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Phoenix Afterlife

The author says:

This book was released in October with the cover as shown. I guess I thought most readers were like me: more interested in the description on the back than the picture on the front. Apparently I guessed wrong, and I’d like to come up with a new cover. This is primarily a literary story about the nature of consciousness and what makes us human, but the genre is near-term hard science fiction (emerging tech, not spaceships or time travel). Thanks for any suggestions for improvement.



Nathan says:

Before we get to the design particulars of your cover, I want to address your marginally passive-aggressive comments on covers in general.

You may have noticed that there are, like, a LOT of books competing for each reader’s attention. Wikipedia says that in 2013, over 300,000 books were published or republished in the U.S. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have the time to reserve judgment until I’ve read the back covers of 300,000 books; I have to use other clues and cues to narrow down the books in which I might conceivably be interested.

In other words, I need to be able to instantly gauge the interest factors shown on the cover for genre and style to guess if I want to bother reading the back cover.

For self-published books, the cover serves an additional purpose: it can present the book as a professional-grade work, as worthy of the attention of your readers as something published in New York.  Despite all of the rote repetitions of “don’t judge a book by its cover,” readers use the covers of self-published books to tell them if the author/publisher is sufficiently self-aware and self-critical to understand what actually looks good and appealing for a book cover — because an indie author who decides, through a combination of hubris and ignorance, to use an amateurish cover for his book probably has used that same combination of hubris and ignorance in judging whether the contents of said book are ready to compete for money with professionally published works.

Conclusion: The cover is important.  It is absolutely the first impression available to 99.9% of your potential readers, and you can’t afford to screw up that first impression.

So, on to your cover in particular:

  • I can’t tell by glancing at it — which is all the exposure most readers will have to it initially — its genre, or even whether it’s fiction or nonfiction.  I can’t tell if it’s cozy or gritty, challenging or easily-read.
  • The two main image elements — a photograph of snow mountains and a texture-filled silhouette of a phoenix — don’t seem to relate to each other in any way; they’re just random images, and not presented particularly evocatively.
  • The standard serif font is likewise not evocative.  You can convey a lot in the typeface, but this one doesn’t tell me anything.

Rather than try to reverse-engineer your present cover to meet the role of a book cover, I’d advise you to do some market research:

  • Find a half-dozen books which you would expect to appeal to readers of your novel.
  • Take careful note of any common elements among the covers, and how elements of the design convey the differences between them.
  • Sketch out a cover with an eye toward trying to appeal to those readers.

Good luck!

Any other comments?


  1. Whoever coined the phrase about judging books by their cover clearly was someone who had never tried to sell a book. The adage “might” hold true in a library, but not in a bookstore.

    1. It can also hold true in Big Pubishing, in which a design neophyte who doesn’t truly understand the book and its appeal (or who just plain hates the book) may be put in charge of its visual identity. But it is least true in indie publishing, in which the buck for the cover stops with the author.

      1. The problems with this cover are, I am afraid, legion.

        The main difficulty is: would anyone seeing this cover have any idea what the book is actually about? I suspect that the underlying problem is that the author is more familiar with the book’s subject and themes than the potential reader, so while the symbology is meaningful to him it is only a mystery to anyone not already familiar with the book.

        My only suggestion would be to go back to square one and try to look at the book through the eyes of someone who has never heard of it. What imagery would best convey to that person what the book is about?

        I think perhaps the best solution to that question might be to have a designer help you who can be objective about this.

  2. For people that might be interested, here is the back cover blurb.

    Neuroscientist Alice Kurz and her team have developed a technology that could lead to immortality. For Alice, it’s a chance to develop a cure for Alzheimer’s, the disease that destroyed her grandmother. Test subject Eliot Stearns knows nothing about this. He believes he’s part of a five-day isolation study, locked in the lab, his only contact with the rest of the world through videoconference with the research team. Eliot and Alice grow close through deep conversations exploring the world’s oldest stories, the nature of consciousness, and what it truly means to be human. But everything changes when Eliot discovers that the study is not what it seems to be, and five days of isolation could last the rest of his life.

