Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

A Tale of Two Covers

By Steven Pressfield | Published: June 3, 2015

[We and Penguin Books will be giving away 200 free copies of The Lion’s Gate paperback, ahead of a Google Hangout with me and August Cole, co-author of Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War and director of the Atlantic Council’s Art of Future Warfare project. On June 25 at 3pm ET we will discuss how creativity is literally a lifesaver when resources and time are short and the odds are stacked against you. Which, for writers, is most of the time. Enter your address using this sign-up link and we’ll send a copy your way. More details about the Google Hangout to come.]

I was talking to a tech-savvy friend. He was telling me about “search engine optimization” and all the incredible ways that Google and Facebook and Amazon and other marketing superpowers can mine their proprietary data or data in the public domain and get us a roster of our exact potential readers. It’s mind-boggling what these algorithms can do. They can generate for us a list of 52-year-old men who’ve had lower back problems and have either a) ordered a book on this subject, b) visited a website to browse on this subject, or c) noted on their Facebook page (or even on their wife’s page) that their back hurts.

Amazing.

But how does that help you and me as writers?

It does potentially, I’m sure. And I certainly wish I knew how to exploit all these hi-tech resources. (I don’t.) But one thing I can tell you for sure:

Nobody knows who’s gonna read your book. Random House doesn’t know and Amazon doesn’t know. Facebook doesn’t know. Google doesn’t know. Not even Oprah knows. You and I? For sure we don’t know.

My book Gates of Fire came out in 1998. A year later I learned it was huge in the Brazilian gay community. (How do I know? Because I get letters.)

To this day I have no idea who reads my books—and that’s after the fact. Before they’re published? I’m flying blind and so is everybody else.

Lemme tell you a tale of two covers. (We touched on this in last week’s post). When I say “covers,” what I really mean is marketing. Because a book’s cover is the product of the marketing concept behind it. And that marketing concept is a product of the publisher’s (or the writer herself if she’s self-publishing) guess at what groups will respond positively to the book.

The first (hardback, 2014) cover for "The Lion's Gate"

When I first had the idea for The Lion’s Gate (a non-fiction account of the Six Day War between Israel and Egypt/Syria/Jordan in 1967), I had an audience in mind. In other words, a marketing target.

I was completely wrong.

Shawn acted as my agent on The Lion’s Gate. A bidding war ensued. Five publishers made offers. All of them (I don’t know for sure, but I’m almost dead certain) had the same marketing concept as I did. They were completely wrong too.

Here’s what we all thought:

American Jewish readers will respond to a rip-snorting true tale of Israeli heroism—a desperate underdog nation in 1967, achieving a spectacular victory against overwhelming odds. The story had everything that the American Jewish audience should love: Jewish fighter pilots, Jewish paratroopers, love stories, history, religion, the liberation of Judaism’s holiest site, the Wailing Wall, after 1900 years, etc.

Wrong, wrong, and wrong.

We all got it wrong.

What went awry? I’m guessing now. (Again, nobody can answer these questions). I think we got the U.S. Jewish mind-set wrong. American Jews, who are politically liberal in the main, don’t want to read about wars. They’re anti-war. And specifically they don’t want to read about Jewish wars, even resounding victories. Why? Again I’m guessing. Because they want peace? Because they’ve read too many news stories about Israeli soldiers abusing Palestinians? Because they themselves are anti-Israel?

Eight or nine months after The Lion’s Gate came out, Shawn and I published a book by an Israeli fighter pilot ace named Giora Romm. The book is called Solitary and it’s terrific, a true story, military classic about Romm getting shot down over Egypt and his long, hellish, unbelievably courageous recovery.

Giora came to Los Angeles, where I live, to promote the book. He’s a bona fide national hero in Israel. The L.A. Jewish community rolled out the red carpet. I served as Giora’s driver for the week he was in town. I was there at every reception, book signing, speaking engagement. Giora is hugely charismatic, funny, charming, a paragon of the Israeli war hero. People loved him.

