US vs UK book covers

For those that are self-publishing e-books, the simplest solution is to have one cover across all markets.

And of course why not?  Hollywood blockbusters have the same look from one market to another – as do CDs and games.

The rise in importance of the internet and social media in fact make it all the more sensible to have one cover.   If your marketing is global, so should your packaging be, right?

But here’s the interesting thing – it doesn’t often work that way in publishing.

That is partly because of the way publishing rights are often carved up and sold to different publishers in separate territories, each often with a unique vision in how to best position that author in their market.  However, I’d also argue that there is a definite consumer preference (in the UK certainly) for covers tailored to their own market.

Let’s look at a few examples of the different covers in the US and the UK for some big brand name authors who are successful in both.  Which covers would you be more likely to pick up?  Do your choices broadly align with the market you are most familiar with?

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Working in the UK publishing industry, I quite often find US covers completely unsuitable for our market.  That is not to say that the US publishers have done a bad job with the cover design – we’ve just looked at several examples of pretty different cover styles that have worked very well the States.  But would the US covers have done equally well if they were used in the UK?

I’ve seen first-hand the massive difference a cover can make to sales – both in terms of selling the book into retailers (admittedly not an issue with publishing digitally) and in terms of consumer purchase.  In the majority of cases US covers just don’t cut it for the UK market, and I would imagine exactly the same is true visa-versa.

A lot the reason for this is that a reader’s frame of reference for what a good thriller, or romance, or historical novel look like is coloured by books they have read in the past.  And given the divergent cover art traditions, those frames of reference are defined by where (which country) they buy their books.

That’s not to say that there aren’t some cover designs that work in both markets – Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series is a perfect example of one that has.  In fact, with the paranormal genre in general, as strongly led as it is by US authors and without a strong existing tradition in cover art, the same covers are more often used in both the US and the UK.

In the next 5-10 years, I think we’ll see a big move towards one cover design being used for an author across all (or at least most) markets - prompted by the rise of e-books and the pressure for simultaneous publication across the globe.

Taking into account the contrasting starting points for consumers though this convergence will have to be handled carefully.  And to maximise sales across all markets, those covers will need to be designed with a global audience, not just the US or UK, in mind.

So, what is the answer for authors?

If you are self-publishing, then for most authors having two different covers designed won’t be an option.  What might be worth considering in your cover brief is researching and referencing both US and other English Language markets to ensure you’re not alienating readers elsewhere.

If you’re a published author, when judging the covers that your publisher is using in the different territories, have a check what the covers of your closest competitors look like in those markets.  If your designs stand up well against those designs, then likelihood is that your publisher is doing a good job.

Loyalty = Royalties: Putting readers first.

What do 95% of bestselling authors have in common?

A loyal readership.

How do authors build a loyal readership?

By understanding what their readers want and consistently delivering that time and time again in fresh and exciting ways.

The bestseller lists are genuinely dominated by authors who have built their readerships over a number of books with distinct series and returning characters.  Where that isn’t the case they often have a very tightly defined trademark subject matter or style.  Take a look at the bestselling adult fiction authors in the UK in 2010 (physical book sales).

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Every one of these bestselling authors has built their success on delivering multiple books that offer their readers more of what they love – and understanding that their success (and therefore royalties) is based on reader loyalty.

As a result of their consistency each of these authors has a strong brand promise to their readers – you know exactly what to expect from one of their books – even if you haven’t read one.

The same is equally true in Children’s and Young Adult fiction – most spectacularly embodied by the multi-million dollar franchises of JK Rowling (Harry Potter) and Stephanie Meyer (Twilight).

And it’s not only the long-established old-guard of publishing who have used this simple approach to build their careers.  John Locke, the first self-published author to sell over 1 million copies says:

“In my opinion, understanding who your target audience is, what they want, and writing to them (and only them!) is the most important component of being successful as an author.”

Locke truly lives out his own advice – allowing feedback from his loyal fans (those on his e-mail list) to shape his writing, and ditching story lines that even a small percentage of his core readers haven’t enjoyed.

Does that mean to be successful I have to write something the same as everyone else?

A resounding no!

Most of the worlds biggest authors – JK Rowling, Stieg Larsson, Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyer to name but a few – started by writing something original for a niche audience.

None of their first books attracted big advances – because sales expectations were low.

None were bestsellers straight away – because their fan base took time to develop.

All of them, however, were perfectly targeted at a selected niche and because they were also great books created a very loyal readership.  Those readers not only bought all the other books as soon as they were available – but even more importantly they told their friends.  Who told their friends. Who told their friends – and so on.

John Locke says of standing out from the crowd that “if you’re not offending a significant number of readers, your writing is probably not very original.  And the less original your writing, the less loyal your fan base will be.”

