The Amateur’s Guide to a Professional Book Package, Part One

by Melinda VanLone
published in Community

Have you waded into the murky waters of indie publishing? You’ve probably noticed advice everywhere. Do this. Don’t do that. No wait, do the other thing. You’ve spent a year, or two, or ten, crafting words into sentences and sentences into paragraphs. Angsting over every detail. Now it’s time to hit that giant shiny PUBLISH button.

Wait. What about the cover?

In an effort to save money and time, did you skimp on the cover? I get it. Most authors understand words, not images. You’re probably thinking the cover isn’t really that big of a deal. The words are the important thing, right? Slap a title and a photo on it and call it good. After all, Amazon offers a do it yourself option. It should work fine, right?

Maybe. Maybe not. It depends on your definition of “fine” and your long term goals. But if one of those goals is to sell some books, there are a few facts that, while maybe hard to accept initially, will transform you from wary writer to seasoned pro.

1. Your Book is a Product

It’s time to take off your author hat, and put on your marketing hat. Shove your emotions into a drawer. You are now the proud owner of a Product, and that Product needs packaging. The fact is your readers, do judge your book, first and foremost, by the cover. Even those who say they don’t, do anyway. They can’t help it. The first thing they see when browsing, whether at a book store or on virtual shelves, is the tiny piece of artwork that represents your story.

Be honest — did you look at the image before you started reading?

The reason newspapers and magazines use so many photos is they understand the simple truth that people notice images first, and words second. Images, even bad ones, draw the eye. They entice, and beckon. Only when something has visually stopped the eye do people delve further into the words. Rarely does it work the other way around.

It’s a bit depressing, if you’re an author, to realize that pictures come first. But, looking at it another way, it’s empowering. It gives the Indie entrepreneur a powerful tool with which to launch your career. The cover matters. It matters more than the words once you cross that line from Author to Entrepreneur With A Product To Sell.

2. A Picture is Powerful

Fact is, your customer will never get to those awesome words you wrote if you don’t first catch their eye with an awesome cover and a great title. The book cover entices a potential reader to explore your world deeper, to linger with you awhile and, most importantly, to buy the book.

Heady stuff. Intimidating. Overwhelming. Powerful.

If you’re not a graphic designer, then the world of cover design probably looks mysterious and foreign. But like writing, every genre has rules about what works on the cover to entice readers the most. Used correctly, these hidden rules serve as your beacon of light through the murky waters. Violate those rules, and you might never catch those readers who would actually really love your book, if only they’d found it.

But wait. Rules suck. What about creativity?

It’s still there. It takes far more creativity to work within boundaries than it does to extend outside of them. You’ve already stayed within some boundaries when you wrote the book. Fantasy is a completely different story from Science Fiction, and vastly different from Romance or Mystery or Thriller. Sure, each can have elements of the other, but in the end there are some things that are expected. Romance? Happy ending please! Science Fiction? Future, science, gizmos, gadgets, flying cars, whatever. Mystery? There better be a dead body or something important missing. Why?

3. The Customer has Expectations

The cover of your book and the story within both make a promise to the reader. How well you fulfill that promise dictates how much they like your story. If they pick up your book expecting a mystery and end up with a romance they will not only be disappointed, they will probably be angry. Sometimes they’ll be angry enough to leave a nasty review someplace. They’ll tell their friends. They’ll never pick up another book from you because you can’t be trusted. You let them down.

Nobody wants to do that.

4. A Cover is a Promise

It absolutely must fit the genre your story falls into. Chafe against the boundaries, complain about them if you must. We all have. But now is the time to ask yourself a very important question. Why did you write this story? If you wrote it to fulfill your inner self, with no expectation of anyone else ever seeing it, then you don’t need to worry about the cover. Your goal has already been met, right?

If you wrote it in order to get those words into the hands of readers, to sell and maybe make enough money to pay a bill or two, then you must adhere to a few standards for the genre you wrote, in order to reach those readers. It’s something traditional publishers know all to well. Put the wrong cover on an urban fantasy and your target audience will never find it. They instinctively look for certain things on the cover to tell them that here is a story they will enjoy. Here is the genre they are interested in. If those things aren’t present they’ll skip right over it. No matter what the title is. No matter how awesome the words.

I’m speaking in generalities of course, and yes word of mouth helps a lot. But most budding authors don’t have a giant fan base waiting to spread the word of their next novel. So that cover icon is their most valuable asset to catching new readers.

In the next few posts, I’ll cover what readers of different genres look for when they search those icons on Amazon or Barnes and Noble, and why cliche isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It may actually be the very thing that leads you to success.


MelindaVanLoneMelinda VanLone serves as DIY MFA’s official shutterbug. Melinda earned an MA in publishing from Syracuse University, which she applied toward years as a graphic artist/designer, a skill she uses today at

In addition to book cover design and photography, Melinda writes urban fantasy and blogs on her website As an air force brat, she’s lived briefly in places all across the country, but currently resides in Rockville, MD with her wonderfully supportive husband and furbaby. When she’s not playing with imaginary friends in her fantasy worlds you can find her playing World of Warcraft, wandering through the streets with her camera, or hovered over coffee in Starbucks.


Twitter: @melindavan


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