Friday, December 14, 2012

A Book Cover's Unintended Consequences

Once a book leaves a writer's personal computer and goes out into the world, it no longer belongs to the author. Readers give a novel a life of its own through their personal interpretations.

In the few months since Artifact has been out, it's been fascinating to read reviews that focus on different aspects of the novel that the reviewers found compelling. I'm lucky the reviews have been overwhelmingly positive so far. But what I didn't expect was the reaction to my book cover.

I love my book cover. And from the enthusiastic comments I receive from readers, they love it as well. Then what am I talking about, you ask? I'm referring to the reaction from people who aren't my core audience of female traditional mystery readers.

As a graphic designer, I was able to design my own cover art. Part of a designer's job is strategy. One of the key questions a designer begins with is identifying the target audience. Therefore I studied the book covers of recent mystery novels I enjoyed that I knew had a similar target audiencebooks where I thought if a reader liked one of those books then they might enjoy mine, too. Here's a picture of a few of those books. Notice the similar elements in these books and my own cover.

The problem?

I may have been too narrowly focused. While my book cover has been successful at signaling to fans of "lighthearted, fun, well-researched, puzzle-plot mysteries with a strong-willed female protagonist and a dash or romance" that Artifact is for them, it turns out that the book has the potential for broader appeal.

Here are a few things that clued me in to this unintended consequence of creating a cover for my core readership:

1. ForeWord Reviews is a literary magazine that reviewed Artifact. They have gave it a great review, but in their email blast that promoted the review, they began:  "Don't let Artifact's cover discourage you. It's a classic mystery that will appeal to those who enjoy complex puzzlescomplete with quirky characters, suspense, and romance." Ha! I'm happy they decided to read and review it in spite of the cover. 

2. I've been doing a bunch of events this fall to promote the book. On numerous occasions, men came up to me after I spoke to tell me that my treasure hunt mystery sounded like something they'd love, but that they'd never pick it up based on the book cover. I admit I assumed it would be women who would be my primary readers. But looking at the reviews of Artifact on Amazon, roughly half of the reviews are from men. Live and learn!

3. This is something I already knew, but didn't realize would be an issue: the book cover looks like it could be a Young Adult book. The book is definitely YA-friendlythere's no sex or violence or swearing on the pageso it's appropriate for young teens. The cover is very appropriate in that sense. But I've learned that some people won't pick up a mystery if they think it's specifically for young adults. And the flip side is that some readers enjoyed it as a Young Adult book and wondered why it wasn't categorized as a YA book.

Book covers are completely subjective, of course, so no cover is going to please everyone. Even if I could go back in time, I'm not sure I would go back and change my cover. Though I may lose some readers because of the cover, I'm also able to find mystery readers who have a greater chance of enjoying the book once they pick it up. There are so many books published each yearI read some statistics that put the number at over a millionthat it's important to stand out quickly to the people most likely to appreciate a particular book.

Lastly, styles of book covers change over time. Here's an example of the book cover of one of my favorite books, Borrower of the Night by Elizabeth Peters. You can see how it has changed over the decades.

Will Artifact ever get a new cover? Who knows. For now, I'm having a lot of fun hearing from readers who've found the book, regardless of why they picked it up.



  1. YA, eh? Hmm. Maybe Jaya Jones should be wearing spelunking or rappelling gear.

  2. A faceless marketing committee designs my bookcovers, although occasionally I have a little input (like when they tried to use a Victorian house rather than the colonial one that was central to in the series). But many are planned to signal the book's genre, even from a distance. For example, cozy covers have bright, pretty colors, lots of intricate details--and a cat or a dog, or one of each. Browsers know what they're picking up before they open the book.

    When chick lit (remember that?) was hot, there were lots of pink books with legs and stilettos.

    Maybe we're too close to our own stories to be objective about what sells--although I hate to give marketing that kind of control.

    I bought your book because I knew you and because I'd heard good things about it on various lists and loops, not because of the cover. And I thoroughly enjoyed it! I'd love to see it reach a wider audience, and if a different cover would help, it's worth thinking about.

  3. All important things to think about. I especially like how you compared the three Elizabeth Peters covers for the same book. The first Connie Blair mystery that I read was a 1960s paperback reissue, and even though I know the book was written well before that, the style of the cover definitely influenced my opinion (love) of the series.

  4. Interesting to see the change in covers over time, and to hear that yours struck a YA note with some -- do you think that's because of the style you chose for the female image?

  5. Sheila, thanks so much for all of these thoughts! Marketing is such a tricky thing. And I'm so glad to hear you enjoyed Artifact :)

    Diane, as you can probably guess, my favorite cover of that Elizabeth Peters book is the one from the 1970s ;)

    Suzanne and Leslie, re: the YA connection, I do think it's the cartoonish illustration of a young-looking woman that resonates as YA. I was going for fans of cozy mysteries, and I do think it reaches them; and I knew it did look YA-friendly, but I didn't realize just how much it would signify YA. I've also heard from non-mystery readers who picked up the book since she wasn't your typical white heroine (since she's half Indian, I made her look it). So that's been interesting to hear, too.

  6. Gosh, Gigi, your reviewers are right. The title intrigued me, but the cover made me think of one of those sassy, know-it-all twenty somethings that I am so not interested in anymore. Glad the reviews pushed me against that.
    That 70s cover of Peters isn't my favorite. Having lived through the 60s and 70s, it smacks of that lurid stuff editors went for to suggest a sexy broad within whether the was or wasn't.
    Very interesting article.

  7. Gigi,
    The cover is what got my attention to read the book. I didn't think YA when I saw it.

    I thought this is a book I'm going to love! I can't wait for the next Jaya Jones!

  8. Pat and Elizabeth -- With your opposite opinions about what the book cover said to you, you've perfectly illustrated how subjective book covers are! Thanks so much for sharing. I appreciate your input.

  9. There's always more to learn, isn't there? I never would have predicted the things you also didn't predict. I'll keep reading to see if you make a new cover!(Meanwhile, you can put me down as one who liked the present one.)


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