Book Cover Survey Results: The Way Forward!

Book covers are the doors to your books, all writers know that and worry about them. The rules for good book cover design are quite simple:
(1) reflect the genre or mood of the book, and for digital books especially,
(2) no clutter
(3) big, legible fonts that can be read even when the cover is the size of a postage stamp on your Kindle.

That's all.

Simple? No, I got myself into quite a funk trying to figure out which cover would be better for my next novel A HOOK IN THE SKY: a hook (in the sky of course) or a female nude (my aged protag's young lover)?

Readers of my blog know I ran a poll last week. My Twitter followers also know that a friend who runs the immensely useful site listing every day "The Best Free Kindle Books"  (the "list that Amazon does not give to the Book Lover") also set up a poll presenting both my covers, plus a useful answer I had forgotten to include in my own poll: "neither" giving you the chance to answer in case you didn't like either covers. Let me take the opportunity here to warmly thank everyone who voted, that was a big help!

Results of the polls? Very interesting! On my blog, 58% of voters went for the nude - but the sample is very small, just 31 votes, so not very reliable. On The Best Free Kindle Books site, the poll was far more consistent: 122 votes, divided like this (on 4 September, when the poll was taken down after 2 days):
  The Hook:  50.9%
  The Nude:  23,2%
  Neither:      25,9%

A quarter of the voters liked neither! Indeed, the nude (that had done so well on my blog) was losing out! Hey, nobody likes naked women? Just kidding!

Clearly, I needed to think up a new cover and I had to take all this into account. I turned to the comments and while I'm not going to go through all of them here - but I do want to thank all of you for making comments, it was truly most helpful! - I'd like to zero in on a particular one that seemed to reflect many others. Author Joseph Badal, whose judgment I respect, told me he liked neither cover but he said: "I liked what you wrote about Robert and the ladders. That's what I would put on the cover."

Robert (that's my protag, a cosmopolitan Frenchman who retires from the UN) certainly has a thing about ladders. Indeed, "A Hook in the Sky" is the name he gave to his art installation, a jumble of ladders reaching up to a hook. He came up with that wild idea in the hope of winning back his wife, a chic Manhattan socialite who runs a successful contemporary art gallery in Chelsea. Because, until the moment he dreamt up his Hook installation, the marriage was on the verge of collapse. It seemed that all he did with his wife was fight over art - when in fact they were fighting over their relationship. His wife loves the idea, she sees it as a symbol of the human search for something higher in life, something you reach for and can never quite grab (the hook is too far above the topmost ladder)...Will this be enough to save their marriage?

Ok, a jumble of ladders and a hook. Here's what I came up with:

Now of course, the title fonts need to be added, A HOOK IN THE SKY in the upper part, my name at the bottom. But do you like the illustration? I'd love to know what you think! Here's a quick poll to give your opinion:

How does the ladders and hook illustration strike you as a book cover?
pollcode.com free polls 

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Book Cover Blues: Which is Best?

I posted about book covers last week and how to ensure your book cover is a winning one, bringing you lots and lots of sales....At the end of the post, I uploaded a cover done by a talented designer ABSV, on the basis of one of my paintings. It's a great cover but somehow doesn't fit the book's genre or content. Looks too erotic, steamy and sexy. Here it is for those of you who haven't seen it:

Some people said my name tag was too small, that the type of letters suggested a mystery thriller while the illustration, rather artsy, was still too erotic for what is basically a contemporary novel about Robert, a Baby Boomer and an attractive Frenchman who faces a collapsing marriage when he retires from a successful career in the United Nations. He tries to build a second life as an artist but his conventional paintings irritate his much younger American wife, a wealthy New York socialite who runs a chic contemporary art gallery in Chelsea.They fight over art but what is at stake is their relationship. They separate, he moves to Italy, has a show in Paris and soon sexual adventures complicate his life. Can their marriage survive?

Now, I've mulled over the question, going through dreadful pains and self-questioning, and finally come up with a new cover (still based on one of my own sketches - done for the purpose). Here it is:

The landscape is a simplified rendering of  Umbria, the lake of Trasimeno and the house where the protagonist retreats while his marriage collapses. The hook? Read the book! ...when it comes out next week (will let you know, promise). But I'll give you a hint: the title is the one Robert uses for a weird contemporary art installation he's dreamt up to try and win back his wife. It's a pile of aluminum ladders reaching up to a hook set high above so that it cannot be grabbed even if you stand on top of the tallest ladder, a fitting symbol of the human condition and our desire for transcendance!

