The Stupid 365 Project, Day 71: A Book vs. Its Cover

December 12th, 2010

So here’s the problem.

In order to have a book published, you assign the publishing company the exclusive right to produce and distribute it.  If they let it go out of print and thereby fail to make it available to an eager, or totally indifferent, public for a period of five to seven years (usually — depends on the contract), the writer can request a reversion of rights, and the publishing company legally has to say yes.

If you want to publish your old stuff — I mean, vintage work — in e-book form, you have to get the rights back first.  I did that with all six of the Simeon Grist mysteries I wrote in the 1990s, in order to give them a new life as e-books.  (I also fondly believed they’d earn me some money, and — surprise — they have.)

But when you get your rights back, they don’t include the cover.  The cover belongs to the publishing company, since they designed and paid for it, and who knows? — they might want to use it for one of next month’s six new James Patterson books.

That means you have to/get to create a new cover.  For me, this was nothing short of exhilarating.  I’ve hated for decades most of the covers Morrow, Dutton, and NAL put on the Simeon books.  In fact, back when I was teaching writing, I told my students that this was how publishing worked:

1. Write your book.

2. Sell your book.

3.  Hate your cover.

And then, browsing fonts one day — I’m a font junkie — I found that a lot of the fonts I liked best were by someone named Allen Chiu, whose e-mail address is pealwah@gmail.com.  (You can use him, but don’t steal him from me.)  And there was a link to Allen’s Tumblr site, and lo and behold, he’s like sixteen years old and he’s a marvelous graphic artist.  So I e-mailed him and underpaid him to do the covers for the first four Simeons.  He’s working on number five, Incinerator, right now.

I think they’re brilliant, by the way.  Here’s the one for The Four Last Things.

But then we came to Everything But the Squeal. Squeal is a very, very dark book, and I wanted neither to encourage Allen to read it nor to explain it to him at any length.  So I asked him to reinvent the Morrow cover, which he did very nicely.

But it’s not selling.  It’s the ONLY one that’s not selling. The other three Simeon books outsell it two or even three to one, and Crashed, which is benefiting from a lot of favorable online reviews, is outselling it five to one. (Crashed is doing extremely okay.)  And the oddest thing is that Crashed has raised the sales of all my e-books, including even the Bangkok books, but Squeal continues to lag, and to lag very decisively, behind everything else.

So, should I change the cover?  Allen says he’ll do it for free, which I would never allow.  (For one thing, it wouldn’t be fair.  For another, it might mean I’d have to tell him the plot.)  My worry is that people who have already bought it will buy it again and think I’m trying to be cute and sell them the same book twice, and I don’t want to endanger reader trust.  The issue matters to me not just because I’m not making much money off Squeal but because it’s one of the best books in the series.

Thoughts, anyone?


28 Responses to “The Stupid 365 Project, Day 71: A Book vs. Its Cover”

  1. Phil Hanson Says:

    Could it be the title, Tim? Don’t know about anyone else, but whenever the title gets to the “squeal” part, the first image that comes to my mind is that of an aging and slightly overweight pig farmer clad in blue bib overalls, cupped hands encircling his mouth, calling, “Suuuuweeeee, here pig pig pig pig, suuuweeeee!” It’s not exactly an image that inspires me to spend my money on a book.

  2. fairyhedgehog Says:

    It may be the best book but maybe the reason it’s not selling is because it’s very, very dark and nothing to do with the cover.

    I think what you’ve done so far with Simon sounds great and in your place I’d continue to avoid him having to face the darkness in the book. (But you know that I don’t cope well with too much darkness myself!)

    I love the cover of The Four Last Things.

  3. Suzanna Says:

    This will probably neither help you figure out why this particular book isn’t selling, or answer your question about doing a different cover for the book, but what the heck it’s all I have for you on this right now. You are free to ignore this completely and there’s no need to respond.

    From a one person market research point of view I can’t remember ever buying a book based on it’s cover art. But, when I’m in a bookstore browsing, a strong cover/title will definitely prompt me to pick it up to give it a closer look.

    When I buy books online it’s pretty much the same thing.

    If this is the one book in the series that you feel is the best one, why not figure out a way to promote it as such?

    Not sure how you go about doing this in the E book world but that’s as good as you’re gonna get from little ol’ me pre-breakfast on a Sunday morning.

