War of Words: Traditional Publisher Cover Art vs Indie Cover Art

After a very interesting discussion with someone who believed me unprofessional and disrespectful to the writing craft because of my interest in the business side of writing — and that means pursuing and learning why cover art does and does not work for me when purchasing — I decided to broach an even more offensive subject: My perceptions of cover art between a self-published or independent book and a traditionally published one.

If someone isn't offended by this post, I'll be very surprised. Part of me is offended I'm writing this. It's prejudice in action. It's prejudice against good books hidden behind awful covers.

It's business in action. Many business dealings are offensive. Marketing sucks, it's a lot of work, and it can make or break an author. The art of business — the art of convincing someone to buy your stuff over someone else's stuff — is manipulation of the highest order.

Often considered offensive. After all, who likes having things sold to them by a pushy salesman?

But, when we as authors and artists create book covers, that is exactly what we are — what we're doing. We're pushy salesmen trying to convince hundreds of thousands of book-loving buyers to buy our stuff.

Let's set up some play rules and definitions before I begin.

The craft of writing is the process of writing and editing a book, from start to finish.

The business of writing is the process of selling the book you used the craft of writing to create.

Book covers are a part of the business of writing. Your bad cover — or your good cover — is unrelated to the craft of writing. So, before you get too offended, try to put yourself in that mindset. What I have to say about the cover of any novel has nothing to do with your ability to craft a book. It has everything to do with your ability to sell your book.

That is the business of writing. We're talking the business of writing, not the craft of writing.

This is also why people say “Don't judge a book by its cover.” However, there is something important to note here: Once upon a time, authors really had zero say in the covers of their books. Covers, frankly, were horrifying. It is also a statement about people. Most people now use “don't judge a book by its cover” as a nice way of saying “Don't be a racist, you fool.”

There are millions of books out there competing for my competition. How do I know which ones to look the descriptions over? How do I know which books to read the samples for? By reading the blurbs!

Welcome to the world of judging a book by its cover. This is the business of writing. Some of you may be among those so convinced covers have nothing to do with good books that you click and read the description of every book out there in hunt of a good title. I admire and respect people like that. I don't have the time to go through every book and read every description, and check every sample.

I look for visual clues. I look at covers.

Now, before I dive in to the meat of this discussion, know this: I don't go out of my way to offend people. I do, however, go out of my way to be honest about how I perceive things. Honesty is often offensive.

This isn't about you. This isn't about your writing. This is about the business of writing, and of book covers. If you find yourself thinking I'm talking about you as a person, step back from the keys, go have a stiff drink or two, and come back when you have distanced yourself from the business side of writing. All I can ask is that you consider my words.

I'm not asking you to agree with me.

When I'm shopping at Amazon or another online venue, independent covers get treated exactly the same as traditionally-created covers. I have no way of knowing who published the book from the thumbnail view. Often enough, I don't even care who published the book when browsing the thumbnail view.

However, there is something to be said for the expectation of general quality between a self-published book and a traditionally-published book. I may not like all of the books that one of the major publishing houses release, but there is a very simple truth buried within the pages of most books released by major publishers: They've been edited. They're, generally, good stories. I may not like that story, but they have all of the qualities of a good book.

Like the author, there are people risking their careers and their jobs on the success of that book. Consider that carefully. We may not agree with books released by traditional houses, but the people behind them believe in these books.

Just like self-published or independent authors believe in theirs.

To continue, behind every traditionally-published book — especially by a large house — there are people quality checking the books. Sometimes they don't do as good of a job as I think they should, but there are quality controls.

This just doesn't apply to every independent writer out there. Many don't invest in editors, developmental or proofing, and many don't have the funds to pursue someone to format their book or pay for a cover. Anyone can slap a book together, run a spell-checker, and upload it to amazon. The process is shockingly simple.

This is why I'm always so hard on covers. Covers are a good way for me to get an idea of the amount of work — and money — that went into a novel. It won't always be an accurate determining factor, but it helps separate the chaff from the wheat. I will miss some good books here and there — Wool has come recommended by quite a few people as a good read. (But, I passed on Wool for more reasons than just the cover — it isn't my type of book. I don't read a lot of dystopic, and it's firmly a dystopic novel.)

In a way, I'm even harder on independent authors in regards to their covers. Why?

Traditionally-published authors often have no control over their cover art. The mistakes of the cover art are the mistakes of a marketing department that may or may not have read the book and want to create a cover that sells.

