Guest Blogger: Angela Scheff at Zondervan

Being Proactive about Your Cover and Title

Oftentimes I hear that an author is frustrated because they don’t like the title or cover the publisher chose for their book. While you probably won’t ever have the final say over your title or cover (unless you’ve already sold millions), here are some ideas that may make the process less frustrating:

1. Don’t be married to your working title. I know this is harder to say when you’ve been working with the “perfect” title for months or even years, but simply being open to other ideas goes a long way toward coming up with the best title.

2. Keep your own list of possible titles. Whether this is an open document on your desktop or a legal pad on your nightstand, simply copying words, phrases, sentences, etc. as you write (whether or not they make the final cut) will often spark title ideas. This list could be presented to your editor when you sign your contract or when you submit your manuscript. It doesn’t guarantee that it will be used, but it may go a long way in helping your publisher understand where you’re coming from in the title process. While authors may intimately know their topic/content, the publisher knows the broader market and can often identify trends before they show up on the book shelves.

3. Keep your own list of cover ideas. Again, this can be a document where you copy Amazon cover images or a folder where you cut out images in magazines. Go to the bookstore (I know you’re looking for another excuse to go—“Hey, honey, it’s research!”) every so often to do two things specifically: look where your book will be shelved and see what the competition’s covers look like. Then simply browse around and take note at what jumps out at you. Are there colors or images that repeatedly stick out? What about an image-driven cover vs. all type? Present these to your editor at the appropriate time, but don’t expect anything. Remember, it’s ultimately not your call, but if you want a say in the process, present an organized list of ideas respectfully.

4. In both cover and title ideas, force yourself to get outside of how you’ve been envisioning your book. Authors typically get words and images stuck in their heads, and they’re so close to their own book that they don’t even see how other images and words might fit. Make it a point to sit down and list all the important themes in your book. Sometimes it’s hard because you’ve been thinking of your book one way for so long. Get some help from your critique partners if necessary. Identify themes, images, and lists of nouns, verbs, and adjectives that capture your book. This will help open you up to possibilities you might not have recognized before.

If you have an agent, he or she can be very helpful in this process. Rely on their expertise—they can help you convey your thoughts respectfully to the publisher, and they can also give you a reality check when the publisher is right or at least likely to prevail in a discussion. If you’re really upset and need to blow off steam, call your agent or your best friend, not your editor! Come back to the editor when you’ve calmed down and gathered your thoughts.

You can trust that our goal as a publisher is to present your book in the best possible light and to sell as many copies as possible. We are on the same side!

Angela Scheff is an associate publisher in the trade book group at Zondervan. Her office is located in Mt. Pleasant, SC.

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


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  3. angela on February 27, 2009 at 8:17 AM

    >Maggie May: I’ve only lived in SC for a year, and my husband’s family is from NY. But who knows?

    Vince: That’s a tough question and unfair to answer without knowing the context and discussion the publisher had around a particular cover. There are many people involved in each discussion—editors, marketing directors, and designers—and they may use research and look at the category as a whole. But you bring up an important point: trust. You do have to trust that the publisher is the expert and wants what’s best for your book. They want it to sell, just as you do! I suggest if you’re ever in that position, respectively state your concerns but ultimately trust the publisher. If you aren’t ever able to trust your publisher (which goes beyond disagreements), then you may need to find a publisher that is a better fit. Once again, an agent can help you navigate these difficult waters.

    Kaci: Don’t you know you should never judge a book by its cover? 🙂

    Rachel: Of course, we’ll get your cover perfect.

    Jen and Kev: Again, the goal of a cover is to appeal to as many readers as possible. If that person is a celebrity or their face is well known, sometimes their photo becomes part of the marketing for the book. A good example recently is Multiple Blessings: when the book was released, many people knew what the Gosselin family looked like, but did not know their names. Also, when the cover is reduced to a very small image on amazon, it helps to have a recognizable photo. As for the “unoriginal” comment, being original isn’t always the goal—though know that books don’t only have one cover designed. Many are designed that the authors don’t see. And specifically, if you don’t want your own face on the cover (or even on the back cover or website), that is definitely something to state ahead of time.

