As some of you know, my day job is book cover design and illustration–Vivid Covers, wink wink nudge nudge. I started my cover work several years ago, after many years of graphic and web design. The title of this post is, admittedly, a little click-baity… but one thing I’ve learned in my years of cover design is that authors are absolutely terrible at recognizing what will make a good cover/blurb for their story.
This even affects authors who have backgrounds in art and marketing. The reason for this is the same reason authors have trouble both recognizing and getting rid of their darlings. We all have a little tunnel vision when it comes to our own stories, and authors tend to approach their book’s packaging from this point of view:
What is my story?
The question they should be asking is, instead:
What is my audience?
Effective packaging for a book–cover, title, subtitle, blurb, etc–isn’t so much a reflection of your story as it is of your audience… at least, that’s how it should be.
Genres are artificial constructs. Books, on the other hand, are enormously complex, living, breathing things with a multitude of themes and threads of nuance. They are entire worlds. Attempting to capture every aspect of your story in its presentation is as effective as trying to advertise it by walking around with the book, holding it up in front of peoples’ faces, and turning the pages.
The Right Room
Have you ever tried to pack up a room in your house and accurately label each of the boxes? Sometimes it’s easy… dishes. And sometimes, I have to settle for kitchen stuff, even though it actually also includes batteries, post-it-notes, electrical tape, scissors, recipe booklets, appliance manuals, pencils, etc. Once, I think I tried to list everything on the side of the box, but quickly realized I didn’t have enough room, and at some point the list would defeat the purpose of labeling the box in the first place. Kitchen stuff wasn’t entirely accurate, but it got that box into the right room in my new house.
Genres are the same. A book isn’t science-fiction. It’s a unique creature. We call it science-fiction because it has enough attributes in common with other books also called science-fiction. The label is there to make it easier for people who enjoy those attributes to find those books. Not every science-fiction reader is going to enjoy all of those books, but it narrows down the field. It gets the box of stuff into the right room.
Your book’s packaging needs to use visual and written cues to attract readers who will enjoy the story you’ve written, and at the same time, signal to those outside your audience that this isn’t the book for them. That’s the entire purpose of your book’s cover, title, subtitle, and blurb–and it has a very limited amount of time to do this. Covers have about 3-6 seconds to say what they need to say. Blurbs have about 5-10. That’s a total of 16 seconds, max. If, in that time, you haven’t convinced your prospective reader that this is the book for them… you won’t.
So, first, which audience is going to enjoy the story you’ve written? What’s the right room for your book? This is a huge question, I know, but until you can answer it, your marketing efforts are going to go largely to waste.
The first step in marketing your book successfully is understanding what room your book belongs in. Again, your book contains a whole world. There are elements of fantasy, adventure, romance, humor, and maybe some subtle hinting at science-fiction. Where do you put this book?
Time for some research. You’ll need to study genres. Understand what makes each genre what it is, and what attributes readers expect from each one. Wikipedia is a great resource for this. If you’re really unsure about your manuscript, recruit a few friends who read widely in the possible categories your book could fit into. Don’t ever base your judgments solely on the information you get from one source. Absorb as much information as you can, and find the commonalities.
Here are a few places to start:
Readers of this genre expect the main point of the plot to revolve around the development of a relationship between two characters. Other events can and should happen, and the setting can vary wildly–from Victorian England to a spaceship in 2240, and everywhere in between–but everything revolves around the relationship. If your couple is married at the beginning of the book (and the book isn’t about their breakup and eventual reconciliation), or if they get together in the middle of it, this isn’t the right room for it. Likewise, your couple needs to have a Happily Ever After. This is a basic requirement of a romance novel.
The book doesn’t necessarily need to include sex scenes. There is a popular clean/sweet subgenre of Romance that doesn’t include sex.
This genre is distinguished by the technological level of its setting, which is generally somewhat beyond our own. It can be only (theoretically) a few years ahead of us, like The Martian by Andy Weir, or it can be waaay off, like David Weber’s Honor series. Space travel is common, but not a requirement, and there are various subgenres that require different levels of detail when it comes to the technology. Space Opera tends not to focus on the specifics of the technology, and handwaves a good bit of science as we know it. Battlestar Galactica and Star Wars are good examples of this. Hard Sci-Fi readers, on the other hand, demand more detailed knowledge of the technologies used, and expect a higher level of adherence to science and the laws of physics as we know them.
This genre includes elements of the magical or supernatural in its plot, themes, or settings, or take place in worlds that are unlike our own. Low-fantasy is fantasy that takes place in a different world, but includes very few or no supernatural elements, and is distinguished from science-fiction by a relatively low level of technology.
Different subgenres tend to focus on different kinds of storytelling. Epic Fantasy, in general, focuses on the immersion of the reader in a complex, fully-realized world that is unlike our own, with epic, world-altering stakes. This subgenre, more than the others, tends to run longer to allow the reader to fully experience the setting.
Sword and Sorcery, on the other hand, tends to be shorter, more quickly paced, and focused on more personal stakes revolving around the main character. While Epic fantasy poses the end of the world as the consequence of its protagonists failures, Sword and Sorcery often simply places its protagonists’ lives in the balance.
Urban Fantasy weaves supernatural elements into our world, or a world similar to our own with an equal or slightly greater technological level.
This is only a handful of the existing genres and subgenres out there, and you’ll need to do some study in order to figure out where your story fits in. Research is a big part of being a writer–not just during the writing process, but also during the marketing process.
The Right Cues
Lets say you have a sci-fi setting, with vampires. Where does this one go? Urban Fantasy/Paranormal or Sci-Fi?
As I mentioned above, Paranormal and Urban Fantasy readers, as a whole, tend to expect some elements of the magical or supernatural in their stories. So, if your vampires are a product of genetic modification, and you have no other significant elements of magic or the supernatural in your story, this isn’t the room for your book.
Then comes the hard part. You need to remove all traces of vampires from your book’s packaging. Don’t use the word ‘Vampire’ in your title, subtitle, or blurb. No vampires on the cover. I know, I know, I can hear you now…
But the vampires are really important!
Of course they are. But the words and images associated with vampires are also associated with magic and the supernatural–so they will immediately tell your science-fiction audience that this isn’t the book for them… even though, in the context of the book, they’ll be perfectly happy to accept genetically modified humans that behave like vampires, and are even called vampires. Meanwhile, the science-fiction cues in your packaging will tell the Urban Fantasy/Paranormal crowd that this isn’t their book either. Guess what happens next? You have no audience, and you make no sales.
The actual story is where you as a writer get to shine, and show off all the things that make your story unique. That’s where you can include all those subplots and themes and threads of nuance that make your story into a living, breathing thing. Your story tells your story. Your packaging simply tells the reader whether or not this is their kind of story.
When it comes to covers and blurbs, genres go through trends, so it’s important to study the bestseller list of your book’s category. What are the commonalities? I can go a little more in-depth for the specific genres in later posts, but for now, look at what’s selling right now, and model your book’s packaging so that it will look like it fits in alongside your competition.
The cover is not where you need to worry about being different or original. Again, you don’t want to dilute the message of your cover. Stand out by having an absolutely fantastic cover and blurb, not by contravening the vital cues that will best communicate to your audience that they need this book in their lives.
Go through every visual and written cue in your book’s packaging, and make sure it’s sending the right message to the right people. That’s the only way your box is going to end up in the right room.
Happy writing, and good luck!