One of the really interesting challenges in publishing and selling books is ensuring that the cover art is evocative of the book inside, and that it appeals to readers. In traditional publishing, this is the responsibility of the publisher, but when we authors publish (or re-publish) our books, we need to think about covers, too.
This is a long post, about that very subject. If you’re not interested in cover art, run and hide now!
There is a graphical language to covers, and one that is well developed in the romance section. If a character is alone on the cover, then that character is the focus of the story – for example, I often write hero-focused romances, so it’s pretty common for me to have a guy alone on the cover of one of my books. Dragonfire is an obvious example, as are my fallen angel books. The Dragon Diaries are Zoë’s coming of age story, so she’s on the covers alone. I’d always thought that the Rogues of Ravensmuir covers should have had the heroes on them alone, and that they should be darker in tone because of the neo-Gothic tone of the books, so that’s what I asked Eithne to do for the re-releases. The Jewels of Kinfairlie are brighter in tone, rich in medieval detail, and hero-focused despite their titles, which is why I asked Kim for jewel tones and couples together.
(BTW, don’t be disoriented by the differences in various pages on my site. We’re in the midst of moving from the navy background to the purple one, and because I get confused easily, I’m uploading new pages as they’re completed. It’ll soon be all done!)
When both hero and heroine are shown on the cover, their poses will indicate the “steaminess” of the book. A couple in a passionate clinch will hint at a more sexy book, while a knight kissing the back of a lady’s hand hints that the book is more sweet and/or romantic. Look at my Harlequin Historicals, MY LADY’S CHAMPION was considered to be less “hot” than UNICORN BRIDE. Too bad I don’t have the Bride Quest step-backs on my site – they are clinches of people who are falling out of their clothes. Dell thought I wrote “steamy” medievals.
The amount of skin shown on the cover usually is indicative of the “heat” of the book – erotica and erotic romance novels have lots of bare skin on the cover image, while sweet romances or inspirational romances show characters who are fully clothed.
The colour of the cover can also indicate tone – a darker cover illustration indicates a darker and more gritty read (see those angels in their dystopian society again) while humourous books often have covers that are rendered in a lighter and brighter palette.
There are also fashions in cover art, which come and go. Currently, there are lots of historical romances showing heroines alone in billowing skirts that trail off the page. (A thousand yards of glistening, gleaming, ruby red taffeta, for example. Very lush.) There are also a lot of paranormal romances showing a hero alone, striding through the night. Both of these trends cut off the heads or at least the eyes of the cover models. (Dragonfire counts.) This, too, shall pass – Lorenzo got to keep all of his head, even though his gaze is averted. 🙂
For some books, then, it’s obvious what kind of look the cover should have – the trick is using the current graphical language to communicate with the reader, while simultaneously making the cover distinctive.
Inevitably, though, there are books which are harder to package. I find myself with a little posse of them, which is why I’ve been thinking about this a good bit in recent months.
Let’s walk through an example first.
Once upon a time, I wrote four books for Berkley. Two were time travels (THE LAST HIGHLANDER and THE MOONSTONE) published in the Time Passages imprint and two were immortality/reincarnation romances (ONCE UPON A KISS and LOVE POTION #9) published in the Magical Love imprint. They were the first stories I sold with contemporary settings (even for part of the story) and to me, there is a real continuum over these four books as I became more comfortable with that setting. I wrote them in the order they were originally published: OUAK, TLH, TMS, LP9. The two time travels were in the middle.
The original packaging of these books was pretty good. You can see them all here, in the right column.
In terms of sales, OUAK and TLH sold the best. By far. Why was that? When a book sells well by an author – and this was a new brand. I was writing for Berkley as Claire Cross – you can expect sales to grow over time. That didn’t happen here. What was the issue? I had originally speculated that those two covers were the most appealing to readers, that the blue of TLH was more compelling than the yellow of TMS – even though it’s the same cover model and similar image. I personally preferred the cover for LP9 over that of OUAK, but maybe I was wrong.
OUAK and TLH were also set in Scotland. The other two were set in Canada. It was also possible that this was the distinguishing variable.
When it came time to republish these books last year, I initially did covers myself. OUAK sold pretty well, right from the outset. TMS did not sell. I put a cartoon cover on LP9, thinking that might work better than the original. It didn’t. Actually, the sales pattern was pretty similar to how the books had performed in print.
Last summer, I upgraded the covers to ones by Kim Killion, which you can see in the left column of that page on my site. The first three books are strongly branded as similar, because they feel very similar to me. They have clinches on them because these books are sexy, and they have the clock because they are time travels. (Technically, OUAK isn’t a time travel, but people always think it is.) The covers have castles. And I took them out under Claire Delacroix as that is my ongoing and better-selling brand. Of all three of Kim’s covers, I like the one for TMS the best – probably because I like red so much.
What’s interesting is that the sales pattern has been consistent. OUAK is still selling far better than TMS. Numbers improved somewhat with the new covers, but not that much. TLH was not published until November, and with Kim’s cover from the outset. It is selling very similarly to OUAK. (The one strange thing is that OUAK sells really well at B&N while TLH sells really well at Amazon. The total units are about the same, but I think that’s weird.)
The Scottish setting, then, must be the key.
LP9, meanwhile, is a book that feels different to me. I realized that it is a bridge book, from the time travels to the fully-fledged contemporaries that I wrote subsequently (the Coxwell series) and has more in common with those later books than the earlier ones. As a result, I suspect it appeals to a slightly different market. I’d always liked the original cover illustration, so contacted the artist and she agreed to let me use it. It is a heroine-focused romance with mainstream inclinations and it looks like it with this package. Its sales have not been affected by the change in the cover art.
Which brings us to those Coxwells. These books have always been a challenge to package, and now the challenge is mine. They are contemporary romances with mainstream elements – or mainstream novels with romantic elements, depending upon how you look at it. They are a little bit edgey, a little bit funny and a little bit tragic. They star the members of “the most dysfunctional family on the planet” according to a writer friend of mine. I love these books.
Again, you can see the past packaging on the Coxwell page on my website. In mass market, the first two books went out with dreamy covers. This did not work. When they were reprinted in trade, they went out with cartoon covers. This also did not work. So, I am left with the challenge of how to repackage them this time around, in the hope that readers who like these kinds of books will find them. I suspect they will have photographs on the covers, and that each may show one character – the particular Coxwell “star” of that book – but I need a more concrete idea than that before setting an artist loose on the project.
If you’ve read these books and/or have ideas of how you’d expect to see them packaged, I’d love to hear them.