Which one do you like best? Here's a poll - please vote and let me know which I should use! Please keep in mind the genre of the book when you assess the covers and do make comments, everyone's opinion is most welcome and most useful!

Which cover do you like best
pollcode.com free polls 

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Three Tips to Ensure a Winning Book Cover

Book cover design by George Salter
Book cover design by George Salter (Photo credit: Crossett Library Bennington College)
Independent authors are often accused of unprofessional book covers...As an indie, how can you make sure your book covers look professional? That's important because the cover is a first, fast visual signal to your readers that you have produced a high quality book. 

A good cover says "trust me, this is a good read!"

Indies do not have the advantage of published authors. That's one of the strong points for going traditional and getting your book published by one of the Big Six - though many trad-pubbed authors complain that they are presented with book covers that "suck" and that there's nothing they can do to change them...

What are the options? Get a good designer to do your cover of course. If in addition to being a writer you're also a visual artist (like me, I'm a painter too), the temptation is strong to do your own cover. Until you get really good with photo shop and fonts, resist it! Typography is a world unto its own and you can't learn it overnight. Consider the simple act of positioning titles on the cover: it's an art and that means you can't learn it overnight either.

Book cover designed by Cliff Roberts
Book cover designed by Cliff Roberts (Photo credit: Crossett Library Bennington College)
But don't despair! It's possible to develop some criteria to decide whether a book cover is good or not. After all, the designer you paid for may have produced a rotten cover and you need to be able to see that and fire him!

There are several points to keep in mind, considering though that, bottom line, it's inevitably a matter of personal taste. On my Pinterest site, I've collected a number of book covers that I happen to think are very successful but maybe you won't (as I said, tastes vary, de gustibus non disputandum...). You'll see, there are classics and also new titles from major authors coming out this fall -  all traditionally published. Take a look, here's the link, and come back, I'm waiting for you with my tips for a winning book cover.

TIP # 1: Don't clutter it! It has to be visually "easy to read", both the book title and your author name.

This is especially important in our digital age: Amazon (and other e-platforms) present book covers in stamp size, so the design has to shine through even in a minute size and in black and white (a lot of people are still reading on old-fashioned electronic ink e-readers like the Kindle - yes, it's become old fashioned!)

TIP #2: Pick a striking image related to what your book is about. This is by far the trickest part, and much depends on (1) your own taste, and (2) the book's genre. Steamy sex will be fine with suggestive parts of entwined naked bodies, chick lit or MG won't. Make sure your cover is in line with the market for your book, you don't want to disappoint your readers, much less mislead them! In short, the cover has to be in line with both the tone and content of your book.

If you can, go for the symbolic. That seems to be very much in fashion these days, go take another look at my Pinterest site: see how geometric and simple lines and primary colors (a lot of red, a lot of yellow) are used to great effect? Yet, they are not random lines or colors chosen because they're striking (though they are that to be sure).The point is they all contribute to build up a message which hints at what's coming in the book.

TIP #3: Make sure your image is unexpected and engages the reader. Obviously it has to be appealing, attractive. This is by far the hardest to come up with. However I must insist on the term "unexpected". That's crucial. A title may evoke an obvious symbolic image, but better stay away from the obvious. Try and think of something that is closely related but not so obvious. That will attract attention (the obvious is blah...)

Yes, I know, easier said than done!

I certainly found myself struggling to come up with good covers. For my FEAR OF THE PAST, I thought a lion head would be a nice symbol of the book's content: after all it's a family saga set in Sicily - the collapse of a once powerful family. Lions, as everyone knows, are the Kings of the Jungle. Plus I picked a Sicilian lion head, nicely hieratic the way they used to do them in Sicilian coat-of-arms and palaces. Yes, but...the trouble is, that's not really the main point of the book at all! It's all about how the last descendant, a brilliant American video game engineer, manages to revive the family fortunes. It's a story of collapse and revival - nothing to do with a lion! So that's a cover that would need redoing, no question about it and I'm working on it. Actually the whole book really needs a new title as well and I'm working on that too! And once the title is changed, the whole book needs to be revised - am working on that as well, wow! I will keep you posted as soon as I've solved my problems on this one!

