Choosing The Right Book Cover

Published on Author templewms8 Comments

ChoosingCoverPeople might not judge your work by its cover, but it will be the first impression that puts it near their fingertips.

I published Warrior Patient, my debut memoir in late 2014. After submitting my finished book to over 200 literary agents, and coming up empty, I decided to self-publish. I understood that agents and publishers were not going to fall over each other chasing a seventy-two-year-old author, no matter how easy he was to catch.

My resumé included professional writer, speechwriter, editor, journalist, advertising copywriter, art director, and creative director. In every category, I won awards, some of them prestigious. My career stretched over half a century, but suddenly it needed Spandex to hold it together. I was an aging, Indie “newbie.”

I understood formatting, editing, and pagination. I had been a lead contractor at IBM’s multimedia laboratory in Palisades, New York, placing me at the forefront of the Digital Age.

Some of the 214 literary agents that I contacted sent kind notes, not standard form letters. They assured me that the memoir would find a home. It turned out to be the one in which I lived, because I translated their gentle messages as: “How many more books can this old geezer write?”

“First books” enjoy a deeply-tarnished and deserved reputation as “money down the drain.” Your third or fourth book might bring your agent or publisher profits. The first almost certainly will not. Either I published my memoir myself, or not at all.

BookCoverRevise03The world of Indie Publishing welcomed Warrior Patient with stunning disregard. Slowly, readers started to buy the book at a blistering snail’s pace. I twittered, facebooked, googled, websited, blogged, linkedin and pinterested with dedicated purpose.

My slogan became: “It’s not a crime to commit First Degree Writing.” I made book trailers. I gave speeches. I had dozens of five-star reviews at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Goodreads.

In eight months, I sold just under a thousand books, mostly low-profit e-books. I sold quite a few higher-profit paperbacks at events as a guest speaker.

I envied authors with traditional publishers, who could sell a thousand books a month through their imprint’s established channels. They sold to libraries and bookstores. In-house authors had blurbed their books before they leaped forth from a Print-On-Demand doorway. Indie writers and publishers enjoyed no such benefits.

Halfway through my second book, another writer suggested I test the cover of Warrior Patient. My reaction was logical, mature, and thoughtful.

“What the hell’s wrong with my cover?” I had several covers, all the same format. I had designed them myself and thought they worked well.

I created six new covers to verify the superior value of the ones I used, tossing out three that did not pass the inspection of my greatest critic. “I don’t like those,” my wife of forty-two years said.

Thus, the Tale Of Four Covers was born.

I created a poll on my blog. I also decided to use a professional opinion poll. My career in advertising at companies like Ogilvy & Mather and Leo Burnett, together with my years as an editor at The Reader’s Digest, taught me to respect opinion polls.

I tested an existing cover against what I thought was the third-best “new” cover, wanting to load the deck in my favor. I asked a simple question: “Which book cover is the best one?”compare-01

Sixty-four percent of the people polled were men, lopsided but not fatally so. Most of them were well-educated, with good incomes. Several of them, I noticed, made too much money to be messing around, answering opinion polls. All of them made comments about their choice, many of which seemed intelligent and useful. The results shocked me.

Only fifteen out of a hundred voted for the existing cover. Eighty-five percent thought my third-best “new” cover won, hands down.

Having strangers say that my judgment sucked did not feel good. It felt great. It uncovered a problem of which I had no willing or willful awareness.

When it comes to book covers, and most other things in life, ignorance is not bliss. It’s ignorance.

With a clear winner in my pocket, I moved on to the next poll, comparing my two remaining new covers. One showed medical people, including a masked woman with wonderful, piercing eyes. It was my favorite.

Giveaway02I had traveled around with my book and its three new cover possibilities, visiting gift stores in hospitals, hoping they might want to stock Warrior Patient. Sick people would benefit from it, a nice gift. It would not wilt like flowers. Nor would they, if they read it. It might laugh them back to a better life.

An author friend of mine, Marsell Morris, suggested this approach and the “medical” cover was also his favorite, direct and to the point. Most of the hospital personnel I talked to agreed. On the other hand, they also thought the original cover was very nice. Interesting.

