Tuesday, December 13, 2011


Rick Blechta's got you covered!

As a bit of a departure, and carrying forward the blog comments from last week about covers, I've sent mystery author Rick Blechta some questions -- not about writing mysteries but rather, about 'covering' them. Rick's 'other life' is as a designer and since he has a lot to say on the topic, the Q&A is split over two blogs.

1. How important are book covers

To my mind, box covers are the way prospective readers first see your book. They need to catch a shopper’s eye, especially if you’re not a top-tier author. From my viewpoint as a designer, I like to also think of book covers as posters. One very experienced designer talks about “ten-foot covers”, meaning that she felt people should be able to discern something that intrigues them about a book from ten feet away. Accomplishing that can be a tough thing and it often takes everything in a designer’s bag of tricks.

For something as seemingly simple as a cover with its three components (title, author name and image), you have to consider so many small things and know how to juggle them successfully to get the correct balance. Then you have to worry about things like contrast between the colours used, placement of the components on the cover, treatment of the image so that it doesn’t overbalance or underbalance with the two other components, followed by making everything pleasing to look at (even if the viewer doesn’t know why it’s pleasing). A cover designer has a full dance card.

But it all boils down to this: the cover can make a huge difference in getting a person to pick up that book. Accomplish that and you’re halfway home.

Then there’s the cover’s sell copy: either the inside flap for hardcovers, or the back cover for trade and mass market paperbacks to seal the deal.

And that actually brings up another sore point with me: why do people at publishing houses (usually the editor or marketing director) naturally seem to think that they are equipped to write advertising copy? Being able to express oneself with the written word and writing effective sell copy are two completely different things. When corporations are trying to market their wares, they pay a huge amounts of money to ad people to come up with copy that will effectively sell their products, because they know how critical it is to the success of their ultimate goal: selling things. And yet nearly every publisher I’ve ever heard of composes their sell copy almost as an afterthought and it’s never written by a professional copy writer. Why is that? Have they ever investigated how successful ad campaigns for other products have been assembled? Thousands of dollars of production money can go straight down the toilet if the sell copy on a book cover is ineffective.

It’s really sad to see people pick up a particular book over and over and then put it down because the sell copy is so poor. I’ve watched it happen when doing book cover research.

Bottom line: a great cover can get a reader to pick up a book, but then the sell copy has to seal the deal. If these two things aren’t put together very carefully by people who really know their business, then a publisher is blowing one of their best chances to sell their wares – particularly if the author isn’t a household name.

2. What do you say to those who think, especially with the advent of e-books, that they’re not important?

To those who think a cover isn’t important to e-books, let me ask them this: how else is the book going to be presented to potential buyers? Can’t you see the space where the cover is normally displayed on Amazon, for instance, with a couple of lines of type giving the title and author. Boy, that would be really effective to get the person browsing to investigate further. As long as there are books, covers will be important whether you’re holding a bound sheaf of papers in your hands or an ebook reader. Let me also ask you this: if covers weren’t necessary anymore, do you think publishers would bother paying for them? Why do you think they came up with book covers in the first place?

Thanks, Rick! That's a lot to think about. Part two will appear tomorrow on Mystery Maven Canada.

Besides his career as a writer of crime fiction, Rick Blechta has been a graphic designer since 1998 who now owns a successful design studio, Castlefield Media. Over the years, during which he was mentored by well-known designers and artists, Kal Honey and Kim Lee Kho, he made himself an avid student of this arcane art. His design output has included commissions for a number of book covers.

As a writer, his short novel, Orchestrated Murder, was recently published by Orca Book Publishing, and fall of 2012 will see the release of his full-length novel, The Fallen One, by Dundurn Press.


  1. By the way, if anyone has any questions, just speak up! I’ll do my best to answer them for you – or find someone who has the answer.

  2. Great information, Rick. I think indie authors are finally beginning to understand the singular power of a great cover, and that nine seconds of a potential reader's attention online. I did NOT know that back cover sell copy is written by those without ad copy training. Being an indie author myself, I, of course, wrote my own... but it took three months and a large critique circle.

  3. What do you think of having a couple of paragraphs of the book as part of the cover? I've noticed one publisher in particular is devoting the whole inside flap of their hardcovers to that. The back cover is reviews and/or short blurb. A section of the book doesn't attract me in any way - just a lump of text out of context. Vicki Delany (who can't leave comments under her own name)

  4. Vicki, I’ve worked on projects with good, bad and indifferent sell copy. Great copy that can even get a jaded graphic designer excited is worth it's weight in gold.

    Putting a few paragraphs from a book on its cover might work if it was so compelling that it absolutely forced the reader to want to know more. That's a tall order, but probably possible with some books and authors.

    What you're talking about is probably due to laziness on the part of the people at a particular publisher who are responsible for cover copy. More important and useful to my mind is a paragraph or two about the book that accomplishes the same thing.

    Writing effective ad copy requires a very specific skill set. Not many people can do it and those who are particularly good at it can command very serious money for their abilities. Corporations and advertising agencies understand that. Book publishers, on the whole, don't.

    A successful book cover (all the way around and inside if it has flaps) needs to communicate a number of compelling reasons to buy the book. The front cover gets people to pick up the book (or read about it further if you're online), the back cover and flaps should tell you (again, compellingly) about the book and the author's bona fides and why people have to read it. Blurbs from other recognizable authors or experts, review quotes, all have their place. Even a book's spine can go some way (and perhaps this is the hardest part of the design job) to selling a book.

    A truly effective cover has to try to do all these things and can't be just sloughed off as "a necessary evil" by publishers. My feeling is it's the single most effective avenue to successfully "advertise" a book. We've all seen covers in bookstores and online that just scream "pick me up!" That's only the first part of the equation. Once the books is in the customer's hand, the sell copy has to seal the deal. Lots of books do not accomplish this transfer.

    In a nutshell, what you're talking about, Vicki, is just sloppy and lazy salesmanship.

  5. Sorry, Kate, I got out of order here.

    The difficulty of self-publishing (assuming I understand your meaning of "indie") for authors is that most are forced to reinvent the wheel. There are excellent books for those who wish to go the self-publishing route (I did it for my first two novels) and they must be read by anyone contemplating this move or you risk throwing your money away. Anyone who publishes, must understand the business. (And the more you understand, the more easily you can find ways to break the mold succesfully!)

    One of the mistakes I often see is that the cover of a book is obviously very secondary to the process. Even though established publishers can be shockingly cavaliere about cover concept and execution, they do understand the core values, "the rules", as it were. Most covers for self-published books are not done by qualified people. Unless the person (usually the author) designing the cover really understands the basics or is a nascent genius, the cover design will probably not be what it could be. One can't design a cover, hand it out to friends and expect to get really honest comments back. It's hard to tell someone you know that their book cover sucks – if they designed it themselves. And quite often a subtle thing like moving the characters slightly can make all the difference in the world. Only very experienced typographers can see these things. The general public will just see "type that looks happier", as my mentor, the brilliant Kal Honey, used to say.

    As for sell copy, most people in publishing who write the stuff would tell you that they have great experience. That experience might be due simply to the fact that they've written the copy for dozens, maybe hundreds, of covers, not that they've written effective copy for those covers. There's experience and there's experience, after all. My answer to someone who's written flabby, uncompelling copy and who also tells me about their experience is to say, "Have you ever been hired by any other company for your skill as a copy writer? Please show me your portfolio for the jobs for which you've been commissioned, not the ones your boss told you to do. Let's see some of the awards for your copy. Show me the sales results for your projects."

    I hope you have written terrific copy on your own. Best of luck on those sales! Thanks for commenting, too.