Then, for the cover of my forthcoming novel A HOOK IN THE SKY, I ran into the difficulty of picking an image for the book cover that was both unexpected and engaging. The expected would be to put a big hook in a blue sky among white clouds. Something like this (ok, this is not blue but romantic seppia):

Easy and nicely symbolic but blah...Since the protagonist (who's a retiree), in his attempts to build a second life for himself, has a few memorable sexual adventures, I thought that a naked woman would be a good idea for the cover and that I could use one of my own paintings. Here it is:

I asked a friend who happens to be a hugely talented designer to come up with a cover (the name of her firm: ASBV). First she cropped the image and took away the dripping red line. Then she picked highly visual block lettering and put the red color back in. This is the result:

How do you like it? Please tell me what you think. I believe it's a very effective cover but is it too steamy? Please note the book is NOT erotica, it's contemporary fiction focused one how one Baby Boomer, upon retiring, tries to juggle his new life as his 20-year marriage collapses and (of course) he has some sexual adventures, including one very sexy young girl...

Now you may well ask, where's the hook in all this? She's a hooker? Yes, in a way, she is. She also happens to be crouching, her body's in the shape of a hook. Is that enough to entice readers or will it mislead them?

Please let me know what you think! I value your opinions...

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One of Amazon's Best Marketing Tool Revealed: the Vine Program

Amazon-New-Detail-Page (Photo credit: kokogiak)
Der Loyalitätskreislauf (Marketing, E-Marketing)
Der Loyalitätskreislauf (Marketing, E-Marketing) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Amazon's Vine Program is a truly amazing marketing tool and perhaps it works so well because it is (relatively) discreet. It's simply brilliant: it takes advantage of our human compulsion to compete - we all love to come out first! - and of our distrust of traditional paid advertising. It harnesses the power of independent customer reviews and unashamedly turns it to its own advantage - but then, why shouldn't it? Amazon has thought it out and fine-tuned it, so why not reap the benefits? I can't think of any other online vendor who has constructed such a sophisticated marketing tool.

So what's it about? Amazon's own presentation of the Vine Program is not easy to find in the site and it turns up in relation to reviews made by people who participate in the program. Under their name when they review a product - and it can be anything from an electronic gadget to a book - appears in blue letters a little sign which reads "Vine™ Voice" plus sometimes an explanation which says Customer review from the Amazon Vine™ Program. That's where you get a chance to click on a "what's this" box that will take you to a full explanation. Here's the link: http://www.amazon.com/gp/vine/help

Take a look and then come back, I'm waiting for you, I've got more on this. You'll learn that this is a program you can't join unless you've first earned a high ranking as a reviewer - yes, this is where the competition comes in! To review for Amazon is fun (and a competitive activity!) and they actually encourage you to review the products you've bought. Also the Vine Program is by invitation only - meaning Amazon invites you on the basis of your ranking which is determined by what other people think of your reviews. Have you noticed that little sentence above reviews which says "x number of y people have found the following review helpful"? Indeed, you're encouraged to click to indicate whether you agree with the review. Just take a look, you'll see a lot of people do that sort of clicking. 

Of course, Amazon is not naive and is well aware that some people may game the system and get their friends to click approval of their reviews. So they take that into account through some sort of algorithm that levels the playing field. How that's done I don't know, they won't say but I'm quite sure it works - also to improve your ranking, you'd have to obtain "votes of approval" for your reviews from thousands of "friends", something that's obviously impossible. I believe it is fair to say that the Vine Program has only "trusted" reviewers - which is of course the Amazon goal for the program.

A Vine Program reviewer doesn't make money being a reviewer, he simply earns "badges". There are all sorts of badges: for belonging to the top 1000 reviewers, top 500, top 100, top 50, top 10, for being the first. Yes, it's highly competitive! And you can even earn a badge which reads "real name" and is put under your reviewer's name (I'm not quite sure why but it does sound positive). So what Amazon does with all these badges is - yes, you guessed it - encourage competition. Keep it up, you guys!

