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Within a hand's reach of desire

In 1923, Coca-Cola’s CEO stated that he always wanted his product to be ‘Within an arm’s reach of desire’ – a terrific phrase.

Since, very likely, the product you are trying to create is going to sit on Amazon, and since your likely buyer is sitting at a screen of some kind, you aren’t actually even trying to get your customer to move their whole arm. A hand movement – a finger movement, even – will be enough.

Now, OK, there’s a whole Amazonian science of how to make sure that your book pops up in the right set of search results for the right kind of reader. There’s also work to be done in thinking about how to convert those readers once they click through to your Amazon page.

But, for today, let’s just focus on that moment, on screen or in store, when a reader is browsing a dozen or so books. They get to see, for now, just book cover and title. The next step is going to be reaching for the book and taking a look at blurb / inside material. But you’re not there yet. You have to make sure that your cover and your title convinces the reader to pick your book out, not any of the others.

What do you do? What should you be aiming to achieve? What’s your strategy here?

Well, now. A few years back, the only way to answer that question would have been to assemble a roomful of publishing brains, in New York or London, and just toss out the question. The basic answer would have been, roughly, ‘Leave it to us; we’re the experts.’

These days, however, we don’t need experts. We have data. And we have companies, like the Codex Group, which go out and collect it.

And what the Codex Group did was to take 50 or 60 books and place them in front of 4000 readers. Then see whether those readers clicked the “Read More” button placed next to the book cover. I've added the covers to this post, with some comments. We'll get there in a second. First, though, some general comments. (more comments on cover design here.)

General Comments (Lt. Gen. 3-star)

You can’t think of title or cover in isolation. Ideally, you are looking for a rich reverberation between the two. So your title ought to launch some kind of question. Your cover shouldn’t provide a direct answer, by any means, but it should offer an image or mood that seems to gesture at some ingredient in the likely answer.

So one of the books explored was The Dressmaker’s Gift. Now that is pretty obviously a good title. It launches a couple of questions: who is the dressmaker and what is her gift?

So far so good. Now a klutzy, dumb, close-down-those-questions kind of cover would depict a dressmaker making dresses. That kind of image would already kind of answer the first of the two questions. (‘Who is the dressmaker? Why here she is. We’ve provided you with a picture of her.’)

In fact, the cover depicts a somewhat sepia-tinted view of the Eiffel Tower, complete with birds. And that is an interestingly complementary addition to the set of questions first raised.

‘Who is the dressmaker? Don’t know, but Paris comes into it. The sepia suggests something from the past. Ooh, a book about a Parisian dressmaker maybe? 1950s? 1890s? I wonder what her gift is? That picture looks sort of romantic, but I wonder if it’s a bit sad?’

By reverberating with the title and adding complementary, but open-ended, ingredients, the title goes from being good to excellent. And – thank you Codex Group – we don’t need to guess if the combo worked. We know it did.

That’s one comment. The general rule for making any title / cover combination work.

But here’s another.

Obviously the Codex Group picked a bunchy of books by a bunch of different publishers. But one publisher won 8 out of the top 10 slots. 8 out of 10. Wowser.

Want to take a guess which publisher excelled to that extent? Take a moment to guess. I’ll send you a biscuit if you’re right.

And … drumroll …

The winner was …

Amazon Publishing, the publishing arm of Amazon. Penguin Random House and the rest of those guys were also rans.

Now that’s kind of intriguing. Presumably creating titles/covers is, or should be, a core skill of trad publishers, but they’re out-competed by a tech company / retailer. Odd.

Here’s how the APub creative director speaks of the creative process. (Text commentary is from Publishers Weekly.)

Another key in creating an effective cover is ensuring that the design works with the title, said Amazon creative director Courtney Dodson. She explained that Amazon prioritizes “the interplay between the title of the book and the visuals on the cover, because when they interact in meaningful ways, readers understand the world and tone of the book—which helps us reach readers who will enjoy the book.”

Dodson noted that, while there have been cases in which Amazon has changed a title to create a better partner for the artwork, the more common approach is for the team to look at how design “can support and augment the resonance of a title that we believe is right for its positioning message.”

Though Amazon also uses available data to check trends and customer feedback, cover designs are very much a collaborative effort involving the author, editor, and marketing and design teams.

“The cover has to work for everyone involved,” Dodson noted. “It is a rigorous process with lots of feedback.”

You know what struck me in those comments? That the author is a part of the collaborative effort. I’ve published a lotta lotta books with the trad houses and I’d say that the effort has never really felt collaborative. The outcome has sometimes been good, sometimes not, but it’s never felt like the design team really wanted to involve me in their thought process.

And you know what? An author is a creative soul who understands their book. Just might want to pick their brains. Just a thought.

OK. Nuff from me. Here are the winning covers with comments from me. But what do you think? Let us know in the comment line below, and let's all have a Heated Debate.



OK. I have no idea why this came out a winner. It looks like pretty standard romance fare to me. I guess the "After" title suggests something a bit pricklier or more complicated than standard issue happily ever after stuff, but really, I don't know.



OK, this is obviously an intriguing title, and the image somehow personalises it. There is a woman looking meditatively over a river. What is she thinking? What are the lost stones? What are the secrets? By adding a clear human element to in intriguing but impersonal title, I think the cover nails it. It's a beautiful image with nice fonts too. Always helps.



