Judged by a Cover


Everybody has heard that timeless saying: never judge a book by its cover. It’s a lovely sentiment – do not base first impressions on appearances. Beauty is only skin deep. It’s what is on the inside that counts. Who hasn’t heard these phrases as a child? Yet let’s be open and honest here. Who has not judged prematurely based on appearances?

People are intrigued by flashy covers, anything to stand out above the rest. I make it a point to do what I like to call “field research” by going to my local book sellers at least once a week to see what is currently popular. I’ve noticed that the majority of commercial hits have amazingly catchy covers – holographic texts that seem to hover and shimmer, artwork that manage to draw you in, and there are even some clever book jackets that utilize clear windows to see text that are written directly on the hardback cover itself. Commercial publishers are stepping up the game for what is possible and the audience is certainly responding well.

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Let’s play a game. Say you just self-published your beautiful novel and by some miraculous occurrence, you managed to have a local book shop shelve a few copies. You have something to say and you are sure with it finally out in the world, people will flock to it like horses to water in the desert. But they don’t. You don’t understand what the deal is, until you realize that the cover looks like it was thrown together in a bad Photoshop session and you’re trying to sell it at the same price as competitors in a professional market. Say you are able to get the merchant to lower the price, but you’re still not selling. You could sell that thing for 99 cents as a hardback and you might get a couple of sales, but you have to face the facts; it could be a best-seller on the inside, but you simply did not have the knowledge of pure marketing to benefit it from an outsider’s perspective. It must captivate from the get-go in order to even warrant a potential reader to pick it up to get a better view. Commercial publishers know that they are competing for sales in an arena where people want the most possible for their dollar. People these days are not buying physical books just to escape into a story; they are buying these books as collector’s pieces, either in hopes that this book might be worth something big one day or simply as another addition to their own assortment lining their shelves. To accommodate to these collectors, a physical book must meet the expectations of not only being affordable but beautifully eye-catching, or even down-right controversial to demand attention. That seems to be the job of the cover.

However, it’s not all gloom from this angle. Being able to self-publish means that we get the benefit of marketing solely by e-books if chosen. That means you don’t necessarily have to worry about providing physical copies and just enjoy marketing from primarily internet sales. One click and boom, the entire manuscript is sent to the e-reader in seconds. While one is still competing with the big dogs of publishing, an indie author still has the option of marketing via social media. Reviews are such an important role with online sales, and if one gets enough positive reviews, a bit of popularity will flourish for the novel based on the experiences of fellow readers. Plenty of people develop names for themselves from these means. But self-publication is in no way easy to do successfully. More often than not, a person might publish their work only to have it completely forgotten on those double digit pages as you are browsing book titles or genres online. It is a sad thing to let a good story become forgotten before it ever has a chance to make an impact. 


I have mulled over the cover for The Contract since I began writing the thing. Originally the design I intended to have was a red cover (always the most necessary aspect since it is actually referenced in the novel itself) and the art would either be a fine black and white drawing or a photo of interlocked pinkies of two hands with the middle and forefingers crossed, as a way of foretelling breaking the “pinky promise.”


A rough draft of the pinky-promise cover idea I drew about a month into the first draft of The Contract.


Over the years, I played with ideas ranging from a hand cradling a spoiled green apple (yeah, I don’t even have to mention the popular book series that made this sort of cover famous), a close-up of an eye, a dramatic black and white sketch of Highland Academy, and then for marketing purposes I even took my own photo of a pool of blood surrounding a syringe and a rutilated quartz.


Believe it or not, the “blood” is actually black cherry water flavoring!


As of recently, I believe I have found comfort in the classic plain cover for my debut published novel. All I would really want is a red cover with the title and my pen name and perhaps a Gothic-feeling frame around it. I realized many beloved classics have had simple covers, and a simple cover for this story would be fitting.


M.I.H. McCool


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