What Happens when Two Different Covers for the Same Romance Novel are Test Marketed?

A Mini Column

May 30, 1999

A cover flat is one flat sheet of cardboard which comprise the three sides of the "painted" front, spine and back of a cover. The three sides will be folded when it is time for the cover to be wrapped around the book and then you can only see one side at a time. While it remains flat, however, the viewer sees the three sides all together. Some artists make all three sides work as one "painting", which all pulls together, and others do not.

These cover flats often come in very few numbers to the authors; too few to do any real promotional work on their own with them. The real purpose of these cover flats is to induce those who buy books for stores to order as many copies as possible. The sales force, marketing division, wholesalers, retailers and the like will all be looking at cover flats. While some at the local retail level will actually read the book before selling it to customers, most of those who buy books will not have read it - they look at the cover and past sales figures to determine how many copies to buy. As such, cover flats can be a big factor for an author trying to build market share.

Romance novelist Patricia Rice forwarded to me the two cover flats that her publisher, Fawcett, is using in the release of her new contemporary romance novel, Volcano. One of the cover flats is a landscape painting of a smoking volcano on a tropical island. The other cover flat places a hero and heroine in the foreground of the painting and pushes the landscape elements to the background and sides. Fawcett is going to place both in the market place and see which cover readers buy.

This gives us, the readers, the rare opportunity to look at both cover flats online and to determine which of them we prefer. The test is not which painting you would like to frame and put up on your wall but, instead, which painting would cause you to pick the book up and examine it.

If you are looking at romance novels on your bookstore's romance shelves, you will see the book only from its spine, the narrow, middle strip on the cover flat. In our two cover flats, one has a small inset of the hero and heroine image on the spine whereas the other has an inset of the volcano image on its spine.

In bookselling outlets which are like major drug chains, you might first view the book from the front cover in special display racks they use for their books. Bookstores can also use these special racks, or a display table, but generally only do so for proprotionately few books. No outlet displays books with the back cover facing the reader-customer but most reader-customers will look at the backs for the blurb about the plot once they pick up the book.

Volcano is a departure in cover format for Rice. Her last two contemporaries, Blue Clouds and Garden of Dreams, featured the "landscapes" of blue clouds and a night garden, respectively, on the front covers plus a stepback of the hero in Garden of Dreams and a stepback of the hero and heroine for Blue Clouds. Stepbacks are the images of the character(s) which you might find on a front cover. However, they are located immediately inside the front covers, instead, on similar paper stock. Insets of the stepback character images were placed on the spines of each of these prior Rice romance novels as well.

Thus, if Fawcett had decided to use the same format for Volcano as it did for Blue Clouds and Garden of Dreams, you would see the following:

The landscape "painting" as the front coverThe hero and heroine "painting" as the stepback (the cover inside the front cover) but with no title and author's name

The hero and heroine image in an inset on the spine of the book

The back cover with plot blurb which Fawcett made identical in each cover flat

We'd like you to go to the Potpourri Message Board after you view all of the above images from Volcano, and answer the following questions:
  • If you were a business person, whose success partly depends on ordering the right number of books, which cover flat for Volcano would you be more likely to select if you were placing a large order?

  • If you are the reader-customer in a bookstore browsing the romance shelves, which book would you be more likely to pick up from seeing its spine image, which is the middle image on the cover flat?

  • If you are the reader-customer in a non-bookstore environment (drug store, grocery store, Target, KMart, or airport), which cover would you be more likely to pick from its front cover image, which it has facing outwards in a special display rack?

  • Would you prefer that Fawcett stick with its former format, where you get all of the images, including a stepback of the hero and heroine? If yes, why?

-- Carol Irvin

with technical assistance from Sandi Morris

Continue this discussion on our Potpourri Message Board
Find links to Patricia Rice's segments and reviews after our review of Volcano