Another beautiful, rich cover. And here, actually, the cover just takes the promise of the title and spills it out on a table. It's as though the cover is saying, "No. Vine Witch. Really. We're talking spells and books and a kind of dark, lustrous beauty." Now the image is obviously not YA / fantasy fare, so we're looking at an adult book with some richly exotic ingredients. We want to know more about how the author is going to deliver the promise and the intrigue of the title. I'd turn this one over for sure.



Perfect. Great title and a complementary / intriguing / atmospheric / beautiful image. Simple but bang on.

image_transcoder.php?o=bx_froala_image&h=67&dpx=1&t=1582887218LITTLE VOICES

Brilliant, upside-down image takes a moment to figure out. The inversion and hint of drowning thrillerises what could otherwise be a rather gentler cover. The blue and orange/gold is very vogiush at the moment, but the combination does work. Likewise the very clear Open Sans / Helvetica style font is very modern thriller. The title is the one thing that really doesn't seem to yell thriller, but that's an element of intrigue in itself. I think this cover is quite bold in not emphasising genre more heavily. Brave, but clearly successful.



Here again, I'm going to say this is Title 1 - Cover 0. All the intrigue comes from the title. The image is really just there to reinforce and deepen that promise. The car already provides a hint of what lies inside the book. Good, clear, effective.



OK. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that this cover is a good, efficient thriller cover, but nothing more. Frankly, I don't know why this cover outcompeted so many of its peers.



Nice to see Festival of Writing alumna, Claire McGowan, on this list. And here, the cover really, really builds on the relatively simple promise of the title. A smashed plate, shards still flying. And a hint of daggeriness in those shards, and blood in the colour of the font. Very simple ingredients, but you instantly want to know: What did she do? You have to click / turn the book to find out.



That blue and yellow again. And a great title. (Last guest because of murder? Or what? Why last?) The olde-worlde window panes suggest atmosphere but also prison bars. And the hint of landscape beyond give you something that's almost like the atmosphere of Agatha Christie's AND THEN THERE WERE NONE. All simple ingredients, but they kick off from that title.



Again, this is a title / cover combo whose genius lies 90% in the title itself. The cover just has to deliver the promise - then enrich it. So the woman (whom we can see more completely than the man) is both smiling and looking sideways at her partner. Is that suspicion? Curiosity? Knowledge? What? We already want to get into the relationship implied in that title and that sideways glance. Because the title is so crucial, it takes up nearly the whole cover.

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Comments (13)
  • My instincts tell me that choosing which covers are most personally appealing is a very subjective business, but  perhaps psychologists who study such things and consequently have much more insight into these things would tend to disagree? I found this article extremely interesting, because I've just finished a novel and am contemplating self-publishing, so having a cover which will instantly call out to readers to pick out my novel and have a look inside is obviously important. As someone who actually totally disregards what a cover looks like when choosing my own books, and who is invariably drawn in by the title, then the blurb, I have very little concept of what makes for a "good" cover image. So looking closely at the covers, and reading Harry's and my fellow writers' comments, has been very enlightening.  For the record, my own thoughts on the various covers: I thought "I'm Fine and Neither Are You" was a self-help psychology book (I've read loads of those with similar covers)! The fellow who's upside down looks like a psychologist/psychiatrist. Maybe this is a witty take on the process of being in therapy? I'd definitely read the blurb to find out. I would be drawn in by the beauty of the cover designs of "Secrets of Lost Stones" and The Dressmaker's Gift". none of the other designs appeals to me at all.

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    • I wouldn't buy any of these books based on the cover - having said that I also recognise I'm not particularly fond of this very commercial style. 

      I'm currently reading Walter Kempowski's Homeland, which no doubt is not flying off the shelves but boy is the cover gorgeous (to me anyway!):


      If you haven't come across it, it's the story of a student from Hamburg in 1988 visiting where his family came from in what had been East Prussia but was by then part of communist Poland.

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      • Having been schooled in advertising technique when I worked for the former World’s Favourite Airline, the guys at Saatchi & Saatchi were hellbent on two things – a single minded proposition (one, not two…or three) and an image that evoked the feeling and not the product. Hence no smiling stewardesses (more later) pouring drinks and never pictures of aircraft in flight.
        On that basis, Drowning with Others, and the Vine Witch, get my thumbs down. And the winner is..Little Voices.

        Stewardesses? Why, it’s the longest word in the English language that you can properly touch-type using only one hand. Not many people know that!

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        • Some good observations here, but there is one other common element to all these covers -- every single one of them -- that no one has commented on. Can you see what it is? All these books have female authors. I'm curious what this says about the current trend in publishing, or about Amazon Publishing, or if there is some other factor at work in selection of these covers. I'm not criticizing the covers or anything else about this commonality, but I couldn't help but notice this.

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          • Some very interesting points raised here. The stand out cover for me is the vine witch. It suggests something warm and friendly: perhaps a white witch adventure.  I like this genre, so I would certainly give this book a look. The Secrets of Lost Stones is also intriguing - there’s a hint of melancholia here, perhaps? 

            This subject is particularly interesting for me because I’m about to reissue the first book in my trilogy. The trilogy concerns the adventures of a teenage girl who becomes aware of how society is run on patriarchal lines. And, it seems to her, men get paid for what they think, not what they know. She also questions her religious upbringing and vows to find a better way. 

            My first cover (https://pjgriffithsblog.wordpress.com), I realise now, was a tad on the fussy side and the title a little naïve: I tried to spell out the story on the cover. I’m in the process of simplifying the cover and the title. 

            Any suggestions would be great.image_transcoder.php?o=bx_froala_image&h=77&dpx=1&t=1583774525

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