RE-covering (from) A Failed Cover: Some Advice For (re)Branding A Book

29 Mar

This morning I launched the new cover art for Acephalous Book 1 (below).

CREATESPACE PRINT book cover FINAL-300dpi

Why I Made It

I was motivated to re-brand the book with a new cover and summary blurb because sales have been less than stellar and because, sometimes, you just come up with better ideas after the fact. Sometimes it’s not even on purpose, like this one.

How I Made It

This new cover art started as a mixed-media painting project. I was going to sell the painting at my event booth because it uses the dictionary page with the word “Acephalous” on it. (I do cat-related ones, too, for my other books, and people seem to like them). After tearing out the page and cutting it to size, I decoupaged the dictionary page to a canvas, made crown stencils to paint around, and once dry, added some copper leaf. When it was finished it screamed, “BOOK COVER!” and I just couldn’t sell it. Enter a high-resolution scan of the original painting, some digital touch-ups for color contrast, and the addition of the second dictionary page plus back-matter for the back cover. (Not as exciting a process as the painting.)

Why The New Art Is Better For A Book

Though the book is a good read on which I’ve gotten favorable feedback, the old cover (below) suffered a fatal flaw:

Published Acephalous Cover Final

It did nothing to indicate genre, subject-matter, or target audience. It was pretty. I liked it. When presented with the book, others liked it. But, it wasn’t a cover that grabbed anyone. Since I can’t put the book in people’s hands, strike up conversations about the book, tell them what it’s about all the time, the cover has to do that for me when away from events and speaking engagements.

Aesthetics and marketability are not the same thing. Marketability goes beyond the general eye-pleasing look of a book and must tell something about its contents. “It’s pretty” isn’t enough. As a YA Urban Fantasy with metaphysical elements and a major, plot-changing power struggle, a line of trees on a snowy path wasn’t enough. That book could have been about anything and for readers of any age. It says nothing of genre, although it might say what genre it isn’t (like fantasy, which is bad because it is). Though the cover comes directly from a pivotal scene in the novel, no one knows that until after reading. This is backwards. The cover needs to divulge a bit about what’s inside rather than what’s inside explaining the choice of cover.Enter the bold new cover I created (image 1).

Breaking Down The New Elements

The new art symbolizes parts of the plot in a more general way than the original, which was a verbatim scene. A scene is not a symbol. Symbols are immediately recognizable and have a connotation without further reading. Scenes have no meaning and give no messages to the audience until played out. Crowns indicate the power struggle, which is a relevant theme on a character-self level, character-character level, and character-world level, and they have a more fantasy-leaning connotation.

The new art includes a definition for the title word, Acephalous for clarity. (Note: If you’re going to name your book with a word most people don’t know and can’t pronounce, the explanation needs to be readily available in some manner. I chose a rather blatant method.)

The new art also has a handmade, artsy feel (because it is handmade) that appeals to me and others on an aesthetic and genre-consistent level. This makes it marketable–looks and function. Current trends in YA urban fantasy covers include dark color palettes, multiple textures/patterns, and either: bold, sans-serif text or wispy serif text verging on filigree. The wispy tends toward the more traditional realms of (high)fantasy, the “urban fantasy” approach meaning it is a modern-day setting in our real world, and the characters are less often fantastic creatures than real people with special traits/abilities. Many covers have people/faces on them (even before they’re turned into movies and re-covered with the actors), but that’s not my personal style. I like readers to envision the characters rather than be told who to see by the cover. Just look at a wall of new releases in the YA section of any book store. You’ll see these traits. Resist the urge to step out of the bounds of your genre to be different than that wall. It won’t necessarily pay off to not fit in. What started as the desire to not do what every other author/publisher is doing with their covers may end with confused readers. There are tropes and trends in marketing for a reason. Symbolism and connotation are deeply linked to language and social cues, and your book needs to look like it was placed on the correct shelf in the correct section of the store or people won’t take these cues to understanding.

