Judging Books By Their Covers

I am trying to understand the reasoning behind the popular talk nowadays among indie authors about how to best present our book covers. Most of the how-to info is very complicated, and most of the advice ends with “Let a professional do it.” The idea is to hook the potential reader before they look inside the book.

I’m an old-school reader and buyer of books that began in the 1960s. Many of my purchases back then were paperbacks because they were affordable. Even in the 1970s when I entered the workforce and had a weekly income, I still bought paperbacks. So did my friends. Often, we went book hunting on Saturday afternoons, hitting the malls in search of our next read.

The covers on paperback books (and hardcovers) were simple in design. It was often the title that caught my eye. If it sounded interesting, I would flip the book over and read the back cover copy. That’s what either prompted me to buy the book or return it to the shelf.

Most online bookstores today have a feature equivalent to the old back cover copy. It’s the short blurb off to the side of the book cover on display. I call it the “What is this book about?” feature. And it’s here where an author either convinces me to buy their book or prompts me to continue browsing.

Beautiful, fancy, exotic book covers and plain, two-tone, neutral ones have never prompted me to buy a book. It has always been the “What’s this book about?” feature.

Look at this Stephen King paperback of The Shining from one of its first runs.

The book’s title attracted me because I asked, “What does the title mean?” The back cover copy gave me a clue and whetted my curiosity. Until then, I had never read a book by King. Neither had my friends. I ended up liking the story so much, I bought his two prior releases, ’Salem’s Lot and Carrie, on a gamble that I would like them too. I did. So did a million other readers.

Compared to today’s indie writing market, if King was an unknown author selling his books at Amazon, and he used the above cover, would you buy it?

Look at the replacement cover of The Shining a few years later during the movie release.

Would you still want to buy it?

I don’t think it’s wise to worry about eye-catching book cover design. I think we should continue to strive at writing as well as we can and to write a compelling “What’s this book about?” feature. If your story is captivating and entertaining, then people will notice, even if you’ve wrapped it in a brown paper bag.

Free Book Offer

My short story e-book “A Night of Hellhounds” is free at Amazon until midnight Pacific time. (Click this link.) It’s a fantasy tale because I enjoy writing fantasy stories. It’s at the top of my list of favorite things to do. Writing fantasy has been a passion for many years because it involves world building. I can get engaged in the creative development until the worlds appear in my dreams. The same is true about my characters. I have even dreamed new ones into my stories.

Over the years, people have asked me about my process of writing a story. I answer with: “I get an idea for a story, it festers in my mind with all sorts of situations, I dwell on my favorites and begin scheming a plot with a look on my face equal to the Grinch ready to steal Christmas from Whoville, and then start writing.” That’s it. No magic. Just an idea that I put into words that become a story.

In all its simplicity, I structure my stories no different than most other writers. I divide my stories into four parts as Act 1, Act 2 first half, Act 2 second half, and Act 3. Each story has a beginning event, an ending event, and a series of high and low events in between the two. Writing those in-between events is the adventure I enjoy the most, though staying on track to reach a good ending can add difficulty to the process. An ending should come naturally—a final piece to the story puzzle that fits nicely with the rest of the pieces, giving us an aesthetic composite. Some writers call this a “perfect ending” and stress over getting it “right.” Writing a “perfect ending” is not something I let ruin the joy I get from writing, though I do take it more seriously than the other parts of story writing.

All story writing involves getting the words written, editing them, and revising the parts until they work together as a whole. I love marrying those parts into a finished story. And I like calling the process a marriage instead of that old military standby: polishing. Polishing is some drill sergeant’s way of saying, “Write, write, write, every day, over and over ad nauseum until you can do it blindfolded, standing on your head.” I don’t do that. And I don’t “polish” my stories as if they were a pair of leather dress shoes. But I do write several drafts—sometimes as many as 10 or more—marrying my story elements into an enjoyable read.

Of course, not only am I marrying the elements to each other, I’m marrying me to the story. I do the same when I read stories by other writers and find I can’t put the stories down until I reach the end. There are others like me—we call ourselves “book lovers” and “author fans.” We love libraries and bookstores, and we collect our favorite stories and hold our favorite writers in high regard. And we dream of someday being a favorite writer to other writers, book lovers, and author fans.

If you read my stories, drop me a line. Tell me what you like and don’t like about my stories. I’d love hearing from you.