Monday 15 July 2019

The Cover Quandary

We all want authenticity in our writing, right? Author Sandy Curtis thinks so. At fourteen, she wrote a story about a pickpocket stealing a wallet from an off-duty cop then wrote to Police Headquarters and asked them about fingerprints. Perfectly okay. Not so perfectly okay was her mother receiving a call wanting confirmation the query was genuine and then almost having a heart attack thinking her daughter was in trouble with the law! So began Sandy's writing world where crime and passion collide. Welcome, Sandy!

It's true.

You can't judge a book by its cover.

But readers do, and that's why authors cringe when their publisher sends them a cover that they instinctively know won't work. Or why indie authors spend days searching on-line for the perfect cover shot they can use or at least work into something that attracts readers and hints at what their story is about.

It's a lesson I learned the hard way. Many years and lots of naivety ago, I was lucky enough to be offered a three-book contract with a major publisher. At that time, no Australian author was published in romantic suspense in Australia, but US romsus titles were being sold here.

My publisher showed me some covers their graphic designer had come up with for my first book, Dance with the Devil, and said that there were only two that she liked and had chosen one of those. It wasn't the kind of cover I had envisaged, but I went along with it as (in those days) I always assumed the publisher knew best. That was my first mistake. My second was in suggesting that in order to show it was an Australian book and to have a motif that would go on each cover to represent the series, a small Cooktown orchid could be placed in the top right-hand corner.

Things seemed to be going well, especially when my publisher said how impressed the sales rep for a bookstore chain was with my story and had ordered a very large number. Wow! I couldn't wipe the smile off my face (See how naive I was?)

Months after launch, I received a call from my publisher. Returns were big. Unfortunately, booksellers didn't know where to place my book on their shelves. I should have realised this when I had discovered it in the horror section of our local Target store.

My publisher told me that I would now not be classified as a romantic suspense author but as a suspense author, the orchid was going, and book two would have a different style of cover. She was true to her word and the cover for Black Ice was a standout. Problematically, Big W didn't buy it as the first book's sales figures hadn't met their future purchasing criteria.

Luckily, sales in bookstores for book two surpassed book one, and book three sales increased again. Then my publisher told me it was difficult to 'grow' an author in mass market paperback so book four, Until Death, was coming out in the trade paperback. At last, I thought, a chance to recover from the calamity of book one's cover.

Alas, it was not to be. My heart sank when I opened the email showing the cover. It was beautiful. Truly beautiful. Unfortunately, totally wrong for the story. It depicted a young woman wearing only bra-top and panties, sitting on the floor, head on drawn-up knees, looking like someone contemplating a major life decision or resting between dance practices. With a title like Until Death, it could even be assumed she had just been given a serious medical diagnosis. The shout line, which would have given a clue to the story's true nature, was so tiny a reader would have had to pick the book up to be able to read it.

I argued against this cover. My publisher held firm. It went to print. Sales slid down.

The following year my publisher said, "I think we have it right this time." And they did. Dangerous Deception was a Book of the Month in A&R and sales flew up.

My sixth book, Fatal Flaw, fell victim to the global financial crisis when my publisher did not renew my contract. They said they were sorry, they loved working with me, and sent me flowers. I felt like crying. They had become like family.

Several years later, when another publisher picked up this book, I was impressed by the cover, but we still don't agree on the cover of book seven, Grievous Harm. This publisher also contracted my previous five novels as e-books, but making new covers for these went smoothly.

It's a tough challenge for both author and publisher to create and agree upon a cover that captures the essence of a story that has taken the author many months of love, sweat and inspiration. I know many authors who have bemoaned covers chosen by their publisher, but all we can do is hope that readers will turn a book cover, read the blurb, take a glimpse inside - and find a story they want to read.

If you love stories where crime and passion collide, you can find my books at:

Love to love: family, friends, animals.

Love to laugh: at funny cat videos, humorous books, and my grandchildren laughing.

Love to learn: about everything in this wonderful, fascinating world of ours.


  1. Sandy, it must be super hard to 'let go', even when you don't like your covers! Author knows best and all that! I'd never thought about the subsequent issue of where to shelve them because of confusion about the cover. People who know your books would know where to put them, but the horror section...? Horrors! I'm glad you've finally found a happy marriage of author-publisher for your books and your covers. They look super.

    1. Miranda, publishers have years of experience in picking covers they think will appeal to readers, but when it's a sub-genre that hasn't been written by an Australian author and published in Australia before it would have been quite difficult for them to work out what might convince a reader to pick up the book. I was extremely grateful to be given the opportunity, and I wasn't the only author to not be given another contract due to the world's financial situation. And, yes, I was lucky to be later picked up by Clan Destine Press for books six and seven.
      The problem with book sections in big stores like Target is that often the person stocking the books isn't a reader and just puts books where they think they should go, based on the title. Louise Cusack's first dark fantasy book, Daughter of the Light, was placed in the New Age section of the same store. We both had a smile over that.
      Choosing a cover for my women's fiction, Murder, Mayhem & Men On Pause, was not an easy decision for my publisher as it covered a few sub-genres, so we hoped what was finally used had general appeal. And I think the covers for my straight romances tell readers exactly what stories are inside. Well, I cross fingers anyway :-)
      Thank you for your kind thoughts.

  2. Wow, having the 'right' covers for your books is much more complicated than I thought. Does it reflect the story? Where will they shelve it in shops? Is it eye-catching to readers so they want to read what's inside? So much to think about. So glad you now have the covers that best fit your stories. Very much suspense!

  3. Enisa, it can be such a hit-and-miss thing. Personal preferences play a huge part too. It is complicated and I'm grateful when it works.
    Sometimes you "know" when a cover is going to work. I just wish that happened all the time :-)
    Authors, and publishers, have the best of intentions, and all we can do is trust the readers to at least pick up our books and read the back cover blurb.
    I love writing the suspense as much as I love writing the relationship between my hero and heroine. Danger always intensifies emotions and I hope I capture that in my stories.

  4. Hi Sandy. I've had a mixed experience with covers. I like the cover for my first book (even though the hero looks nothing like my description of him in the story lol). Second book? Not so much. But at least they both reflect the genre of rural romance, I guess. How terrible to be identified as a horror story based on the cover alone!

    1. Hi Marilyn
      The cover not reflecting the description of the hero or heroine is so common, isn't it. But good that both your covers make your genre obvious to your readers.
      Yes, I couldn't believe that Dance With the Devil was placed in the horror section, but I guess the sales person just saw "Devil" in the title and jumped to what to them was an obvious conclusion. I didn't think a waterfall on the cover would lead to that. I can laugh about it now.


We love getting comments. Why not leave one?!