    Anonymous @ 11:13: I can’t completely answer your question as it crosses too far outside my editorial expertise. All I know is that if you don’t know who the endorsers are printed on the back cover, then you are not the target for them (read=for the endorsements NOT the book). The point is to attract readers of other readers (assuming the endorser is an author). If you are willing to look for the premise beyond the marketing blurbs, the question of the day for publishers would be, Why did you pick up the book in the first place? I personally get my recommendations from particular reviewers and not from the endorsements on the back cover, so I know where you’re coming from.

    Thanks for letting me crash the party!

  4. Anonymous on February 27, 2009 at 1:13 AM

    >What bothers me is this trend of placing “reviews” or “blurbs” praising the book on the back cover, often from writers I’ve never heard of, instead of a synopsis or description.

    It annoys me to have to dig around the dust jacket for a clue about the premise and plot, esp when the title doesn’t reflect the content. Frustrating and not good marketing, IMHO. Why is that so common now?

  5. Chatty Kelly on February 26, 2009 at 3:00 PM

    >Great advice as always. Thanks for allowing guests to offer us advice in your space.

  6. Richard Mabry on February 26, 2009 at 2:01 PM

    >Had left an earlier comment about my title and cover. Now I have to backtrack, because things appear to be changing as we speak. But it’s still all good.

    Moral: don’t get too attached to your ideas. Nevertheless, professionals probably know better what’s going to cause readers to pick up the book (and that, after all, is the name of the game). I’ll trust their judgment and be grateful for the opportunity.

  7. Jessica on February 26, 2009 at 1:44 PM

    >Thanks for the great tips, Angela! I knew my title probably won’t stay, but I hadn’t thought too much on new ones.
    Sorry about your deleted comments. That’s so annoying.

  8. Timothy Fish on February 26, 2009 at 1:31 PM

    >No theme based titles. I supposed that means Swine Trampled Pearls is out. And I was so hoping to have a big ugly hog on the cover. That’s okay. I can return the lace socks I bought for him.

  9. angela on February 26, 2009 at 12:27 PM

    >Thanks for your comments, everyone. I just had all of my responses deleted, but please know I’ll respond to your specific questions later today.

  10. Rachel H. Evans on February 26, 2009 at 12:23 PM

    >Great tips, Angela…especially the one about doing research at the bookstore. (Do you think this makes the mocha frappe I bought at Barnes and Noble the other day count as a tax deduction?)

    I’m looking forward to working with Zondervan on a title and cover soon. I feel like I am in good hands. If I have any issues, I’ll be sure and call Rachelle to vent…just like you suggested. 🙂

    Questions for fellow writers: What are some of your favorite titles/covers of recently published books? Do you usually have a title in mind before you start your book, or does it come to you as you write.

  11. Camille Cannon Eide on February 26, 2009 at 12:00 PM

    >…and thanks for the tips, too. I’ve thought about what I would like to see on a cover, but wasn't thinking about how covers are chosen to reach the optimal number of readers. That puts a whole new perspective on the ownership we feel for our book. The publisher's investment is best recouped by appealing to the many, not the one. Duh. Chances are WE already like our book. 🙂

    The working title of my romantic fiction is totally theme-based. So yeah, that one is sure to change.

    Thanks again Angela & Rachelle.

  12. T. Anne on February 26, 2009 at 11:33 AM

    >Thank you for the post! Such hope so early in the morning! I’m open to changing titles, rewriting the entire text, invisible covers….anything sounds god right about now.

  13. Kaci on February 26, 2009 at 11:00 AM

    >What if you just have an irrational “thing” against putting characters on the cover?

    Honestly, there was a book (that’s now a huge favorite of mine) that I literally passed over three times because, while the back cover and the background image of a gladiator fight looked enticing, the man and woman in the foreground made me think it was a romance, and was a huge turn off for me. Come to find out, the two characters are twins, and it isn’t a romance at all.

  14. Vince on February 26, 2009 at 10:41 AM

    >Hi Angela:

    What do you do as an author when the cover is misleading or grossly in error? Two examples: A current Desire title shows a Navy SEAL officer in a weird European-type uniform with two different ranks indicated on his arms and shoulders. Another book has an outdoor picture of a couple in the Australian outback with Ayers Rock in the background and the whole novel takes place in a city. How far can you trust publishers to do the right thing?


