The Quest for the Perfect Covers

Since the beginning of the year, I have been trying to decide how to re-do my adult fantasy book covers. I know that the Cowry Catchers covers are routinely mistaken for children’s books. That is the single biggest problem. Beyond that, I want the Refugees trilogy branded the same way as the Cowry Catchers series. They need to look like they go together.

That’s 8 books – 5 Cowry Catchers and 3 Refugees, and there will be more series involving these characters. We’re talking about a lot of money here. Getting it wrong could be disastrously expensive. Getting it right will be expensive enough.

Rah had done some advertising art of Silveo’s face last year, and it definitely generated clicks. It also looks a little sexy, a little queer, a little dangerous – all things I want on these covers. So I asked her to do the same thing for Anaroo, with the idea of putting a different portrait on each cover. I also had Rah do a full body illustration of Anaroo, since this is more common in Fantasy, and I tested the two cover images head-to-head with Facebook ads. (I also tested various crops of all these, but explaining all that would make this post even longer. These are the full images, not the best crops.)

The face won, so that is what we used on the launch of The Scarlet Albatross.

However, it was my impression that a lot of people were either lukewarm about the cover or still mistaking it for a younger YA novel. I wasn’t satisfied, so I kept working on other options.

I talked to some high-end artists who do oil painting covers for Tor and Baen. You can hire those guys. All you need is money. But those covers cost around $4000. Multiply that by 8. That’s a lot of money. Those covers would have to increase sales exponentially to be worth their price tag. I am skeptical. I think they would increase sales, but not by that much. And I really can’t afford to just eat that loss. If the books didn’t make back the money, I’d be hurting financially.

So then I looked at design companies that use stock art and cost less because they don’t employ original paintings. These covers cost about half as much as the ones I'm currently buying from Rah. I started talking to one company recommended by another author I trust. Her books with their covers sell very well. While the company uses stock art, all covers are original, not pre-fab.

The design company has been very generous and will not charge me unless I choose to use one of their designs. They also told me I could test the covers with Facebook ads, share them on FB with my readers, share them with my friends, with my mailing list, whatever it took to make a good decision. So, I’m going to share them here along with my research.

******I'm removing this image out of respect for the design company. They did tell me I could share the images to get an opinion, but I want to give them plenty of room to use the design elsewhere, since I did not end up buying it.***** 

This is the first design they came up with. I tested it with Facebook ads against the current Albatross cover. The results were inconclusive. Almost exactly the same number of people clicked on either image and this was across multiple audiences on multiple days. These two covers seem to be equally eye-catching to readers unfamiliar with my work.

However, FB doesn’t tell me what kind of book people were expecting when they clicked on an image. It only tells me that they click. Most importantly, it doesn't tell me whether either of these covers corrects my most significant problem - the idea that my books are for young readers.

I figured out a long time ago that there’s no point in surveying my audience about this stuff. Once they become fans of my work, once they know the kind of book they're getting, their impressions of artwork are irrevocably colored by that knowledge. 

This is a recruitment vs retention problem. I feel like I'm pretty good at retention. I'm struggling with recruitment - getting new people in the door.

I needed data from people who are unfamiliar with my work.  So I poked around, and I discovered that SurveyMonkey has a paid survey service. It’s expensive--$2 per response in order to narrow the audience by a single criteria.

The criteria I chose was “owns an eReader.” That’s it. That’s all I know about these people. They all own an eReader. But after trying it a few times, I think it’s good data. There are some outliers for sure, but most people are not answering randomly. They are reading my questions and thinking about them quite a lot judging from some of the comments.

I did a survey on the old Albatross cover and one on the design company version. The results were eye-opening. Almost exactly the same number of people thought that each cover was for minors (about 1/3). So, I hadn't made any progress there. In addition, people viewing the current Albatross cover seemed to have a slightly more accurate idea of what the book was actually about. 

I took this info to the design company, and they produced a new design.

******I'm removing this image out of respect for the design company. They did tell me I could share the images to get an opinion, but I want to give them plenty of room to use the design elsewhere, since I did not end up buying it.***** 

I'll admit, I disliked this one right out of the gate. But this is not about what I like. It's straight-up marketing - what gets the most people in the door with the most accurate expectations?

So I did 3 more surveys. I decided that if I was going to make decisions based on this data, I needed to be sure I was comparing apples to apples. So I did one on the original Cowry Catchers cover #1. Maybe I was wrong! Maybe people didn't think it was for children! At this point, I was doubting everything.

