Want to sell more books? Don’t copy Stephen King!

December 10, 2018

You've probably seen this piece of crap advice floating through the interwebs:

"If you want to be successful, find someone who has achieved the results you want and copy what they do and you'll achieve the same results."

Total B.S. And I'm not the only one who thinks so.

Recently, Shenee Howard was sharing her list of words never to use in your copy, even if you see successful people using those words. Those people are at the top of their game, the ones who've been around forever. If it's working for them, why can't you do it?

Shenee’s point was they can get away with anything because they've already built so many connections and they already have something that's working. They have a lot more latitude in their marketing because it’s not the copy that’s selling for them. It’s all of the other work they've done to build their brand in the marketplace.

It made me think about book covers, because the same thing can happen there. It almost doesn't matter what Stephen King puts on his book covers, as long as his name is there. When you see the name Stephen King, you know what to expect. Here’s why:

Your book cover is a brand promise

A book cover is a promise. It's an unspoken, gut-level promise people aren't even fully aware of before they make their decision to go one way (find out more, because they might want to read this) or the other (click their internal "ignore" button & move on). When you've been making (and fulfilling!) the same promise as long as Stephen King has, people know what that promise is, and they know they can trust you to follow through on it.

But at the beginning, Stephen King followed the same rules you’ll need to pay attention to if you want to sell more books. Let’s take a closer look at “Carrie” and you'll see what I mean.

The cover for Stephen King's first published novel relies on visual cues (and the subtitle) to make its promise. "A girl with a frightening power." We already pretty much know what the book is about. The visuals add to the impression - the grungy red filling half the cover feels creepy and gives the hint of spattered blood; the young woman's face half-covered looks cut off and mysterious, and the haunting expression in her eyes adds to the mood.

Everything draws your eye to that face and the title. Doesn't it just feel like the story? The promise of what’s inside is conveyed by powerful imagery and a few compelling words.

Nobody knew Stephen King then. But his book covers are different now.

What's his latest book about? No idea. It's Stephen King. Look, it says so in giant letters. And that's a good enough reason to want to know more, because he has a long history of making (and keeping) more or less the same promise - disturbing stories told in a smart and visceral way.  

Stephen King’s brand promise hasn’t changed, but his book cover designs sure have. If nobody had ever heard of him, this book cover wouldn't tell them much, and a lot of people wouldn't give it a second glance. And they certainly wouldn’t be buying this book. You know almost nothing about what’s inside.

Even though this post is about book covers specifically, the concept applies to ALL of the brand promises we're putting out into the world. Having a great brand means making the promises you want to keep, consistently, in a way that people can understand - and then delivering. Over and over and over again, amen.

It's not always easy, but it is that simple.

Famous authors like Stephen King aren't actually breaking the book cover design rules.

Famous author book covers often break "rules" like:

  • Your title has to stand out
  • Stick a subtitle or teaser on the cover to hint at the story in a way that induces curiosity
  • Don't make your name the focal point

All of those are helpful guidelines for a book cover if you want to sell more books as a newbie. But all of them are the "how", not the real rule.

The real rule is this:

Give people the info that helps them decide on their next step.

That's it.

Now, it's easy to get some goofy ideas about what that information should be, but the thing to remember is this: you're not leading them all the way to the end. You’re just helping them decide on the next step.

It's not - see book cover, buy book. The buying process has many, MANY more steps to it.

I know we all wish people would just buy our stuff right away, but it happens tiny one step at a time. See book cover, get interested or not. If that's a yes, pick it up or click on it, read the description, and decide again: interested or not.

Next step, repeat, repeat, repeat.

And for that first step especially, you only have a couple of seconds to convey what they need, so the "information" needs to be condensed to its most essential and impactful.

With a book cover, that's usually visual cues about genre, mood, and quality, but if you're Stephen King, those cues are already wrapped up in your name. Some of them might be on the cover anyway. Quality definitely is - you don't see a lot of bestsellers with clunky, amateurish book cover designs! But established authors with a strong brand can ignore the guidelines because they're not actually breaking the rule that matters.

Here's how strong Stephen King’s brand is...

You almost can't get away from it. You can try to make an image that doesn't have any of the creepy factor, and one of two things will happen - the creepiness will be there anyway, or you won't believe it's him.

The background image I used here was one of the first images that came up in a Pixabay search for "cute". And it is, completely, totally adorable. Look at those faces, those smiles. The sunset and the softness of the light evoke nostalgia and warmth.

Except when you put Stephen King's name on it. Now something bad is going to happen. Is that foreboding I feel in the purple clouds? Are these children actually monsters, or is something monstrous going to happen to them?

But let’s go even sillier. Why not?

I can't think of a single way this sweet hedgehog face could lead to something scary.

But I bet Stephen King could.

This cover feels more like literary fiction, but there's Stephen King’s name. So there's a disconnect, but because the name is so strong, the disconnect evokes curiosity. It doesn't look scary, but it has to be, right? It’s a Stephen King novel, and Stephen does scary. What's going on?

Let’s try one more and really push the limits. That’s what Stephen King would do, right?

Even Stephen King couldn’t get away with this book cover design

With this kitten cover, I made something so stupid cute that even Stephen King's name couldn't creep it up.

But look what else is missing here (besides creepiness): Quality.

Quality is also one of the hallmarks of the Stephen King brand. So when you see something that looks like a poorly edited collection of cat stories, self-published as a fundraiser for some church youth group, it couldn't be THAT Stephen King. It’s got to be an impostor, or something else must be going on.

Whoever this other Stephen King guy is, he should play down the name on his book cover, and maybe start going by "Steve". Because nobody's buying it. Literally.

Now, if you're the real Stephen King and you are going to write a book about a cat named Daisy, this might be a little closer to what that would look like. Remember back in the 80s, when it seemed like some of his books must have been story ideas he took on a bet? This could have been one of them.

It needs a lot of finishing touches I don't have time to give it right now, but just by flipping the image, adding a red & black overlay, simplifying the title and changing the fonts, it's become much more believable as something by THAT Stephen King.

So yes, it's possible for the disconnect between what you see and what you expect to be so big that even a name like Stephen King can't overcome it. His author brand is so strong that we had to get awfully goofy before that happened, but it still happened. And the truth is, with his fame, media connections, and army of publicists and fans, Stephen King probably could sell that first "A Cat Named Daisy" at least once before he ruined his brand promise.

But without those assets he spent decades building? Nope.

So what does that mean for your book cover design?

It means that it's really, REALLY important not to create a disconnect between the cover design and the actual mood, genre, and audience expectations of your book. Remember, they're going to make the first decision wordlessly, in moments, just based on that first gut-level impression.

Learn more or ignore? Your cover is the only tool you have to help potential readers make that decision. Unless you’ve built a brand like Stephen King, let your cover design (not your name) help them choose to learn more.

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