Book Covers: An Odyssey

Labyrinth: Incredible film, horrible path to success. Unless you're the Goblin King. Then it's awesome.

Labyrinth: Incredible film, horrible path to success. Unless you're the Goblin King. Then it's awesome.

When I published my first novel in 2008, I'd put so much thought into the story that I didn't really think too much about the title or the cover art once it was finished. And while I'm great at illustration, I lacked the patience to learn Photoshop. I was in my 20's. I lacked patience in a lot of things. But I made up for it with persistence.

After having Balkan Magic turned down by over 30 literary agents, imagine how excited I was when I learned you could self-publish on Amazon. Using Microsoft paint, I put a waterfall on the cover because when our heroine Annika Brisby goes through it, she ends up in another world full of wood nymphs, fairies, and vampires. The story centers around her and the sexy elven guy she meets there, so I put some mysterious eyes showing through the water. I was obsessed with Eastern European folklore when I began writing, so I set the story in the Balkans and that's how I got my title. I slapped it on the cover along with my name and thought my work was done.

My very first book cover. Sigh.

My very first book cover. Sigh.

I uploaded it to Amazon for $2.99, used keywords like elves, vampires, and paranormal romance. Then I waited for the 'Zon's magical algorithms to steer every Lord of the Rings and Twilight fan in my direction. But that didn't happen. Huh. I made it available in paperback on Createspace for $11.99 and queried some people on MySpace—remember MySpace? I did get some bites, including one my biggest fans. (Hi Julie!) She loved the story and told me that she read her paperback copy so often that it was starting to fall apart. Now, if that's not an endorsement to keep writing, I don't know what is.

Even with Julie's enthusiasm, I still I couldn't figure out why more people weren't checking out my one single book. I figured maybe the title was too small, along with my name. "Surely this crazy spelling of Amy on the cover ought to be enough to intrigue readers," I thought to myself. My mom told me that she gave me this family name because she thought I'd be a famous artist one day. I was trying to work with what I had, so I made my name huge and found a better picture of a waterfall to use. I ditched the mystery-man eyes because I'd seen that Stephenie Meyer had done that on her first version of Twilight. I wrote my book before hers was published and I didn't want to be seen as copying anything about her. I just wanted some of her fans, which brings me back to this 2nd cover. Have I mentioned I have no background in marketing? Do I really need to?

If people can't understand what you're saying, just yell LOUDER. It totally works. #AmericanTourists

If people can't understand what you're saying, just yell LOUDER. It totally works. #AmericanTourists

A year or so went by and I'd started working on the sequel. I maybe made five sales in all that time, but I just thought some things take more patience than others. (I was learning a lot of patience!) Meanwhile, I'd gotten married and changed my last name, which prompted me to change the cover one more time. I got a friend to help me redesign the cover. My heroine Annika is an aspiring rock star who plays guitar, and since the title was Balkan Magic, I thought I'd incorporate that with a Byzantine art theme...even though it has nothing to do with the story other than the title. I don't know what I was thinking, since the story doesn't even take place in the Balkans; it only begins there. The story primarily takes place in an elven village nestled in the forest in a parallel universe!

Can I get a high five? Nope.

Can I get a high five? Nope.

Another year or so went by and I was frustrated that more people like Julie weren't magically stumbling across my book. She kept hounding me for a sequel, and I kept working on it. Meanwhile, I decided the Byzantine look wasn't effective and I found a graphic designer through a friend of a friend of a friend. They were really expensive, but I assumed paying a lot of money meant it was going to be amazeballs. (I see the same incorrect logic being used when it comes to wine, by the way. I've polished off $400 bottles that I wouldn't have paid more than $20 for.) In hindsight I've learned that it pays to shop around, because the designer of the green cover didn't specialize in creating entirely new book covers from scratch. They were used to taking other people's art and then arranging it nicely for other applications, like fantasy role-playing games and trading cards. Even after describing what my book was about, I had to provide the image of the white leaves and the textured background, along with a sketch of how it should be arranged. I won't tell you how much it cost but it was too much by industry standards. I was happy though, because I was getting more sales and reviews. I had the same designer create the cover of Book 2, and that one got a handful of reviews too. I started working on Book 3 and went back to game of waiting for more sales, which means that I got really good at waiting.

