Should you experiment with different book cover designs? Maybe. Here’s why...

February 11, 2019

Let's talk about Elizabeth Gilbert for a minute.

Some of you are probably thinking, "Do we have to?"

Here's the thing, though: Elizabeth Gilbert has a very clear author brand. You may love her, you may hate her. You may not know who she is, but if you do, you're probably in one of the two camps. And if you don't know who she is and I say "Eat, Pray, Love", you probably do know who I'm talking about.

That's because, love it or hate it, Eat, Pray, Love is a GIANT phenomenon. It spawned a whole wave of white lady enlightenment tourism. Or, looking at it more kindly, it has inspired a lot of people who were taking care of everyone but themselves to flip that script. The book was published in 2006; the movie came out in 2010; and it has become such a cultural mainstay that puns referencing it are still all around you. Just yesterday I saw an "Eat, Play, Love" sign for a sporting goods sale.

Now that you're thinking about it, I bet you'll start seeing them too. Sorry. Or you're welcome.

Here's the part where I admit that my experience of Gilbert's actual writing is pretty limited. Like a lot of things I do, I came around to it all backwards. I picked up the audio version of Big Magic in 2016 and have listened to it multiple times while driving. Then I read her "Coyote Ugly" article, after someone linked to it as a great example of what they hated about her. I still haven't read Eat, Pray, Love. But I did finally see the movie. Last week.

If you don’t brand the book, the book will brand you.

Earlier I said Elizabeth Gilbert has a really clear author brand, but it might be more accurate to say that Eat, Pray, Love is a really clear brand, and that brand is now stamped all over Elizabeth Gilbert.

Sort of. Because her book, Committed, has not one, but three different cover designs. Talk about a lack of brand clarity!

This fascinates me. I mean, if you couldn't read the titles, would you know these book covers are the same book?

Committed is a sequel to Eat, Pray, Love. Gilbert's website describes it as "a memoir which explored her ambivalent feelings about the institution of marriage." But these three covers are SO different!

Book Cover Design 1: The 2010 Hardcover Edition

Am I the only one thinking about The One Ring?

I'm definitely getting the ambivalence. Burnt orange is not exactly a color that suggests romance. At this close-up angle, that ring looks thick and heavy, a weight dropped onto the top of the page. The subtitle - "A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage" - quietly tells us that this is a book for serious people. This is not one of those books where you lose yourself in emotion. We’re above all that sappy romance. Because people who buy hardcovers are serious about books.

Book Cover Design 2: The 2010 Mass Market Paperback Edition

Wait, what? Where did the ambivalence go? The skeptic in the original subtitle is gone. Now it's a love story. It's as light and airy as the hardcover was heavy and dense. We're going to take a meandering journey here, but it's going to wind up all about the love.

Both covers capitalize on Elizabeth Gilbert's name, and remind us that we know it because she's the author of Eat, Pray, Love. Both remind us that Eat, Pray, Love was a huge bestseller. That's to capture her already existing audience. For reaching new people, we have the imagery, and these two covers feel like they're meant to appeal to two very different audiences.

Book Cover Design 3: The International Edition

Basically an “Eat, Pray, Love” redux, this cover is just loaded with too much stuff. It's like they slapped every single selling point they could possibly think of on the cover. Every single one.

Sequel to Eat, Pray, Love. Great. Oh, and Eat, Pray, Love was a number one bestseller. And a major motion picture. Okay, here's the really big title of this book, and a giant heart, and we're going to try to pull in some visual similarities to the style of the Eat, Pray, Love title imagery with flowery flourishes that echo "love", and a typeface that almost looks like it could be made of pasta even if it's not explicitly supposed to. And we don't have much room to make Elizabeth Gilbert's name really big, but it's another selling point so it still needs to stand out. Oh, and let's go ahead and add not one, but TWO review quotes. And the publisher's name, that's really the publisher.

OMG. Just stop.

This cover needs a serious dose of Marie Kondo. Even though it's far prettier than the hardcover, with that harsh, burnt orange background color and big heavy ring, it isn't nearly as strong a design. The designer did a great job of leaving as much breathing room as possible, given that many elements to include, but it’s just too damn much.

So what the heck is my point? I have three, actually:

  1. Traditional publishers don't do anything by accident. The traditional publishing model is expensive, and they're taking a big risk every time they put out a book, so they're very intentional with every decision they make. Everything is designed with a specific market in mind.
  2. That said, it's also true that nobody really knows what's going to work, 100%, for sure. Nobody.
  3. The beauty of self-publishing and print-on-demand is that you can use this same concept for a lot less money. You can see how a different cover draws in a different kind of reader. You can release a quick version of your book to your inner circle, let them feel the intimacy of having the first, raw edition, and then upgrade later to a more polished version that elevates the material for wider appeal. You can experiment, and then double down on what works.

So while I’ve been saying all along that it’s important to let your cover inform your potential reader, as a self-published author at the beginning of your journey, you also don’t have to freak out about making it exactly perfect right out of the gate. Even the big publishing houses try more than one option.

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