So for those of you who missed it, Kristine Kathryn Rusch has a series on author discoverability. This entire thing is great, but I like this instalment on branding in particular, because I think it’s one of those areas where the successes of indie authors are schooling their tradpub cousins. Sometimes, it’s not always enough for an author to leave everything up to their publisher, no matter how Big Six they may be.
Because in the realm of media, branding is Queen and Rusch is correct; publishers are behind the game on this compared to basically every other part of the content industry.
Humans are pattern recognition machines. Exploit it.
You know where all those things come from, don’t you? Hell, I never read past book four in the Harry Potter series and I still know about that triangle thing, even if the significance of it escapes me.
The original World of Warcraft was released in 2004, the most recent expansion in 2012. There’s another scheduled for 2015. There’s no box art for that, but there is a logo. If you don’t think it doesn’t look almost identical to the others, then you haven’t been paying attention.
That’s over a decade (!!) of the same goddamn brand look. For one series.
Meanwhile, this is what the back of Magic: the Gathering cards has looked like for over twenty years:
And, sure, you can make the argument Wizards can’t exactly change the design; cards from ’93 are still playable today, so the backs “have” to be uniform. But, still. I mean, if Wizards really wanted to change, they could. People would freak, but they could do it.
But they don’t. Not to mention this design still appears in the online versions of the game, too.
Oh, and here’s an original card from ’93, next to a more recent one:
Yeah, the design’s been modernised… but they’re both still recognisably the same thing.
Meanwhile, books. The other day I was looking for some Dresden Files in the bookstore. This is what I was looking for, because it’s what I’d seen on all the websites online:
And, look at that branding! Clear type, series name, prominent author. Iconic image of a guy in a hat and coat holding a stick standing in front of some runes or whatever. Even if I know literally nothing else about this series, this cover tells me:
- the genre (modern city + magic-looking things = urban fantasy)
- the protagonist (Badass Longcoat dude)
- something about the tone of the book (STERNER and RAINIER)
- that it’s part of a series (even if the bookstore has none of the other titles available, which is common here).
So if I’m in the shop looking for UF stories about hard-boiled urban mages? Hey! Guess what I’m going to be reaching for?
Except, oh wait. No I’m not. Because you know what the actual Storm Front cover in common circulation on Australian shelves looks like?
I just… I really want to ask whoever designed this cover just what the hell they were thinking, y’know? I mean, it’s got BOOK ONE OF THE DRESDEN FILES Dymotaped down the bottom (anyone remember those things? They were awesome but holy shit talk about a dated visual!), so obviously they knew there’d have to be another one. So what did they think that book was going to look like?
I mean, this isn’t aesthetically unappealing: I like it, even (I’m a sucker for the “found documents” look). It’s just that it’s so minimalist and abstract that it tells me freakin’ nothing about the book. Other than maybe it’s about detectives or something? I guess?
The other problem, however, is that there’s another series of author books out there that’s already branded itself with “envelope tan” and “splashes of red”, and whenever I see this Storm Front cover, my mind makes the association. This occurs even though the covers are hardly carbon copies of each other; that doesn’t matter so much in light of the colour elements (admittedly this is highly personal, so YMMV).
This second series?
It’s not fair, I know, but that’s the point. When my (admittedly terrible) eyes are scanning around a bookstore at ten paces, these are the connections I’m making.
Look. I know that, most of the time, tradpubbed authors get no-to-hell-no say in what their book covers look like, and–whether authors like to admit it or not–there are probably some pretty damn good reasons for that, starting with, “authors are authors, not designers”. Not every author intuitively knows what a good book cover for her series would look like. Hell, I’ve got no freakin’ clue either, and I wrote this goddamn post.
What I do know, is that if an author does get a say in her covers, there are some good, solid questions she should ask. And, no, “do I like it?” isn’t even on the list. Because a book cover isn’t about the author, at least not personally. It’s about an author’s brand, and how that’s being presented to readers.
- Can I identify my book’s genre by the visuals alone? For sci-fi, this might be spaceships or robots or computer screens displaying code-looking stuff. For fantasy, maybe it’s dragons or swords… WITH SKYSCRAPERS! if it’s urban fantasy. Look at the fonts, too. Something like Rothenburg Decorative probably isn’t the best choice for dystopian cyberpunk, but might work for a swashbuckling pirate adventure. Meanwhile, Yataghan probably isn’t the right choice for your contemporary YA… unless there are vampires somewhere.
- Does my cover say something about my protagonist and/or setting? I don’t know what that Dan Brown book up there is about, but I’m betting at least part of it involves the White House! So, like, some kind of US political thriller? I bet there’s a secret society involved somewhere, too… is that the Freemason’s logo?
- Can I identify my cover at twenty paces? Like, at bookstore size from bookstore-browsing distance? Including the spine? Not everyone shops at Amazon, you know. Except having said that…
- Does my cover look awesome on my laptop screen from a foot away? … a lot of people do shop at Amazon. And not just by looking at huge hi-res, print-ready images, either. Resize your cover down to a tiny thumbnail: does it still “work”? Forget twenty paces, I bet you could pick out a Twilight novel at twenty pixels. Learn from that.
- Does my cover look too much like someone else’s cover, particularly if that someone else is a Big Name in another genre? Sometimes, similarities are good; that’s what genre conventions are for. But sometimes, they make me skip over the Dresden Files because I mistake it for Dan Brown.
- Can I imagine what the next cover in my series might look like? That is, are there enough elements that can be similar-yet-different in my first cover that the design will sustain me through at least double the current number of sequels I may or may not write?
- Is there anything on my cover I can slap on a t-shirt/mug/postcard/whatever? Of all the things on this list, I think this one is probably, a) the least obvious, and b) the one that relates the most back to your writing. So think hard: is there something, anything, in your novel that can be turned into a simple, iconic representation of your work? Magic sigils and company logos are the obvious ones, but, on the other hand, show a yellow smiley face button with a blood splatter to any comics fan and I guarantee you they’ll know exactly what it represents. Find your equivalent, and beat your publisher until they cover your book with it (the spine, remember the spine).
That’s a start, I’m sure you’ll think of more. The point of the list is to be a guide on how to identify a cover that works, versus one that doesn’t. Sure, your publisher isn’t necessarily going to take your feedback… but it’s a lot easier to ignore “this cover sucks and I cried for three days” than it is a concise, well-researched, market-appropriate, bullet-pointed critique including general suggestions on how to visually capitalise on existing story elements for maximum discoverability and brand recognition.
Your publisher might not care whether you “like” your cover. But they do (or should) care about whether it sells. Use that instead.