  15. Dara on February 26, 2009 at 10:35 AM

    >I’m glad for this actually, since coming up with a title is insanely hard for me. I’m definitely not married to my title and I’m constantly trying to find a better working one. 😛

    Never really thought of the cover art, though. I think a trip to the bookstore is in the forseeable future 😉

  16. Sharon A. Lavy on February 26, 2009 at 10:28 AM

    >Whenever I see a great cover I check to see who the publisher is.

    Some are better at covers than others.

  17. Rachelle on February 26, 2009 at 9:41 AM

    >Karen, if it’s any consolation, I LOVE your new title! I think it will attract readers.

    And this is a good lesson for everyone: with fiction, particularly romantic fiction, it’s usually not as effective to have a title that focuses on theme. Readers are drawn in by characters and story. The theme adds the depth and “meat” to the story, but it’s rarely what readers are attracted to in the first place.

    And of course, the purpose of the title and cover design is to draw people in and get them to buy your book!

    Also… a note to Lynnrush:
    You’re right, publishers often don’t keep the author’s working title. However, your title is still important. Just like the title of a book is meant to attract a reader, the working title (the one you’re pitching) has to attract the attention of an editor. Perhaps an even bigger job!

  18. Karen Witemeyer on February 26, 2009 at 9:33 AM

    >I’ve been dealing with this very issue. My editor wants to change my title for marketing reasons, and I understand and completely respect her expertise. However, our taste in titles varies quite a bit.

    I prefer titles that speak to the theme of the story while the publisher prefers titles that focus on the heroine, since readers tend to identify with that character first. We’ve swapped several e-mails and for contract purposes, my book now has a new, editor-inspired working title. It’s not set in stone, though, so I may still be able to tweak it or come up with another option that we all love. We’ll see.

    Even if I end up with a title I’m not crazy about, seeing my book in print will more than compensate for any minor disappointment in that area. (grin)

  19. Karen on February 26, 2009 at 9:31 AM

    >Pam-are coupon and gift card requirements? I just go.

    Loved the ideas you presented Angela! I’ve gone and looked at where my book might be shelved but that was only while I was dreaming of being published. I’ll have to go back and look at covers and titles now. Thanks!

  20. Pam Halter on February 26, 2009 at 8:54 AM

    >Thanks for the great suggestions. I especially like checking out similar book covers at a book store!

    “Oh honey … I’m off to reserach book covers!” she said, with coupons and gift card in hand.

  21. lynnrush on February 26, 2009 at 8:26 AM

    >Great post. Titles are hard for me, so this was a timely post as I’m trying to find a working title for a couple of my projects. I’ve heard that the title the author picks is often not used.

    So, this lessens the stress of trying to find the “perfect” title, that’s for sure.

    Thanks for the post. Have a great day!

  22. Camille Cannon Eide on February 26, 2009 at 3:23 AM

    >I’m not stuck on title or cover… I’m fairly low-maintenance. I do have some cover ideas saved for the sake of contributing if needed, but I’m easy. I would think that since my story is partly set in Scotland with several outdoor scenes, that some Scottish landscape would be great on the cover. And I think it would be cool to have a wee bit of honeysuckle draped along an edge or dangling from a woman’s hand, since it’s an increasing motif in the story. But they’re just ideas, in case I’m asked.

  23. Pheebles on February 26, 2009 at 2:52 AM

    >I had an email from my editor today asking that dreaded: “Have you given any thought to a different title? I saw a similar title from (publisher) recently and we don’t want to confuse folks as the books are similar in genre.”

    I am never married to my working titles, and quite a few of the stories I have published have gone out with different titles to what they had when I submitted them.

    This is a great list of tips and many of them are what I have done in the past when facing this issue.

  24. Kim Kasch on February 26, 2009 at 2:15 AM

    >Okay it's the end of basketball season for our family maybe that's why this post reminds me that writers, agents and editors are like the guard, the wing and the post – they all have to work together to be a winning team.

    Plus, I never thought of keeping a list of cover ideas – I love that tip. And, it's another excuse to head over to Powells, B&N and Borders – I have to check out the differing styles of covers 😉 Thanks.

  25. Maggie May on February 26, 2009 at 2:12 AM

    >You live in SC and have my mom’s maternal last name! I am from Mississippi.

    On topic 🙂 this is a great list of tips. It’s nice to have a look into your brain.