Self-Published authors have complete control over their cover art. They took the harder route, in some ways, by going at it alone. The burden of proof is on them. They have to pay for — or handle — their own edits, their own marketing, their own covers. But, because they have complete control over their cover art, I have an expectation that they can go beyond the limitations of a traditionally-published author.

The only reason I can think of that might prevent a self-published author from having a stellar cover is money. Money is easily resolved with the rise of crowd funding. That's more business of writing stuff. Once you have a few titles and your book starts making money, you reinvest your money to work with an artist to create better cover art. You may work with a graphic designer to have great text layout, because text layout is extremely difficult to get right.

Traditional publishing houses pay for all of this stuff out of their own pocket. Sometimes, they give the author the option of having a favored artist produce their cover — if they pay for the cover art and graphic designer out of their own pocket. This, however, is not a common practice.

Why? Publishing houses expect you to do your job.

To them, your job is writing. Your job is not marketing. It isn't business. It's creating a novel that they can sell to people. You are a product, and they want their products to do well.

A self-published author has made the decision to try to be a jack of all trades. It's not an easy decision.

Cover art is an investment. It is something you can write off your taxes, because it is necessary for the success of your business. Cover art isn't necessarily expensive. My cover artist, Chris Howard, has a variable fee for doing cover art. It starts at $300 USD. There are many talented artists on deviant art who are willing to work for as little as $50. These artists are talented, and are looking for ways to add to their portfolio so they can move up in the art world.

There are options. There are affordable options.

Cover art is something that should be selected with care. Many people are visual. They look for things that catch their eye, whether or not they know it.

So, as the post name implies, this is a battle between traditionally-published cover art and self-published cover art. Battles involve a list of advantages and disadvantages. And a victor, usually. This fight won't have a victor, though.

The game doesn't end, that's why. It'll keep going until there are no more books with covers. I don't see that day coming anytime soon.

I am releasing my book around the end of July. My interest in cover art stems from my interest to handle the business side of writing well. I feel, by openly and honestly reviewing covers, I am offering myself — and others — a glimpse at the business of writing. I'm dissecting why a marketing ploy did or did not work for me.

By doing this, I hope to learn and understand how my target audience shops for books. I am my target audience. I was a reader before I was a writer.

I write cover reviews because I want to understand myself better, and I want to understand my audience better. My audience is made up of people who share a lot of characteristics like me. They're people who love books.

All aspects of a book.

That includes the cover.

Traditionally-published authors have it easy. They may not like their cover, they may not think their cover matches their book, but their covers are designed by people who know the business of writing. They know the business of art. They know how to draw attention to a book long enough to have people read the description. The people supporting these books know the audiences. It won't make a book successful, but they're already ahead of the game.

They are supported by people who know how to sell things.

Independent authors have a lot to learn. They need to learn how to request a commission that will sell their book. They need to learn text layout. They need to develop a good eye for cover art. They need to do all of the things that a traditionally-published author leaves in the hands of their publisher.

Hiding behind the excuse of “Don't judge a book by its cover” doesn't help anyone. It doesn't put good books with great covers out there. It doesn't help you sell your books.

Love the outside of your book as much as you do the inside of it. Invest in a cover artist who wants to see your book sell as many copies as you do. Hire someone who is a professional, and won't get frustrated or upset when you ask for changes, or you brainstorm ways to make your cover as dynamic and interesting as possible. Hire someone who will tell you when you need to do something else, because what you're doing isn't working.

Hire someone you trust to give you a cover that impresses people, that makes people stop and go “Wow, that's beautiful art.” The people who stop and admire the art may just look at the blurb. They'll also go in expecting a good book. People expecting good things are more forgiving about errors than those who go in expecting bad things.

If your cover art isn't good, isn't beautiful, and doesn't evoke things for your potential readers, they will go into your book already soured on what is held within. I know this applies to me. I go in skeptical and wary.  Once I go into a book like that, it's very hard to change my mind.

I hope this is food for thought.

I hope if you write, you learn to judge a book by its cover. It's amazing the things you can learn about yourself and the books you read. And, I hope, when you judge a book by its cover, you take all of the things that you've learned and apply it to your covers.

Leave a Comment:

1 comment
Deonne says June 7, 2013

My personal biggest issue with cover art usually occurs in the so-called “historical fiction” area, although it frequently occurs in fantasy art too. Wrong clothing for a time period, wrong weapon for a time period, someone wielding a monstrous sword while wearing neither a belt or a scabbard. I know, it’s my problem 🙂

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