Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Clearing Up My Mess of Covers

I've been increasingly bothered by how my covers look as a group, particularly in search at online bookstores (Amazon in particular.)

The thing about search is that you can't control the order in which books appear.  You can't put the "important" books up top and the ephemera down below.  That's ruled by one of Amazon's relevance algorithm: which uses a rolling number that has to do with all sorts of data, including the user's brosing history, and recent activity in general on the page.

So you can't control how your overall body of work is presented, and moreover, special promotions and cheap books are likely to pop to the top, regarless of how much their covers suck. Books in the same series will not appear together.  Books in the same genre will not appear together.

So... cheap books with covers that suck is a common problem in indie publishing, not because indies have no taste (though that is, alas, a factor) but because if you have a loss leader book out there, you can't afford to put a super expensive cover on it.  And if you write a lot of short stories... you don't want to spend huge amounts of cash on those covers.

And that's okay, mostly.

One big problem that has cropped up with traditional publishers as well as indies is that it is hard for the audience to tell the difference, at a glance, between a short story and a promotional price on a new novel.  This has been happening to a lot of big name authors:

They write a short story at the publisher's request as a promotional item. The publisher puts a spiffy cover on it, to "brand" it with the author's main series.... and even though the short is free or 99 cence, the audience is furious.  It looked like a new novel and they were expecting a new new, long read.

So when there is a cheap cover on a short story, it at least looks different from the novels.

Except, of course, that your cheap short stories get more traffic, so they and their sucky covers pop to the top of your book lists.

My problem is a little more complicated than that, though.

I don't just have different lengths and prices to juggle: I have  several series, different genres, as well as lengths.  I even have different ratings and age groups of the intended audience.

So as I was putting each book out, I was thinking about how to brand for each of these subcategories to help readers see exactly what they were getting.  And the result is... all of my covers are very different from one another. It doesn't create clarity, it creates confusion.

On the bright side, I created lots and lots of different kinds of covers, and that helps me experiment with what kind of look I want.

For the most part, I'm happy with the series novels. Their main problem is that I don't have multiple books in each series to make the portfolio look coherent. I particularly like what's going on with The Man Who and the Mary Alwyn books.  Mick and Casey and Misplaced Hero have something to build on.

So that's four different looks for my most important books.  The problem is that the rest of my books are scattered too.

And the short stories?  They're the ones that are all over the place, and they create a lot of the confusion. And they are the "cheap" set.  So they are up for re-design first.

The redesign has to be cheap and replicatable.  What I need is a template I can use for all of them.  The question is what kind of template.

Waiter is my most popular book -- even when it isn't free.  But that has a lot to do with the title. I use an almost identical layout and font for my least popular book, The Adventure of Anna the Great.  Meanwhile, Scattershale Gulch does okay, but it's trashy comic book cover design is the sore thumb here.  It might look okay if that was the template for all of them, but it's really a fussy design to work with.  And I don't think it's right for much of my short work.

The other two are simple, but they are so simple they kind of disappear.  If all the short covers were like them, they wouldn't look like a separate thing from the novel covers, they'd just blur the lines.

So I need distinct, cheap, simple.

As I was falling asleep the other day, though, I had one of those brilliant thoughts.  It was a visual thought, not a verbal one.  Woodcuts.  Take the basic layout I'm using for Waiter, but have the frames and lettering in a woodcut style, the middle frame can be for a simple symbolic image.  I can do a fourth frame as a narrow band across the top that says "short stories" or "novelette."

What you see here is a modified version: I don't have an upper frame for the title and then a middle one for an image or subtext.  I'm thinking that I will handle the title above, like the name below, and maybe doing art in a black band across the lower middle.

But I will worry about that when I get to the redesigns of individual books.

One of the reasons I like this, aside from the fact that it's easy, is that it has a literary "title page" look. Well, not what you see here -- I modified it from that. But the three frames on white or beige used to be a standard in many small and academic presses, especially low budget foreign presses.  And ESPECIALLY in Arts and Crafts small press printing.   They'd have nothing but plain text on the cover. Maybe a colophon and a pretty border for decoration at most.

