Publishing

WHEN UGLY WORKS

By Lisa Woods

Who Moved My Cheese?, Rich Dad, Poor Dad, Chicken Soup for the Soul—their covers make self-respecting graphic designers cringe, yet they have astronomical sales. It’s common sense that attractive covers invite book shoppers and ugly covers repel them— so why do these unsightly titles consistently outsell their better-looking shelfmates? (And why do their creators keep producing similar-looking books?)

The simple answer is that, in a hypercompetitive, overcrowded market, branding trumps beauty.

What Is a Branded Book?

What exactly is a “branded” book? Well, a successful brand must be

  • memorable,
  • easily recognizable,
  • attention-grabbing,
  • and distinct from its competition.

But branding is more than a look based on a typeface, a color combination, or a trim size. These are merely symbols of a solid brand. In essence, branding is a perception. A branded book is perceived as having something special that nothing else can offer. When someone who knows the Chicken Soup brand walks into a bookstore to purchase an inspirational book for her teenager, she doesn’t say, “Can you tell me where I might find an inspirational book for my teenager?” She says, “Do you have a Chicken Soup book for teenagers?”

A brand is an implied promise to the consumer that they’ll consistently receive a particular experience. This is why publishers don’t like authors to change their writing styles or cover designs too much, because change might upset the consumer who feels that the author’s brand hasn’t delivered. This is especially true for nonfiction and genre fiction. Think of Sue Grafton’s A Is for Alibi series—even if you only saw R Is for Ricochet, you’d immediately know B through Q were also available, all with the same suspense trademarks. And you’d know what you’d expect them to look like.

A consistent look tells the consumer that your new book has the same or more merit than your previous book. But that still leaves us with the question of why so many successfully branded books look so bad.

How Ugly Books Are Born

The typical scenario goes like this: Author writes book. Book becomes huge seller. Book goes into reprint many, many times, keeping the same cover for recognizability’s sake. Author writes second book. To capitalize on the success of her first book, she and her designer develop a similar cover. By this time, trends have changed, and the original cover and title are out of date.

But that doesn’t really matter. Or, more accurately, it doesn’t matter as much as the brand equity the first book has gained over the ensuing years. The look and title may not be attractive by the day’s standards, but they are familiar and capitalize on consumer loyalty. The publishers aren’t relying on the cover to attract a consumer—they’re using it to remind the consumer.

That’s why so many “ugly” books are installments in powerful, consistent series—because the customer remembers and recommends the first book and associates it with the following books. If the first book doesn’t build a significant base, the design is much less likely to be repeated, and there’s little danger of it going out of date.

Why Their Brands Won’t Work for You

Many people see the ways brands work for well-known series and decide that’s the look they want for their books, too. But your book’s content is original, and it deserves a cover tailor-made to market its unique message. Imitation is not branding. Nor is it a sound strategy for marketing a book in an overcrowded industry. A copycat cover may do more harm than good by making a book indistinguishable from its competition.

Do what the bestsellers did: Take a great book, give it a unique look, and never disappoint your customers. Take the lead and soon enough others will want to copy you.

How to Brand Your Book

STEP 1: Create a great product.

STEP 2: Figure out what makes your brand unique and stick to it.

STEP 3: Be consistent in marketing your brand. All aspects of your brand need to communicate one core message. Your book’s content and visuals need to back that message up.

STEP 4: Deliver on the brand. Consumers are fickle. If you disappoint them, you’ll lose them. Whatever your brand image, make sure that it signifies quality.

STEP 5: Continue to evaluate, build, and refine your brand. The only way you’ll know you’re doing it right is by the success you achieve. Trends come and go. Amend your look only when what you have in the bookstore is inconsistent with your brand.

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