This week, authors J Thorn and Crys Cain answer the question: How do you know if your cover is good enough? What does good enough mean, and how can you gauge it?


Crys: Welcome to the TASM Podcast. I’m Crys Cain with my cohost J Thorn, and we are both, finally, somewhat stable for the moment.  

J: Stationary for now.  

Crys: Stationary. Don’t know about stable. Stationary.  

J: How are you?  

Crys: Oh, ugh.  

J: Yeah, that.  

Crys: I’m better than I was a week ago Wednesday, which was… not great. That was the day before the world building conference that I was like, why in the world did I schedule to go to two vents, four days apart with three days of driving to get there. 

But that eased as soon as we actually got into the event, cause hanging out with other writers who are all just excited about everything, always is energizing. So that was great.  

But right now I’m having to actually truly face all of the challenges of going back to Costa Rica, finding a new house, finding school place for the kid and learning the differences, especially in this like still COVID times of like schools are only doing, in-person like three days a week in most places in Costa Rica. 

And. Yeah. It’s just… it’s overwhelming.  

J: How do you… how do you manage that? I’m sure you speak some Spanish, right? But like, how do you manage that in a non native tongue?  

Crys: Right now? I’m not. Priscilla is. So have a best friend who is very fluent.  

J: I just see even like reading documents and things, that’s like another layer of complexity. 

Crys: I find that reading most of the time, when it’s not in a very intense legalees, it tends to be a bit easier for me because I could process the information at my own speed. And then conversations are more difficult because I already have difficulty processing English when people are rapid firing at me, then you add on like translation… 

so Priscilla has been doing a lot of the information gathering right now.  

J: Good. I’m glad you got some help with that.  

Crys: Absolutely. So how’s your week then?  

J: Yeah, I hit a wall yesterday, a big time. Like you, I was questioning my sanity in running an editor certification program followed by one day of packing, followed by getting on the train to go to New Orleans and running a world-building weekend. 

But surprisingly, I was energized by all of that, just being around other people and being story nerds and hanging out while it was really great. And I was energized rather than tired, but it hit me when I was coming home. So I took the train back and forth from New Orleans.  

And that involves two trains. It’s New Orleans to Chicago and then Chicago to Cleveland. And the Cleveland train only comes through Cleveland once a day. 2:00 or 3:00 AM. So coming and going you’re kinda messed up as far as sleep patterns go. And Tuesday at 2:00 AM, I got in on the train and I had to take my daughter to school at seven. 

I got home at three and I’m in that weird place. I’m like, do I lay down or not? Is four hours sleep better or worse than none? And I couldn’t help it. And so I went to sleep. So Wednesday, I was running on adrenaline and I was like, okay, I can do this. And then yesterday I was miserable. 

Yesterday was rough. Last night I slept for 11 hours or 12 hours. So today is like the first day I feel like, okay, I’m back to normal.  

Crys: Yeah, I know those feels, 

We’ve had some response finally, like catching up timelines a bit on our comments and our recordings. And so I’m going to go over some comments, we’ve had over a few of our past episodes.  

When we were talking about whether you scrapped the project or not, Kim said it reminded her of the coin toss trick. 

If you’re trying to decide on two things, toss a coin. Your reaction to the outcome of the coin toss will inform you what you really want to do. So not the tossing of the coin, even though you, like you said, a judgment on that, it’s actually a reaction that you are going to weigh. Which I thought was really smart. 

I know that I’ve used something like that instinctively at times, but I like having a little tool I can go to and be like, all right. I don’t know how I feel about this. Let’s see if I decide one, what do I feel about it?  

J: Yeah, I like that too.  

Crys: And then Adam said that he’s scrapped projects out of frustration, overwhelmed and that there were strengths in those stories, as well as we can says, and that there was a grieving process through scrapping them. But then he came back to telling stories, sounded like he took a break, without the baggage to fix something and started fresh. And what he is creating now is just that much stronger because he’s not weighed down by the mistakes of the past. 

J: Nice.  

Crys: I know that a bunch of people are considering NaNo which is as we’re recording the episode, that’s releasing tomorrow, our conversation about it. And a lot of the conversation that’s been happening in our slack group has been very parallel to the conversation you and I had about whether it helps people, whether it doesn’t like any of the individuals in our group and what they get out of. 

So I thought that was really interesting cause they haven’t even heard the conversation.  

J: Yeah, that’s true. They haven’t.  

Crys: I think it came out this morning, as we’re recording this.  

