For better or worse, the cover may be the most important element in getting a book into readers’ hands. They’ve done studies, I’ve been told, and have concluded that if you, as a reader, walk into a bookstore to browse, I, as the author, have about thirty seconds to convince you to buy my book. But the clock won’t even start ticking unless your eye is captured by the book cover.
A cover ought to work on many levels. Eye-catching, of course—the cover absolutely has to draw a reader’s attention. A really great cover does much more, however. In a way, it can tell part of the story. It can, for example, signal setting. It can indicate tone and atmosphere. It can evoke emotion even though you haven’t read a single line of text yet.
Take as an example, the cover of Northwest Angle, the next book in the Cork O’Connor series. I love this cover. Why? It does all the things I’ve indicated. The color scheme is stunning, absolutely an eye-grabber. The whole scene is suggestive of the kind of story the book will tell: The menacing sky (a storm plays an important role in the story); the tiny, isolated island and the solitary cabin lit against the approaching dark of the storm. The image evokes an emotional response. Concern, maybe, or even dread. But of what? The threat is unclear, but clearly present—in the sky, in the isolation, in the bravely lit cabin. And there’s another element at work, very important and very subtle. Because what the reader sees is a small normal lake dwelling, and in the warm light inside is someone the reader might care about. And that’s the kicker: Someone we might care about may be in great danger. What more compelling call is there to a reader’s emotion and imagination?
There are books whose covers are notoriously unimaginative, but the author is so well known and beloved that readers don’t give a damn about the drabness. The covers of many of the books in the Dick Francis series, which I’ve always found rather dull, come readily to mind. But the Dick Francis name is, of course, all that’s necessary to sell the book. We lesser known authors have to hope that our publisher’s art people will create a look that will accomplish that first necessity in bookselling—grabbing the attention of the casual book browser.
A good cover won’t sell a bad book. But a good book can be sunk by a bad cover. Me, I’ve been fortunate. The folks in the art department at Atria have time and again created stellar artwork for the Cork O’Connor series. They even, on occasion, have asked for my input. And, miracle of miracles, they’ve listened to my ideas.