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Whenever a discussion arises about how an indie author can increase sales, two things generally occur: First, regardless of the merits of the suggestion, the indie author defends by saying he or she cannot afford to spend the money to hire the professional (fill-in-the-blank) and second, with limited funds available for hiring a professional, it is hard to prioritize where to spend the money. There isn’t a lot that can be done about the first matter, but tackling the second matter, every indie author can do.

Years ago, when I ran a small publishing company, we worked under very tight budget restraints. As an editor, rather than a designer or artist, I believed that it was better to spend the money on editorial matters, even at the neglect of design. I quickly learned a valuable lesson: Aside from the story and quality of the storyline and writing, the most important facet of the production process was not editorial but cover design. If the cover design didn’t entice a reader to pick the book off the shelf, it mattered not at all how well written or edited the book was — there would be no sale.

The Age of eBooks raises this question yet again: Which is more important: professional cover design or editorial help?

Some ebookers dismiss the covers as being unimportant under the guise of content is king. I think that ignores how we buy products. Consider Apple products. If we look at the content, that is the inner works, of its devices, we find good — not outstanding, just good — components that will not win awards for being high quality; Apple products are basically, component-wise, middle-of-road. Apple’s real genius has been in design — the ‘cool factor.’ People line up to buy Apple products because of the design; if they were interested in high quality components rather than design, they would consider alternatives. They don’t because design is what drives sales.

The same is true of an ebook. Look at how many ebooks of middling content are sold and read (or at least started). There is no consumer clamor for something to indicate that the content has been professionally edited; professional editing doesn’t drive sales although it can maintain sales momentum. Sales are generally visually driven.

Over the past few months, I have been consciously tracking how I make a decision to buy a particular ebook. I also have been tracking how my wife and a few of our friends decide to buy an ebook. I thought my discoveries would be earth-moving, but they aren’t; in fact, they mirror how pbooks are sold.

The two primary factors in the decision-making process (once we get past the genre/subject-matter obstacle) appear to be the blurb and the cover. Secondary factors appear to be reviews, price (especially the price-to-length ratio), and sample pages.

The higher the quality of the cover design, the higher the likelihood that the book will be looked at; the more informative and better written the blurb is, the higher the likelihood, when combined with a professionally designed cover, that the ebook will be bought.

After the initial sales, word of mouth becomes important, but not so important, in most cases, as to override the value of the cover and the blurb. My experience and my recent observations confirm to my satisfaction that a professionally designed cover is, after the quality of the writing and storyline, the most important investment an indie author can make in his or her book. This is not to suggest that this investment can be in lieu of investing in professional editorial help; just that it is an investment that is too often neglected and shouldn’t be.

A good author knows the value of professional editorial help. But it is fairly clear that ebookers are quite forgiving of editorial mistakes (or perhaps are unaware of the mistakes themselves), which means that if you can afford to invest in only one thing, that investment probably should be in the cover.

Remember that the very first thing an ebooker sees when scanning Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, or any of the other ebooksellers, is the cover image. A great cover image can cause an ebooker to pause and read the blurb; a well-written blurb, combined with a great cover, can result in a sale.

Do not think that it is easy to create a great cover — it isn’t. Even the big publishers have troubles in this regard. Not only must the image be right and convey the story (remember that a picture is worth a thousand words) to the observer, but the choice of typeface is also important, as is its placement. Much too often it is impossible to read the type on an indie cover because the wrong typeface was chosen or because the image-typeface combination is simply wrong.

I agree that even the poorest cover-designed ebooks may still sell; the question is how many more copies would it sell if the cover were professionally designed and eye-catching? If you cannot capture a reader’s attention using the cover of your book, how much hope do you have that the reader will pause to read your blurb? There is just so much time and effort that a reader is willing to expend to find an ebook to read, and the most common sorting method that readers use is to scan cover images, pausing only on those ebooks whose cover has caught their eye.

(Via An American Editor.)


  1. An interesting article and I agree with the overall premise (if not the rather inappropriate Apple bit )

    I see things ever so slightly differently myself however.

    When I browse online and I see covers, I am attracted not by outstanding covers …. but by clear and competent covers. I am attracted to covers where I can see the writer has shown attention to detail and a professional attitude. This is a portent of how they have probably written their book. So a clearly laid out and simply cover is what I want to see.

    The next thing that attracts me is the intro. I am attracted by intros that give me an idea of what the story i,s and entice me a little to find out how it turns out. I also look for it to be well written. I was on Smashwords a few minutes ago and it is quite surprising to find so many intros that are badly flawed and even poorly structured. This is not a good sign for what’s to come.

    As regards editing, storyline incoherence, or unnerving disjoints would put me right off a book immediately. Poor grammar that is not part of the character’s personality, and is not consistent, would be a major problem. Typos are irritating but I would persist until they become too prevalent. If eBook readers are showing more tolerance in this respect then I suspect it is because the quality of conversions to digital right now, especially from the bigger publishers, are so poor that our expectations have been lowered. I don’t see this continuing, myself.

  2. Editing help is more important, hands down… however, that tiny little eBooks cover graphic has proven too important to ignore. The sad fact is that most indies cannot afford professional help on either front. My husband and I send round out books to several beta readers to try to lessen the number of errors within our ePages, but some are missed. We can’t argue with the price: free. The covers are a different matter; we spent the money on good graphic software and re-design the covers once a year or so to try to match current trends, ousting passe’ fonts/flourishes/etc. In this graphic design oriented culture, simply passing over the graphic depicting your novel to the world at large is a huge mistake, but so is merely tossing together a pixelated GIF or BMP.

    Bartering may be the indie’s only hope, and in such a bad economy as we find ourselves in it seems to be a viable option. Graphic design in exchange for ad space and free books? It’s possible.