But the book didn’t catch fire.

Why?

I can only guess, but I think it’s for the same reasons that The Lion’s Gate didn’t take off. American Jews don’t want to read about war. It’s a turn-off to them.

But back to our tale of two covers.

The second (paperback, 2015) cover

The first cover for The Lion’s Gate said visually, “Serious book, Jewish war victory, historically real, visceral and immediate.”

I’m not privy to the discussions at Sentinel/Penguin, the publisher. What issues did they debate in the marketing meetings leading up to the second bite of the apple, the publication of the paperback?

Plan A wasn’t working. That was clear for sure.

They came up with Plan B, and Plan B required a different marketing statement, i.e. a different cover.

The new cover is aimed at a different audience. We’ve given up on attracting American Jews. The new target audience is the military reader, the action reader. To this end, an entirely new marketing campaign has been developed, aimed at an entirely different audience.

Personally I love the new cover. I love the new marketing campaign. But will they work? Will the Plan B audience respond?

Nobody knows.

Why do you and I write books? Why do we pick the topics we pick? There may be some among us who start with a specific audience in mind and then write, targeting that audience. But I’d be amazed if there were many readers of this blog who think that way.

My guess (again that’s all I can do) is that most of us write for ourselves. We pick topics we love, subjects we’re interested in. We’re betting that our taste aligns with the taste of at least some readers.

But once we’ve finished our historical saga about Queen Boudica of Early Britain or the 100% true memoir of our battle with sex/drug/videogame addiction, what do we do? Who will our readers be? If we knew, we could design the optimal book cover, plan the perfect publicity outreach, book the ideal signing tour.

Who can tell us? Does Facebook have the algorithm? Is there an app for that?

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

22 Responses to “A Tale of Two Covers”

  1. Mary Doyle
    June 3, 2015 at 6:14 am

    This discussion about book covers and who they attract versus who they are designed to attract is a valuable reminder that the outcome of our marketing efforts is largely out of our hands. Did you know that you can now purchase pre-designed book covers? Seriously – I received a promotional piece for this – there is a whole catalog of them. Who knew? It went into the trash.

    My hat’s off to you for giving out more free copies of The Lion’s Gate (I got one when it first came out – you guys are incredibly generous). Looking forward to the Google Hangout on the 25th!

    • June 3, 2015 at 6:28 am

      But Mary, if nobody knows anything, why would a predesigned book cover be a worse guess than one you had custom designed to your specs?

      Not challenging, but wondering, even to myself. Does it matter? If I’m guessing, why is my best guess better than an almost random guess?

      I design my own covers, so I won’t be going down that path, but I’m not convinced, yet, that predesigned covers are wrong.

      • Mary Doyle
        June 3, 2015 at 6:48 am

        You bring up a good point Joel – maybe a pre-designed cover has as good a shot as a custom design. I guess the covers in the brochure I saw just looked cheesy to me. I salute you for having the artistic chops to design your own. Even with “nobody knows” aside, you have the creative satisfaction of being able to develop and implement a concept that true to your vision of the book. That’s got to count for something.

      • Michael Beverly
        June 3, 2015 at 8:10 am

        Interesting, I’ve just hired a book cover designer, $450 bucks, so not exactly cheap. I think the reason that a “pre-designed” cover wouldn’t be the best is that it wouldn’t have somebody’s heart in the design. How could it?
        I think this post really makes a good point about readership, HOWEVER, that said, in some genre writing, it’s less of a guess of who the readers are.
        People that read bestselling thrillers, read bestselling thrillers, so if you’re designing a book cover for a thriller, it would make sense to look like the others in that genre.
        In a more narrow niche, like historical fiction, it’s harder, like this post talks about.
        A war novel is much different than a romance novel, however you could write both set in the Confederacy in 1862.
        I think the big take away from this post is that you cannot know exactly who your readership will be, so don’t invest to much in guessing about it.

