Marketing/Publishing with Harry Steinman

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. This is particularly true for the indie author. If you do not have a great cover, chances are no one will really be interested in reading your words. Please welcome Harry Steinman back to Readful Things for his thoughts on this subject. He is a fount of wisdom, and also one of my dearest friends.

Back Cover Shot Compressed


People Judge a Book By Its Cover:

How to Get a Fair Shake

By Harry Steinman, a Guy Who Almost Got It Right

If you are going to self-publish, and you want your book to enjoy healthy sales, then you need a top-notch cover designer. It’s crucial. Cover design will attract or repel readers.

Take my novel, Little Deadly Things, as an example. At the time of its publication in August, 2012, no one knew me from a hole in the wall. In the book’s first 60 days, I sold 19 Kindle copies online and 35 paperback copies at the launch party, thanks to friends that purchased multiple copies.

Then I stumbled into a sales strategy that relied on the book’s fabulous cover, and on a Kindle edition giveaway promotion. (More on that next week.) In the next 3 days, readers downloaded 22,133 free copies. The momentum carried the book to best-seller status when the price returned to normal— 2309 purchases over the next few weeks. LDT was #1 or in the top 10 in several categories.

Readers pick up a book or click on a link in a few seconds—based on the cover.
Do you remember the first lesson of marketing, “Know Your Reader”? A winning cover tells that Reader that you understand her and that she can trust you. Do the cover well, and you’ll move books and get reviews. Do the cover poorly and your novel will languish. It’s not the only action you must take, but the cover is the first connection between the reader and your book.

I spent a few fruitful hours earlier this week speaking with designer Roger Gefvert. Roger started building his portfolio of book covers a third of a century ago, and he has hundreds of designs to his credit. The cover of Little Deadly Things is his creation.

I asked Roger to share his process with us. He started with a designer’s version of the rule, Know Your Reader.

“The best designers start with a statement of the strategic goal of the cover. Thirty years ago, that was, What do buyers for the major bookstore chains want to see? Today, the most important question for a self-publishing writer is, What does the reader expect?”

How did Roger go about my novel’s cover? “I started by reading your book a few times. Then I relied on you to help define the reader for me. That’s part of the writer’s job.”

A good designer will be an expert with the visual language of the writer’s genre and sub-genre. “You can get a feel for what the designer is doing if you learn some of that visual language,” Roger says. “Wander down the aisles of your local bookstore or browse online. The covers of successful books in each category have similarities. For example, books on health often have a white background—clinical. Look in the spirituality section and you’ll find blues and purples and biographies tend to favor brown hues. If you know the design principles of your category, you are less likely to end up with something generic from a book cover mill, something that does no justice to your book.”

The designer produces what amounts to an advertisement for your book. “It’s like creating a logo. The design can’t say everything. But the cover must tell a reader why your book is unique—and do that in just a few seconds.”

There’s no one correct approach. Expect your designer to provide several versions of your cover. Roger provided me with eight different approaches. He and I discussed the finalists once I’d narrowed the field.

“The designer picks elements that reinforce the theme of the book,” says Roger. “Little Deadly Things focused the personal transformation of three main characters. The background story involved nanotechnology. So, the cover featured three atoms to represent the three characters in a high-tech story. One of the atoms is blood-spattered, suggesting a the transformation of one character into the antagonist. In addition, I was able to use the book’s title to suggest the science in the book. Each word in the title has five letters. This enabled me to set the type as grid of block letters to hint at the clinical, scientific part of the story.

That sounded a bit esoteric to me and I wondered how many readers would get it. “The connection doesn’t have to be conscious,” he explained. “Great artists often leave detail undefined. This draws the viewer into the image and inspires the viewer to complete the concept. A suggestion is more effective than a directive. Don’t underestimate the power of the unconscious mind to engage with the cover image.”

What were some other design elements Roger used in LDT? “I also chose to highlight the color red—the color of blood—because the human eye sees that color as moving toward the observer and to hint at the story’s climax. I set this on a green background—red’s opposite on the color wheel—to give some punch to the red, and to represent the part of the story that takes place in a rainforest.”

Roger’s cover worked. Still, I offer two warnings. First, even a great cover does not guarantee ongoing sales. You must have an ongoing marketing effort to enjoy consistent sales. Second—and this is the most crucial lesson from this entire series of posts—you must Know Your Reader.
I’m learning that lesson the hard way. When Roger and I planned Little Deadly Things’ cover, I believed my Reader to be an aficionado of sci-fi action thrillers. My initial marketing plan was to communicate to that constituency.

I was wrong. As I related in a previous post, about 15 percent of the book’s reviews were negative, and these were mostly from sci-fi action thriller fans. A good example was the reviewer who complained, “I struggled to finish this book. I was interested in the ‘science fictional reality’ the author created, but the psychotic character development took a long time to develop. I just didn’t find the abusive childhood stories interesting.”

It turns out that the most enthusiastic reviews were from a different Reader, one that enjoyed getting to know the characters. For example, “I usually don’t gravitate towards science-fiction…if you are interested in the characters, who they are and why they do what they do…you will enjoy this book!”
When I shared the results of reader feedback with Roger, he said, “That tells me that the design challenge is, How do we create a visual bridge between what readers clearly recognize to something that’s off the beaten path?”

How indeed. Lesson learned. Maybe I’ll do a second edition.
Want some good examples of great design? Names of excellent designers? Every year, Design Observer, one of the leading websites for design criticism, honors the 50 best book covers of the year. Go to to see the 2011 winners, the most recent. (Compare the cover of Hiruki Mirukami’s wonderful “IQ84” from that collection with the cover of LDT. Designer Chip Kidd’s cover is closer to what I’d do now that I Know My Reader.)

There are other indispensible elements of cover design. Your book’s ISBN, bar code, and price must be in the proper place. The same goes for celebrity endorsements and for your back-cover copy. Dan Poynter’s “Everyone Judges a Book By Its Cover” is a good primer. You can download his document free here.

So what’s the price tag for all of this work? A professional cover may cost anywhere from several hundred to a few thousand dollars. An excellent source for evaluating a design proposal is the Graphic Artists Guild Handbook: Pricing & Ethical Guidelines. You can find this in your local library. If you can’t afford a seasoned professional, Roger suggests checking with the design faculty at nearby art colleges for the names of recent graduates. These will be less-experienced talents, but may be good artists. Their desire to be published may make them hungry for the work.
Next week, we’ll wrap up this series. Suppose you’ve done your homework and Know Your Reader. You wrote a damned good book, crafted your two- or three-sentence blurb, met your fund-raising goals and hired a top-notch structural editor and a line editor. You found a cover designer that understood the visual language of your category. You’re all dressed up and wondering where to go. How do you promote a book?

Next week, the farewell post, “How to Break Into Amazon’s “Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store.”

Meanwhile, show me some love. Navigate to Amazon and buy a copy of Little Deadly Things. You’ll be glad you did. So will I.



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19 thoughts on “Marketing/Publishing with Harry Steinman”

    1. That’s a very good question, the answer to which I don’t know. Roger says that each genre has its own visual vocabulary, so I presume that each genre has it *different*…but easier? Dunno!


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