I think that's appropriate for short fiction.

In the end I really won't know how this will affect sales.  Some of these books were free for a while this year, and they should be trickling back to priced soon.  That will affect sales.  The fact that I am getting more books out there will affect sales.  The phases of the moon will affect them too.

But for my own pride and sanity, I think it's worth an effort to untangle the mess in my portfolio of covers.  I am glad to have created them in the first place.  It's a learning curve, and the longer and more you do it the better you get at it.

See you in the funny papers.

 A Round of Words in 80 Days Update

This Segment's Progress:

Sunday Day 42 - 90 minutes
Monday Day 43 - 180 minutes
Tuesday Day 44 - I didn't record.  But I'm sticking a fork in ToF for the time being. The last two episodes need work, but we'll do that when I get back to the formatting and editing pass.

Tomorrow, I might start a transition toward word counts again, as I take up Devil in a Blue Bustle.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

One of the things that bothers me about Amazon (which I hope they'll fix soon) is the lack of real organization the site provides. I'd love to be able to group titles in specific ways...both as a reader and as a writer.

I've also noticed the problem with short stories, novellas, and free novel the reader some indication what they're buying. I've seen some authors put "--A Short Story" in their actual titles to circumvent that.

Love the Woodcut look. Isn't it funny how we have great ideas just as we're falling asleep?

Carradee said...

I very much like your template!

I've been eying my stuff for redesigns. I have a template for the Aleyi novels, but I need one for the short stories—and I want the template to be able to distinguish between type and narrator, too, so that's tricky to figure out.

Ironically, for the Darkworld, it's the reverse. I just figured out a new template that'll work for all the short stories—with a line devoted to the narrator name, and the backdrop colors also indicating who the narrator is. (I've not applied it yet.) Now to figure out the novels—but I'll worry about that when I get to the sequel.

The Overhill short stories, I'll worry about making a template for when I'm putting out a second book. At least I have the font figured out for that one.

The Daring Novelist said...


Yeah, I always try to add "a short story" type line to my shorts. I've heard from authors who have established series who did that, though, and it didn't help. The audience was still thinking "Oh! A new Detective So-and-so novel!"

That's partly a matter of the audience getting used to the new world.

As for Amazon's organization, that will always be there, because the whole point of Amazon is their relevance algorithm. The user's needs will always prevail -- and if they want to call up books from a certain series, they can.

In the meantime, we can hope they continue to give authors more control over the author page, at least.

Carradee: Yeah, having too many things you want to distinguish is tough. I've decided to let the sub-titles distinguish the genre on those shorts.

The art motif can help with series. For instance, the Mick and Casey logo will appear on Mick and Casey shorts with mine.

jnfr said...

I like the new design very much.

Unknown said...

I totally love the woodcut idea.

While it's important to put "this is a short story" vs "this is a novel" - some people will always complain :).

Ultimately - as authors we have to put our "business" hats on and just go with the point of "size of document does not indicate value - or price".

Yes some people will be mad that they paid 99-cents for short story. Much less $2.99. However, I would tend to say "ignore them - they are not your market." And for others who think that you can't charge for example $2.99 for a short-story, I'd point out that many people buy $5.99 magazines for a single article or story or heck, just the headlines (Cosmo is the best at this).

The Daring Novelist said...

How you price a short story is not the point here. Not at all! The point is the audience knowing what they are getting.

It doesn't matter if you want to charge $15 for a short story or offer it for free. If your audience is looking for a novel, and your short stories look just like your novels... your audience will be disappointed.

Your audience has a very limited amount of time and attention. If you make them work for that information, then it really is too your fault if the dumb or inattentive ones miss the footnote in your blurb.

One of the tools the audience uses to figure out what you are offering is price -- you can't escape that. They see the title, author name, cover and price, and leap to conclusions based on that, long before they click to find out more.

But price is used differently by different people. And you can't escape that either. You don't know what message you are sending to the audience via price because you don't know what other experiences they've had.

But you ARE sending a message, always, and so you have to use other tools -- cover and title in particular -- to make that message clear.

The Daring Novelist said...

Oh, and thanks, jnfr!