        Joel, do you think I’m over spending on cover design? I think it’s got to be one of the most important marketing features, I’ll have to go to Amazon and check out your work.

        • June 17, 2015 at 8:03 am

          Depends on what you get. And primarily I mean, how good do you feel when you see the book?

          I charge a good bit less than that (20%-30% less) but I do workmanlike layout, not lush gorgeous psychologically responsive Chip Kidd design.

          If you can get Chip Kidd for under $500 I’d spend it every time.

          As for “heart in it” — when I write a song or a book, I am never ever ever thinking about who’s going to listen or read. My heart is in it, big.

          Some of these folks are, indeed, churning fodder for a quick buck.

          Many, though, are making beautiful, then instead of deleting it, selling it.

          (MIA from the SG forum, pal. What’s up?)

  2. Donna Michel
    June 3, 2015 at 6:48 am

    I purchased The Lion’s Gate when it came out and for me it read like a couldn’t put it down thriller. A friend of mine had just returned from a church trip to the Holy Land and read the book on my recommendation and loved it. No one else read the book on my recommendation that I know of. I’m not an American Jew and am not a fan of military writing. What spoke to me was the story of the underdog and the soldiers at the wall at the end.

    Thank you for writing this book!

  3. Donna Michel
    June 3, 2015 at 6:51 am

    PS- According to an article that I read in Poets & Writers, The hard cover edition of Eat, Pray, Love didn’t catch fire; it was the paperback edition that blew the top off.

  4. June 3, 2015 at 6:54 am

    Thank you so much for your incredibly generous offer .. I’ve been having similar issues attracting funders to my documentary: Before It’s Too Late .. about Holocaust survivors.. comments have been: haven’t we seen it all before? My belief is.. You can’t tell these stories enough. Again .. thanks for the book!

  5. June 3, 2015 at 7:31 am

    Steven…You nailed it. Research is absolutely necessary but that can take you only so far down the road. After a while you have to go with your gut, but even then that’s a shot in the semi-darkness. The story and the writing must be good, but people ultimately will connect with your passion or not. So that’s why we write about what we know and feel best. Then we hope…

  6. Steve Lowry
    June 3, 2015 at 7:46 am

    This is a bit off topic and more an aside. When I saw the title I immediately thought of what is to me THE Lion Gate – the one at Mycenae. What surprising about this is that I have this as an audio book on my Kindle waiting a suitably long drive to start it. I suppose that it shows that people first impressions (which is what covers are for)are hard to predict. BTW I am a military history reader. Australians have learned to separate the men and the mission. You may not agree with the mission but you honour the men who carry it out. Our national War Memorial Hall of Honour has 120,000 names and as far as I am aware not one of them was a politician who made the decision to go to war. The Memorial sits across the valley from Parliament House and is visible from the steps.

  7. Paul C
    June 3, 2015 at 10:05 am

    My two cent opinion: Both covers of Lion’s Gate are fine. I was kind of surprised that popular commercial writer as yourself would write a book more narrow in scope for the history/military readership. I like those kind of books but you do have to get lucky to make a bestseller out of it. The liberal Jewish community has become increasingly defensive over the years about Israel’s military prowess. I actually didn’t like the cover for “Solitary.” I thought it failed Shawn’s Why test. The cover conveyed, from my two cent seat, a militaristic tone. I thought it should have shown him as a hostage being treated by Arabs.

  8. June 3, 2015 at 10:43 am

    I love it when you point out the fact that nobody knows nothin. Not even us. This was a huge relief to learn. As an antique dealer I see this phenom all the time. I buy a bulk lot and think the gems will sell right away, but the dregs often sell more quickly. Sometimes, what you think will sell (are absolutely sure of it) doesn’t sell at all and you have to donate it to Goodwill and you scratch your head the entire time. Then there’s the auctions. Something you almost gave away goes for $800 and that special item you got from the private collection of **insert famous person’s name here** just languishes without a bid. There are only intelligent guesses. There are no sure bets.

