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Scoping Out the Competition

There’s not a profession that doesn’t scope out their competition from time to time. Whether you’re a basketball team, a cereal company, or an internet giant, you need to know what your competition is up to in order to be relevant and on top of your book cover game. So head to your local bookstore (whether you buy anything while you’re there is another story) and do a little snooping on the competition. After all, you’ll need a little break after last week’s hard decision whether to pick a photo-based, illustration-based or typography-based book, right?

Once you arrive and wonder where to go next, you should pull out your notebook, because you’ll need to…

Identify your Direct and Indirect Competitors

There are two types of competitors: direct and indirect.

Direct competitors are the ones who have roughly the same product and are targeting the same market as you. A non-book example would be McDonald’s. Burger King and all the other fast-food hamburger joints are their direct competitors because they are trying to attract anyone who wants a hamburger for lunch. In your case, your book’s direct competitors will be those that share the same shelf, in both the physical and virtual worlds. This will almost always the genre that your book falls under, although you can refine your search for if your genre has several subdivisions.

Indirect competitors have a different product but serves the same needs. Returning to the McDonald’s analogy–their indirect competitor would be your local Chinese takeout place. Not the same type of food, but it can take away a customer for a meal. In this case your indirect competitors could come from multiple sources: other genres that your customers might look at, movies that touch upon the same subjects and themes. Basically what will serve your reader’s need for sustained entertainment relating to, say, fiction set in space.


Visit Your Direct Competitors

Go over to the shelf where your direct competitors reside and pick out five covers you love and five covers you hate. Then analyze them a bit.

  • How are they communicating their contents? If you’ve read the book, this might be a good time to think how the content on the cover corresponds to the book itself.
  • Is the imagery on the cover landscapes, single people, groups, collages, etc? What sort of typography have they included? Is the title the emphasis or the graphic elements? What are their color schemes?
  • Is there a specific emotional style or tone that the genre tends to follow? The YA Paranormal Romance favors photos of the main character with smoke, mystical symbols, blood, mist, etc. Basically anything that adds a dark, mysterious tone to the cover. Romance books, on the other hand, feature sensuous, scantily clad people in tender embraces with warm colors to show the romping good time the characters have.

Once you have that information, you can start thinking about how to stand out from your competition while still making your book feel friendly and familiar to potential readers. And while you’re over in that area….

Look at the Market Leaders

Often there will be a small selection of the current bestsellers in that genre (if not you can look this up online). You’ll want to see what the top leaders in your category are up to for a few reasons. One, especially if you have fragments of an idea already, is to make sure you aren’t unconsciously mimicking a bestseller. You’d hate to spend time putting together a book cover, only to discover that, not only does a similar one exist, but they did it better! Another reason to check up on the market leaders is to see what your target market is already familiar with. We’ll deal more with this next week, but you don’t want to mislead your potential reader into thinking they’re purchasing a different type of book than the one you’ve written.

Visit Your Indirect Competitors

Much as you having a few different interests can lead to interesting combinations, it’s beneficial to visit your indirect competitors. After all, they are trying to do the same thing as you–attract customers. They might be targeting different target markets, but some of their ideas can rub off on you. Using the questions above, stroll over to your indirect competitors in the other aisles and see what they’re doing. Does your book feature a time-traveling master chef? It might behoove you to visit the cooking section and see what the best-selling cooking book cover trends are. Does your romance novel delve into the 1960s art scene? Then take a look at the history section for books on that era. Is there a recently-released movie that deals with a similar setting or theme? See how the graphic artists dealt with their movie posters.

Doing some research on the competition is essential to your book cover design process. Without it, you could end up with a cover that neither relates to your genre nor appeals to the readers you want to target.

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