"Ew," they'll say. "That book looks self-published."
(Not that there's anything wrong with self-published work. Plenty of self-published novels are making their way - and gaining tremendous respect - in the book world, even those by authors who weren't best-sellers before deciding to self-publish...authors whose books speak for themselves. Still, we have to accept that "self-published" makes most people think "unprofessional," "unskilled," and "sub-par." )
Or you, first-time author, saying, "Sure! Yes! Okay!" to any cover your publisher presents to you. "It's just the cover, right?" you think. "It's just the cover. Just the cover."
There's no such thing as "just the cover." Even if your book is filled with research and statistics, you still want someone to cross the room to pick it up, and you want it to represent the work inside.
Covers matter so much, in fact, that one female author is taking to the internet to blast publishers who soften and feminize the covers of women's work that is neither soft nor feminine. Author Lionel Shriver writes in her recent Guardian article "I write a nasty book. And they want a girly cover on it",
Take the American reissue of my fourth novel Game Control – a wicked, nasty novel about a plot to kill two billion people overnight. The main character is a man, the focal subject demography. Yet what cover do I first get sent? A winsome young lass in a floppy hat, gazing soulfully to the horizon in a windblown field – soft focus, in pastels. Dismayed, I emailed back: "Did your designers read any of this book?"Covers should matter not just to the reader, but to you. They are to your book what your clothing is to you. If you typically wear black leather, you'll probably gag if someone tries to shove you out the door in paisley, because it doesn't represent you.
Publishers will always have the final cover say (I'm not talking to you, self-publishers, because that goes without saying), but even so, you can't be afraid to say you don't like what they're showing you, even if you're new.That book is your body, and someone else is trying to dress it. Tell them what you like.
As for you, self-publishers - if you're not very photo-design savvy, find a friend or hire someone. Don't walk out of the house looking like you've been dressed by a three-year-old inspired by both Lady Gaga and Mr. Rogers. As MacGraphics owner Karen Saunders says, "Covers that scream 'amateur' and have a 'made-at-home' look make it difficult to sell your book at all."
(It may also help everyone to keep in mind a comment left by a book designer on another of Shriver's articles, in which she decides she's going to make her own book cover because she's so frustrated with what she's seeing from designers: The designer responds to her complaint with, "The thing that makes a book designers life a living hell is authors thinking they can do our job for us." Also, for those of you perplexed by the covers you're seeing designed for your work, Book Designer also says, "Most times you will find that the author and publisher have in fact not briefed the designer properly." Take that down: Brief your designer!)