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One of the main reasons for self-publishing is creative freedom and control.
Many of us regularly update book blurb/descriptions, as well as changing categories and keywords. I've also blogged before about making sure non-fiction book titles are based on keyword research.
Today I'm talking about changing book covers because within a few hours, you can completely change the look and emotional impact of your book. When authors like Polly Courtney have resigned over the cover branding for their books, this seems like the ultimate indie freedom.
I published Desecration, a crime thriller, in Nov 2013, and after it debuted on the bestseller list alongside Michael Connelly, it pretty much sank down the charts. I haven't done any further promotion, and it hasn't sold as well as my other books.
It gets brilliant reviews, so once people read it, they love it. But not enough people were trying it … sure, I haven't done any specific promotion, but based on my other book sales, it should be doing better.
The ‘aha' moment
Russell Blake, the author who has sold over 400,000 thrillers and now writes with Clive Cussler, wrote a post in Feb 2014 about tweaking his covers. Russell changes covers in order to “find one that resonates with my readership – as expressed in increased sales.”
He changed the cover on one specific book, Fatal Exchange, four times before settling on the latest iteration – which moved from a theme based to a person based cover.
HM Ward is probably the most successful indie author right now, with over 4 million books sold and 11 NY Times bestsellers in 2013. She wrote this post about changing her book covers – from arty to genre obvious – and says that:
“COVERS ARE STOP SIGNS. They should quickly reveal as much info about your book to the reader as possible and this did not. As soon as I changed the covers to the current version, sales shot up … Short version: I was really stupid. Don’t wait 9 months to change covers or descriptions on books that aren’t preforming.”
These two fantastic indie authors provided me with an ‘aha' moment, and this is what I decided.
My mistake #1: Theme over character
I always have a strong theme in my books, and for Desecration the main theme is anatomy and whether the physical body actually defines who we really are. Yes, this is a deep and meaningful topic and I explore the use of the physical body in life through tattoos, body modification and alternative nightclub Torture Garden. I also write about the use of the body after death in medical specimens and corpse art.
But mainly it's a murder mystery with a British detective, Jamie Brooke, whose daughter is dying. Jamie will do anything to protect her daughter in life … and in death.
In the initial brief to my [wonderful] designer, Derek Murphy of Creativindie, I had only given him the themes. I didn't even mention the characters. So the first cover, through all initial iterations, was about the medical specimens and anatomy. It's gorgeous, but it has no emotional resonance through character.
For the second cover, the brief was: grieving mother who will do anything to avenge the wrong done to her daughter, and to bring justice to the murder victim. It was all about character.
My mistake #2: Not meeting genre expectations
Desecration is a crime thriller, with an edge of horror in parts. It's certainly not for the squeamish. It has a dark tone and a dark theme. The white cover has therefore confused readers of this type of book. White just isn't very dark 🙂
People have also said the original cover looks very arty, very literary fiction. The font down the side is beautiful but not easily readable and the word ‘Desecration' is difficult for some anyway. It's the HM Ward mistake – falling in love with the art, and not thinking of the reader expectation first.
The white cover also didn't really fit with my other J.F.Penn books which are all dark. The new image of all my books together looks a lot better with another dark book in the frame, as above right.
Comments from Derek Murphy, my cover designer
“We tried a lot of ideas with the first round for Desecration, using mostly symbolic elements. Joanna previously had been adverse to using people on covers so we kept things simple; the final cover she chose is interesting and unique – but wasn't selling well. Here are some reasons why:
1. No emotional connection. Emotion is mostly a matter of scene, color and contrast, although adding characters can help a lot as well.
2. People usually sell covers. Even if a little cliche or overused, stock photo models seem to increase sales.
3. No genre identification. Symbolic covers are better for non-fiction. The stern white, while clinically suitable, probably seemed too much like a non-fiction book. At the very least it was unclear what the book was about – this could have been improved with a tagline.
4. No depth. Adding a scene lets readers know more about the setting and feels more like they can ‘walk into' the story. It's tough to pull off a flat, symbolic cover (even though major bestsellers seem to use them, like the Game or Thrones series, Twilight, Shades of Gray, etc.)
The new cover fixes most of these issues. It's not a matter of what “looks better” or what people will like – the cover's job is to let readers know what the book is about and whether they might be interested in a single, 1 second glance. If the cover isn't doing this, there's a good chance they aren't going to take a closer look or read the summary or reviews.”
You can find Derek at Creativindie Book Covers, and he also has this great post about DIY Covers in MS Word, as well as a fantastic program to help authors with book cover design. You can find more cover designers here.
The new cover
I am really happy with the new cover!
I spent over 5 hours trawling through all the image sites looking for my idea of Jamie Brooke, the main character. This model totally fits the bill. Of course, British police detectives don't carry guns, but I decided a little artistic license would suit the American audience more 🙂
I've also just uploaded the new print covers to Createspace, so if you have one of the older cover print books, it is officially a limited edition!
In terms of results, it's difficult to say yet. The ranking on the Amazon.com store has moved from ~200,000 to ~50,000, but I have also been involved in other promotions this month. It will be best to wait a few months and see how the average sales are over time.
Tweaking my other covers
Since my other book covers have also been theme-driven, and I had a BookBub promo coming up a few weeks ago, we decided to change Pentecost as well to add a female character. We didn't want to change the rest of the cover in an attempt to see whether the addition of a woman would make a difference.
I also searched hard for this model, who fits incredibly well since my Dr Morgan Sierra is closely modeled on Lara Croft!
Although it's hard to do any kind of split testing when you only have one book, I have now had two free runs on BookBub for Pentecost.
The first run resulted in ~20,000 free downloads. This latest run with the new cover resulted in over 30,000 downloads. I can't directly attribute it to the addition of the female figure, but at least it shows that the cover change wasn't detrimental, and could mean it was a positive move. Pentecost is still free on all stores if you fancy trying it.
OK, I would love to hear what you think. Firstly, what do you think of my cover change? Do you think the new covers are more effective? Also, have you changed your own covers and has this impacted sales? Please leave a comment below.