Why We Design Covers The Way We Do
Or: These Covers Aren't For You, Oh Reader Of This Blog
You may have noticed that Snowbooks keeps all its design in house. This is for the two very good reasons that it's one of the most fun and most important parts of the publishing process. We design our covers with very clear aims in mind - but interestingly, sometimes people think they're not right for the book. Let's take a look at this, shall we.
(This blog post relates primarily to our fiction.) Thing The First: our aim in life.
Our primary business goal is to forge excellent relationships with retailers and to use their extensive brand presence, square footage and multiple locations to showcase, and sell, our books. The key part of that sentence is 'to sell our books'. That is what we aim to do. It shouldn't have to be said, really, but in actual fact quite a few smaller publishers don't have sales as one of their primary aims. They are interested in getting a particular sort of book into the public domain, sure, but from their actions it's hard to see how they can be particularly bothered about sales. Instead, they get a bit huffy when the sales team don't seem to be doing a good job. This happens because many publishers focus on the top end of publishing - the editorial end, the creation and signing up and words of a book - as they quite rightly should but not to the exclusion of all else. The subtle difference with our approach is that we start the publishing process with sales very firmly in mind. We'll only take on a book if we think we can sell it. Then, we can immerse ourselves in its creation - but again, with this process strongly informed by the sales plan. When it gets to the end of the creation process, then, it's all ready to be sold. The alternative approach I've seen is to be immersed in the creation of a book entirely, and when it's done to blink a few times and say 'Right. Over to the sales team.' That is not going to result in an easy book to sell.
Thing The Second: How to get a book into a 3for2
And when I say we aim to sell books, I'm not talking about a few sales here and there. With every book I hope for 50,000 copies sold. Now that's hopelessly ambitious and never works (except once), but it's all that aiming for the moon and stars stuff. We hope to appeal to the mass market. There are two reasons for that. One, the mass market has masses of people in it, therefore we don't need much market share before we've got a winner. Two, our retailer partners aim to appeal to the mass market, too. It makes sense to be aiming for the same bunch of people.
As I said above, our strategy is to work with retailers, to use their assets as the primary way to sell our books. We don't see much or any of a sales spike with reviews, or launches, or PR or any of the things that can take up vast amounts of time and money with no guarantee of translating into sales. We do, however, see flipping huge sales when we get a book onto promotion. Ergo, we try to get a lot of our books onto promotion.
Now, what do retailers look for when they're thinking about which books to put onto promotion? They're looking for the sorts of books which sell in quantity. That space at the front of store is precious. It's not fair on them to expect them to take a chance on a book with no indication that it might do well. And most of our authors, we're proud to say, are debut authors. Wonderful though they are, we can rarely point to the success of their previous books to prove to the retailer that they will do well. So we have to rely on something else.
That something else is the sum of the packaging. Endorsements matter: they are a good shorthand to say 'if you value the opinion of the person who's endorsing this book, you might enjoy it.' But it's the cover design itself which is the thing that people see first and foremost.
Thing The Third: Covers are a filter
Bear in mind that of the 100,000-odd books published every year, a tiny fraction are promoted front of store. And then think about what a store looks like, in full promotional swing. There are still far too many books to choose from. Readers, shoppers, need to be given visual clues if they've a hope of navigating their way around that. Imagine if all the front of store books were bound in a plain white cover, with the author and title text in a black plain serif font. It would be a nightmare. You'd never find anything. The cover gives a critical clue about the type of book you're looking for.
Thing The Final: What to do.
But it gets more complicated. What if you have a book like The Letters which, whilst broadly women's lit, is very, very fine - finer, in fact, than its cousins on the shelves? Do you design a cover that reflects its literary ambition, a more sombre, reflective, original cover? Doing that will likely mean it sells 20 copies in total, as it won't be selected for promotion and therefore will die a quiet death. Or do you design a cover that places it slap bang in the women's lit category, knowing that those who select it for its women's lit elements won't be disappointed, but will have also stumbled upon a better-than-average read?
Reader, we did the latter, of course. Whilst some bloggers have disagreed with the rightness of our cover, they are not our target market as there are too few of them. We are trying to catch the eye of, first, the retailer and second, the shopper. Looking at sales so far, I think we've done a good job.
Your thoughts? Here and here and here are some others'.