Free-For-All Friday: Shelfbuzz

Who isn't guilty of judging a book by its cover? I freely admit that my reading material is usually based on cover design. I can't help it. It's the first thing I see, the first glimpse of the story that waits hidden inside. Going to a bookstore or perusing Amazon listings is like visiting an art gallery, and my eyes appreciate the beauty of it all. The geniuses behind Shelfbuzz, a website that promotes free and discounted e-books, takes us to this "art gallery" with their daily selection of the best of the best cover designs. Subscribe to their email newsletter, and never miss a thing.

Describe Shelfbuzz to our readers.

Shelfbuzz is a website which highlights the best fiction e-book cover design on a daily basis. Every day our designers hand pick free and 99¢ Kindle ebooks with the best covers and send them to our readers via email and share them on our website Shelfbuzz.com and social media sites like Pinterest, Facebook, Google+, and Tumblr. We’ve just had our two year anniversary. 

What is your daily process for selecting the best free and discounted ebooks?

Every morning we start the day by diving into Amazon and doing custom searches for free and 99¢ titles that are highly rated. We typically look at 100-300 covers every day. Recently we have been experimenting with “genre specific” days during the week where we focus on a specific genre like “Mystery Monday” (mystery, thriller, action, crime) and “Fantasy Friday” (fantasy, sci-fi, horror).

How do you think the ebook has changed the art of cover designing?

Dramatically. These days most people buy their books online (physical and ebooks). That means their first look at a book cover is usually in a list on a webpage on Amazon or B&N or Apple iBooks or Kobo. Amazon’s “thumbnail” list images are roughly 90-100 pixels wide. Depending on your computer monitor, that might be roughly the size of a postage stamp. Before the rise of online booksellers, book covers could be fairly complicated visually, with subtle images and typography. That’s because the smallest book cover was often a trade paperback. But those online thumbnails are smaller than 1/10th the size of a paperback cover. So really any book that is primarily sold online needs to have a much simpler cover with bolder typography and fewer elements. At Shelfbuzz, we display covers at the largest size available (500 pixels tall and roughly 330 pixels wide), so it's a good place to really study ebook covers.

ShelfBuzz CEO, Trixie

ShelfBuzz CEO, Trixie

Can you tell us about your "CEO" Trixie, the adorable designing poodle?

She's an adopted Toy Poodle, rescued from New Mexico where she was found wandering in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains in danger of becoming coyote food. Trixie rose from her humble beginnings to become an esteemed graphic designer and a dynamic CEO.

What important bit of cover design advice would you give to authors?

Here are three tips:

1) Hire a professional; it's not that expensive and definitely worth the investment. A professional is someone who has been trained in graphic design, not just your nephew who knows how to use Photoshop. Most of us can figure out how to use a socket wrench, but we don't all repair our own cars. There is a lot of knowledge and training required to properly choose typefaces, kern type, choose and modify images, and create a well-designed book cover. As humans, we pick up on very subtle physical cues when having a conversation with another person. We notice the slight turn of the mouth or if someone's eyes widen a tiny bit when they say something. It's the same way with graphic design. There are hundreds if not thousands of extremely subtle visual cues that potential readers pick up on. And nearly everyone can tell the difference between a professional book cover and an amateur one -- even if they can't articulate those differences.

2) Keep it simple. As we mentioned, book covers have effectively shrunk by a factor of ten. Simple, relatively bold designs tend to work better in small sizes. Don't make potential readers work to figure out your cover. 

3) Remember that your book cover has a job. That job is not to accurately summarize plot or themes. It's not to express your designer's cleverness. And it's not to stand out as a unique work of art. Your book cover has one singular mission: to get someone to pick up the physical book or download a sample. Kevin Michael over at Self Publishing Roundtable has a great article: "Why Isn't Your Book Selling?" He lists poor cover design as the first reason a book might not be selling. He also makes a smart observation: "So much of the time, authors do what they want instead of what the readers want. But in the end, it’s the readers buying the books."

In your opinion, what type of covers draw the largest audiences?

Some authors have good evidence that changing their covers to include people increases their sales. Russell Blake writes about his findings here: http://russellblake.com/judging-books/

At Shelfbuzz, we've noticed that the covers that work best are the ones that clearly signal the genre of the book. It's a good exercise to scan the bestseller lists for traditionally-published books and note which elements are common to the genre your book falls into. Some genres have obvious cover tropes (like an embracing couple for romance or the demure bonnet-wearing woman for historical fiction), but even literary fiction has it's own visual cues (which can include handwritten typography or portraits cropped just above the eyes or 18th century engraving art).

Where does Shelfbuzz see the publishing industry headed in the next 10 years?

Here are some predictions for 2024 in no particular order:

1) Most bookstores will go the way of CD stores and video stores. That is, they will largely cease to exist. The exception will be used or specialty book stores which will kind of be like specialty record/CD stores now. Few and far between.

2) Ereaders will become so inexpensive that they will become disposable. Most people will read fiction in ebook form, especially genre fiction.

3) (Hopefully) Amazon will be forced to adopt open standards in terms of ebook format (epub or other common format). If this happens, you will be able to buy an ebook from any online or physical retailer and read it on any device.

4) Like movie studios and record companies today, the three remaining publishers (down from the Big 5) will increasingly make bigger bets on blockbuster titles and take far fewer chances on new authors or innovative stories. They will also increasingly look to the field of independently-published authors as their major source of new authors and focus on those who are either selling huge numbers of copies or about to break out. But publishers will need to radically rethink the terms they offer authors since professional indie publishing will not only be much more viable, but much more lucrative as well.

5) The glut of new books will stabilize after readers become overwhelmed with too many choices. Authors will shake out into three groups: professionals, hobbyists/amateurs, and get-rich-quick schemers. Professionals (and maybe some serious hobbyists) will invest in creating a quality book (professional cover design, professional editing, professional quality writing). The other groups will not want to invest, but will find out that their often poor-quality books quickly get lost in the proverbial "tsunami of crap." Readers will become increasingly skilled at determining which books are professional and which are not and will no longer be driven to indiscriminately collect free books which they never plan to read. Shelfbuzz may be forced out of business when this happens :-)

Trixie could go on and on about this topic as she spends most of her time dreaming of the future (in addition to dreaming of chasing sparrows in the back yard).

Is Shelfbuzz working on any new projects this year?

We have a long wishlist of things we could do if Trixie won the lottery or sharpened her database programming skills. But we may focus on one or two initiatives that support our mission of eradicating fugly book covers. If time and energy permits, we'd like to provide more education about cover design. We're also thinking about mixing things up a bit and highlighting great covers regardless of the price of the book -- perhaps organizing them by genre.

How can our readers connect with Shelfbuzz?

We love to hear from folks. Email us at info@shelfbuzz.com. We're also fairly active on Google+ (https://plus.google.com/114053052641773729948)

Thanks for having us here on the blog! For more resources about cover design, we have a list of common cover design mistakes here: http://shelfbuzz.com/common-cover-design-mistakes-list/ as well as a list of six articles showing examples of poor cover designs. We also have a page with links to some professional cover designers here: http://shelfbuzz.com/about/for-authors/find-a-book-cover-designer/