We’re learning all the time here at Squirrel & Acorn Press. And, just like in life, not all the lessons we’re learning are the ones we particularly wanted to learn. In this case, we’ve had to reluctantly accept that a book’s cover matters. As in: really matters.
But who wants to believe that? After all, we’re brought up with the phrase “Never judge a book by its cover”. We want to believe that what matters are the precious words on the page – especially if one happens to have written them. To ascribe importance to the cover – to accept that it might make the difference between commercial success or failure – feels a bit tacky. It’s like giving the book a brand. And surely the branding genie should remain firmly sealed up in the supermarket aisle, amongst all those basically very similar products, with no place in the world of books?
That was probably our attitude at the outset, when we first set about publishing How to Buy a Planet. We took the cover seriously (we commissioned a professional designer after all), but not all that seriously.
Because here comes our second mistake. When we commissioned our designer, even though we knew he was capable and had a great track record, we completely, hopelessly over-briefed him. We couldn’t understand how a designer, who hadn’t read the book, could possibly come up with a sensible idea by himself. So we came up with the basic design ourselves (the image of the Earth with the six satellites spinning round it) and briefed it to within an inch of its life. The designer very dutifully did what he was told and delivered the book cover below (the ‘Before’ image) that some of you will already be familiar with.
Let’s be fair to the book’s original cover. It’s not a total disaster. The book sold ok – quite well in fact for a debut novel – for the three months that it was stuck underneath this cover. Let’s just call it a modest disaster.
Because here’s what we’ve learnt about covers.
They are massively important. When we browse online, we have very little else to go on. We see a title, the price, and the cover. Often that’s all we see before we skip on to the next book. Research after research has shown that it’s the cover which is most likely to draw readers that extra distance – into the marketing text and into the sample chapter. As I’ll show a bit later, we soon gathered data of your own to back this point.
The cover tells the reader in a few seconds what the marketing text and the sample chapter can take minutes to do. If it’s doing its job, the cover communicates the tone of the book – the genre and the age range. And it does that partly with the main image, but far more with the fonts, the lettering and the colour palette – the overall look. Most people are familiar now with Richard Osman’s smash hit of the autumn, The Thursday Murder Club. Picture the cover of that book if you can: it barely has a main image. There’s a small fox somewhere towards the middle – at least I think it’s a fox. It honestly doesn’t matter, because everything you need to know is conveyed through the brilliant way the words are arranged and designed. That’s not the only reason people are buying that book of course. But if we see a cover that speaks to the genre we want to read, we’re so much more likely to explore it further than an equally good book with a cover that doesn’t do those things. It’s not rocket science.
Back to How to Buy a Planet. We needed a cover that said: humourous sci-fi, satirical, suitable for students and upwards. And our original cover failed on a number of different levels to do that basic job. There’s some humour in it – if you squint closely enough to make out the vaguely amusing satellites that are flying round the planet (is that a hedgehog? Maybe a crystal ball too?) But who’s going to see those on a tiny thumbnail on Amazon? Worst of all, the lettering on the cover (the author name and book title) is plain and unengaging. It’s barely connected to the main image. The designer of that cover is actually totally brilliant and talented. He simply gave us what we asked for back in July of last year – and what we asked for was all wrong.
Fast forward to November and finally we corrected our mistakes. We found an awesome, Moscow-based designer, Mikhail Starikov – with a fabulous portfolio of book covers to his name. Mikhail may in fact be one of the best cover designers at work today. Quite rightly, we gave him a design brief that was as skinny as possible. The real brief: “let your imagination run free – you’re a designer, that’s what you want to do anyway”. Sure enough, his initial design was immediately (…in our view…) a 100x better than our first cover. See the ‘After’ image below. Above all, by picking an engaging, fun colour palette, and an even more fun font for the lettering, he captured the spirit of How to Buy a Planet.
BEFORE cover on the left - AFTER on the right
And here’s the best bit: even without reading the book, Mikhail came up with the central image (the supermarket trolley) which we think is ace. Imagine that. Our designer came up with a brilliant design idea. Lesson we’ve learned: trust professionals to do their job. We still had to work with Mikhail over the next 7-10 days, honing all the detail, but it was worth it. The result is a cover that conveys the fun, satirical nature of the book – while still working brilliantly when shrunk down to thumbnail size.
What’s been the upshot? We thought the cover was a winner the moment we saw it, but we took care to check. We ran two identical ads on Facebook over the course of a weekend. There was only one difference in the ads: one showed Mikhail’s cover, one showed the original cover. Unsurprisingly, Mikhail’s got 2.5x more clicks. So then we re-published How to Buy a Planet at the start of December, and the same story played out on a bigger stage. Over the course of that month, sales of the eBook increased by 70% and sales of the paperback by 51%.
And that’s not even the best thing about the new cover. The best thing is that it can be easily adapted for later books in the series. For subsequent books, we can simply swap in a different central image, and possibly change the colour palette too. But nothing else. With Book 2 well advanced (…more on that in a later post 😊…), we’ll soon be commissioning Mikhail to do the next cover. And guess what? We’ll make absolutely sure to keep the Brief brief.