February 2, 2011

Sitting On The Shelf: Game Book Covers

I’ve recently been reading a great book from a novelist, The Newbie’s Guide to Publishing (Everything a Writer Needs to Know.) by J.A. Konrath.  In it, he has an article called “Rusty Nail, Street Dates, Jacket Copy & Book Covers”. Skipping the bits about his book, he makes a simple statement:

“Covers are important. Some booksellers believe they are the single most important element when it comes to book sales. I agree.”

So do I.

They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but, as I’m sure we all know, everyone does it. It’s not just books, though, we all judge products based on their packaging. Games are products. Yes, very blunt, ‘duh’ statement, but I want to make sure this concept comes through clear.

When I’m looking for a new game, which admittedly is not as often as I’d like, I don’t go into the store looking for a specific title, designer, or system. Sure, I know my preferences, and I hope I end up with something good, but sometimes the journey is the worthier part.

A good cover absolutely draws my eye. High contrast between title and cover helps it stand out. Professional looking images also helps. I’m sure I’ve passed on some acceptable or even good games over the years because the front cover is a mess. I also know I’ve saved myself a lot of hassle with terrible games following the same rules.

After a book has my attention, I hit the back cover (Or jacket if it’s one of the rare RPGs that has one.). I want to know, quickly:

  • What’s the conceit? What will I be playing?
  • What parts of the game does it consider important?
  • What system does it use?
  • Is it still as professional as the front cover?

The conceit, or theme, is important because in reality it’s what you’re asking your players to believe. If you’re trying to attract sci-fi gamers, discussing elves on the back isn’t likely to help you attract them. If you’re pushing fantasy, or emotional conflict, you need to make sure the players get that before buying the game.

What mechanics are you touting? What’s that thing that sets your game apart from all the other games on the shelf? You need to make a selling point on this, you need to get your prospective player to think they need your book and not have something they could do themselves. (The hobby has a history of do-it-yourselfers, don’t underestimate them.) If it’s your NPC write ups, let them know.  If it’s a new mechanical system, say so.

The system you use is important to state, depending on how you’ve designed it. Is it based on another system? If you have the license, use their marks.  If you don’t, you may want to consider some way to reference the source, but make sure to read up on trademark law so you know what’s fair and what’s trading on their mark. If you made your own system, now’s the time to brand it. Make a logo, make a name, and give people something to ask for if they want your game. It will help down the road if you ever make a new game with the same system.

Now, some of you might feel I’m being trite about professionalism, but it is absolutely critical, even for small timers, to be as professional as they know how to be. Your book should have a uniform appearance; it should be the same quality from cover to cover. This professionalism will let the purchaser know you took your time and aren’t wasting their time. It speaks well of everything you’ve done.

Now, if the inside doesn’t match that cover, you’ve got other problems, and I’ll touch on them in the future, but keeping in mind how people look at books will definitely help you sell some if you ever make it to print.


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