Looks great. Is this a book of nature spells? #facepalm

Looks great. Is this a book of nature spells? #facepalm

Then in summer of 2015, I started listening to podcasts while on the job. I just happened to stumble across one of Joanna Penn interviewing Mark Coker of Smashwords. Everything changed after that day. I realized all the things I was doing wrong, like not making my first in series free, like having too broad of keywords like "paranormal romance" and "fantasy" and not having book 3 on preorder. OMFG, it was an eye-opening experience! I spent every day at work listening to every helpful podcast I could find on self-publishing and marketing books. When I came home from work, I read articles on self-publishing and marketing books. I employed all the advice I mentioned above and also decided to change the title of Balkan Magic, because it finally dawned on me that most people don't know where the Balkans are, let alone what they are (it's in SE Europe). I had one person ask if it was a book of magical spells. Not even. Plus, I couldn't shake the thought that the abbreviation of the title was BM, which is medical slang for a bowel movement. Not the association I was going for! Now, I have a BFA focusing on creating fine art and I write novels for fun, so I'm pretty creative, but I'd carved such a deep groove into my brain about this title that I had no other ideas. I called it The Misadventures of Annika Brisby. I also decided to make that the series title. It had a nice ring to it...and 11 syllables. But whatever! At least it wasn't a big green BM anymore!

Well, it's definitely not a book of spells...

Well, it's definitely not a book of spells...

While this was going on, I got out of my exclusive deal with Amazon and went wide, which allowed me to make the book free. I also used Nick Stephenson's advice to improve my keywords and get thousands of downloads, more reviews, and more sign-ups to my mailing list. The people who were finding The Misadventures of Annika Brisby were for the most part loving it, but the numbers fell flat after the initial spike from it being reduced to free. I was getting maybe 5-20 downloads a day between all of my retailers. I don't think I had the new title in place for more than two months when I asked my buddy at Smashwords (hi Kevin!) why it wasn't doing better even though it had great reviews. He immediately said it was the cover. And because I'm a visual person, this is how I felt:

Seriously? FML...

Seriously? FML...

At first I was heartbroken, because I'd just spent a $hitload of money on that green cover with the leaves. But then I remembered all those critique classes I'd sat through in art school. They were meant to make me look at my art objectively, so I tried to be objective. I looked at the cover again; this time with a new perspective. What did the cover say about the story? Not a damn thing. That was my problem...my book was invisible. I felt like a moron for spending so much money on something so utterly ineffective. To be fair, I just didn't know then what I knew now. With my husband's understanding and phenomenal support, I began the search for a new graphic designer whose style I loved, whose prices were fair, and who specialized in designing both eBook and paperback covers for my genre, and knew a helluva lot about the marketing of those books. Lo and behold, I found her.

I emailed Fiona Jayde on Thanksgiving day, and she wrote back within 24 hours asking me about my goals for my cover. When I explained that all I wanted was to put my book in front of its target audience, she asked about the story, the plot, the settings, the characters, their personalities, and the theme and tone of the series. She came up with tons of ideas for concepts and within a couple weeks we were booking models for a photoshoot. I got out my paints and my hot glue gun and went nuts with the wardrobe design. We also decided to change the title for a third time to make it flow with the other titles in the series. They say the third time's the charm, so I was all about it. And since the story's about a feisty redheaded rocker chick and a wanton woodland elf, we came up with The Flame and the Arrow.

When she delivered the end product, I cried.

 

This. This is what I wanted all along! I just needed someone to show me!

 

And here's what happened after I uploaded the new covers on April 2nd:

So that's the story of my labyrinth-like journey in finding the the right book cover. I wanted to share it because things don't happen perfectly from day one and you shouldn't be afraid of starting over. Besides, you're never really starting over, because you'll be taking your experience with you. If you have a passion that you truly believe in, don't give up.

Get better.