Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Ranger Jim's Ramblings for September

Okay, after being AWOL for the past couple of months, I'm back. I'm not certain whether that will bring cheers or curses from most of you, but you're stuck with me for a while longer.

I've decided to tackle a different subject this time around. No horses or Texas Rangers in sight, at least, sort of.  I thought I'd talk a bit about designing the cover of a book, specifically, for this group, a Western. As authors, we think long and hard before putting pen to paper, so to speak, but how many of us give much thought to the covers of our books, or instead just defer those to the publisher? It is the cover which first grabs a potential reader's attention, and that  cover is almost as important as the story itself. A good cover can make a book, a mediocre or bad one break it.

I'm no expert on the subject, so will give credit where credit is due for the examples, Livia Reasoner.
The first picture is the cover of my latest Lone Star Ranger book, Volume 6, A Ranger Gone Bad. The Lone Star Ranger series is a young adult series, following the adventures of orphaned, fourteen year old Nate Stewart as he rides with the Texas Rangers who rescued him. The cover captures all the elements of the story. Livia has chosen to use a simulated leather background, in different colors for each of the book. For example, on A Ranger's Christmas, Livia used a red leather background with a green title strip.  For this one, she used black, which matches the main plot line, that Nate has turned renegade. The Ranger badge image, which is courtesy of the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum in Waco, instantly tells the reader the book is about the Texas Rangers. The silhouetted riders in the star continue the theme, and the background colors behind them not only reflect the red rocks of the Western landscape and the clear blue Western sky, but also the patriotic red, white, and blue of the United States flag. It's an attention-grabbing cover, which is exactly what you want to pull in potential readers.

And that's what a good cover should do, grab a potential reader's attention, show him or her a bit of the story, and make him or her want to pick up the book. Type size, font, and colors are all important considerations when designing a cover. They, along with the all important cover illustration, must stand out from all the other books on the shelves vying for the reader's attention.

My favorite color is blue, followed by green. Given my choice, those would be the colors for the text on my books' covers. However, they are far from ideal for attracting a potential reader, especially for a Western. They don't "pop". Reds, oranges, and yellows are the colors you would usually want to employ.
The above illustration is the cover of my latest Jim Blawcyzk Texas Ranger novel, The Ghost Riders. Notice how the red and yellow letters jump out from the background illustration. The cover illustration itself, Andy Thomas' Gut Shot, used with his permission, shows the drama of a group of cowboys, in this case depicted as Texas Rangers, who have just ridden into an ambush. This is a cover that fairly screams at potential readers: "This is an action-packed, traditional Western novel, one any fan of Westerns just has to read." The addition of the A Jim Blawcyzk Texas Ranger Novel subtitle is an added, and powerful, additional selling tool, appealing to the good-sized sub-audience group who will read just about anything about the Texas Rangers. It's a cover which will sell a lot of books.

For my last example, here's the cover of my latest Texas Ranger novel, To Avenge a Ranger. Again, notice how the red and yellow text seems to fairly leap right off the cover, and at the reader. And again, the A Texas Ranger Sean Kennedy Novel  subtitle informs the reader this is a story about the Texas Rangers specifically, not the Arizona Rangers, or any other Rangers. The cover illustration, another Andy Thomas painting, Death of a Cowboy, again used with his permission, tells the potential reader right from the get-go that a Ranger has been bushwhacked on a muddy street, and whoever did the killing will be tracked down and brought to justice by the Rangers, most probably gunned down like he gunned down the Ranger. The gray sky, puddles, mud, and pouring rain (which is hard to see on this page) all add to the gloom of the scene. The reader can see the shock in the dying Ranger's eyes, the despair of the woman rushing to his side, the doctor hurrying to help him, despite realizing he is probably already too late. It's a cover that makes the reader want to pick up this book.

Livia has done a fantastic job designing these, and other, covers for my books. I owe her a debt of gratitude.

And that's what we want. A cover that tells the potential reader this is a story they just have to read, a story they will enjoy, and recommend to their friends.

A few years back, Western Writers of America and some publishers of already in print classic Westerns decided to try an experiment. They reissued some iconic Western novels, but replaced the original action-oriented covers with more generic, "prettier" covers, which generally depicted Western landscape scenes, along with cowboys and horses, but little, if any, gunfight type action. The theory was, by de-emphasizing the action angle, and replacing it with a more bland, "Western" angle, that more of today's readers would be more willing to pick up the books, and give them a try. The results? The last I'd heard, they weren't good. Sales didn't pick up, and in many cases dropped. The covers might have worked just fine for a non-fiction book about the west, or a tale about life on a ranch or the frontier, but they just didn't work for traditional, action oriented Westerns.

So, when you start to write your next novel, be it a Western, Western Romance, mystery, thriller, or what-have-you, don't just leave the cover as an afterthought. Some writers object to paying an artist for the rights to use his or her works on the cover of their books. I've found out, by experience, paying the (quite often small) sum an artist will ask is well worth the price, and will pay big dividends in increased sales. If you see a painting or photograph you'd like to use on the cover of your book, get in touch with the artist and ask for the rights. As long as the fee isn't exorbitant, you'll find it's well worth the price. Don't skimp on the cover, and you'll see the results in your bottom line.

And one final note: For any of you who write Western Romances, I'm always available to be the cover model of the (usually shirtless) cowboy hunk. With or without Yankee, my horse.

Until next month,

"Ranger" Jim


  1. Livia does a fantastic job on our covers! I'm always anxious to see what she's got up her sleeve for the next one, and the next one. I really do love these covers for your Lone Star Ranger series--and these other ones, too, are excellent, just as you say--they make you want to pick that book up and "read all about it"!

  2. You're right, Jim, a compelling cover is key because it's the billboard for your book. It can communicate the "quality" of what's between the covers. Good covers really work well when they're able to connect with the reader on an emotional level.

  3. Thanks Jim for the kind words. The red and yellow type are also a nod to yesteryear covers. Lets the reader know right away that they'll get an exciting western read.

  4. You are right that Livia does an exceptional job with covers. Very effective.

    Early in my writing career I was depressed when I learned that the artists who painted my cover pix were paid more than I got for writing the books. That stung, Now...I would rather not know.

  5. You can't tell a book by the cover (I think someone else said that once before ;-), but the cover does indeed sell the book. There's a story about a major publisher (don't know if its true) that challenged itself to print the perfect book. They even borrowed proofreaders from other houses. It was completely error and typo free. They misspelled the title on the cover.

  6. We have a winner. Robin Stutzenburg's name popped out of my Stetson. Where's her comment, you ask? She accidentally posted it to the OUT WEST group, rather than here. But that means a lot of people saw her comment.