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Virgin In The Church
#6, December 2001: The Cover

--By Scott Nicholson

(Intro: I sold my first novel "The Red Church" through the slush pile. It will be released as a mass market paperback by Pinnacle Books in June 2002. I'm sharing my experiences in hopes that other writers can learn from my triumphs and mistakes, and, of course, to generate interest in the book. Scott's rule number one: build your audience one reader at a time.)

I received a package from my publisher about ten days ago, and it was much too light to be my proof pages, which I don’t expect for a couple of months anyway. With great curiosity, I yanked open the package and discovered that the cover to my book is already done, including back jacket copy, ISBN, shortened blurbs, and other information, the basic "marketing package" of the book. (You can view the complete cover at

The cover flats are used as sales tools, given to the rack jobbers, distributors, and bookstore buyers. Most of the wholesale buying decisions for the book will be made on this scant information. This is both good and bad: an enticing package can reap sales that might not come if the book were to live solely on its content, and it also means a split-second’s perusal of these few elements are far more important to the book’s success than the thousands of hours the author has spent on the text.

A quick reminder: my book, filling a mass market genre slot, has a different intended audience than does a literary hardcover or a non-fiction trade paperback. I’m sure publishers of other types of books have their own marketing approaches, and even publishers in the same field no doubt have their individual angles and techniques. My experience and opinion is unique, and so is almost every author’s. It’s the part we have the least control over.

I am quite pleased with the cover art, an old church with a foggy graveyard and wicked-looking tree. The cover’s color contrasts are simple, mostly red, black, and white, and my name is a pleasingly ego-stroking font size across the bottom. Tucked in the corner is a much-chopped version of a long and eloquent blurb Sharyn McCrumb gave me, allegorically connecting me and Stephen King via the opposite ends of the Appalachian mountain chain.

I’ve received positive responses to the art. Some have told me it’s scary, which doesn’t bother me, though the story isn’t really geared toward invoking fear. Some said it would make them pick up the book if they saw it on a shelf. Ah! There’s the most important element for a book by an unknown author, when stuck amidst a rack of the same. The rules are different for King and Dean Koontz and Clive Cussler, but who cares about how those are presented to the public? They’ll sell regardless.

The back copy, the part that’s supposed to hook the reader who has actually plucked the book for more study, is both intriguing and a little bit deceptive. The copy plays up a background element of the story, that of the church’s history and the novel’s antagonist Archer McFall. In bold red letters, breaking up the synopsis, is a melodramatic and slightly cheesy play on an old nursery rhyme: "Here is the church, here is its steeple, open the doors, and here is the evil."

There are also two minor mistakes in the copy. I’ve notified the editor in case he wants to make a change before the actual books are bound. The mistakes are in details that contradict what happened in the story, and not significant enough to worry about if there’s no time for correction. I also asked my editor if the word "Appalachian" can be inserted somewhere, because I think that would broaden the book’s appeal and mystique. I think the rural flavor is what sets it apart from the sweeping tide of genre thrillers.

Other information designed to help the wholesale buyers is printed on the "inside" of what will be the cover once the flat is folded around the printed pages. The book will be 304 pages. If I remember correctly, my manuscript came in at around 425 pages. Page cuts make the most efficient and economical use of paper if done in multiples of sixteen, so most books are rounded into multiples of either sixteen or eight. And that’s total pages, including blanks, not just the number that have text.

The books will fit 48 to a carton. I’m not sure how this compares to the mass market standard, but I’ve heard many rack jobbers make buying decisions on something as simple as how many copies they can fit in a rack. If they can sell six in the same space as four, they will obviously go for six, and it also cuts down on the number of restocking trips they have to make.

Cover price is $5.99 in the U.S., which is about as cheap as they come. After trying to promote my first collection as a $15 trade paperback, I am happy to be a little lower-budget this time. The sales copy also lists my town, which might swing some regional buyers.

Kensington’s marketing plans as listed on the sales copy? Promotion on the publisher’s website. No world signing tour here, folks, no stops on "Good Morning America," no full-page buys in the major trade publications, no billboards. Just a cover facing out in a rack next to the muscle magazines in America’s grocery stores. Hopefully, the art will catch the eye even while competing with the oiled flesh of magazine cover models.

I’ve heard from a lot of you column readers thanking me for "telling it the way it is" or "not holding back." That’s the only way I know how to tell it. Sometimes I might be wrong but never on purpose. And I enjoy hearing from you.

If you have any questions or feedback, drop me a line

(This article is uncopyrighted and may be freely distributed and published, as long as Scott’s byline and web address are included.)

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The Red Church

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