    And by the way, I’m really happy that your progress on PULPED is going so well. You have your priorities straight. Always put your books ahead of the Stupid Project. This project is meant to help you with your writing not hinder it, right?

  4. Bonnie Says:

    Tim, he’s old enough to read the book. I read The Odyssey in 6th grade, and they “spoke” to me in school for bringing E.S. Gardner paperbacks in…(you know, no sex, but sexy covers). I was, what? Eleven?

  5. Robb Royer Says:

    Hi Tim, I’m baaack. I had a shit storm to deal with and I thought I’d skip the Shakespeare debate ’cause I have nothing to add to a Shakespeare debate (apart from my thesis Hamlet was a fag) and then I waited for the next blog which was VERY late as some of your friends have discussed and you’ve already dissembled about and then I was at the farm which has no internet (!) to say nothing of the fact that my internet skills are a little like a penguin juggling (the remarkable thing is not that he does it well but that he does it at all).

    I was going to write something called ‘first glimpse of Tim’, so here goes:
    From all the bouquets Tim and I have thrown back and forth recently one might assume we were buddies-at-first-sight; this is not the case. I don’t remember us even speaking until we were sophomores, by which time I had taken up guitar and we actually had something to talk about. But I did notice him the very first day of college, September 1960, in Ellis McCune’s political science class,
    For color it should be noted that Dr. McCune was the closest thing we had to Prof Kingsfield in the Paper Chase, dry, urbane, witty; taught in an amphitheater, suffered fools not at all. Quick McCune quote… one rainy day he opened class with “some of my colleagues in the physical science department have asked me ‘how can you call yourself a science when you can’t even tell us who’s going to win the election’… but after wading through six inches of water on the sidewalk to get here today I notice that they are not so exact themselves”.
    So that was the atmosphere but Tim always managed to attract attention; very serious look, like he always had somewhere more important to be, engaged McCune without apparent awe, etc. Naturally I felt resentful.
    A few days later, he came to class, this time attended by another fellow and one of the most beautiful girls I had ever seen and my first reaction was ‘my god, I hope she’s with the other guy’.
    Now, had I not literally just fallen off the turnip truck, I probably would have noticed that the other guy was unreservedly gay and lost all hope on the spot. Nope, she was with Tim all right and turned out to be Maria Yolanda who went with Tim for several years, then married my Bread partner Jimmy Griffin.
    The weird upshot is this: without Tim there would never have been a Bread. He was my first singing partner, which led to the Pleasure Fair, which led to David Gates being brought in to produce. Add to that: he introduced me to Maria who deliberately hooked me up with Jimmy. See? No Tim no Bread.

    By the way, how DO you make italics?

  6. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    Maybe if you numbered the book? As in Simon Grist # 3? There are enough obsessive compulsives out there like me who will want to read every book, and in order. Just a thought on this bright (finally ) Sunday morning.

  7. Allen Chiu Says:

    Hey I think the numbering is a pretty good idea…

  8. Larissa Says:

    1) Give the kid one strong piece of imagery to work with and or let him read the book (I read Cujo in the 4th grade…)

    2) redesign the cover. It sounds silly but trust me, visual marketing is literally everything. Content is great but if people are put off by the picture on the cover even on a subconscious level, they won’t ever get to the content. So. That being said. Change the cover. (c:

    Just my humble opinion.

  9. Cliff Stanford Says:

    I agree with Lil. I get very confused as to which order the books are in. In my opinion, you should, at least on the web site and on Amazon, have them numbered in the order they were written.

    Also, is it possible you released them a little too fast? By the time people were ready to read the third book, the fourth one came out so they got that instead.

    Personally, I doubt the cover has much to do with the sales of an eBook. But give Allen a copy to read and get him to design a new one. It’s the only way to test the theory.

    Oh, and FWIW, I like the title.

  10. Bonnie Says:

    Robb, to make italics you surround the word or words with angled brackets (on my keyboard they are next to each other over the comma and the period and require the shift key) with an i in them, and in the second pair of angled brackets you precede the i by a forward slash. It’s often more trouble than it’s worth, but if you do it, you are writing in html, which even the most gifted penguin probably can’t.

  11. Peg Brantley Says:

    A lot of good stuff here, but why can’t you write, in the description, that YOU think it’s one of the best books in the series? (Yeah, Robb, where IS that italic thingie?) The cover might catch my eye first, but I will always read the description, then check out a sample.

