Cheesy Graphics Turn Buyers Off

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Recently I wrote about how you can judge a book by its cover—and should be able to. At that time, I was talking about the appropriateness—or congruency—of the design to the topic.

(The Douglas Adams book on the left is an example of good design from a series that was well designed, well marketed, and highly successful, establishing a huge base of loyal fans and eager buyers.)

Today I want to talk about the recent trend to cheap, ugly art on book covers. It is really obvious in some of the genre book series I follow.

For example, a series of books starts out with classy covers that convey the true nature of the contents. The series becomes highly successful and profitable—perhaps not a best seller, but a solid income producer for the publisher, with a great future ahead as the series grows.

Then the publisher commissions poorly executed, even repellent art for the reprints. Does that make sense? Not to this former book publisher.

You see the real profit in publishing is in the reprints. The first edition of most books does not make much money. Between the advance to the author, the costs of printing and binding, and the huge discounts required by the major bookstore chains, publishers often do not break even on the first book in series.

But they know that as more books in the series are published, new readers will go back and read the earlier ones, and the market for the series begins to build. That is why you often see the first few books in a series in paperback only, then the series switches to hardcover with paperback reprints of the hardbacks about a year later.

If the series really catches fire, you sometimes see the earliest paperbacks reprinted as hardbacks for the die-hard fans who want a complete collection of hardbacks.

Now, if you are the publisher, reprinting the original books is just gravy. The editing, typesetting, book design, and art are all done. The book exists as negatives or printing plates that you can reprint cheaply, even piggybacking the print run with another book printing. Easy peasy.

What you, as a publisher, do not want at that stage is to redesign the cover of the book. That adds time, adds cost, and cuts into profits. So why do it? Ever?

One reason is if the cover art for some reason changed for the hardback series, and that was when book sales really took off. For example, if the series was never expected to be such a runaway hit, the original paperback covers might have been done by a low-price (and lesser quality artist). The new design may be selling a lot more books.

Or when the series unexpectedly takes off, and perhaps the audience proves to be a bit different from the expected one, a more expensive or more appropriate artist may be commissioned for the hardcover books—with great success. That seems to happen more with the many crossover genre books these days. Publishers and bookstores sometimes have a hard time classifying such books correctly as they guess what the most avid audience will be for the books.

Or when the book is made into a movie or a hit TV series, the publisher may want to capitalize on a new market of movie or TV fans. So the covers are changed to conform with the movie or TV series logo and ad designs.

A good example of that is the redesign and reprinting of the Charlaine Harris series about psychic waitress and vampire friend Sookie Stackhouse since the success of the TV series True Blood. Her bestselling books in that series have been reprinted with all new covers to appeal to TV series fans. That makes sense.

So it would be worth the expense to upgrade the cover quality to get more sales--or to change the whole look it to appeal to a new audience. But I am seeing the covers on reprints of successful books downgraded.

And here is the thing: I know for a fact that downgrading the covers from classy and sassy to cheap and tacky is costing them sales. I myself have skipped buying books in series I love because the cover illustration was so poorly drawn that it repels me.

I have been in publishing, advertising and marketing long enough to know that my taste in graphics is representative of the market as a whole. Bad packaging and/or ad design always reflects badly on the product.

I may not represent everyone, by my taste does conform to market trends pretty well. And unlike most consumers, I am aware of how the design, illustration and typography affect my reactions to products, including books.

So my question is this: Why would publishers spend the money do downgrade book covers from appealing to unappealing? What is going on here?

And with as many talented, aspiring artists as there are, why are major publishers using inept artists for something as important to sales as book covers?

If anyone knows what the deal is, would you please explain it to me?

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One Response to Cheesy Graphics Turn Buyers Off

  1. Pingback: Book Cover Design Mistakes, an Update | Marketing Snark

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