I also did a survey on the Silveo portrait. I had stubbornly refused to take into account that some people might be unconsciously prejudiced against the Anaroo portrait because she's not white. I do not want to whitewash my covers, but I think I would be foolish not to see whether this is a factor. Silveo is a white male, so that helps to me answer this question.

And then, of course, I ran the survey on the new cover from the design company - all the same survey, although I did tweak one question, as you'll see below, and I added a question to Silveo's survey.

5 surveys, 50 respondents each (different people), $500 worth of surveys.

Here is the raw data. After the survey ends, the associated images on the survey disappear for some reason, but each survey had embedded images of the covers as you see above.

Original Cowry Catchers Book 1

Silveo Portrait (no design, just the image)

Current Albatross cover with Anaroo's portrait

Design Company's first Attempt

Design Company's 2nd Attempt

My Analysis

90% of people looking at both the original Cowry Catchers cover and Silveo’s face knew they were viewing a fantasy novel. None of the Albatross covers fared so well. Of those looking at Anaroo’s portrait, 75% knew it was a fantasy novel. 71% on the Design Company’s first attention and 68% on their second.

Genre-recognition seems to be weak in many readers. It’s also not my impression that many people are avoiding my books because they mistake the genre. So this isn’t vital, but it is interesting.

Perhaps the most important question I asked was: What age-group do you think this book is for? Here’s how that broke down:

It was gratifying to see that fully 68% of respondents thought the original Cowry Catchers Book 1 was for minors 16 and under. I'm not crazy! I'm not wasting my time an money by redoing these! Of those people, 8 % thought it was for children under 12. Only 8% of respondents thought this book was for adults.

For Silveo’s face (with no design and no title, just the image), I got 56% thinking it’s for mature YA and 40% thinking it’s for younger YA 12-16. Virtually no one thought it was for children or adults. I’m not sure what to make of this, but I suspect we could push it more into the adult category with design choices.

For Anaroo’s portrait (accompanying a fully designed cover), almost exactly the same percentage of people thought the book was for mature YA – 55%. However, of the rest, 16% thought it was for adults, and about 27% thought it was for younger YA. Again, apart from a single outlier, no one thought it was for children under 12. In total, 71% think the book is for readers ages 17+.

For the design company’s first try at the Albatross cover, these numbers look very similar to the current cover. 27% think it’s for younger YA. 73% total think the book is for 17+.

The design company’s second try did about the same. 74% think the book is for 17+.

When asked about the likelihood of violence in the book, all the covers did pretty well. The original Cowry Catchers cover was weakest at 90%. Silveo’s face got a 98% chance of violence. Anaroo’s face with design got 94%. Both of the design company covers got 98%.

Not surprisingly, the covers with paintings gave people the impression that they might encounter non-human characters in the book. For the original Cowry Catchers covers 96% (how did 2 people look at that cover and not see non-human characters??). For Silveo’s face 100%! They can’t miss those pointed ears when they’ve got earrings in them. For Anaroo’s face 96%.

For the design company’s first try, 80% would not be surprised by non-human characters and for the 2nd try 94%. Interesting difference. I’m guessing it’s because the griffin heads are more visible on the 2nd cover.

Then I asked whether the audience would be surprised by queer/gay characters, and here it gets a little strange. I asked about queer characters originally because most of the gay and trans people I know use that word as a broadly neutral term for non-straight people, encompassing everything from gay, lesbian, bisexual to asexual, poly, gender-queer, pansexual, etc. “Queer” is less confusing than a long acronym and less ugly (frankly) than QUILTBAG. However, some people seem to have very negative connotations of this word, because quite a few of them took me to task in the comments for using the “offensive word queer.” Huh?

I also got a lot of pushback in the comments with people saying things like, “I’m not sure why this is relevant.” I think these people are trying to say they’re cool with gays, but it’s not helpful, and I wish had not made a comment block and had forced them to choose one of the options. Anyway, I’m just discounting those people who refused to answer.

For the original Cowry Catchers covers, only 44% would been unsurprised by gay characters and 12% would be positively offended. That’s not good.

By the time I did the survey for Silveo’s face, I had wised up and used the word “gay” instead of queer. However, this got me an even greater amount of respondent push-back. People refused to answer the question and engaged in vague-booking in the comments. Again I had the idea that some people did this out of bigotry and some out of a misguided sense that “this shouldn’t be an issue.” I found their behavior hell-of-annoying. A pox on both your houses.

