The Indie Files: Is Your Book Cover Doing the Job or Does It Need to Be Fired?

by Kelly McClymer

Your book is finally for sale after all your hard work getting it ready. You love your cover (or you don’t). But the sales aren’t where you thought they would be. Or your reviews mention the book didn’t meet their initial expectations. 

Now come the questions: Is my book bad? Is my blurb bad? Is my cover the problem?

The easy, cheap fix is the blurb. Readers won’t be shy about telling you if the narrative itself isn’t working (even famous authors have their critics). If those aren’t the problem, you have to take an honest look at your cover. As an indie author, you must work hard to get readers to give your book a try, and that may include firing the cover.

Much as we authors hate to admit it, a great cover can sell a so-so book and a bad cover can tank a great book. Unfair. Yep. But do you want to gripe, or sell books?

Is it Time to Change Your Book Cover?

For authors, the cover is a double-edged sword. We need one that calls to our readers and makes them pick our book out of a crowded line up.

I remember the first time I realized would have to change the cover for an indie book. I didn’t want to pay for another cover design, so I delayed making the obvious decision. I kept telling myself that the book was good, so the cover couldn’t make that much difference.

I should have known better. I’ve been a voracious reader since I learned to read and my personal book choice algorithm is simple: favorite author first, then intriguing title, then intriguing cover. That personal algorithm hasn’t changed in decades. As a reader, I am easily seduced by title or cover.

As an author, I hate spending money on new covers and agonizing over the design. What got me to stop pinching pennies in this critical area of marketing? Evidence, of course. My indie author friends weren’t afraid to change their covers. Multiple times. And it (usually) helped their sales significantly. Even better, some of them were able to do so on a budget by using pre-made covers that were on sale. 

The changes boosted sales when authors changed their covers to match reader expectations in genre and storyline. Genre matters. Once, at a writer’s conference, I sat across from a science fiction (SF) writer whose name I don’t recall. He said, “I put a spaceship on all my SF covers. When I don’t, the books don’t sell. When I do, they sell.” He’d experimented to see how much that spaceship mattered, and the numbers told him that it made sure his readers knew his books were for them.

For your cover to meet reader expectations, you and your designer should ask these three questions:

  1. Does it signal genre? Avid readers tend to favor one or two specific genres over others. The cover, title, and blurb combination tell them if they’ve found that book. The cover has a spaceship, the title is Journey to Mars, the blurb says a modern-day scientist builds a rocket to Mars to rescue his family as the Earth gasps its last. Bingo!
  2. Does it signal favorite trope(s)? Readers love tropes. The Martian is a prime example of an indie book that hits favorite tropes hard: human stranded in harsh circumstances, betting everything on a long shot because the only other option is death, etc. Tell me you didn’t root for the human to survive on his potato diet until help could arrive.
  3. Does it signal narrative voice? The same story can be told as a ribald humorous narrative, with pages of minutely described violence, or dryly laid out like a lab experiment. Readers look for clues to tell them if this book is written in the narrative voice they prefer.

Trudi Jaye, who writes urban fantasy and co-hosts the SPA Girls podcast for new indie authors, kindly offered a visual representation of how her Hidden Dragon cover evolved, based on a deepening understanding of what her readers wanted.

Her first cover (which is still my favorite) didn’t advertise fantasy, though there is a strong young woman, the dragon trope, and a gun.

Her second cover added the fantasy element but not the magical abilities of her protagonist. 

The third cover bumped sales. Everyone loved the dragon’s eye. But even then, Trudi got more clicks on the cover than sales of the book, indicating a mismatch between what her readers were looking for and what the cover signaled.

Hence, the fourth cover, which combined it all: fantasy, magic, strong protagonist, and dragons.

Will Trudi go for a fifth? Time will tell, because . . .

There’s another big factor to consider when thinking about changing your cover.

How Long is Too Long to Use the Same Cover?

Updating your cover is a pain, especially when it has been working for years. But what if sales are slipping? Traditional publishers consider changing the covers of their perennial bestsellers often. Ask yourself:

  • Has the audience for your book changed their tastes?
  • Are you looking to bring in new readers?
  • Have newer authors and designers changed the subtle design signals for readers of genre and trope, so now your cover looks out of date?

If so, you may want to change your cover and see what happens to your sales.

How Do I Justify the Expense?

This is the most important question for many authors on a tight budget. You can expect to read more about managing cover costs in a future blog post. There are ways to get covers designed inexpensively, but unless you’ve done your research and have good reason to believe it will improve your sales, you should not pay a lot for a new cover.

The real bottom-line questions are: Do you want more readers? Will a new cover, designed with your ideal reader in mind, help make that happen? If so, it’s time to fire your cover.

Further Reading

Author headshot

USA Today bestselling author Kelly McClymer considers herself a reader first and an author second. She loves letting her characters take her wherever they want to go, whether it be to another planet, another time, or another crime scene. She continues to learn so much from her fellow indie authors. Her only wish is to be less stubborn, so she could get the important lessons more quickly, and without so much argument and angst.