Top 5 book covers (Judge a book by its cover)

Despite that old maxim, it is a truth universally acknowledged in publishing that people really do judge a book by its cover. This is true all the way from the distributor’s sales teams and trade book buyers all the way up to the customer. If you get the cover wrong, a bookshop is less likely to stock the title. I know, I know, it’s the inside that counts, the words themselves, but unless you get that book into the customer’s hands in the first place, those words aren’t going to be read.

However, this would seem to presume that the customer is part of a gestalt, that each individual buys a book in the same way. We’ve perhaps not taken into account the fan mentality; the buyer who will collect an author’s work because they love that author, not caring one jot what the design team and artist have done with his or her book. Also, a genre publisher has to make sure that a book is aimed at the right audience, and that necessitates a certain look. But while a publisher is very happy to publish books for its faithful fan base, it must also keep an eye on the wider picture – the book that appeals to everybody; the breakout titles that sell a million copies or more.

Consider Harry Potter. That was a breakout title in the fact that adults as well as children were reading it. The publishers responded by issuing editions with more ‘mature’ covers – a monochrome photo of a steam-train instead of a colour illustration of Harry Potter waiting for the Hogwart’s Express.

So, while making sure that their core market is targeted, a publisher may also consider making the cover a little wider in appeal, in the hope that it will encourage a greater audience.

China Mieville is a case in point. China is certainly a brilliant and incisive writer, producing novels as rich as anything in literature, but China is also a genre writer. However, rather than going for what we would think of as typically genre covers for China’s books (fantastical beasts or cityscapes), the publisher has gone for much more design-led covers. China has broken out of the SF ghetto and the look of his books reflects that.

That’s not to say that a publisher has to go for a design-led look. Science fiction, fantasy and horror have produced some great fully illustrated covers over the years. And if your book has a kick-ass, beautifully illustrated dragon on the cover, chances are that it’ll reach your intended audience no problem. The important thing as a publisher is that you get the best possible cover art you can and make sure that you have a design team in place who can do justice to the art you have commissioned.

But, dear writer, beauty is the eye of the beholder, so you may well be wondering what pleases my eye. Therefore, I shall give you a roundup of 5 of my personal favourite covers from the Abaddon/Solaris stable.

Death got no mercy by Al Ewing1. The Afterblight Chronicles: Death Got No Mercy by Al Ewing (art by Mark Harrison)

I always consult with the author before commissioning a cover for their book and when I asked Al what he wanted to represent his ultra-violent post-apocalyptic hell-ride, he said “How about a man punching out a grizzly bear?” Fortunately, artist Mark Harrison was well up for the task, and what we have is, I think, the most audacious cover of the Abaddon Books range.

Deadfall Hotel by Steve Rasnic Tem2. Deadfall Hotel by Steve Rasnic Tem (art by John Kenn Mortensen and D’Israeli)

This was originally going to go out with a D’Israeli cover, which we all thought was gorgeous, but when we presented it to our distributor’s sales team they weren’t keen, saying that it didn’t tell them what kind of book it was. So, we had to go back to the drawing-board, as it were. Fortunately we didn’t have to go very far as John Kenn Mortensen had produced stunning artwork for Centipede Press’s hardback edition of the title and was happy for us to license one of those pieces. What’s more, D’Israeli was happy for us to use his original cover artwork as illustrations for the interior. So, we ended up with the best of both worlds and a gorgeous paperback.

Blood and feathers by Lou Morgan

3. Blood and Feathers by Lou Morgan (art by Pye Parr)

This is one of those design-led covers I told you about. At Rebellion Publishing we’re fortunate to have a brilliant design team led by Pye. We wanted to shy away from your traditional Urban Fantasy cover for this as we didn’t want Lou to immediately be dropped into a niche. Her book is unusual and brilliant and we wanted to give this debut title as much of a boost as possible. Pye did a wonderful job with his blood-splattered angel and storm of feathers.

Hell Train by Christopher Fowler

4. Hell Train by Christopher Fowler (art by Graham Humphreys)

Hell Train marked Christopher Fowler’s return to horror. The nice thing about Chris is that he’s massively well connected to the film business. Hence, for this book, we managed to get the legendary Graham Humphreys. Graham has produced many incredible film posters over the years, including The Evil Dead and A Nightmare on Elmstreet. True to form, Graham produced a great cover that wouldn’t look out of place as a poster for a classic horror movie.

