To Design or Not to Design in the Age of eBooks

Whenever a discussion arises about how an indie author can increase sales, two things generally occur: First, regardless of the merits of the suggestion, the indie author defends by saying he or she cannot afford to spend the money to hire the professional (fill-in-the-blank) and second, with limited funds available for hiring a professional, it is hard to prioritize where to spend the money. There isn't a lot that can be done about the first matter, but tackling the second matter, every indie author can do.

Years ago, when I ran a small publishing company, we worked under very tight budget restraints. As an editor, rather than a designer or artist, I believed that it was better to spend the money on editorial matters, even at the neglect of design. I quickly learned a valuable lesson: Aside from the story and quality of the storyline and writing, the most important facet of the production process was not editorial but cover design. If the cover design didn't entice a reader to pick the book off the shelf, it mattered not at all how well written or edited the book was -- there would be no sale.

The Age of eBooks raises this question yet again: Which is more important: professional cover design or editorial help?

Some ebookers dismiss the covers as being unimportant under the guise of content is king. I think that ignores how we buy products. Consider Apple products. If we look at the content, that is the inner works, of its devices, we find good -- not outstanding, just good -- components that will not win awards for being high quality; Apple products are basically, component-wise, middle-of-road. Apple's real genius has been in design -- the "cool factor." People line up to buy Apple products because of the design; if they were interested in high quality components rather than design, they would consider alternatives. They don't because design is what drives sales.

The same is true of an ebook. Look at how many ebooks of middling content are sold and read (or at least started). There is no consumer clamor for something to indicate that the content has been professionally edited; professional editing doesn't drive sales although it can maintain sales momentum. Sales are generally visually driven.

Over the past few months, I have been consciously tracking how I make a decision to buy a particular ebook. I also have been tracking how my wife and a few of our friends decide to buy an ebook. I thought my discoveries would be earth-moving, but they aren't; in fact, they mirror how pbooks are sold.

The two primary factors in the decision-making process (once we get past the genre/subject-matter obstacle) appear to be the blurb and the cover. Secondary factors appear to be reviews, price (especially the price-to-length ratio), and sample pages.

The higher the quality of the cover design, the higher the likelihood that the book will be looked at; the more informative and better written the blurb is, the higher the likelihood, when combined with a professionally designed cover, that the ebook will be bought.

After the initial sales, word of mouth becomes important, but not so important, in most cases, as to override the value of the cover and the blurb. My experience and my recent observations confirm to my satisfaction that a professionally designed cover is, after the quality of the writing and storyline, the most important investment an indie author can make in his or her book. This is not to suggest that this investment can be in lieu of investing in professional editorial help; just that it is an investment that is too often neglected and shouldn't be.

A good author knows the value of professional editorial help. But it is fairly clear that ebookers are quite forgiving of editorial mistakes (or perhaps are unaware of the mistakes themselves), which means that if you can afford to invest in only one thing, that investment probably should be in the cover.

Remember that the very first thing an ebooker sees when scanning Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, or any of the other ebooksellers, is the cover image. A great cover image can cause an ebooker to pause and read the blurb; a well-written blurb, combined with a great cover, can result in a sale.

Do not think that it is easy to create a great cover -- it isn't. Even the big publishers have troubles in this regard. Not only must the image be right and convey the story (remember that a picture is worth a thousand words) to the observer, but the choice of typeface is also important, as is its placement. Much too often it is impossible to read the type on an indie cover because the wrong typeface was chosen or because the image-typeface combination is simply wrong.

I agree that even the poorest cover-designed ebooks may still sell; the question is how many more copies would it sell if the cover were professionally designed and eye-catching? If you cannot capture a reader's attention using the cover of your book, how much hope do you have that the reader will pause to read your blurb? There is just so much time and effort that a reader is willing to expend to find an ebook to read, and the most common sorting method that readers use is to scan cover images, pausing only on those ebooks whose cover has caught their eye.

image by Pitel

1 Comment on To Design or Not to Design in the Age of eBooks

  1. Our experience differs. Yes, cover design is really important in getting eyeballs to stop on your image for a bit longer. And perhaps in some small group of people who are in possession of cash they’re dying to spend at the same time as they’re looking for a new book thrill, the cover might hook them into looking at the blurb, which is also important. But the single biggest factor affecting sales is still the magnitude of advertising hype. The more people learn that their neighbors, friends, and many celebrities are lining up to buy it, the more copies it will sell.

    Having said that… Yeah, if you only have a few bucks to spend, get a good cover.

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