As a writer, few things cause me as much angst as my books’ covers. Why? Because a book’s cover is constantly cited as one of the most important factors influencing a reader’s decision to pick it up. Yet ironically it’s the one aspect of a book in which writers have the least input.
Titles are also important, and in some genres a writer has almost no influence there either. I wrote seven romance novels and NOT ONE went to press with my original title or even one of my first half dozen alternate suggestions. I seem to have better luck with my mystery and thriller titles. So far all my Sebastian St. Cyr books have gone to press with their original titles intact. My thriller title stuck as well.
But it’s now cover conference time for THE ARCHANGEL PROJECT, which means I’m starting to fret. The decisions being made in that anonymous room up in New York could very well make a difference between this book’s success and oblivion. Sometimes art departments turn in stunning results—WHY MERMAIDS SING, for instance. And then there are the dogs. The cover of WHEN GODS DIE was a severe disappointment. But since ARCHANGEL is my first thriller, I don’t know what to expect.
We actually started down this road a few months ago, then Harper Collins bailed because they hadn’t decided yet whether they wanted to bring ARCHANGEL out in hardcover or as a paperback original (and that makes a difference, it seems, in the cover). Steve and I did “thriller cover research” and were amused to realize that thriller covers are as stereotypic as romance covers. A thriller or suspense novel typically has either a woman in a dress and heels or a man in a suit running down a shadowy street. Sometimes the man is walking, but if so, then he must be in a trench coat. If the book doesn’t take place in a city, then we have a stark, scary scene of rural menace.
There are a few book covers that break this mold, but they are rare. Why? Because publishers think readers are stupid. The woman in heels running down a dark street tells readers This Is A THRILLER, just as a shadowy historical street scene tells readers This Is a Historical Mystery. The fear is that if publishers stick a different cover on a book, readers looking for a thriller or historical mystery won’t recognize it.
Yet the Da Vinci Code had a great, different cover and I’ve no doubt it contributed much to the book’s success (that and the largest marketing push in publishing history). A recent informal survey of mystery readers revealed that most historical mystery readers actually don’t even know that dark historical street scene covers are a clue they should be looking for. Of course, everyone in the world knows that a “clinch” cover is shorthand for romance. Romance writers complained about those covers for years, but publishers clung to them because they were convinced they’d lose readers if they tried something different. Then they tried something different and, lo and behold, books with innovative covers sold better. Who’d have thunk?
The funny thing is, even though I know better, I find I still judge a book by its cover, at least initially. An eye-catching cover and an intriguing title will lure me to pick up a book. I’ll then read the blurb and, if I think it sounds interesting, I’ll read the first few pages to get a feel for a writer’s style. If that appeals to me, I’ll buy the book. But that first step—reaching out and taking the book in my hand—is provoked by the title and the cover. And that’s a scary thought.