The noise revealed Ian Whates5. The Noise Revealed by Ian Whates (art by Dominic Harman)

Dom is a BSFA award-winning artist, for this very cover no less! When it comes to science-fiction and fantasy art, Dom is certainly one of the hottest talents there is. His beautifully illustrated covers always do a book justice and if you’re looking for great genre artist, then look no further!


Jonathan OliverJonathan Oliver is the Editor-in-Chief of Solaris and Abaddon Books. He is the author of two novels in the Twilight of Kerberos series, The Call of Kerberos and The Wrath of Kerberos, as well as a bunch of short stories that have appeared in a variety of places.


How to market your book and make invaluable contacts

networkingThe Steps

Okay, this is a pretty basic formula for how one should go about marketing their book to achieve optimum success (although whether you define your success through sales or an overall increase in recognition will be left entirely to the reader).

Firstly, there is no point in trying to shop around a product that isn’t finished. No one gives a shit about a work in progress. I was recently at the London Book Fair working for Indepenpress, and you wouldn’t believe the amount of people that approached us and said “Hi I’m looking for a publisher for my new book. It’s not finished at the minute but…” If it’s not finished, don’t even bother. All your energy should be on getting that first draft completed, but this still doesn’t mean that your novel is finished – not by a long shot. As an author, marketing manager and editor, I can tell you that chopping up that piece-of-shit better known as the first draft is the most important aspect of the whole process. I’ve had some pretty bad experiences with other people editing my work, and accidents with books going to print in the second draft rather than the finalised article, and I can assure you that a clean, well polished piece makes all the difference.

Step One – finish your book and edit the Christ out of it. Cut chunks off the flabby bastard and make it as tight and lean as possible. Stephen King says that he chops off about 10% of the first draft for the final edit, and considering his books can go on for over a thousand pages, we’re talking about the loss of entire manuscripts just to get one of his books ready.

Step Two – find an agent, get published traditionally, or go through self-publishing. In this day and age, deciding on which one can mean the difference between a long slog and victory, or a shortcut and independent glory. But it’s usually all about who you know as opposed to how good your work is. There are some authors who take years to perfect the craft, study the art of editing until their eyes are keen to every little tense or punctuation mistake, write a beautiful and intriguing novel, only to be turned down by every single publisher and agent in their vicinity. These authors may choose to self-publish and win a fan base through Kindle and go on to sell thousands. Self-publishing does not mean the author cannot write, although it does sometimes imply this. The whole discussion of traditional publishing versus self publishing is something I’ll save for another day as the argument is far too exhausting.

So whatever route you take, just get it out there. Now, I’m going to be offering marketing advice for those that self-publish, as I have had to rely on myself for my marketing and I now market in excess of thirty authors from all over the country. If you get published traditionally, you will be given a boost but until you achieve a desirable amount of sales (which could mean tens of thousands) a lot of the work will still be left up to you. Even though traditionally published authors will receive marketing support from their publishers, they are still expected to take a hands-on approach and be extremely proactive. This could include anything from organising signings to enquiring about online blog tours. Every author, traditional or independent, should be heavily involved in their own publicity.

The Routine

So now you’re published either electronically or physically, and if you’re a really lucky piglet, both. What to do now?

The best way to attack this dilemma is to go firstly for your local area, then expand to the city you’re from, then attempt country-wide exposure. It ain’t easy, trust me. However, some people do attain commonwealth success and are able to branch out overseas with a little perseverance.

Local newspapers are usually happy to accommodate a story about a local author, even if they just rewrite the blurb and stick a picture of you holding the book up. With this local attention, you can use it to approach local bookshops, most importantly, Waterstones (if your area has one). Signings are a good way of selling books and thickening your profile, but they can be exercises in patience and boredom. The good news is, if you manage to secure a signing at a Waterstones and you do somehow shift twenty or thirty copies, that Waterstones will be more willing to actually stock your book (which is an infuriatingly difficult task, especially for new authors). Plus, if you do a signing and it goes well, you can use this as leverage to approach another Waterstones in the neighbouring area. Be warned, not all of them are friendly and they won’t always say yes due to sheer arrogance or discrimination (especially for those that are self published), but this is more down to the individual manager rather than the store policy itself.

Independent bookshops are a lot more sympathetic and willing to help. For example, my local bookshop, The Big Green Bookshop, are all about helping lesser-known authors and promoting local books. Also, most of them give good, friendly advice. I held the launch party for my debut novel there and was able to sell forty five copies in one night, albeit mostly to friends and family, but this is still a good way to get the ball rolling. A launch party will be exactly that – a party. Get all your relatives and friends involved, get the wine flowing and sell them books!

