I heartily agree that the cover is a very critical component of the success of a novel; in all honesty, however, it’s not what sells the book for me. While I have very rarely purchased a book based on it’s cover alone, I can say that on several occasions I have been turned off by a book (primarily eBooks) because of what I can only describe as ‘Photoshop gone wrong’.
What makes or breaks the sale for this reader-turned-author is the first several pages (unless, of course, I already know what I’m looking for and I’m already set on purchasing said book). To me, this is the most important aspect of whether a book succeeds or not. Sure, there are other just-as-important issues such as marketing, but when I’ve already got the book in my hand, or my attention has been drawn to its page online – how the author pulls me into the story is the absolute deciding factor.
You’ve seen it, I’m certain. Someone spends a lot of money (or time) on a very well-done cover; just to have spent less effort on the content. Not to say that it doesn’t happen the other way – I’ve avoided even looking into some eBooks because of the hideous cover artwork; but too often lately I’ve seen absolutely beautiful covers and then failed to get past the first 50 pages because it was just that bad.
So what makes a good cover? My points below are, of course, are subjective and assuming you’re publishing a genre-style novel. What works for technical manuals definitely won’t for novels, and likewise, what works for fiction won’t necessarily translate for non-fiction. But what they all have in common is that if the cover is poorly done, no one will buy the book.
First, unless you are a professional graphic artist or someone that has years under their belt, don’t for an instant think that what you’re doing in Photoshop (or any other program for that matter) is going to be good enough. What looks great on your screen rarely translates to great in print – that’s why the pros are the pros, after all. If you’re a glutton for punishment, or you are on a shoestring budget to get that book published, do yourself a favor and get a proof done – you’ll thank yourself later. There are many companies out there that specialize in getting your cover done right; if you can afford the expense, I highly recommend finding one of them.
Second, make sure your cover at least remotely connects with the story found within. That picture of the model holding the gun and looking crafty might be attractive, but does it fit if there isn’t a model-type character toting a gun in your story? Likewise, what if the model is blonde on the cover but your heroine is brunette? Sounds trivial, but to me, it’s a major turn-off to have a mismatched cover. Enough to make me want to not buy the book; and that’s no trivial matter.
Lastly, don’t go for the generic cover. No, please. Just don’t.
Why? Because unless you’re publishing an encyclopedia, or your name is H.G. Wells and you’re printing your anthology, you can’t get away with it. Readers that completely ignore generic covers either just don’t care about the cover (rare) or (more likely) already know that the story is a page turner. If your potential reader doesn’t fit into either of those molds, then you’ve already lost a sale.
While there’s no guarantee that your cover will land your book in a reader’s hands, don’t make the tragic mistake of forcing them to look elsewhere.