When a sales rep meets with a book buyer to determine how many copies to take of a particular title, she looks at a number of criteria.  The first is sales history, if it exists. The second is the design of the cover art itself – is it pleasing? does it convey the genre?  But she’s also looking to see how much the publisher has spent on the book to get an indication of how hard they’re going to be pushing this title to attract readers and recoup their costs.

The first indication of a book’s “importance” is the format in which it’s published.  Traditionally, of course, hardcovers are perceived as the most worthy of attention, then going down the price scale from there to trade paperbacks, mass-market paperbacks and finally ebooks.  Typically, advances for hardcovers are higher, the price point is higher, and *perception* is that these are “better” books.  I’m sure everyone has an opinion on that…

But let’s jump to mass-market paperbacks, ’cause that’s what Dorchester does and that’s the predominant format for the romance genre.  Special cover treatments are often used there to indicate factors a book’s “importance” or expectation of sales.  In increasing cost order, there’s:

  • emboss and/or foil of the type (author name and title); ideally they’re both foiled and embossed
  • spot emboss, where one element of the cover is raised up (like the ornament on A CHRISTMAS BALL)
  • spot gloss – using a section of gloss on a matte cover
  • full foil, where the entire cover is shiny in some way (like the Black Dagger Brotherhood series)
  • stepback – a glossy page of color art behind the actual cover

We also talk about creating a “big-book look,” which generally features a large author name and just an element of art rather than an entire scene.  Often in romance, you’d see a fairly sedate front cover and then the clinch in the stepback.  The idea is to make it look larger than a genre book.  It tends to work best when the author has some name recognition.  Otherwise, readers might not know what genre it belongs to.

The design of the book itself can also be an indication to readers. The more money spent on making it look pretty, the more that book has to earn back and the harder the publisher needs to push sales.  Typically mass-markets don’t have a lot of design in their production, though every now and then you run into beautiful drop caps or a pretty feature to open chapters.  The whole point of mass-markets is that they’re inexpensive to produce and generally not expected to have the shelf life of hardcovers.  Jennifer Ashley recently loaned me a copy of THE LUXE, a trade-sized historical YA, which was beautiful – gorgeous script on the chapter openings, all kinds of different fonts.  It really made the book fit its title.

But I find it highly interesting that all of this goes away when you start talking about ebooks.  Ebooks are truly the great equalizer.  The format of the print edition isn’t a factor. There is no tactile cover.  Often the type design is different depending on the format and the capabilities of the reader you’re using.  And the reader can change the font into whatever they want. 

There have been all kinds of ebook price wars among readers and publishers and retailers.  Because, truly, it’s the price that’s the last great publisher-determined separator of what’s supposed to be “good.”  It will be interesting to see how the model changes as the ebook market gains more precedence.