Your area will probably have local radio stations too, and although they are sometimes harder to secure a slot in, they will sometimes give you five minutes to promote your book. For this one, get on Google and do your homework. It’s worth mentioning that although you should start off small and set realistic goals (I’m all about the realistic goals, baby), it doesn’t hurt to approach BBC Radio or The Evening Standard. I’ll have you know that I have secured features and interviews in both of the above for the authors that I work with, all from a simple phone call and follow-up email.

When you’re happy that you’ve squeezed the life out of your local area, do the same for the city you’re from. This is just a process of working your way up the ladder, using your local press to secure bigger newspaper articles and longer radio interviews. I won’t lie to you – I can’t say how much of this will translate into sales, but if you’re an author because you love writing, the recognition will be what you’re all about. The objective is to raise your author profile.

Don’t forget to email blogs, websites, and every other relevant avenue you can think of. Reviews are a great way of adding credibility to your work, especially if you’re self-published. If you pay to have your work in print, and an unbiased source such as a blogger says that it’s a pretty damn good book, then no one can tell you a fucking thing about being a self-published author.

The thing to remember is that you must always maintain an active web presence. This means updating Facebook and Twitter, but don’t just flood your pages trying to get people to buy your book otherwise you will piss a whole lot of people off. Try and be a bit tactful, but always sneak something here and there. If you don’t have a website, even a basic two page one, then you can get a blog space which practically serves the same purpose.

Case Study

Every book has a unique selling point, even if it is miniscule, bizarre, and vague. To give you an example, here are some of the USPs for the books that I have been marketing over the last two months (both fiction and non-fiction): The 18th Century Irish Potato Famine, childhood obesity, cerebral palsy, British expats in Africa, salsa dancing, nuclear power plants, the English enslavement of the Welsh, crisps. As you can see, quite a mixed bag of nuts, but within each sector, there is something you can exploit. By simply running the USP of your book through Google, you will get a good idea of the areas you can attack for marketing. Let’s say your book is about an archaeologist that uncovers a monster while out on an expedition in Saudi Arabia. Look at the sentence again: Let’s say your book is about an archaeologist that uncovers a monster while out on an expedition in Saudi Arabia. Already we can see the main areas for you to run through Google, perhaps with the following combinations:

  • Archaeological fiction – Archaeological thriller/horror- Archaeological novel review – Archaeological magazines
  • Monster novels – Monster novel review – Horror blog
  • Expedition novels – Expedition magazines – Expedition Saudi Arabia
  • Saudi Arabia novels – Saudi Arabia Fiction – Saudi Arabia interest – Saudi Arabia magazines

No matter how vague you think a link might be, give it a go anyway. Have a cover letter written up, and have a press release ready with a picture of your book. Also, don’t forget to put links of where the potential reviewer can see your book’s Amazon reviews.

Now I will give you an example of proactive marketing from an author that I worked closely with. He wrote a historical fiction book that may have been difficult to obtain publicity for, were it not for his USP – which was the story of the author himself. He was a millionaire who gave up his family and fortune to pursue a career as an author and now lives in a caravan. Based on that one fact, he has gained attention from the Evening Standard, the BBC, and numerous reviewers across England and Wales. The book, in this case, is secondary to the author himself.

If you have anything within yourself which you can exploit, do so! If you are a policeman that has written a book about a serial killer that murders cops, use your own background to sell and validate the book. If you’re a school teacher that has written a kids book, let the press know! The author’s story works in conjunction with the narrative of the novel itself, for marketing purposes anyway.

Marketing and making a name for yourself is a long, hard slog and often a thankless task. But perseverance is the key. The likelihood is, unless you’re very lucky and have a few decent links that can help push your book, that your first novel may only cause a slight stir. It will be the second and third title where you will really pick up speed, as people that bought the first book will go back and search your other titles. You gain momentum by building up a body of work which you can refer your readership to.

As I write this, I am marketing a non-fiction book about a man who was clinically dead and came back to life, having experienced the afterlife. His book details his research into spiritualism and meditation. Already, without knowing anymore about the book, I can use this remarkable anchorage to catch the attention of the media and press. So far, it seems to be working.

And remember, when you’ve been cracking at it for six months and you’ve only made a handful of sales and gained a review or two, just tell yourself this: You are climbing up one of the steepest hills in the world, you are desperately outnumbered in a war of savages; only your cunning, determination, and self-belief will set you apart.


Samuel BonnerSam works as a marketing manager for Indepenpress and has written novels such as Playground and Someone’s in the House.