    1. Ok, well, that being the description, I can say that the proposed cover conveys absolutely nothing of that to me.

      I’d also add, for what it’s worth, that the description also doesn’t convey literary fiction. It conveys sci-fi with a romantic element. (Yes, I realize that the author is probably shrieking at reading that. That much is blatantly obvious from his email to Nathan.) As a not-designer, I can’t say much that would enable the usage of those two specific design elements for a final cover. I doubt that anyone will come up with that.

      I think it’s important that the author know that Nathan’s not blowing smoke out of his ass vis-a-vis the sheer importance of cover design. When I first got into this racket, I had the same mindset he does–that covers don’t sell books, how absurd is that? But I was 180-degrees WRONG. In more than 3,000 books that have gone through my shop, I’ve seen great covers sell mediocre books, and I’ve seen a lot of mediocre and worse covers sink very good books. Unfortunately, the cover shown here is the latter, not the former. We are fools if we ignore the very simple fact that humans are sighthounds on two legs. They’re like crows; they pick up shiny pretty things.

      Don’t do your book an injustice by neglecting the cover out of some idea of literary snobbery. The folks who read literary fiction aren’t inhumanly smart. Like all the rest of humankind, they are attracted to pretty.

      In short: having a beautiful and evocative cover doesn’t disrespect the hard work that you put into your manuscript. Just the opposite.


  3. A helpful experiment is to ask, “Would someone seeing this cover have any idea what the book is about, what it’s genre might be or what its themes may be—or even if it fiction or nonfiction?” If the answer is “No,” then that is more than enough reason to reconsider the design.

  4. Objective observation is the difficult part of being the author and cover designer; you already know what’s in the book, while your prospective readers (and buyers) don’t. Speaking as someone who’s never seen this cover before in his life, I can say that what it does convey on first impression is that this book is some kind of fantasy, probably “inspirational” (i.e. religious) fantasy. From the title, I would have guessed it was something to do with the ancient legend of the Phoenix (a very broad subject) and the afterlife (also a very broad subject). While both have to do with resurrection and presumably are connected by this, the sheer breadth of each subject precluded me from guessing how exactly this story ties them together.

    Now I read the description from the back, and it’s talking about a science fiction setting (Huh?) with a potentially romantic subplot that ties in to a couple being isolated as part of an experiment and going over stories from classic mythology to pass the time. Presumably, one of these is the tale of the Phoenix. There’s also something about the isolation lasting longer than the five days the protagonist was led to expect.

    How much of this am I seeing on the cover? Pretty much none of it. Even if the story’s going to take a sharp turn into fantasy somewhere along the way, its starting out as science fiction means it must be treated as science fiction. Having a Phoenix somewhere on the cover is fine, but first and foremost, we need to see something that yells Science! at us. (Yes, that’s a reference to “She Blinded Me With Science” by Thomas Dolby; your book would probably sell better if your readers were hearing the doctor’s voice from that music video the same way I am right now.) Unless an actual flaming bird is going to make an actual appearance in the lab in this story, I’d also show the Phoenix as no more than some kind of symbol or emblem on the cover at most. The main focus, the setting being an experimental isolation ward, ought to be on a medical laboratory or an isolation cell with a camera and examination table, or something that bespeaks modernity and medical experimentation.

    Casting about for comparisons, the most similar story coming to mind when reading the description for this one would be the anime and manga for Ayashi no Ceres. In this story, the modern 16-year-old schoolgirl Aya from the powerful aristocratic Mikage family gets caught up in the middle of a supernatural struggle within the family which has been raging for centuries. This is based on the family’s arising from the legend of the Tennyo, a Heavenly maiden who interbred with the family’s ancestral patriarch to produce unusually strong and intelligent offspring (which is how the family came to be so powerful and aristocratic in the first place). When Aya is infused with the spirit of the Tennyo matriarch Ceres on her sixteenth birthday, everyone starts wanting a piece of her: her closest relatives trying to kill her, more distant ones working to protect her from them, and one cousin who’s a corporate C.E.O. determining to get her into his experimental lab so he can study and isolate (and maybe replicate and disseminate) the powers of this Tennyo.