This week we wanted to talk about another thing that’s been coming up in our group a lot. And that’s about covers specifically. 

How do you know that your cover is good? That it is right for your story?  

Where do you want to start with that, J?  

J: Yeah, this is a tricky one because there’s a lot of emotion wrapped up in this. You’ve published more books than me, I think it’s safe to say that you get to a point where you approach the book more as a product, as opposed to a work of art. 

And that cover is the package. That’s really all it is. It’s just the packaging. So there are a few things that I think less experienced authors worry about that you don’t really need to worry about.  

First of all, the significance of the cover, it doesn’t have to at all represent your story, portray your protagonist, be a picture of your world. It really doesn’t. It’s not a piece of art.  

I’m not saying this is the conversation in our group, but just over the years, I’ve heard authors talking about it’s ugly, or I want it beautiful, and I want this to be on the cover. And they lose sight of the fact that the cover is marketing. It’s a business decision. It’s not an artistic one.  

Especially when you’re talking about eBooks, Once that initial purchase has made the covers basically never seen again, like once it gets on a device, it’s people just read and they don’t, it’s not like you’re picking it up off the table and looking at the cover constantly. 

There’s an emotional layer to this. And I think the challenge is, and this is something that I posted this week, cause I still have this challenge, which is how do I know what’s the right cover? So like a lot of cover designers, or even with something like a 99 Designs contest, which is even more so, you have a lot of choices, like you might get three or four mockups and the cover designer might say which one do you want to use? 

It’s hard to do anything except pick from your own preference. So this is just an opinion. And so then you get into okay, then I’ll start asking people. And the problem there is, if you’re not asking the people who are the ones you’re trying to sell the book to, you’re getting their opinions too, and opinions are going to be all over the place. 

So I don’t really have an answer, but that’s the situation that a lot of us find ourselves in and it’s hard to get out of.  

Crys: Yeah. And there’s this edge case that that I find that even authors who are aware that they do want their book to look like everything else in their genre,, at least is when most of your sales are coming in on Amazon, especially these, you want to be very clear, when someone sees your cover, you want to be very clear what your genre is and what your tone is.  

Those are the top two things. Genre, Tone, professionality, if you want to throw in a third there. Those are the three things your cover needs to convey. And under professionality you can follow like your particular author brand, all that stuff.  

I recently responded to a fellowon TikTok, he was like, when people read my book, they love it. They write glowing reviews, they send me emails, but I can’t get them to read my book.  

 I looked at it immediately and I was like: one, I can’t tell what genre your book is from the cover. Like I would have guessed maybe horror? Or noir? But you scroll down and it’s psychological thriller. 

So strike one there. Can’t tell what your cover is.  

Strike two, like it was very busy. Couldn’t really see what the main image was. And so we were neither conveying genre or tone with that particular cover.  

One of the things that I had to learn very early on before I even started publishing when I was helping other authors publish was that a saleable cover is not necessarily an artistic cover, which is something you’ve already said.  

I think of this, particularly with romance, I despise shirtless man chest. I just… it’s.  

J: Me too, for the record. 

Crys: It has no appeal to me. As a reader, I’d be like, oh, that looks like a hot, sexy book. Want it. That just doesn’t… not my path.  

But… it works for all, a lot of other people. And that is what draws their attention. That is what tells them, “Aha. That is a very steamy, spicy romance read with a heart protagonist. That’s what I want!”  

If you don’t match what the, specifically in romance, if you don’t match what the current genre convention is, and it’ll fluctuate back and forth, whether it’s covered manchest or shirtless manchest. And so you have to know what’s popular right now and match it, or your sales will suffer. 

Now the edge case I was referencing is when you are the person who signals the switch. And so you’re on the front end of changing the design standards.  

But I don’t think newer authors should necessarily be concerned with that because they don’t necessarily have the readership who is going to buy whatever they push out, which is part of what signals a change in design conventions. When someone who sells enough has something different.  

There are a few rare cases where a nobody will come up with a cover that is very different from everything else and succeed. And then sometimes the conventions will change to follow them.  

But that is just rare, period. Where you have somebody who didn’t have any kind of following to start with and, hits it out of the park on the first time.  

Everybody looks at those cases, like I want to be that person I’m going to do exactly what they did. And I think that when that happens, those are completely irreprecable instances. That they happen to hit a weird zeitgeists of perfection of time, interest, topic, whatever it was. And they have an amazing story. And you can’t replicate all that at once. You can’t replicate economics and culture, you can’t make all those things be what they were for that person.  