    Unless of course, it’s a Tim Hallinan and then I don’t even get a sample. It’s a download pure and simple. (And Tim, just so you know, I always get a sample of Dean Koontz, who I think is a pretty cool writer.)

  12. Debbi Says:

    FWIW, there’s nothing wrong with changing the cover per se. Ebook authors like Joe Konrath and Lee Goldberg have done so in the past more than once. I don’t think they’ve gotten any complaints about attempting to resell the same book twice.

    And even though you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, people often do. A book’s cover tends to catch people’s eyes and brand the book to some extent.

    I like the current cover, but why not experiment? And, on the whole, trying a new cover probably won’t hurt.

  13. EverettK Says:

    I agree with the idea of NUMBERING the Simeon books. I know that you, Tim, don’t think it matters too much in which order folks read them, but often times there are characters or situations that build upon previous books, so as a reader, I LIKE to read books in their “internal chronological order,” which would mean making Skin Deep #1, of course. LOTS of readers like reading series books. (Why do you think so many writers write them, and so many publishers publish them.) I know you mention “A Simeon Grist Novel” on the covers, but putting (Simeon Grist #X) after the title (in the Amazon listing, not on the cover) makes a LOT of sense.

    ROBB: You make text italic by preceding it with “<i>” and terminating it with “</i>”. You can make bold the same way by replacing the ‘i’ in both tags with a ‘b’.

  14. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    Hi Everett, does that work on a mac as well?
    I guess not.

  15. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    Hey Everett-it did work, many thanks I have a new toy.

  16. EverettK Says:

    Lil: It’s not Mac or PC, it’s HTML, which is WEB PAGE programming.

  17. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, everyone, and I’m sorry not to have signed on earlier – I’m both writing PULPED and going through Everett’s very good (and occasionally hilarious) edits to Junior #2, LITTLE ELVISES. And also working on the December newsletter. If I hadn’t run for 50 minutes this morning, I’m not sure I would have taken more than a few steps all day.

    So . . .

    Hi, Phil — You may be right, the title might be the problem. It’s not my title, actually — my editor at Morrow suggested it, and I liked it because it has a very specific meaning in the book. I don’t think I can change it, though — it’ll confuse too many people, and maybe get mixed up with the seventh, which I’m writing now. If you look me up or look the series up, SQUEAL is one of the original titles. Hmmmm…

    FHH — Might be the darkness of the book; I don’t know. It’s certainly the darkest in the series, although it’s arguably also the best, or at least one of the best. And I’m with you the FOUR LAST cover — it sells very well, too, so it appeals to potential buyers.

    Suzanna — I don’t buy based on covers, but a really striking cover will get me to pick up a book and look inside. That’s all they’re actually designed to do: people see the jacket and then either do or don’t open the book. But getting you to open the book is a big deal; there’s no guarantee you’ll buy it if you open it, but it’s a lead-pipe cinch you won’t buy it if you don’t open it. And the mavens of i-books, Lee Goldberg and Joe Konrath, both insist that the cover design and the synopsis are all-important. So what do I know?

    Bonnie, I’m sure he’s old enough to read the book. He’s probably more mature than I am. Still, I don’t want to tell him the story, and there are other books in the series I’d be more comfortable having him read.

    ROBB, that’s an amazing post. It’s so interesting to see myself from outside that way. Isn’t it amazing that this is the first time I’ve ever heard any of this? I’m going to responding for now and come back to you tomorrow when I’m not so fried. Same way I did it last time — I’ll think about what you wrote again and then answer it. (Good Lord, we’re corresponding in public.)

    Lil and Allen — The numbers are a good idea. In the descriptive text I write for Amazon, I always say “Simeon Grist #X,” but they cut it every time. Allen, can you think of any way to work it into the design that would work at thumbnail size? Might overpower the title. Anyway, something to think about.

    Riss, you read “Cujo” in fourth grade, but look at you now. Okay, sorry. Yes, I think we’ll change the cover. But INCINERATOR is going up in January, followed by LITTLE ELVISES and then probably the sixth Simeon, THE BONE POLISHER. So it’ll probably stay as it is for the next month or four.

    Cliff, you really think they’re going up too fast? I’m going to have to think about that. You may be exactly right. On the other hand, the e-book market is doubling every 12 months, so for the new readers, there are already 4 or however many books online, so maybe the numbering thing gets even more critical. This is really interesting. Will put some more thought into it.

