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What Sells an Anthology?

I'm sure I don't know, except for the widely accepted principles of how good the cover looks, who the authors are, and whether you're able to get it to the right distributors.

While playing around on AnthologyBuilder, though, I've noticed several principles that shed light on the habits of marketing departments in major publishing houses. I can't guarantee that any of these actually improve book sales, but it certainly improves my emotional response on first encounter with the book.

Cover Image
It's commonly accepted knowledge that a book's cover image is the single largest factor in determining whether a customer buys it. But what makes a cover appealing? The answer will depend a great deal upon the interests and temperament of the customer, but here are a few guiding factors:

(1) High Contrast
In the internet world of online thumbnails, and to a lesser extent in real-world book browsing, a book not only has to stand on its own aesthetics, but must also stand out from the crowd. It needs to be daring enough to stand up and shout "Me! Me! Look at me!"

A Cabinet of Curiousities, a Circus of Marvels

Paradoxical Pasts

In the two covers above, I consider the leftmost to have the more sophisticated design and the most overall appeal. But in a thumbnail setting, it's the cover on the right that jumps out at me. In a screen full of thumbnails, my eye might skip past the left cover without even noticing, but I'd be certain to notice the one on the right and, once I'd noticed it, the incongrous image of Abraham Lincoln in a spacesuit would probably tempt me to read at least the first few pages.

(2) A Focal Point
Here we have a second pair of covers, both with about the same level of contrast, but one of them has a clear item of interest.

With Stars in His Eyes


Covers that have a clear subject, an image I can latch onto, are intrinsically more likely to hold my interest. In this respect, they are very like the opening paragraphs of a novel or short story.

Legible Text

Your title can be as grabby as you want; that's not going to help snag a buyer if they have to squint to read what it says.

When My Job's Done

Tales Retold

Titles are easiest to read if they're on a solid or mostly-solid background, or if they have a noticably different brightness level than the background. The key here is to have high contrast between the text and the surrounding image.

Admittedly, this is sometimes difficult to achieve in the current version of AnthologyBuilder. It would be nice if we had features to let editors change the color of the title text or add a solid-color title bar. Nevertheless, a lot can be done simply by taking care where one places the title on the page.

Text Size
This is perhaps the most common problem I see with books created on AnthologyBuilder. Title text looks intrinsically more legible in the cover design screen than it does in a thumbnail image. It's tempting to keep the title text small rather than polluting a beautiful cover image with bold text, but look at the difference it makes in a reader's first impression:

Incident on a Small Colony

Space Monkeys

Incidentally, this is much easier to achieve with short titles than with long ones. I suspect this is one of the reasons publishers often rename novels to a one- or two-word title that seems inferior to the original. Long, intricate titles -- which work extremely well for short stories, and make the story stand out in both TOCs and in the minds of readers -- are very difficult to feature prominently on the cover of a book.


Jul. 20th, 2010 03:12 pm (UTC)
Cover design is a fascinating subject. It has to grab attention in a second, and then keep it for a more intense scrutiny. It also, if possible, has to be related to the contents.

And yes, short titles you can print large always help. It also makes it easy for people to remember them.
Jul. 20th, 2010 06:59 pm (UTC)
Whilst I agree that principles you illustrate are sound ones, I hope a good number of AB anthologists will flout them, otherwise we will see precious little innovation in cover design. The "same old same old" approaches will prevail. Which would be a shame, from my perspective.

For what it's worth, I *love* the cover to the anthology of my stories you use as an (apparent) illustration of bad practice. I didn't choose it, but the anthologist consulted me. It is a perfect match for the story that the anthology's title references. Plus it's a beautiful picture.

(I get similarly annoyed by the endless stream of advice along the lines of "You must start your story with a grabby opening line. Yes, I understand the principle. It is basically sound. But...not every time! There is more than one way to grab. Subtlety can work too. And do we really want to reinforce the seemingly remorseless trend for attention span reduction?)

Here ends this rant! (Or plea for diversity, if you prefer)
Jul. 22nd, 2010 10:09 am (UTC)
Plea for diversity acknowledged and accepted ;)

I hope I didn't imply that I think these principles ought to be followed all the time, or that I think a cover is poor overall simply because it doesn't exemplify one of the principles I chose to talk about.

Obviously, every cover design is going to sacrifice some elements in favor of others. I just think it's good for editors to be aware of which elements they may or may not be sacrificing when they make design choices.
Jul. 23rd, 2010 05:22 pm (UTC)
No problem, Nancy :-)
Jul. 20th, 2010 07:51 pm (UTC)
"Covers that have a clear subject, an image I can latch onto, are intrinsically more likely to hold my interest."

It's easier on the eyes to focus on one or few objects then a multitude of objects that touch each other. This principle is used in design all the time. Look at commercials or photographs trying to sell something--they focus on one or two items and that's it.

For example look at advertisements for a bedsheets--the room has the bed, maybe a dresser stand and one or two items on the stand and that's it. To live if such a room won't be my ideal place--it would seem very empty and lifeless. However in design it has more impact if the human eye only has only a few things to look at.
Jul. 21st, 2010 12:33 am (UTC)
Intersting topic and excellent covers to illustrate your points.

Jul. 22nd, 2010 10:10 am (UTC)
Thanks :)




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