Let's not beat around the bush. We do it. When we walk through a bookstore or are browsing for something to read on Amazon, we're looking for something specific: a book with a kick-ass looking cover, because that's what attracts us and calls out to us to check out the description and maybe flip through the first few pages or read the book sample. That's what the cover is meant to do, after all - make us pause for a moment and investigate further.
Herein lies something that we've unconsciously programmed ourselves to do throughout the years: we've taught ourselves to quite literally, judge a book by its cover. In response, cover artists have had to push themselves to almost superhuman capabilities, because if they can't deliver a kick-ass looking cover, the author's book won't get noticed, it won't even have a chance to sell, and both will face an almost uphill vertical climb: the author trying to get his/her book noticed, and the cover artist struggling to find work.
How did this all begin? I'll take a guess and say that somewhere along the line, someone created a cover that completely blew other book covers out of the water. I imagine it was like the scene from Dumb and Dumber: in a room full of black tuxedos, in walks Jim Carrey wearing an orange tuxedo. Among everyone in the room, in a sea of black was a splash of orange, which stood out.
Today, that room of black tuxedos no longer exists. Instead, it's a room of vibrant colors that stretch from one end of the color spectrum to the other. What once stood out in a sea of black no longer does - because there is no sea of black.
We've gotten so used to seeing those amazing covers, that we've come to expect it. As the artists and the technology becomes even more mind-blowing, our expectations for them have increased to the point of looking for something that goes beyond superhuman and risen higher, to the point of expecting them to be almost god-like.
I'll admit that I put cover designers and book artists on high pedestals. I am awed every day by the covers I see designed when something new comes out, and I have the utmost respect for those people for the amount of talent they have. I have zero talent in the drawing department myself, which is part of the reason why I have such a great respect for artists. Seriously, if you ask me to draw a person, what you'll get is a stick figure with a big round head. That's the limit of my artistic ability in the drawing department.
There are other artists that are just as amazing with digital drawing and painting too, it's not limited to physical paint and canvas. But our expectations have become so high now that we basically require every book to have a god-like cover in order for us to stop. If not, we pass it by and move on, never bothering to even read what the book is about.
And here is where the real tragedy that this line of insanely high expectations has gone to now: we judge books by their covers, not by the story within. There are some absolutely amazing stories out there that are only discovered by a small handful of people. Why? Because the author is just starting out, or couldn't afford to pay for a professional artist to design that god-like cover that might increase the chance a book will be read by a few handfuls more.
In a sea of color now, its a crap shoot. And for those just starting out or on such a tight budget that they can't afford to pay for advertising, which like anything else is really the only way to reach masses of potential readers... even with a god-like cover, it's difficult at best to get noticed - no matter how good of a storyteller you are.
So what is the point of all of this? Why go over any of this? To illustrate, let me provide a few images. I'll use my first fantasy book as the example, as it's gone through several cover changes from when I first published it to what it looks like today:
|First redone cover|
|Second redone cover (artwork by Mat Sadler)|
Looking back, I see that first cover and I think "oh my God, that was horrible!" And then I look at the second one and think "well, that was better than the first one, at least." The last one I still love to look at. It's gorgeous. The artist who created that has more talent in the tip of his pinky finger than I have in my entire body.
I had submitted the book to Reader's Favorite last year for a review, and when it came back, I admit there were some tears, because the reviewer gave it a glowing 5* review, and I was given - along with the review - a sticker that I could add to the cover image to show it, which I did. This is the cover today:
Why show that off? To brag that Province of a Thief received a 5* review award? To get you to say "Holy shit, that is awesome!" and open up a new window to pull the book up on Amazon and discover that it's gotten almost a dozen more 5* reviews from readers on top of that?
No. It's to make my point. You see, except for some edits that I've put the book through to fix a few typos and make some minor changes (because I'm overly critical of myself and I strive for perfection, even knowing it's an impossible task but I shoot for it anyway), from that first book cover to the current one - the story has not changed.
When I first started writing as a career, I couldn't afford to hire a cover artist. So I designed the cover myself, using (you probably guessed it already) Word. Yes, I know... go ahead and shake your head in disbelief, it's alright. I was a newborn to the whole published author scene then. It took time to learn there was more to this thing than just writing.
Obviously that first cover needed to be changed. My sales (or rather, lack of) clearly showed that, so I spent a bit of money and found a stock photo that I liked, and along came cover #2. The title font and how it was displayed wasn't exactly a good choice, but it was a better image than the first. Still not good enough, however. Luckily tax season came around and with a bit of my return I looked for someone to redesign the cover again. I was lucky enough to come across Mat, who designed the cover at an affordable price and made it look like that first cover was done by someone with no drawing ability whatsoe... oh wait - it was, haha.
But through those redesigns, the story within didn't change. And that is the main point of all of this. The covers didn't change the story. Had I kept that first cover, I would still be waiting to get an actual sale from the book.
Covers need to be attractive. Everyone will agree with this. But they do not change the story within. When we're looking for something to read, we're not reading the book descriptions. We're looking at the cover image. And if it doesn't leap out at us, we're moving on to find one that does. That's the problem. We've become too reliant on the cover images. We've let them dictate our choices, and don't even bother to take a few minutes... a few minutes... to see what a book is about.
Not every author can afford to hire a cover artist or book designer. It's a simple fact. So they do their best to design their own covers using GIMP, Photoshop, (I use GIMP myself to create my Twitter images... that at least I have a greater ability in doing) or some other program to create book covers themselves. And then they cross their fingers and hope their skills are good enough that the cover will catch enough eyes and they'll make enough pocket change to be able to afford a professional artist/cover designer for their next book, or to redesign that one.
We've become a society that judges based on what we see. So let me end this with one final book image and a quote from one of the books in my Exiled trilogy, because they drive home my point:
"It is not what you see on the outside, but what lies on the inside that matters."