Does a book cover really convey a ‘promise’?

Back in April, Smashwords co-founder Jim Azevedo presented a six-hour writers conference via Zoom for ebook authors newbie and long-standing. I found it a rich experience and must applaud his stamina in sitting in front of his computer screen camera that long.

From this to …

His candid advice about rival Amazon prompted me to bite the bullet and look into reformatting my novels for Kindle Direct Publishing as one more digital retailing site for my work. I am, after all, fiercely loyal to Smashwords. Still, with Amazon, the most exciting thing is that I can now offer my work in print-on-demand paperback editions as well. I’ve come to love ebooks, but paper is, well, a special world to me.

Amazon has cleaned up many of its earlier formatting issues, and I can say my maiden foray went surprisingly smoothly. The one hiccup came with the paperback cover – my existing one was too small to run full-size. I compromised by reducing it within the glossy black background field.

I recently posted about tweaking that cover, which I did back before the online conference. Fortunately, it holds up to the new twist that’s been added to my thinking.

Azevedo spent some time covering the importance of covers, something I’ve previously blogged on. Frankly, from a design point of view, I find most book fronts to be cluttered and unfocused, combined with artwork that often strikes me as soft.

The making of a hippie

Maybe it’s all my years in journalism, but I’ve long leaned toward photographs as having more impact than paintings or drawings, and I want a strong graphic element other than type. Ebooks have an additional challenge of appearing, as Azevedo said, like postage stamps at the digital retail sites. That means any cover graphics have to pop if they’re going to catch your attention at all. You can’t be the least bit subtle.

What really struck me in Azevedo’s pitch was his insistence that a good book cover makes a promise.

What? The cover doesn’t mirror the story?

No, a promise.

As I started pondering potential new fronts for my paperback releases, his point kept kicking in. The result is a slew of new ebook covers already. Here I thought I’d be keeping what I had, but instead felt a need for improvement.

There was no escaping the necessity for a cover to have an emotional appeal, a gut-level reaction from a potential reader. Just who am I trying to entice? I’m not a famous writer, like Tolstoy or Stephen King or even Kurt Vonnegut, whose name alone could sell copies.

Still, thanks to an earlier project, I have a clearer concept of my ideal reader than I had in the past. So I’m not simply trying to stop a shopper for a moment’s reflection, as I might with a “literary” appeal. No, I’m trying to connect with her soul and spirit. Whew! So much for that calm bookish repose.

From this to …

Let’s jut say I’m aiming for real readers rather than schoolteachers or librarians.  You know, the kind of readers who just might turn into not just fans but superfans, as Azevedo touts, the ones who tell everybody they know about the hot unknown book they’re devouring.

Flash forward and look what’s happened to my Subway Visions cover. The previous one set the underground urban tone, but just what’s the promise? It looks pretty static. Waiting for a train to somewhere, but what then?

The new cover, though, gives a totally different impression. Its brightly tagged subway car goes careening into the depths. We’re not just standing around, waiting, but off into the action. The typeface and solid color provide a retro take on old-fashioned paperbacks. Whoopie! As a reader, I expect to be entertained. We’re in for a wild trip. Well, there’s the promise. Come along with me.

Finding the right image, of course, is a challenge. I lucked out on this one, even though it required a long search and then winnowing down the other options. One where the photos all ultimately lost out.

Along the tubes to nirvana

I do hope that big piece of graffiti doesn’t say something truly embarrassing.

Daffodil Uprising was a bit more wrenching.

I’m quite fond of the clean appearance of that single bloom, but as I came back to the question of promise, I didn’t see the cover suggesting anything. It just stands there, like a monument.

The new cover, though, suggests a row of daffodils blazing into full bloom. It’s colorful and happy, reflecting much of the hippie expectation, without getting caught in the time warp. Yes, the story includes Flower Power but it’s more about youth and shared discoveries rather than Sixties. I’m surprised how fresh this new cover feels.

That’s appropriate, since my extensive revisions of these works sought to move them into being more about NOW than exclusively back THEN, even when the tale is full of what has become ancient history to most of the populace.

As I hunted for the new image, I wound up sorting through thousands of MsMaya’s mesmerizing abstract flower creations before finding one that captured something resembling daffodils. But then it blooms into something much more. Once again, the photos failed to make the final cut.

I hope you agree. But there’s more.

From this to …

Pit-a-Pat High Jinks was a similar conundrum. I loved the old cover, which fit tradition. Alas, while there was a promise, it wasn’t compelling. Here we were, in a cosmic mythological twist, but what then?

Moving forward, I found a haunting portrait of a young Gypsy woman who could have represented the search for a soul mate, but that didn’t fit the opening of the story. At first, I veered away from the drumming, since half of this book springs from an earlier novel called Hippie Drum, but as I returned to my now drastically revised novel, the drumming’s inescapable. It’s about feeling the beat.

Of housemates, lovers, and friends

Again, ditching the possible lover was a hard decision for me, but the new drummer won out. He, or possibly she, is DOING something. It’s a folk instrument rather than a rock or jazz drum kit, one suggesting a drummers’ circle and funky dancers, all happening now.

There’s also something suitably moody in the image, as if saying, Just listen and come along with me.

I’d say that’s promise.

By this point I’d settled on new typefaces and a look that presented a continuity across the entries. Call it a brand if you must, but I think it’s bold, confident, playful, classic. Not a bad mix.

And gone, for the most part, were the photos, even though a photographer’s a key player in these stories.

Well, that brings up Cassia, the core of What’s Left.

From this to …

This is a difficult novel to encompass in a single image, which I originally tried to do with a falling egg yolk. Remember, she’s been broken open and her family, which is soon falling apart, runs a landmark restaurant famed for its breakfasts. And its lunches and dinners, but I digress.

As much as I love that cover (however brilliant), it didn’t connect. Promise, remember?

The next attempt tried to focus in on her grief when her father vanishes. But the bulk of the novel isn’t about an 11-year-old, but rather what the angry teen plows through in the aftermath and beyond.

Within a daughter’s own living Greek drama

And then I came across an image of a defiant, angry, vulnerable teen. It’s not exactly how I originally envisioned Cassia, but it fits, especially with its hint of Goth at the collar.

I should mention another WordPress blogger who contended that faces on a book cover were a turnoff.

In principal, I agree with her, but in this case, I find this image too compelling, even haunting. Who is this girl, why is she so resolute? What do those eyes so desperately want to reveal?

Again, I take that as a promise. Remember, this is a sassy kid who compelled me to drastically rework all of my previously published novels. Of course, she could also send potential readers running in the other direction. It’s a risk I’m taking.

Nearly Canaan

And that leads to the tweaks on Nearly Canaan. The image remains the same, but cropped more tightly. Yes, I actually loped off the man’s head in order to focus more on the woman while gaining more vertical presence. This is, after all, principally about Jaya.

With an enduring promise of snowy mountains

Note, too, the new typeface for the title, one that gives a bouncy, more flirtatious, and livelier air to the developments.

Again, I’d say it’s all promise in what’s a big romance at its core. The author name typeface, by the way, is the one I used on the other new covers, so there’s a continuity in my line.

Something similar is about to happen with Yoga Bootcamp.

So much for now.

Are there any book covers you’d find full of an air of promise? I’ll be happy to hear of just one.


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