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?

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).

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.