Before launching Sterling & Stone in 2011, we were a trio of indie authors, and our early years were filled with missteps. We wrote furiously, churning out more than 2 million words per year. All those drafts needed to be made into books, but at the start we only had so much time, help, and money. So we did the best we could on our own, including designing most of our covers in-house.
We figured “good enough” was good enough. It wasn’t.
Sterling & Stone has grown up since then. Today we have 5 imprints, 13 employees, 273 podcast episodes on indie publishing, and acres of experience. And if there’s one thing we’ve learned about book sales, it’s that people really do judge books by their covers.
A book’s cover is its primary conversion element, and also its first impression. Blow it, and the book could sink. When we took a long, hard look at all the books we’d slapped “good enough” covers on, we realized we had blown it. A lot.
We decided to replace all of them to optimize our back catalog for long-term performance. If we hoped to sell more copies, land promotions with choosy venues like BookBub, or get placement from merchandisers at the booksellers, we needed to be a lot more professional. Here’s what we learned, complete with before-and-after examples:
1. Covers must look professional
Good cover design is difficult to articulate, but readers know the difference between amateur and pro work when they see it.
Consider our series Yesterday’s Gone. The series sold well with the original cover — but that was in 2012, when self-publishing was new. Now, a cover that’s “good enough for an indie” simply isn’t good enough. Readers use the same standards whether a book is indie or traditional — they expect quality, starting with the cover.
Here’s the before and after of the cover for Yesterday’s Gone, which we redesigned with the goal of making it look more polished and professional.
The new one (on the right) is better — crisper, more eye-catching, and much like something you’d see from a traditional publishing imprint. Right after the redesign, Yesterday’s Gone got its first BookBub Featured Deal in over two years, and as we all know, Featured Deals make money rain on our faces. After a terrific two-month sales spike, the monthly average settled in at double where it was before the cover change. Plus, it’s been accepted for two more Featured Deals since then.
The redesign for our nonfiction flagship Write. Publish. Repeat. was less dramatic, but did a similar job of elevating our professionalism to our core audience of indie authors.
We needed to maintain our branding, keeping the color and the design element of the pencil, but freshening the typography and adding depth. We also resolved a true newbie mistake — a white cover with no shading or border doesn’t even look like a book when it’s shown on a white background!
2. Covers must be genre appropriate
Many book covers are pretty, but “pretty” isn’t enough. A cover isn’t art to hang on your wall; it’s a sales tool. Too many indies — and we were no exception — fall into the trap of thinking “a nice cover” is the same as “the right cover for this book, in this genre, to appeal to this specific kind of reader.” It’s not.
A book’s cover is its billboard. Its only job is to attract the right readers for the book. So trying too hard to be artistic or unique can dissuade readers from purchasing if they have unclear expectations of the book’s content. The average reader probably won’t look at a unique cover and think, “That isn’t like any of the others. I want to check it out!” Instead they might think, “That doesn’t look like the books I usually read!” before passing it by.
We made this mistake with our sci-fi series The Beam. The original cover (on the left below) was a cool piece of art. We liked it a lot, and it fit the feel of The Beam, which is more philosophical than lasers and chrome. But as great as it was for wall art, it sucked as a cover. It didn’t say “sci-fi” at all, so the people who might have loved the book didn’t even give it a second glance. Here’s the side-by-side:
The Beam is about power and politics in the hyperconnected future. The new cover manages to say those things while also fitting in — and doesn’t scare ideal readers away like the old one did. Sales tripled after the redesign. We were also able to get accepted for a BookBub Featured Deal for The Beam once we made the switch!
The Future of Sex is a true cross-genre book, which made it even more difficult to redesign this cover. Its core is romance, but it’s a political sci-fi series that takes place in the world of The Beam. That meant targeting two audiences: Aubrey Parker’s romance readers and sci-fi fans of The Beam. The cover had to appeal to both at once. Easy, right?
We weren’t enthusiastic about the original cover, which was an attempted mix at sexy and sci-fi, but we had no idea how to improve it. A few years later, we gave it to one of our designers, almost apologetically: “Um, you wouldn’t have a clue how to make a series appeal to romance and sci-fi at the same time, would you?” She knocked it out of the park.
The new cover is sexy, implying mystery, seduction, and allure. But the colors used are sci-fi staples: deep teal with that splash of dark orange. The network-map background implies sci-fi as well, and the fonts — tricky for anyone but a professional book designer to get right — complement both of the project’s dual genres.
3. Covers must promise what the book delivers
A book’s cover is a promise to the reader, and it’s a promise you must keep. In some ways, this is common sense: If a cover looks like a romance but the story is about a zombie horde, expect some bad reviews.