    Okay, guys. I’m empty. This has been a 13-hour day, and I’m toast. Thanks to all for answering and I’ll come back into the arena tomorrow AM.

    ‘Night, all.

  18. Laren Bright Says:

    Here’s the problem I have with numbering them: The Simeon books are not a series — you don’t have to read #s 1 & 2 in order to get up to speed for #3. I won’t buy a book that says (or implies “The second book in the such & such series” or something like that until I’ve read the first. So any implication that there are precursor books might be a put off.

    While inconsistent with your other books, you might consider either a teaser or an endorsement on the cover. Pull a line from one of your many superb reviews and throw that above the title (sorry Allen — I know that may make your design more challenging).

    As for the cover design conversation, my opinion (as a copywriter for books) is that the cover design is not to sell the book — it’s to get the browser to pick it up. It’s the function of the back cover (& flap text if there is any) to turn the browser into a buyer.

    That’s where e-books might benefit from a teaser or something on the cover to titillate interest. Or, as the brilliant book shepherd Ellen Reid, who I often work with, is exploring, find a way to put the sell text at the beginning or somewhere so that when the cover attracts attention and the browser clicks on “read a few pages,” you have the opportunity to sell the book. (I’m not yet familiar enough with how the book is presented to be more specific on how to accomplish this.)

    Anyway, I think selling e-books, if your name is John Grisham or something, is still a new art & science.

    And, for whatever it’s worth, I like the title. If Allen has been designing your covers based solely on the title, I would personally be intrigued to see what he would do if he actually knew what the book was about.

  19. Larissa Says:

    lol. I know right? Hopefully you’ve gotten some sleep between then and now.

    Can I design a cover?

    I’m suited for mature content…I promise. 😀 I at least classify as an adult. hehe.

    Good luck getting everything done. 😀

  20. Suzanna Says:

    Hi, Robb

    Thank you for your story about Jimmy, Tim, and Maria. I’d never heard this story before.

    I shared what you wrote with Maria and she appreciated it. She shared a really funny story about you and Jimmy in the early early days that I think you two should reminisce about someday.

    Thanks again!

  21. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Robb, this is really an interesting process. Here we are, getting sort of personal about events of long, long ago, and doing it in front of all these (very nice) people.

    Folks, to my knowledge, Robb and I have never discussed any of this face-to-face in any of the geological eras our relationship has weathered.

    The first thing I have to say is that your memory is much, much better than mine. I hadn’t for example, thought of Ellis McCune in years. He was an amazing teacher and a good guy. (One of the most interesting discoveries I made in college was that teachers were people. Some of them were disgusting, overbearing, unqualified, outrageously negative and irresponsible people, but people nonetheless. And then there were some who were amazing people, individuals who demonstrated to me that it was possible to lead a life centered on the mind (or, at least, books), which had never occurred to me before.

    So Robb first saw me in Dr. McCune’s class, which I was taking because I thought I might be a lawyer, since all it seemed to be was standing up and talking, and I had both of those things nailed. Dr. McCune told me, in the gentlest possible way, that I was much too imaginative to be a lawyer, which was undoubtedly his way of saying there was no way in the world I’d ever get through law school. This was one of the first instances in my life of negative career counseling. Eventually, I would be warned off dozens of professions.

    And Robb, who has always known feminine beauty when he sees it, is absolutely right about Maria. She was, and is ravishing, and just about as difficult (those days) as she was beautiful. I’m also grateful that he was wondering who Maria was with rather than who I was with, since I looked quite, um, sensitive in those days and the guy I was with was apparently gay — was it Allen Burry, Robb? If so, folks, he now lives in London and is an enormously successful PR person for stars like Streisand and Liza Minnelli.

    The way in which Robb essentially credits me with the formation of Bread reminds me of the movie, “Run Lola Run,” in which the same chain of events are played out three or four times with minor variations — a turn to the right rather than the left, a 20-second delay — completely changing the outcome. Robb would have made it one way or the other in music because he had the chops and the will. But I will confess it’s nice to be a footnote to the Bread story, and most of the long time Robb and I worked together was enormous fun. Sometime, maybe he’ll tell you about the Spider House behind the college or some of the other tall but true tales.

    We went through (in my case, anyway — I can’t pretend to speak for him) some of the most exciting and consciousness-expanding years of my life, and had a hugely good time with most of it.