Other New Features

In addition to the new art, I also rewrote the back cover blurb. At events, people would read the old blurb, put the book back down, and say something like, “That sounds dark,” or, “That’s just a little too heavy for me/my daughter/my students, etc.” The blurb was killing my sales. While there are many dark moments in the book, it is no darker than any other teen drama or fantasy, and I need people to know that. There are always elements of peril, loss, and hopelessness in a plot structured to show how and when a character is finally smacked by reality. I needed my new blurb to convey that there are high stakes and dark moments, but that they are vital to character and plot development, which must start at low-points in order to show realistic growth through a plot (especially with books in a series). The new blurb is shorter, equally telling, yet infuses a hint of hope to soften the darkness.

To reflect the new cover and blurb, I switched up some of my keywords on sales platforms. Poor sales sometimes have more to do with putting the book on the wrong shelf (even the digital “shelves” and categories used by Amazon and others) than with the book itself. For me, it’s not that people were buying the book, reading it, and disliking it. It’s not the writing. People weren’t buying it in the first place. A reason for this might include lack of visibility, especially for online markets where there is so much competition. The book has to appear to the right people at the right time. Search terms/key words and category matter immensely, and having these set to target the right shoppers helps online stores continue targeting correctly. The more imprints (that’s the people who see the book for sale either by ad or search) that turn to sales, the better the store algorithms learn to keep showing the book to other shoppers like the ones who purchased. Essentially, your book has to be on the right shelf and look like it’s on the right shelf.

Since this new cover has just launched, I have no proof that my efforts work on this book, but I have high suspicions they will. These changes will compound as books two and three in the series are released, as the more books you publish, the easier you are to find. And now, I have a definite style and image theme to work from when creating those series covers. Expect to see the dictionary page plus crown silhouette continue, re-styled, in later volumes.

Other authors and marketers make similar decisions to overhaul stagnate back-list titles all the time. Experts in the publishing field recommend this method in hundreds of publications. (I recommend How to Market a Book by Joanna Penn and Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century by John Brookshire Thompson.)

The Takeaway

Don’t be afraid to let go of what isn’t working just because it took a lot of time to create. If you put that much work into the original, you told yourself it was worth it. If it isn’t selling in that state and you’re unwilling to change it, what are you saying about that piece of work? That it was only worth one attempt?

It may feel for a while like the first attempt (or however many) was a waste of time if it has come down to a re-do, but I think it’s a much larger waste of time to let something that isn’t working linger with no results when the addition of a little more work could reap huge dividends. And yes, it is about the money.

(Authors will tell you that they do it because they love it, because they can’t resist the compulsion to write, because they will explode or go mad if they don’t. This is true beyond words. But when an author sets out to make a living by writing, all the love for the craft in the world can’t finance life. If that means I put in another 80 hours recreating a cover for a passion-project book I started at 14 years old and, despite my expectations and yearning for people to read it, is going nowhere, so be it. I put 12 years into that manuscript before it published. You better believe I want it to sell.)

Hopefully I’ll be able to update this post in a year with clear results that prove the experts were right and that my changes worked. I’ll keep adjusting until they do. It’s worth the extra time to me. The first try wasn’t a waste. Failed first attempts only remain failures if nothing is done to resolve the issue. Once there’s a success, that “failed first attempt” becomes a special edition, a limited run, a rare collector’s piece. And those are usually worth more to fans and readers anyway.

A final, somewhat contradictory note:

I fully acknowledge the validity of quitting while ahead, cutting your losses, and prioritizing by cost-benefit analysis. I said it was about the money, and the above are cost-related decisions. I respect every author’s decision to forge ahead with multiple attempts or to say, “That really was a failure. I’m done.” The threshold for if and when these decisions are made is different for all authors. For every project and timeline, there is a point that, when reached, makes it impossible to ever, in a lifetime, make enough money on it to pay back the effort involved, much less turn a profit. My stance in this article is based on my threshold for this project. I haven’t met that threshold yet.

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One Response to “RE-covering (from) A Failed Cover: Some Advice For (re)Branding A Book”

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  1. RE-BRANDING: Acephalous Book 1 NEW Cover and Blurb | Red Ink Enthusiast™ - March 29, 2018

    […] For the How & Why of the new cover, read on. […]

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