But there is a small material advantage in belonging to the Vine Program: they get for free the products they review and for books that means ARCs (Advanced Review Copies). So they're not like the rest of us who whenever we review a product we buy it first and then earn a "Amazon Verified Purchase" button next to our review. They don't because Amazon sends them the products obtained from the publishers, labels, studios, manufacturers or any vendor participating in the program. But they're not obliged to publish positive reviews, they can write whatever they want. This is something that Amazon insists on, they are left entirely free to evaluate the products as they wish. I checked a few out and yes, I can vouch that they actually do. A Vine Program reviewer is just as likely as anyone else to produce a negative review, but since they've earned so much trust from other customers, it is obvious that their reviews carry more weight.

What is perhaps a little strange is that the reviews from Vine Program members aren't necessarily longer or more in-depth than the average. Indeed, they can be as short as a couple of sentences that "skim the surface" of the product - that is especially true for books. I noticed some really shallow 5 star reviews for books that deserved better coverage (I won't name names, but I assure you they exist). But then, I noticed these particular Vine™ Voices weren't specialized in reviewing books. Looking at their profile, I found they reviewed all sorts of other things from electronic gadgets to pick up bags for dog poop. Presumably they weren't avid book readers, but overall, they had gained enough support from fellow customers to join the ranks of the Vine Program. 

Indeed, Amazon tries to enroll in the program reviewers that are popular - and of course, over time, reviewers tend to achieve a status of "near-specialist" because of their knowledge and continued interest in certain types of products. On a side note: reviewers that achieve high rankings are not necessarily book reviewers, on the contrary. For example, the last time I looked, among the top ten program reviewers only one was specialized in reviewing books!

However that's not what makes it such a marvelous marketing tool. The real beauty is that Amazon can schedule the customer reviews: some reviews come out in the pre-launching period of a product and for books in particular, this is very important. For example, Paul Auster is coming out on 21 August with a new book published by Henry Holt and Company, Winter Journal.  At the time of writing (15 August), it has already obtained 17 reviews, all of them Vine™ Voices.
English: Paul Auster at the 2010 Brooklyn Book...
Paul Auster. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now, of course Paul Auster is the kind of author who automatically gets good editorial reviews from the likes of Booklist, Publishers'Weekly, Kirkus, Library Journal. So what is the effect of Vine reviews compared to the industry standards? Hard to say, but some of those Vine™ Voices have a large following. They are people who have done upwards of two to three thousand reviews. Three were classified in the "top 500 reviewers" and one in the top one thousand. What does it mean? Well, take one reviewer who's ranked 121 - he has garnered 6159 "helpful votes". His reviews have been read by many more people of course, but that number was sufficiently impressed to click the helpful vote button. Not bad...Multiply that by 16, and you get a nice core of some 100,000 people who have manifested interest, and all of that even before the book comes out! Consider also that the reviews were nicely varied, from 5 to 2 stars. Yes, even one 2 star review and pretty damning too, saying "Sorry, this just didn't work for me. It was boring and embarrassing to read". But there was no one star review. This leaves the overall average at a good, rounded 4 star level - which adds to the feeling of trust. This looks (and I'm quite sure it is) very genuine, free of any undue pressure.

Also, in the fragile, initial period, sales of a product can be sustained with a trickle of reviews from the Vine Program or if sales flag, they can be boosted. It is interesting to see how the reviews from Vine™ Voices  pop up at fairly regular intervals to sustain the book sales of Amazon imprints, ensuring that they don't gather dust on their digital shelves.

Yes, if you're published by an Amazon imprint, whether Thomas Mercer (mysteries), AmazonEncore (out of print and self-published), AmazonCrossing (translated books),Montlake Romance or 47 North (sci-fi, fantasy, horror), you are supported by the impressive Amazon online marketing toolkit, including the little known but incredibly effective Vine Program. 

This is a book promotion tool traditional publishers are  probably drooling over...But they can use Amazon's marketing toolkit to their advantage too, right? That's certain what Henry Holt has done!

What's in it for self-published authors, you may well ask. For the moment, not much. You can try to contact a Vine reviewer, but you're not likely to get far - if any of you has managed it, please let us know how you did it!

I do believe however that Amazon could do something with the Vine Program in the area of self-published books. It could be systematically used to try and identify the "better" books. I know Amazon is already trying to do that through a competition run from its Create Space platform, to identify the "breakthrough" novel. That's a good idea, but surely more could be done, in particular through expanding and strengthening the Vine Program...Your opinion?