The results of the second poll surprised me again. Only thirty-two percent of those polled thought the “hospital” choice belonged at the top of the heap. Two-thirds of them chose the sunset, and their comments gave many sound reasons why.


“Those doctors look a little scary,” one wrote. “Especially for a book I’d assume was for people who might be afraid of what the future holds for them.”

About the winning cover another said: “It looks like the patient is happy and has conquered the world. It feels a lot more uplifting.”

One detailed comment said: “I prefer the sunset cover, based on the title of the book. I see it’s a memoir about a person’s experience as a patient. The cover showing doctors in surgical masks looks like it would be from the point of view of the doctors. It may even be more technical. The cover that shows the silhouette of a person overlooking the ocean sunset evokes more of a feeling that’s personal and relatable in a human experience.”

Many reviewers clearly went beyond making snap decisions, and a universal theme of those polled was: “Doctors creep me out.” Especially Ms. Spooky Eyes.

Once again, the demographics showed more men than women answering the poll. Education and income remained about the same. Twelve percent of them went to grad school, and this was the only group that thought the “doctors” cover was marginally better than the sunset. Not unusual for people who had struggled towards a doctoral degree.

With two clear winners, I doubled the poll size. The voting for the final choice would surely be close.

It was not. This time the poll demographics split evenly between men and women, sixty-three percent voted for compare-03what I now call “the Purple Heart” cover. Eighty-four percent of the college-educated contributors gave it their thumbs up. Graduate school readers registered a ninety-three percent approval rate.

The personal comments from well over four hundred people have given me some ideas that could make the winner even better.

The new cover will propagate through my publishing and marketing material during June and July, 2015. What happens to Warrior Patient sales will be the subject of another article before the end of that year.

How much did all this cost? I spent $108.31 on the polling, using PickFu. If the test covers had been done by someone else, they might have cost me over a thousand dollars. I created them in Adobe programs such as Fireworks and Photoshop. It cost me nothing. Of course there was my time, which also has no price, but in a much different sense.

Temple Emmet Williams
May 30, 2015

The Final Book Cover


8 Responses to Choosing The Right Book Cover

  1. I can very much relate to your experiences with publishers and suchlike. My publishing history compares closely to yours. My main advantage is that I have a long career in graphic design, so I have a certain advantage when it comes to deigning my own covers. I actually like your original dark blue cover design, except for the title font and kerning, which looks a little unsophisticated and unrefined from an art & design perspective, to me. Strangely enough, I think that even people without a clue about graphic design can pick up on such things on a subconscious level. I think the pictorial element of your dark blue design and the positioning of the subtitle has merits over the subsequent ideas where the subtitle encroaches on the pictorial area. Just my opinion (and as you will have noticed, everyone seems to have different ideas and opinions).

    • Thanks Alan. I was an art director, copywriter and creative director for many years at places like Leo Burnett and Ogilvy & Mather. Thanks for your opinion, which I appreciate and note.

  2. I love the spirit behind the old saying “Never judge a book by its cover.” Too bad the world of commerce doesn’t work that way. Yet, we’ve all been burned before by beautifully packaged books that don’t deliver equally lovely content. For the record, I prefer the “Purple Heart” cover myself. There’s something very soothing about that cover image combined with the cooler, deeper colors.

    I’ll tell you one way readers won’t lose–by opening the cover and reading your memoir! It’s been several weeks since I finished it, and I still remember it with a smile.

    Take good care,

  3. I hear you Marsell, but the poll beat it to death. Your choice was also my favorite. The problem is that gift shop sales will be, at best, a tiny portion of my overall sales. My market is much, much larger than people in a hospital. Ms. Spooky Eyes would chase away readers who are sick and want to get better (but are not hospitalized). They want hope, not a reminder of their next hospital visit. I think it’s that simple.

  4. Thanks for the mention and link. Now that you pointed it out, the spooky-eyed cover does appear a bit menacing, but it’s still my favorite because it clearly indicates what the book is about, even from across a room. If someone in a hospital is looking for a book, I think spooky eyes would be the first to catch their eyes.

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