    Luck plays its part.

  9. Paul Bailey
    June 3, 2015 at 11:00 am

    I read a considerable amount, and usually will check at the bookstore or on my Kindle or iBooks accounts to see what’s new and by who in all my usual genre areas. I’ve read 2 of Pressfield’s novels and am working on a third, plus “The War of Art.” I’d likely go back to where I found the first 3 novels, fiction section at Barnes & Noble, or see what Kindle was recommending for me, for the next novel by SP. Or, I might take a break from fiction and poke around in the writer’s area for something else by him. I doubt that I would even think to look in the military non-fiction area at B&N, or be led to a title in that category by Kindle or the iBooks store. I do know that Pressfield has written same, but it would take something to break me out of my present mindset to cause me to look in MNF, which I also read as assiduously as the ohters. — Duty (or a telecon) summons me! Tallyho!

  10. Paul Bailey
    June 3, 2015 at 11:25 am

    Sorry, back for a moment.

    Where I was going was that anyone who’s read Pressfield will want to read more, or there’s something seriously WRONG with them, but the places I would look for his stuff aren’t the place where Lion’s Gate would appear. So, where & how the cover is displayed is a vital question. Assuming it’s face (not spine) out in the Millitary Non-Fiction area, (Military History, actually I think at B&N and then likely sub-sort by some further category) it’s likely the average reader browsing-by right there hasn’t heard of SP. The cover then muxt appeal to them. What’s been selling in that sub-category and what do the covers look like? Or, what’s close? Close would be biographies and autobiographies of Chris Kyle, Dakota Meier, Marcus Luttrell, and so on. So, where do the booksellers place the book and what else is or has been selling well there? What can be done to help the retailer figure that out?

    Now I WILL go away!

  11. Marvin Waschke
    June 3, 2015 at 12:07 pm

    My good friend is an orthodox rabbi who lives in the US, but has many relatives in Israel, including his mother-in-law. I don’t think he would read The Lion’s Gate, but for none of the reasons posited. He is a jovial man with a flock of children, not anti-war, but he prefers cozies to rip-roaring adventure. This is a sample of 1, so it has no statistical validity, but I wonder if American Jews is a meaningful category for a book marketing campaign. It’s not that some American Jews do or don’t read books like Lion’s Gate, it is that you can’t predict anything about reading habits from the trait “American Jewishness.”

    I am not a marketer, but some of my friends are. One markets soap, a tough gig with a large budget. They say that choosing how to segment the market for a product is the key to success. If America Jewishness does not rise above random for predicting interest in Lion’s Gate, a category based on it is bad. They say the real point of those stupid surveys you get shoved in your face is gather data for identifying meaningful groupings to target. Sometimes geography, hair color, and education level are a good predictor. Good predictors can be any combination of a range of factors that identify the relevant clusters. One of the goals of Big Data is to identify clusters from tons of data that appear random.
    All that technology improves the odds, but it’s still a crap shoot.

    • June 3, 2015 at 1:41 pm

      Great points, Marvin. I confess I hadn’t thought about that. You’re right. Our original category was, among other things, way too broad, not at all targeted, and we assessed it in far-too-superficial terms. Thanks for a great note!

  12. June 3, 2015 at 7:28 pm

    Hello from NZ

    With the greatest of respect.