  22. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, Laren — No, the Simeons don’t have to be read in order, since the primary characters hardly change at all from book to book. (That’s not necessarily a knock — in the “classic” detective stories, from Doyle to Rex Stout to Chandler, the protagonist never changes a whit.) But many mystery readers are very serious about reading a whole series in order, and the numbers would help them do that. I’ve actually included SIMEON GRIST MYSTERY #X in parentheses following the title, but Amazon for some reason renders it as SIMEON GRIST MYSTERIES, just identifying the series, and leaves it at that.

    Riss — Slept for ten hours and needed every minute of it. There’s a big, time-eating project here that I can’t talk about yet, but it claims anywhere from two to six hours a day over and above writing PULPED, putting Everett’s edits (and making some of my own) in LITTLE ELVISES, doing the blog, and also undertaking a wholesale re-do on my web site, as well as some other stuff, like life and marriage.

    Covers — Everett’s got the Simeons and Maria has the Juniors, but down the line a bit there will be a new standalone thriller based on Scheherezade, and you could take a crack at that. It’s at least six-eight months off, though, because I’ve got to write the fifth Poke book, too. Sooner, I hope, rather than later.

    Zanna, thanks for tipping Maria off — I should have done that last night. Invite her to tell the story here. Maybe we’ll all get books out of this — imagine Robb’s novel, my novel, and Maria’s novel — completely different takes on the same events.

    That’s actually a really good idea for a book, especially if there’s a secret back there somewhere that at least one person doesn’t want revealed.

  23. Suzanna Says:

    Yes, I’ll invite Maria to pipe in and give her side of the story.

    Hahaha, I think there may be more than a few juicy details that all three of you could recall that would spice up a book or two or three. Just, please, change names to protect the innocent!

  24. Larissa Says:

    Glad to hear it! And 6-8 months down the road sounds perfect. (c: Keep me posted.

  25. Maria Yolanda Aguayo Says:

    I don’t really know who would be interested in reading what I have to say about my days in college unless I do disclose names. Perhaps it makes it a wee bit more interesting. We did have an impressive roster. But, to stay with the invitation to remember my side of the Robb and Tim early days. I must admit I was as Tim put it in a difficult time of my life. I was overly emotional and sparks could easily fly.
    My recollection of Robb Royer in those days was in our Green Room strumming his guitar and playing chess. I always wondered what he was doing in the Green Room since he wasn’t in any of our plays. One of the least and most emotional times of my Green Room experience was using it as a short cut to the stage where I would be either peering at the actors on stage or painting sets. One afternoon covered in paint and my very long hair in pigtails, I crossed paths with Ken Shapiro and Teri Garr. Both people who chided me and loathe me for no apparent reason except I was Mexican, poor and beautiful. Ken Shapiro exclaimed “Now I know why they call them pigtails.” Surely, an appropriate remark given that I was covered in paint. But, I took it as yet another remark towards my ethnicity and poverty. I picked him up by his shirt and threw and held him against the wall. I believe I was restrained by someone. Teri Garr looked on in astonishment. Ken avoided me and never said another word to me. I didn’t have patience, humor or compassion for bullies then or now. I had another run in with Teri Garr at a Jack Nicholson New Year’s Eve party many years later.
    That will be saved for THE NOVEL.

  26. Maria Yolanda Aguayo Says:

    Tim, it was Allen Burry. Somehow, I do remember many long walks across campus to the Science Bldg. with you and Allen.

  27. EverettK Says:

    Tim, you just about gave me a heart-attack for a micro-second there. It’s ALLEN that “has the Simeon” covers, NOT Everett. 🙂

    I may have an Art degree, but trust me, you do NOT want me anywhere near your covers! (Unless, of course, your covers are going to be engraved gold-leaf… then, I’m your man.)

  28. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, Maria — What it really was, was that Ken Shapiro was a miserable little putz whose talent was smaller than his dick and whose brain was smaller than his talent. And in case reverse-engineering that makes his dick seem big, we’re talking millimeters here.

    Amazing how, after all these years, some people can still make one see red.

    Amazing times — everyone’s emotions were right out front, and we all knew zillions of people, and it was like nobody had a subconscious – we all pretty much acted out our impulses. It’s a miracle nobody got murdered.

    Thanks, Maria, although I’d much prefer not to have thought about Ken.

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