For Silveo's portrait, I ended up with this – 63% unsurprised by gay characters and only 4% positively offended. That’s much better than the Cowry Catchers original cover.

Interestingly, for Anaroo’s face, 75% of people were unsurprised by gay characters and no one was positively offended. Although, again 8% of people elected to be assholes in the comments and didn’t get counted. Some of them were probably offended.

For the design company’s first attempt, 71% were unsurprised by gay characters, 1 person was positively offended, and fully 10% chose to offer mostly unhelpful remarks in the comments. One person attempted to school me with the following: “First of all i do not like the word Queer, the term gay or homosexual is more of an educated choice and i'm surprised queer would even be used in this survey.”

One person said something more useful: “I would be surprised as this seems to be a young adult book. While it wouldnt bother me, I don't think it is appropriate for a younger adult book.”

The design company’s second try did worse. 54% unsurprised by gay characters, 6% positively offended, and 8% offering their wisdom in the comments instead of answering the frigg’in question (sorry, I got pretty annoyed by this).

Asked whether they would be surprised by sex, very few people felt the need to dodge in the comments. For the original Cowry Catchers covers 50% of people would be unsurprised by some quantity of sex, while 22% would be positively offended. Again, terrible, but we knew that.

For Silveo’s face, fully 85% of people expected sex in the book. 40% of them would not be surprised by a whole lot of sex. One commenter said, “I would be surprised if there were NOT sex in this book.” LOLs. However, there were still 6% of people who would be surprised and offended.

For Anaroo’s face 76% of people expected sex in the book (only 24% expected a lot of sex, but that’s fine…because there isn’t a lot). 8% would be surprised and offended.

The design company’s first attempt was very close to the current cover. 74% expected sex. 6% would be offended. One person did comment with this: “i would not be surprised by sex in the book however if graphically done i would be surprised if there wasn't a warning so parents could determine if they want a younger child to read this book.”

The design company’s second attempt did better, if a little more polarized with 82% of people unsurprised by sex and 10% offended. This was the only place this cover did significantly better than either of the other two Albatross covers.

It’s worth mentioning that the second attempt by the design company also got some of the most negative comments: “it just looks like a fanfic romance” and “a rip-off or fanfic of Hunger Games.” Again, I kind of agree with them. I don't like this cover.

Finally, on the survey for Silveo’s face, for the last question, I gave them the book’s description and asked whether this altered their opinion of the book’s maturity level. 73% said that it did not alter their opinion. I was pleased with this. I think it means the image is sending the right message. 18% said that, after reading the description, they think the book is for a more mature audience than they originally expected from the image. Fair enough. Bafflingly, 10% say that, after reading the description, they feel the book is actually for a less mature audience than they had expected from the image. …The image must have made them think it was erotica?

Survey respondents were fairly evenly distributed in age for all but the original Cowry Catchers survey, where they skewed a little older. That could be self-selected or it could just be the time of day or something else. 60-65% of respondents were female on all surveys. I think that’s probably consistent with my target audience, so cool. Household income ran the full spectrum on all surveys. Region of the country was also tremendously varied, although these are all US respondents.

If you've stuck with me for this whole post, thanks. That was a lot of data. Unfortunately, it is not conclusive data. None of these covers or images stand out as a solid winner, although the original Cowry Catchers covers are certainly solid losers. Any of the new style of covers would be superior to the original Cowry Catchers covers in conveying maturity and content. That, at least, is crystal clear.

The portrait covers do cost about $500 for art and design vs the stock art covers of about $250. That's a significant difference, and if both covers perform equally well, I should probably go with the cheaper ones. However, I hesitate because the portrait covers do seem to give people a slightly more accurate idea of the book's content, they look more original, and the design covers do not actually beat them in the maturity expectation category. They're dead-even there.

If you have thoughts about the data, I would love to hear them. Please email me or post. If you have thoughts about the individual covers, please keep them to yourself. Individual opinions just don't count for much here, especially if you already know my books. I have heard way too many opinions already. Unless you are my artist or my designer, please keep them to yourself. But if you see patterns in the data that I am not seeing, please do share. 

Edit: One good thing I forgot to add - as far as I can tell from this data, Anaroo being non-white has no negative impact on people's perceptions of the book or its content. I was afraid I was going to learn that I needed to choose between whitewashing the cover and having fewer people read the book. There's no indication of that here.