    I have followed and been inspired by your blog for a number of years. I have read The Lions Gate. Reluctantly. It blew me away and changed my attitude towards Jewish ideals in the Middle East. I use the word reluctantly for two reasons. I lived and practiced in Muscat, Oman for three years. Great place, great people, but they hate the Jews. I am not anti Semetic, but it was hard not to sympathize in some way when we could see first hand how the Palestinians were being treated. The thing is, there are always two sides to every story and for me The Lions Gate gave me a point of view that balanced my thinking and respect … for both sides. However, the second reason I use the word “reluctant” is because I felt from many of your blog posts around the time that Solitary was released (and The Lions Gate) that you sounded like a “born again” Jew! Please don’t take this the wrong way, you are my writing hero, but this was a real turn off. So long as I had sympathies that leaned in favor of the other side, you were going to have a real hard time selling me on the idea of reading your story. So, why did I? AS mentioned, there are two sides to every story. I wanted to see how you represented your side. You did such a great job that I am not so much a convert, but have reaffirmed within myself why I log onto your blog every week and hold your ideals, wisdom and skill as a writer in high regard. In one word RESPECT. I have greater respect for the Jewish story now. The problem is not your book cover. The problem is the internal challenge I had to set aside and overcome long enough to hear your side of the story and gain that respect. Personally, I think that the Lions Gate is an important book and should be required reading in every high school around the world where minds are still open. I suggest that you gift a couple of hundred copies to a local high school / University and see what feedback you get. It’s not a Ra Ra Jew book. It’s a masterpiece on RESPECT. How the underdog finally steels itself to overcome horrendous odds to create a new beginning. Hope this helps.

    • June 5, 2015 at 9:42 am

      Gary you’re post convinced me to finally crack open The Lion’s Gate. Thanks for putting its impact on you out in public.

  13. June 3, 2015 at 8:37 pm

    Another reason the Lion’s Gate may not have clicked is that the 6 Day War was “so long ago” and there have been so many other wars in between, that it’s significance has faded from the awareness of American Jews. The “existential threat,” which was very real then, and still is, has become a political football. I think Netanyahu’s rhetoric backfired. And a lot of American Jews just don’t know history.
    Still, I recommend it as a number one must read to everyone I know. It’s not only a good book, it’s a very important book.

  14. RachelB.
    June 5, 2015 at 6:34 am

    Great article! Love the new cover! I wrote a similar blog posting about the evolution of a book cover and why, when designing a cover, it is so important to let go of preconceived notions.
    http://sophieschiller.blogspot.com/2014/05/the-evolution-of-book-cover.html

  15. June 5, 2015 at 8:41 am

    How do great books find their readers? That’s really the question. Most online (and offline, for that matter) purveyors of books are so busy trying to sell you something, they’re not *listening*. Indie Bookstores probably come closest to listening, but none of these outlets really has a relationship with you. Amazon is the closest, but they probably think it doesn’t matter what you read, so long as you buy it from them. They are demand satisfaction, not demand generation.

    The rise of independent publishing only makes this problem worse for readers. There’s so much dreck out there, who can keep up with it all?

    What’s needed is place/system/website/service that really understands me and what I’m interested in. And can bring me great books like The Lion’s Gate that match my interests or are written by people I respect, without a financial incentive to push stuff on me.

    SP: I LOVED The Lion’s Gate.

  16. Lee Poteet
    June 10, 2015 at 10:50 am

    I have not yet read The Lion’s Gate, but it is in the bookshelf beside my bed with a number of other Pressfield books I am either reading or intending to do so as quickly as I can get to them. Frankly I had never heard of you, Steven, until i flipped open the paperback copy The Gates of Fire and had my eyes light on the Spartan king’s description of what he picked the members of the three hundred. And that simply blew me away in the same way certain passages of the Old Testament have and continue to do so. It was and remains the hook that caught me and has made me a Pressfield fanatic, reading and re-reading the passages I want burned into my sub-conscious.

    But as to why you wrote The Lion’s Gate? For the audience that both you and your publisher thought would buy and read it? I think not. You wrote it because it needed to be written and the muse chose you to do it. For my mind, the audience you thought you were writing for were not and perhaps will never be truly men enough to appreciate it – which is their loss and not that of the rest of us. If you don’t have a chest, I don’t think it possible to appreciate your books in the way that they should be which is why I give them to my sons and grandsons.