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The Cover/Title Combo that Sells Books

Last time, I discussed various approaches to getting people to read your books. I mean, sure, writing is fun and all, but it’s even more fun when someone is actually reading. The one important aspect I did not discuss is the cover, which of course, also contains your title. We have heard all our lives that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that some people do, consciously or unconsciously. In this era of digital book sales, the way your cover strikes the reader—when only an inch or two tall—can make a huge difference to your book sales.

The Codex Group is a highly respected research outfit that specializes in books. Their research, for instance, revealed that Facebook was the best social media outlet for promoting books. More recently, they ran an online test to gauge how book presentations affected sales. More than 4000 book buyers participated. What Codex found was the some covers work better than others, and a good title-cover combo can have a dramatic impact on sales. 

First takeaway: Covers from Amazon Publishing are the most effective at selling books. (Just to be clear, we’re talking about the Amazon-owned publishing company, not the KDP self-pubbing branch.) Eight of the Top Ten Most-Browsed Covers came from Amazon Pub. This isn’t a list of bestsellers (which would also favor Amazon). This is a list of the covers that attracted the most attention.

Is this result surprising? Not really. Who knows more about selling books than Amazon? They have decades of data and algorithms at their disposal to tell them what works and what doesn’t. And what works? A great title–presented in a way that enhances interest, that presents the title to maximum advantage. Graphics and cover art seem to have little impact. Blurbs have so little impact you wonder why we bother. It’s the title that matters.

Readers are word people. A clear, intriguing message presented in an appealing way is always going to have the most power. PW quoted Amazon creative director Courtney Dodson, who says Amazon emphasizes “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.”

Are you letting the graphic take up most of your cover space? Spending a bundle on clip art? I wouldn’t. Instead, spend more time devising the perfect title, a title that is short, direct, intriguing, and perhaps most importantly, makes clear what kind of book or genre this is. Mixed messages do not sell well in any marketplace. Readers need to know what kind of book this is if you expect them to take a second look. Your title should give them that. Devise a way of presenting the title that augments the message. Forget the clip art and focus on font, color, and composition.

You may have heard that publishers frequently change the author’s original title—often to the dismay of the author. True. Why? Because they know how important the title is to sales. The title is not the time to show how literary or referential you can be. Ask yourself: Who would like this book? How do I capture their attention? How do I make them desperate to read more?

When I submitted my first novel (Ben Kincaid #1), it was titled The Fixed Moment. I loved that title because it spoke to the theme, but it probably wouldn’t have sold many copies. My editor Random House changed it to Primary Justice. Frankly, I don’t even know what that means, but it’s a much better title. And coupled with a cover with embossed lettering and a black marbleized background—suggesting a law firm—it sent a clear message: This is an exciting legal thriller, full of mystery and intrigue. I never loved that title, but when the book sold half a million copies, I stopped complaining. 

If you’re working for a small press or self-publishing, you may have to fulfill many roles—author, editor, cover designer, and marketing director. Create a title that sends a strong, clear message, then experiment until you come up with the best way to present that title on the cover. Don’t be afraid to spend a little money. You’ve already invested an enormous amount of time in this book, so don’t let it suffer because you cheaped out on the cover. This will be the best money you ever spend. You’ve written a terrific book. Now make sure someone reads it.

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