So don’t be afraid of being original – targeted at the right group it can increase reader loyalty – but do ensure that if a reader has discovered one of your books, there are plenty more that they’ll love ready and waiting.

What lessons can other authors learn from the success of bestsellers?

  • Talk to your readers and understand what they love about your writing – and equally what they don’t like (social media and e-mail are great tools for this)
  • Understand what your books promise a reader – and make sure that every book keeps that promise
  • Develop a consistent look for your books (or make sure your publisher does) – so they’ll be easily identifiable to your readers.  This doesn’t mean you have to stick with your first design if it’s not working – but when you find a look that works, make sure all of your covers share that design.
  • Market yourself based on your brand promise – make sure your book blurb, social media presence and your blog or website are all clear to readers about what they’re getting when they read one of you books.
  • Keep writing more – if you’re reaching even a modest audience who are enjoying your books and are you are confident in their appeal – keep going.  Most big name authors didn’t succeed with their first books – and when sales do start to take off, you’ll have a backlist of other titles for new fans to read.

So, when considering what type of book to write next, think first not what you want to write – but what your readers want you to write.

'No story lives unless someone wants to listen' JK Rowling

'No story lives unless someone wants to listen' JK Rowling

'Laughter is timeless.  Imagination has no age.  And dreams are forever.'
Walt Disney
Image by the brilliant Child13

'Laughter is timeless.  Imagination has no age.  And dreams are forever.'

Walt Disney

Image by the brilliant Child13

Here’s our pick of the top 5 crime and thriller book videos - find out who’s number one!

Copycat covers - the sincerest form of flattery?

One route for cover design is to create an original, creative, stand out piece of art captures the very essence of your writing and absolutely compels the reader to pick it up.

Another route is to identify an exceptionally successful author that you’re similar to – and rip off their look.

The first route will be massively rewarding, gain you many admirers – and work about once in every 20 attempts. 

The second route will often be criticised as unimaginative and derivative – but done well will work almost every time.

Copying an established cover route is often a very commercial approach to design for a couple of reasons:

1   It takes the risk out of the design.  Established authors will likely have been through several cover design incarnations to find a successful route – so learn from their mistakes.

2   Consumers recognise the cover looks of big name authors, usually with positive associations.  Making your cover look similar helps to instantly position your book in a consumer’s mind.

If you have the time, the creative vision, the worlds best designer and the luxury of being able to try again repeatedly if you don’t succeed – you might want to consider the first option. 

Still unconvinced?  Here are a few examples of the copycat effect done well…

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The Master:  Martina Cole

Effectively creating her own sub-genre, with her hard-hitting local gangsters, Martina Cole is nothing short of a publishing phenomenon – selling 6.6 million books in the UK since 2001.  Cole’s  2010 paperback Hard Girls has shifted 270,000 paperbacks as well as an incredible 250,000 in hardback.

The Apprentices

One of the earliest Martina-Cola-a-likes, Mandasue Heller used the Martina Cole look to reach between 40-80,000 sales per book in the UK.

Jessie Keane – helped with a ‘As good as Martina Cole or your money back’ guarantee launched to instant success.  She now regularly sells over 50,000 copies per book. 

A more recent addition to the fold, Roberta Kray (widow of real life gangster Reggie Kray) has also established herself – selling 30-50,000 copies.

Each of our apprentices, whilst not reaching the heights of the original, have established themselves as bestsellers in their own right – helped in no small part by their copycat covers.

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The Master: Lee Child

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Lee Child (and the creator of his covers – the brilliant Henry Steadman) should not be able to stop blushing. 

One of the most copied cover styles (perhaps only behind Steadman’s equally excellent Dan Brown covers) – Child’s look took thrillers in an altogether softer direction, designed to appeal to a female audience.

Creator of thriller fiction’s number one hard guy – Jack Reacher – Lee has now sold over 4.5 million copies in the UK in the last ten years. 

His latest paperback, 61 Hours, is his bestselling to date – shifting more than 350,000 books (not including digital editions) since September 2010.

The Apprentices

In a notoriously competitive and crowded markets, ‘Child-like’ covers have helped establish a number of authors.

Matt Hilton racked up an impressive 35,000 copies with his first book Dead Men’s Dust.  Noah Boyd similarly shot to 25,000 copies with his first title – The Bricklayer.

Copycat covers aren’t solely the preserve of debuts though.  Vince Flynn has had a number of cover looks in the past few years in the UK, as his publisher struggled to establish him.   With his 2011 paperback American Assassin Flynn is the latest to be given the ‘pastel-colours-man-silhouetted-on-a-road’ treatment. 

