What Your Book Cover Should Be Doing
I recollect being very angry about something many years ago.
I don’t remember what it was that had made me so annoyed, but I remember storming out of the place where I was working at the time and marching at full pace towards where I was living, dismissing any idea of catching a bus or getting a lift from anyone. I needed to be alone, but that suggests that a mental computation took place when in fact I was simply so enraged that I had to be alone - the company of another person would have been intolerable in that moment not only for me, but for them too.
Out I marched. It was nighttime, and the streetlights led the way, out of the city, up the hill and towards the nearby suburb where I dwelt in a tiny annex in the back garden of a relative. I was focused only on whatever it was that had enraged me; almost blind to my surroundings, I placed one foot in front of the other at a rapid pace, and fumed with each step. Had it been possible to detect energy at different frequencies, I daresay someone might have seen flames or steam emanating from me during that first mile.
Abruptly, as I walked rapidly past the window of a closed newsagent’s shop, something caught my eye: it was a rack of new comics, half-lit by the lamplight from the street. I stopped. And it was as though the lorryload of rage which I had been carrying slid physically forward and fell from the front of me onto the pavement.
‘Comics!’ said a little voice - and the sudden braking had impelled my anger, trapped by the inertia of my forward motion, to hurtle forward and collapse onto the ground. It was accompanied by a powerful physical sensation of having had a load lightened. I looked up - I looked around. What had just happened?
The comics weren’t all that interesting individually. I have been a passionate devotee of what are now called ‘graphic novels’ since I could first read - indeed, comics had a significant role in teaching me how to read - and they would often grab my attention. But in this particular instance it was not they themselves that were of interest, but the fact that they had caused such a peculiar ‘offloading’ of emotion.
I no longer felt angry. I could not recall what such anger had felt like. I breathed easier and felt lighter. Perhaps an invisible, crackling mass of rage had indeed splattered onto the pavement, dissipating into the drains out of my sight, or perhaps the anger had somehow switched off, like a burning light clicking out. Whatever had happened, it taught me a few things, and one of them was that it is possible to capture attention even when the focus of a person is on something else entirely - if the item used to capture the attention is of sufficient interest to that person. You want to create marketing content that has a similar effect. You want people to be suddenly and powerfully drawn towards your book because something about it is so appealing that it quite simply forces them to pay attention, whether they are conscious of that or not. Once you’ve got your audience’s eyes, you can direct those eyes more or less wherever you want them to go.
What is it about your book that a person first sees?
The bland truth is that it is the cover.
Something about your book’s cover needs to stop a person in their tracks, as I was by the newsagent’s comics rack.
To do this, do you have to be an expert at cover design? Do you have to know what colours are most psychologically appealing? How to place text in relation to images so that you affect eye movement?
Those things are all possibly quite useful and are skills that can be studied and learned and applied to great effect. But the primary thing that you need is a deep understanding of your book and what it taps into in readers.
Think of it like this: what exactly was it that stopped me on the street when I glimpsed those comics from the corner of my eye as I stormed past? Was it colours and design? Partly. The generic colours and designs that I caught sight of told me enough to register with me mentally that ‘these things are comics’. They made an impression upon my retina below my conscious awareness. But other things were making impressions too - street lights, traffic noises, the general darkness and shadows of surrounding buildings. No - what made me stop was that those colours and designs meant ‘comics’ and comics were something about which I was passionate.
In other words, what is it about your book and its cover which readers are going to feel passionate about? So deeply passionate, in fact, that the glimpse they have of it will register with them even when their conscious attention is on something else entirely?
That cover is important not just because of its colours and text placement but because it needs to transmit a fervour, an ardour, an intensity, a vehemence, an avidness, an energy across to your reader capable of piercing through multiple layers of conscious awareness - even before your reader has the vaguest notion of what your story is about.
It goes like this:
1. Reader is going about his or her business, attention sweeping like a lighthouse beam across a wide range of subjects or, as in my anger case, focused like a laser on a single preoccupation. They may be browsing, physically or online, through a range of items, or they may be totally engaged in something else entirely.
2. Your book’s cover taps into something, using the conventions and tropes of a genre perhaps, but with a twist or added excitement or uniqueness, which leaps across the space between its surface and the retina of your potential customer, snapping them out of their other activities and grabbing them with sufficient force to literally stop them in their tracks, as the comics rack stopped me.
3. Having grabbed their attention in this way, the cover then bridges over into the next attention manipulating aspect of your book - the blurb. The blurb needs to confirm and strengthen what the cover triggered - namely that they have in their hands something of intense fascination, something which is feeding an inner yearning, something which they have encountered and loved in the past, but with the added assurance of newness, uniqueness, originality.
Does it do this by giving them the outline of your story?
Blurbs are most emphatically not story outlines. A good blurb takes the heart of what your story is about and gives the reader just enough of a look at it to entice, allure, attract, invite, persuade the reader to turn to the first page. Your blurb is your movie trailer, showing the beating heart of the story without touching upon its plot particularly.
4. Your first page has to then reassure the reader that this story is in fact what the cover and the blurb have only hinted at: a story which pierces all the way to the heart of something that the reader dearly loves.
In all likelihood, if 2 to 4 above have been done well, the potential reader will become an actual reader - he or she will have built up sufficient inertia to make it all the way to the till in a bookshop or to the checkout if online.
Click. Another sale.
You shouldn’t stop there, of course. If you want real success, your whole story has to be like that - grabbing, clutching, gluing the reader’s attention with the conviction that it is about all the things that the reader loves, all the way to the end.
Do that, and you’ll have either a bestseller (if the public for your kind of book is large enough) or a classic (if it isn’t), and deservedly so.
I won't be angry with you if you don't. But I think you might benefit hugely if you do.