They say a picture is worth a thousand words.
There's no shortage of advice for self-published authors on the internet. From my own research, I've found that most of the advice on covers begins with the old adage "Don't judge a book by its cover", and then goes on to explain how full of folly that line of thinking is for you, the would be self-published author, and that one of the most important monetary investments you should consider making is a professionally designed cover. This can run you anywhere from a handjob and a sandwich to thousands of dollars.
There's logic to it. If you want to compete with the big boys, it only makes sense that you'd have to step up your game. Well-oiled, shirtless men don't pose with swords for free, you know.
I agree that covers are important. If a potential reader is scrolling through a list of books on Amazon, a lackluster cover is just an invitation for them to keep on scrolling. Your book is a small fish in a very large pond. Most of the other fish are crawling with AIDS. How are you supposed to get the reader to discover the sweet, succulent, HIV negative fish meat inside your pages.
What I don't necessarily agree with is that you have to spend a lot of money on cover art. Hell, you don't have to spend any at all, if you've got a couple of things at your disposal.
1. A decent camera.
2. Some random shit.
3. An imagination.
4. Mad Photoshop Skillz.
A friend with all of that stuff.
"Bob!" I hear you saying. "Are you seriously suggesting I just slap a picture of some random shit on my book cover and call it a day?"
Well, yes and no. I mean, you've got to make an effort.
You'll want something of at least tangential relevance to your story. But not every fantasy novel has to have a bare-chested warrior on the cover, just as every romance novel doesn't have to feature a picture of a couple embracing in a windstorm, nanoseconds away from passionate tongue wrestling.
"But there's a reason all of those covers look so similar!" you say. "It allows the potential customer to immediately know the genre. Who are you to stand against the tried and true industry standard?"
I'm a self-published author, that's who. Sure, we have a lot of hurdles to overcome, compared to our fellow writers talented and fortunate enough to have been published by one of the "Big 6". But we have some advantages, too.
No, seriously! We do! Think about all of the money those big publishing houses invest in their books. If that book flops, they lose a lot. It makes sense for them to play it safe. But then there's you, the self-published schlub who hasn't put a dime into his book. (That's not to say there aren't other things you might want to spend money on... editing, for example.) You've got nothing to lose. You can afford to take chances. The worst that's going to happen is that you remain unnoticed. And the best part is, if you find it's not working for you, you can always change the cover whenever you want!
Take a look at the covers of the two books we self-published authors most love to hate... Twilight, and its bastard offspring, Fifty Shades of Grey.
Twilight has an apple on the cover. A fucking apple! What does that have to do with sparkly vampires or avatars for girls with low self-worth? Not a lot. But does that mean it's a bad cover?
I don't think so. I think it's a fantastic cover. A simple apple can be a powerful image, what with all the mythological symbolism it conjures up. This cover has the promise of seduction, temptation, loss of innocence, all sorts of great stuff that the story inside fails to deliver. Without any prior knowledge of what Twilight was, I just might take that book off the shelf and flip through a couple of pages of it before I put it back and wash my hands.
Fifty Shades of Grey has a necktie on the cover. What does that call to mind? Constraint, maybe? But notice that the tie is off. Someone, who perhaps should be wearing it, has broken free. I don't know. I'm just making shit up. I didn't read that book. Am I close?
Anyway, the point is that these #1 New York Times Bestseller book covers were made with a camera, a piece of fruit, and a necktie. You've got that shit lying around your house right now! Or, if you don't, just substitute a Hot Pocket and a flip-flop. The point still stands.
For some more examples, let's take a look at my favorite self-published author...
I'll be the first to admit, my covers are no great works of art. Most of them were the product of around thirty minutes spent with a bag of dice, my brother-in-law's camera and photo-manipulation skills, and my ideas, and beer. I didn't spend a cent on any of them. Have a quick browse, and I won't be offended if you want to touch (click on) them.
What do these covers say to you? If I was successful, they say that these books have something to do with gamers, and that the author has a great time writing them and doesn't take himself too seriously. And, well, that last one might say a few more things, but I'll leave that up to your imagination.
"Okay, Bob," you say. "So you didn't spend any money on your covers. I can tell. But do they sell books?"
First of all, that was harsh. I'd like to remind you that you're a guest here. And secondly, yes. They do sell books. I won't get into specific numbers, but if you click on the above images, you'll see that most of those books are ranked in the top 100 of at least one Amazon Bestseller list.
Am I saying you shouldn't spend money on a cover? Not at all. If you've got the cash to blow, and there's an artist out there who you feel really shares your vision, have at it. What I'm saying is that if you don't have those kinds of funds available, don't let it stop you. You're a writer. You should have some kind of imagination in you. Put it to work. Single out what it is that makes your book unique, be it an object or a theme or whatever, and find something that you feel could represent it. Experiment. Take chances. I really believe that the ability to do just that is the biggest edge you have.
The strategic placement of your books into categories is something I'll likely blog about in the future.
Good luck to you all. Keep writing.