J: Yeah. To add onto that, this is what we’re talking about here, not should you design your own covers are not like that. We’re even past that. Like I would say that almost nobody should be making their own covers almost nobody, but like we’re so we’re not talking about should I make my own covers that’s good enough. 

We’re talking about you’re working with a professional designer or someone who has the legitimate chops to do it. How do you know if that’s the right cover?  

I think this is one of those places where I’m not sure you can rely on your gut. Most of the time with my covers, my gut instinct is not the right choice. 

 It’s anecdotal, but I can tell you that almost every time I see a cover design, multiple cover designs come through and I go, Ooh, that’s the one. And I put it in front of the people who would be purchasing it. And it’s not the one.  

And you have this self doubt and you’re like is, I don’t know is this right? Is this gonna work? Maybe the way that we can put a, like an asterisk on this conversation is this:  

That there are budgetary restrictions or budgetary concerns that people have. I recognize that, but you can change the cover whenever you want.  

I think that’s something you have to remember, like that is, you’re not stuck with it. And, we hate wasting money. No one wants to do that, but you’re invariably going to get a cover that doesn’t work or it doesn’t sell the book and you’re going to have to change it. 

So I think it’s not a, it’s not a forever decision, is what I’m trying to say.  

Crys: I agree. Just think of how often traditional publishing changes covers of successful books. They change them regularly, which is one of the reasons why they continue to be successful over time.  

So we said we were going to talk about like specific things you can do to verify, to check yourself. 

J’s already mentioned one of them. He puts the book and the cover in front of people that will be the ones buying the book and sees what they pick. So if you have beta readers, they might be a good group. Rarely do you want to pick other authors unless you know that they come at this with a very logical mercenary mind. 

I say that on purpose you don’t want somebody who is going to come at it with a lot of emotion. If they’re going to say no, that doesn’t work, you want them to be able to tell you why it doesn’t match the current genre conventions. It doesn’t do this. It doesn’t do that.  

You want somebody who is mercenary about it. They’re going to help you pick out a saleable cover.  

So in front of the people who are going to be reading it. If you don’t have an author group and you’re active on Facebook, you would go to a genre group and be like, Hey guys, I’m having trouble picking between cover one and cover two. Can you vote for the one that draws your eye? I’ve done that a few times.  

One of the things that came up in our group is someone wasn’t certain that the cover they got back from the designer was right for the genre. And upon further conversation, she said she did send comp covers which is… what is that? 

Is it competition? Competitive? Comparison? What does comp stand for? All of it?  

J: Yeah, comparables.  

Crys: Comparable covers that were in the genre in kind of the target she was going for. And that’s what the designer came back with. If you have a designer that you’re pretty sure you can trust, you can generally go with what they want or what they send back. 

Sometimes designers will give you a couple sketches of ideas that are a bit different all within your genre realm to see which one you like better. It just depends on what your contract is with them in their practice.  

J: Yeah, those are all great. Really the consult is what I was going to mention, this sort of front-loading your success is to give the designer enough of an idea of what you’re trying to accomplish. And then most designers will know genre well enough to know, to design to that and create something that would fit, but be somewhat unique. Yeah, and I think too, like the other thing you can do is trust the designer. 

Sometimes you just have to… you can push them a little bit, but that’s their specialty . And at a certain point you just might have to roll with it and see what happens.  

Crys: Do you have a standard number of covers that you tend to give us comparisons?  

J: Not a standard, but I think for for my own purposes, I like to look at like the top five or six in the specific Amazon category that usually gives me an idea of what I’m shooting. 

Crys: Yeah, I was going to say three to six is about what I would suggest for folks to build a comparison.  

J: Provided they are not tried pub because the trad pub covers are designed completely differently. So if compare, it’s gotta be apples to apples. So I would look at the top three to six independently published titles on the charts. 

Crys: I’ve had somebody pushed back on me when I said that I don’t compare it. Like I don’t try and follow anything trad pub is doing. And they’re like, well trad pub is smart. They know what they’re doing.  

They’re reaching a completely different market. You have to be aware of that.  

J: They’re making covers for a bookstore end caps. 

So it’s not the same at all.  

Crys: Yep.  

My question for our listeners this week is how do they know how the, their covers good? Do they have any steps that we missed or do they use the same kind of comparison checks that we use? I’d love to know.  

J: Awesome.  

Crys: Thank you so much for joining us this week. If you would like to join this conversation in real time, we’d love for you to pop over and check out what The Author Success Mastermind is all about.