and the truth. The only thing protecting Tori from the long, cold embrace of death is the darkness within and the tingling warmth and light of her guardian angel.

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00LASCQ58 (Amazon US – Kindle & Paperback)

http://www.amazon.com.au/dp/B00LASCQ58 (Amazon AU – Kindle Only)

Local Perth-based readers can also order an autographed copy directly from me and arrange for local pickup during one of my roaming write-ins using this form: http://www.flightoftorque.com/contact