  3. As someone who works in the production end of the ebook industry, I cannot agree more. I’m happy that people want to pay me to design their ebooks. But if they have to spend money elsewhere, they should find the best editor and cover designer they can afford.

  4. Hi, I think it’s difficult for a lot of indie authors because they don’t always have the knowledge to know the difference between a good piece of book art and a good cover. I had this happen to me. I loved my first cover for Closing the Circle, but it was great book art. As was pointed out to me, the art overwhelmed the title and author name.
    So, even if you have the money, you still need to know what works as a cover and what doesn’t.
    I’m now working with someone who helps me with the whole marketing package. She’s redone my blurbs, bio and covers for all books. She’ll be working on the critiquing for the third Madeline Journey as well, but I’m keeping my mind open – a one stop shop might be taking things over the top.
    Yes, we have to put out a readable book – no or few errors – with good marketing and you have to promote it properly.
    When I read advice telling indie authors that they ‘must’ spend money on some aspect, I always ask myself this question: Is this really needed, or is this a hold over from print books. An example of holdover is the occasional advice that the interior needs to be designed. A complete waste of money for an ebook which will have different ‘pages’ based on the device, but good spending for print books.
    Thanks for the post.

  5. PA – Agreed. With re-flowable text the interior design is rendered obsolete; fonts are changeable, as is space and the placement of interior graphics. Some readers pixelate or omit the interior graphics altogether, until the average indie writer has but the cover with which to grab that initial consumer interest.

    Most indies are dedicated–at least in principle–to outshining the traditional publishing industry in quality and low prices, which is unbelievably easy to do with the big six charging erroneously high prices for digital books, many of which harbor an unforgivable number of errors. If I had the money to spend on professional editing, I would do it in a heartbeat.

  6. A plain blue cover with a standard typeface would entice me – if I knew that all books with plain blue covers and that particular typeface were high quality, well written and not cut with spelling mistakes and ruined by typographical and grammatical errors.

  7. Well interior ‘design’ may not be a great thing, but allowing readers to get at the story without a lot of waffling nonsense would be.

    I just read a book with three prefaces AND all of the copyright, permissions etc publishers nonsense to wade through before I could start reading.

  8. @Meredith: I disagree, obviously, that interior design has been rendered obsolete. As Kindle Format 8 has evolved to the point where it matches the capabilities of ePub, there’s quite a lot a knowledgeable designer can do that a “formatter” using Calibre or Word cannot. For example, it’s common these days for YA fiction to have characters texting each other. Both ePub and KF8 allow me to embed the Android phone font for that text. It’s a small touch, but it’s one that can enhance the reader’s experience because the visual cue it affords is likely familiar to readers without the wonkiness of poorly rendered italics of eink devices (which is usually how an author chooses to present such literary devices). These sorts of touches and capabilities will only get better over time as both ebook specs evolve with the technology.

  9. I think the comparison with Apple products is misplaced. With Apple, it’s the whole package that sells and I would cite performance and ease of use as more important factors in Apple’s success than the ‘cool factor’ aspect raised in the article. I switched to using a Mac instead of a PC simply because I wanted something more reliable and user-friendly – and I haven’t been disappointed. The same goes for ebooks. When trawling Smashwords, it is the blurb I look at first, then maybe the cover (I agree with an earlier comment that this should at least show some thought), then the sample. The internal design remains important, as I do not want to plough through poorly-formatted paragraphs, font changes, etc. that are all still under the publisher’s control even in ebook format. I’m currently including better internal navigation (bookmarks, chapter links, etc.) in my own books after feedback that this was something some readers wanted. There is still a lot that can be done to make an ebook a better package. Thanks to an attention to detail, Apple products do exactly what they promise and so sell well. It is this attention to detail that is lacking in many ebooks and it goes far beyond just a nice-looking cover.

  10. The Apple comparison fails because Apple products are not simply middling gear dressed in slick coverings. Take the lowly charger that comes with an iPhone for example. A recent tear-down of this pedestrian block of tech by Ken Shirriff is revealing. He says, “Disassembling Apple’s diminutive inch-cube iPhone charger reveals a technologically advanced flyback switching power supply that goes beyond the typical charger. It simply takes AC input (anything between 100 and 240 volts) and produce 5 watts of smooth 5 volt power, but the circuit to do this is surprisingly complex and innovative.” Read the rest here:

    Industry pundits commonly make the mistake of attributing Apple’s success exclusively to industrial design. The problem with that superficial observation is that it obscures the superset of things that constitute a better explanation of Apple success in the market. What Apple sells so successfully is an experience. Aesthetically pleasing, low failure rates, coordinated software, user friendly user interfaces and so on. It’s the experience that people recognize as valuable.

    Could this analogy be made to work with eBooks? Not if eBooks are primarily bought on impulse using only what the prospective buyer can glean from the eBook cover and the snippet of text they can read without committing. I think that there is reason to believe that there is more to the purchase decision than that for many people. The “e” in eBook suggests so.

    Would it help to have rubric for crowd-sourcing assessment of the experience of reading an eBook (by genre, length, cost, etc.) that was vendor-independent (e.g. Consumer Reports)? I don’t think that we can trust those who have a financial interest not to fudge the results.

  11. I just read a book with three prefaces AND all of the copyright, permissions etc publishers nonsense to wade through before I could start reading.

    Design is important within the paratext overall. Well designed paratext; cover graphic and typographic option, indexing, title page, table of contents, page size, device morphology and so on are “read” just as is the narrative content. When we are interrupted or distracted in the course of reading, either of paratext or text, we “read” the interruption. That is what reading is; perceiving and interpreting all that delivery format provokes.

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