Business Parable or Inspirational Fiction? Make sure your cover tells the right story

December 31, 2018

Ready for another book cover takedown?

Today we’re looking at The Secret Watch by Lisa Robbin Young.

Here we have a great example of a book cover design that looks pretty and really, really doesn't do the job.

Book Cover: The Secret Watch. A silver pocketwatch is displayed below a title set in a romantic script font, with the subtitle - Timeless Messages About Real Success - in small type just above the watch. The background is the faded image of an old mansion, combined with words from an inscription, in a brownish-gray tone.

At first glance, without reading the subtitle, what kind of book would you guess this is? I'm thinking some kind of clean historical romance. The font choices and imagery have a decidedly romantic feel. But without a bodice-ripping couple in the picture, it's skewing more conservative than your typical romance novel. Maybe a Christian romance, or a historical mystery?


It's a business book. Technically, not precisely non-fiction - it's a parable, along the lines of the Go-Giver. More inspirational/motivational than nitty-gritty how-to, but still a business book, competing in business categories.

(Full disclosure, the author is my awesome business coach, Lisa Robbin Young, and I happen to know that her second book is ALL of the nitty-gritty how-to. This one is more about the mindset work that has to happen before you're even ready for the nitty-gritty. Both are fantastically valuable for creatives who want to make a good living doing their thing.)

Lisa emailed me about the cover, and what she said is exactly the point:

"The funny thing about this cover is that it's almost EXACTLY what I wanted and the designer (who is INCREDIBLY talented) gave it to me. And NEVER questioned whether or not it was right for the book.

AND THEN... I took it to a group of entrepreneurs for feedback. They all thought it was too pretty and romantic, but I couldn't hear it. I really thought this look would stand out in the business categories. HAHAHA.

THEN, I got my first negative review... which basically complained about how the story wasn't very romantic or erotic. Lol."

It's true of book covers and it's true in life:

  1. What we think we're communicating isn't always as clear as we think it is.
  2. Sometimes getting exactly what you asked for isn't the same as getting what you truly want.
  3. Holding too tightly to our own world view might just negate the benefits of getting expert help.

What clues does your book cover give?

I asked my audience and got lots of interesting guesses about what the book might be about, based just on the cover (with the subtitle blurred out). A story about an illicit relationship, and a watch that travels through people's lives and causes their secrets to be discovered...a time travel novel...brothers who find their grandfather's pocket watch in the attic...

Those all sound like intriguing stories! Yet probably not what people are looking for in a business / self-help / motivational book, and definitely not what's actually behind the cover.

A screen capture shows 6 of the top-selling books on Amazon in the Business - Personal Success category. They all look much more simple and bold than the cover of The Secret Watch.

Check out some of the Amazon best-sellers in the Business - Personal Success category, where Lisa's book is competing for attention. What do they all have in common?

When it comes to business book cover designs: It's all about the words.

Sure, there might be a bold, simple graphic that emphasizes the meaning of the title (like #4, Emotional Intelligence), or a clever type treatment (like #3, The One Thing, with the title set in the shape of a 1), but mostly, it's the title that gets the attention. And, pretty often, it's the subtitle that sells the book.

A screen shot of the top 6 best-selling books on Amazon in the Motivational Self-Help category. Most of them are also bold and simple, with the focus on the title. Two of the books are more autobiographical, and they feature a picture of the author instead of just the title on a simple background.

Over in Motivational Self-Help, the other Kindle category this book lands in, there's another visual type besides "it's all about the words" - a couple of the books look like a memoir, combining playful type treatments with a big bold photo of the author. It's a legitimate strategy for a book that's drawing lessons from your life stories, but not a good fit for The Secret Watch, because that isn't what's behind the cover.

My Book Cover Design For A Business Parable

My suggested redesign for the cover of The Secret Watch, showing a pocketwatch on a plain white background. The title is set in wide-spaced all-caps at the top, with the subtitle - Timeless Messages About Real Success - displayed prominently below, and this quote by Bob Burg: "A 'can't-put-this-book-down' story combined with success wisdom of the ages."

Here's what I would do with the cover IF the main thing this book wants to be is a business parable.

Simple, spacious, clean, with emphasis on the subtitle. For the blurb, Lisa has a lot of great quotes to choose from, and I chose one from Bob Burg because it does double-duty: It describes what the reader is going to get from the book, and it's freaking Bob Burg.

As business parables go, The Go Giver is a pretty big deal, so should we quote one of the authors saying nice things about this book? Hells yeah.

But maybe it isn't the cover design that should change. Maybe it's the book category.

Turns out I may be critiquing based on the wrong assumptions. As I was creating this email series, Lisa wrote me again and said:

" When I finished the book, there was talk of writing a prequel/sequel and letting the watch change hands. It's also been discussed on and off for years about having a movie (hallmark-style) made out of it because the story is compelling without it being a parable. I think that's another reason I liked this cover so much. I felt like so many parables were stuck in that boring 'all about the words' style and I knew this book was more than that."

If The Secret Watch isn't trying to be what I thought it was trying to be, the cover may be absolutely appropriate as is. Inspirational Fiction is a whole different animal with its own set of "rules".

In publishing, just like in life, being clear on what you truly want changes everything. The more specific you are about what you're trying to do, the better you can design everything to support that goal. In fact, my guide to the 6 things you've got to know before you publish spends a LOT of time on knowing your goals, because they're SO CRITICAL to success of any kind.

How can you get anywhere if you don't know where you're trying to go?

We’re not done with this book just yet. There are also some great lessons about the interior design, which we’ll cover in the next post.

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