    Oddly enough, for all the actual story’s focus increasingly being on this rather amoral cousin’s questionable efforts to study a supernatural being scientifically to sort an ancient legend’s facts from fantasy, the covers for the manga and the posters for the anime focused almost exclusively on the various characters’ relationships and romances. In Japan, this marketing based on sex appeal worked pretty well; in America, where people had not yet gotten used to the idea of animation being for mature audiences as well as children, not so much. In my opinion, the anime and manga series alike would have sold a lot better here had the company producing it gotten its stateside affiliate to produce alternate covers and posters focusing more on the science fiction and fantasy elements: a shot of Ceres violently emerging from Aya in the middle of a camera-filled corporate conference room would have given a far more accurate impression of what the story’s real subject is, and appealed to a much broader audience than just America’s then-fledgeling fan groups for Japanese animation.

    Getting back to the subject at hand, if this story does have a romance as part of an important subplot, then by all means feel free to show us the loving couple getting kissy and snuggly somewhere on the cover, but keep your focus (and your prospective readers’) on the main subject: the lab, the experiment, and how this somehow ties in to the ancient legend of the Phoenix. If this experiment somehow reaches into the afterlife (by, say, attempting to induce a near-death experience in its subject), you could do worse than to show the guy strapped to an operating table as he’s being injected with drugs Flatliners-style.

    In short, whatever you do, keep your eye on the ball. A shot of the symbols you’ve already mentioned in your title (yes, I know a clear blue mountain sky is sometimes used to symbolize the afterlife) is redundant, telling us nothing about the story and whether anyone would like to read it. Give us a picture of some central element of the story instead, and let the title speak for itself.

  5. Thanks to everyone who took the time to comment. It’s clear that I do need to start over with a professional cover designer, and these comments will help me figure out what to tell the designer. Nathan, I actually meant my opening remarks in a self-deprecating, “boy, was I wrong” way; sorry that it came off as passive-aggressive.

    FWIW, the mountain image was meant literally: the story takes place in a research institute in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains (where I took the photo). The Phoenix (both the image and the title) is metaphoric. It wasn’t until after I released the book that I realized people would think the Phoenix implied fantasy. I was focused on making sure that the title wouldn’t be interpreted as a story about someone retiring to live in Phoenix!

    Thanks for this site. It’s a very useful service.

    1. In terms of what you’d want to tell a cover designer, it depends if you want to push the lit-fic aspect or the sci-fi aspect. Lit fic tends to favor simple, evocative imagery and right now a lot of it has a vintage or homemade aesthetic, which is all wrong for you.

      So maybe sci-fi is the way to go. For sci-fi, you want bold, crisp typography, a striking palette, and strong symbolic imagery. The phoenix can stay as long as it’s obviously a symbol. Don’t bother with the mountains–“set in the Rockies” isn’t a selling point. Other than that, I don’t think we know enough about your book to suggest more.

    2. Ah. Well, if you just want to establish that the setting is not in Phoenix, Arizona, you could do worse than to give us a good closeup shot of an actual research institute building carved into a mountain’s side. In addition to establishing the location (Phoenix, Arizona’s flat arid landscape conspicuously lacks any of the Rockies’ trees and sharp slopes), some modern architecture would definitely establish that this is some kind of 20-minutes-into-the-future science fiction. Throw in a stylized Phoenix symbol somewhere (maybe on the institute’s sign next to its title and slogan, e.g. “Rebirth Research Laboratories: We Help Humanity Rise From The Ashes”), and you’re pretty much set. To drop a bonus hint to your readers, you might also have the two main characters peeking out from one of the windows of that institute through some thick glass.

      That kind of imagery sends more the message you want to send, which is “Within the walls of this clean-cut well-lit modern research laboratory, shady experiments on human subjects do transpire; read this book to learn all about them.”

      1. Thank you, RK. Cover Quill turned out to be an excellent choice. The design that Rena came up with is very much along the lines of your previous comment. This site was very helpful in prodding me into the right direction.

        For those who didn’t see it, here’s the new cover:

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