Speaking of zombies, our book Dead City is about an undead plague, a drug that stops the plague, and a conspiracy behind it all. Once the draft was done, we commissioned a wonderful cover for what we thought was a zombie book. I still love that cover — and unlike The Beam example above, I love it as an actual book cover.
There was just one problem: Dead City isn’t a zombie book. It’s actually a biological thriller that happens to have zombies in it.
Because we misunderstood the fundamental promise of the book, our first cover featuring a zombie businessman felt spot-on. But the first launch bombed. The cover accidentally made a false promise: zombies. While the book technically had zombies, lovers of zombie fiction didn’t enjoy it because the story doesn’t contain any of the usual zombie tropes, like hordes and abandoned cities. On top of that, the thriller readers who’d have loved the book were turned off.
The cover failed in two ways:
- The wrong readers bought the book and didn’t like it.
- The right readers passed it by.
To fix the problem, we commissioned a brand new cover that looks much more like a biological thriller.
Once the cover began to promise what the book actually delivered, the right readers found Dead City. Sales improved sevenfold, and reviews grew much more positive.
4. Covers must show off a book’s most commercial side
Sometimes, books fall into crossover categories where readers’ expectations are dramatically different. In this case, you should work with your cover designer to present it in the way that appeals most to the largest number of ideal readers while continuing to make good promises.
We learned this with our young adult series The Dream Engine. We wrote it with steampunk in mind, but it turned out far more blended with fantasy elements. When designing the cover, we could have presented the book in one of two ways: as steampunk or as YA fantasy.
We went with steampunk. The original cover illustration shows our heroine in the foreground and a big clockwork machine behind her. The problem was that the steampunk audience is both smaller than the YA fantasy audience and composed of readers less likely to enjoy our story. When we revamped the cover, we told the designer to lean more into the fantasy side, thus showing off its more commercially appealing elements:
5. Covers in a series must look like a series, but have their own identity
When we were bootstrapping and couldn’t afford many covers, we tended to reuse elements of the first book’s design for the sequels. Sometimes we’d use the same cover with slight tweaks. Often we’d give them the same name and put a “2” or “3” on the end. Everything about our early sequels screamed, “Here’s this cool book… and here it is AGAIN!”
The most extreme example was our Unicorn Western fantasy/western mash-up series. It has nine books, and we definitely didn’t want to spring for nine unique covers. To cut corners, we had our designer use the same illustration and typography but change the colors. The result? They didn’t look like series books so much as parts of a whole:
After the revamp, they became individual books with bona fide titles that actually make them sound worth reading as unique experiences. We commissioned separate covers, too. Here’s what they look like today:
We did this with our horror series Cursed, too, but Cursed also had genre-misalignment thrown in (the same problem we had with Dead City). We weren’t using the same covers over and over again like with Unicorn Western, but without custom illustrations to show the world our monster, Cursed’s covers could only be mediocre. As with Unicorn Western, the titles sounded derivative: Cursed 2, Cursed 3, and so on. We gave them names to go after the colon, but only as an afterthought.
And here’s the reboot:
In the case of both Unicorn Western and Cursed, the goal of the cover reboot was the same: to make the books clearly identifiable as a series by using repeating elements (colors, fonts, placement, illustration/photographic style) in all of the books, but to simultaneously give each book its own identity.
Achieving both goals requires balance. If the books are too unique, they won’t look like a series and readers will get false impressions. But if they’re too similar, the series will look like something that was artificially broken apart at best, or derivative at worst. In either case, readers will lose interest before they even consider book number one.
Should you change your cover?
Investing in a replacement cover design is never a simple decision, and it’s even tougher when a cover you love isn’t performing. A new, professional cover won’t guarantee you an instant sales spike, but leaving a bad one in place is a surefire way to keep a book at the bottom of the charts.
In the end, a great cover doesn’t have to be prohibitively expensive (check out some of the designers featured here), and it all comes down to numbers. While it’s really difficult to parse performance improvements solely based on a cover change — hopefully you’ll be doing several promotional efforts that all stack together to breathe new life into the book — the cover is still the first, and sometimes only, thing a reader sees before they decide to buy the book.
If you have a large backlist, experiment with your first-in-series or most underperforming book. Pick a budget and calculate how many additional books you’d have to sell to earn that investment back. It’s probably a lower number than you expect, especially if you spread that return over a few months. If the cover does its job well, the decision becomes a no-brainer.
The views and opinions expressed in this guest post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of BookBub.
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