The results are spectacular.  From just over 2,000 copies shifted in the first quarter for Pursuit of Honour (Aug 2010), American Assassin (May 2011) has rocketed to over 31,000 copies sold in its first month.

The lesson? Think carefully about the quickest and clearest way to position your stories to your potential readers.  If that is to be ‘like someone else’ – that is no bad thing.

And if it’s not broke – don’t fix it.

'Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible' - Frank Zappa

'Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible' - Frank Zappa

Check out the Author Studio picks for the top 5 Young Adult book trailers.  What do you think - are there any that we’ve missed?

'There is only one thing which makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure' Paulo Coelho

'There is only one thing which makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure' Paulo Coelho

'the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do' - Apple

'the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do' - Apple

'Faith is taking the first step even when you can't see the whole staircase'
Martin Luther King Jnr

'Faith is taking the first step even when you can't see the whole staircase'

Martin Luther King Jnr

Cover Story: Jo Nesbo

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Jo Nesbo’s new look covers might not win any prizes for artistic impression - but they certainly should win prizes for effectiveness.

From selling in the region of 10-20,000 per book in the UK, a re-design in August 2010 has propelled Nesbo into the upper echelons of the crime-thriller elite.

Sales of The Snowman have topped 400,000 - an increase of over 2000% - admittedly helped by inclusion in the Richard & Judy book club at WHSmith.  Perhaps even more impressive though is that total Nesbo sales since the re-design, including his backlist, are over 850,000.

What did the new covers do differently?  Very simply, they positioned Jo Nesbo very directly and unashamedly as ‘The Next Stieg Larsson’.

With over 4 million copies of Larsson’s books sold in the UK, and no more coming in a hurry, both retailers and consumers were queuing up for what to buy next.

The simple brilliance of the Nesbo design is that it made this choice very simple for the consumer, with the quote from the Independent clearly given centre stage.

The rest of the design, including the imagery, works around the flash and draws attention to it.

Publishers are often criticised (and sometimes rightly) for their unimaginative and copy-cat covers.  The simple reason for this?  They work.

The role of a book cover, after all, isn’t to look pretty - it’s to sell your book.

ebooks and the importance of author brands

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With the current whirlwind of change within the publishing industry - led by the rapid growth in ebooks and social media - there are few reassuring constants.  Format, price, retailers, publishers, agents and the way that readers discover and choose their books are all constantly evolving.

One thing, however, remains resolutely the same - the importance of the author brand.

In fact, for consumers faced with an increasingly bewildering array of choice, the author brand will become a more and more significant way of navigating through the mass of titles available.

This increase in choice is led by the removal of two major ‘filters’ on the books available to readers.

1.  Publishers and agents, given finite resources, have had to decide which books they felt would deliver a good return on their investment.  As a result, only a small proportion of books written have ever been published.

2.  The costs of producing and distributing physical books combined with the limited capacity of retailers to stock them has restricted the number of titles economically viable  for publishers and retailers to keep available.  So even for authors lucky enough to have been published in the first place, many will have seen their titles eventually allowed to go out of print.

The massively exciting thing about digital publishing is that it removes both of these filters.  Much lower production costs and virtually unlimited storage capacity makes it possible - and indeed profitable - to keep millions of books ‘in print’ as described brilliantly in Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail.

Fantastic news - cue a creative explosion of writing and a boon time for authors!

But what about readers? How the hell do they navigate their way through not thousands, but millions of books?  Increased choice can in fact make purchase decisions both more difficult and less satisfying, as Barry Schwartz explains in his excellent TED talk.

Not only that but, without filters, the quality of ebooks will vary much more than their physical counterparts.

Of course, the recommendations of other readers and friends via social media, and more sophisticated, personalised e-tailer merchandising will play an increasing role in helping readers find books to suit them.

The quickest, simplest and most effective shorthand for readers finding a new book however will remain that of author reputation.

Knowing that your author brand will deliver a satisfying reading experience enables them to bypass the confusion created by a million different alternatives and the associated stress of that decision.  To a busy consumer, that is a valued shortcut and reassurance.

An additional complication of digital publishing is more varied pricing.

Any quick surf through the kindle charts will reveal a mountain of content available for FREE.  As a consumer you could quite happily spend all your reading time on free (or very cheap) content.

So why pay?

The answer is relatively simple - high quality content.

As a reader, you invest more than just money in a book - you invest time.  In a world where leisure time is increasingly at a premium, reading a book is a considerable investment, much more so than listening to a CD or even watching a film.

Put simply, life is too short to read bad books.

Your author brand is a guarantee to the reader that they will be investing their time in something that they will enjoy or find rewarding - and that is worth paying for.