First Impressions

When it comes to topics for my IWSG posts, I really push the envelope, mainly because insecurities will wait in the darkest corner, ready to slither through the smallest crack of doubt in our already fragile egos. Every aspect of writing has spots of vulnerability that allow for the second-guessing of our talents until, feeling defeated, we rip the paper out of the virtual carriage and crumple it in a ball, tossing it across the room to join the other failed attempts in our waste can of ideas.

In the past, I’ve written about the importance of the first line in our soon-to-be New York Times best-sellers. A good one will make the reader turn the page; a great one will cause them to finish the book in one sitting.

From one line to a whole novel? That’s quite a stretch, Mike. The rest of the book might be total crap. Yeah, I know what you’re saying, but I contend if the first line is of that much importance to the author, it’s doubtful the rest of the book will contain a bunch of “see Dick run” sentences.

But what makes the reader pick up the book to get to that first sentence?

The cover.

The BearThe other day I was at Goodwill, rifling through a bin of discount books for something to pique my interest, when a delightful sketch caught my eye. It was a novel titled, The Bear Went Over the Mountain. I drifted back to earlier years to a rhyme that contained the phrase, and I wasn’t sure if this was aimed at youth or adults. The book was about a 300-pager.

The cover art was beautiful, though. I liked everything about it, from the whimsical drawing of a large bear amid the crowds of a busy New York avenue, to the font chosen for the title itself, so I picked it up and read the description on the back. The bear, it seemed, found a briefcase with a manuscript and decided to publish it. COOL.

I opened to the first line: “A fire raged in an old farmhouse.” Not bad, but it didn’t grab me—not the way I like to be grabbed (fondled?) by the first sentence. So I continued: “The indifferent flames were feeding on the pages of a manuscript.” Okay…still not grabbing me.

Had the cover and synopsis (and the bear’s name, Hal Jam, chosen from the label of his favorite food) not been so enticing, I doubt I would have bought it. Oh yeah…and the 99¢ price. That’s how quickly the decision is made to buy a book.

When the consumer—in this case, me—is randomly choosing novels without prior knowledge of the content or positive word-of-mouth, you have less than ten seconds to sway their minds. The cover is the first step in doing that. I certainly didn’t read the synopsis before I picked it up, and there were plenty of books in the bin that I glanced over without a second thought. It was the cover that made me continue further.

Facing insecurities involves doing the work that makes you feel more secure. After you’ve penned your masterpiece, spend time on the cover. You don’t put a crappy frame on a valuable work of art, do you?


ML Swift

Alex J. Cavanaugh
A great group of writers!

This post was written as a part of Alex J. Cavanaugh’s Insecure Writer’s Support Group. We post the first Wednesday of every month and share our solutions to common difficulties, encourage other writers to meet their insecurities head-on, and seek supportive shoulders to tear-stain when we’ve received just one too many rejections. If you’d like to join the group (and we’d love to have you), follow the link to Alex’s site, grab a badge, and put your name on the list. I’ll see you next month!


45 thoughts on “First Impressions

  1. Friends—

    I have to run errands this morning into the early afternoon and will do all my visiting after I return. Feel free to leave your own comments, though! I’ll make sure to get back to you.

  2. The cover is what draws me in as well. I certainly wouldn’t read the synopsis if the cover didn’t grab me first. And you’re right, that’s such a short flash of time to entice a reader.

    1. Exactly, Alex. There’s a certain pecking order I follow. Usually, if the books are lined up on a shelf, it’s the title that makes me reach for the book.

      When they’re in a big bin (you know the kind) and you can see the covers, the art will catch my eye and I look to the title to see what it’s about. Sometimes I know, sometimes I don’t.

      I then read the synopsis. I do all of this before cracking into the book, because if none of these things appeal to me, then I pass it over. This is done in a matter of seconds, because there is much choice out there.

      Although the first line didn’t thrill me, it wasn’t really bad enough to not read further, and I did read down a few paragraphs (the whole first page).

      This seems like a well-executed book, and I look forward to reading it.

  3. I too pick up a book based on a cover. For me it’s as much a weeding as it is a selecting process. There are genre of books I don’t care for and if I see a cover indicating one of those genres, I don’t pick it up.

    Unlike you, however, I’m not that big of a stickler on first sentences. I’ve read too many books that took me a chapter or two to get into and then sucked me completely in to give it that brief of a consideration. I do read the jackets and synopsis as part of my decision, though. But, certainly, your point is well taken.

    It will be fun, when you do get your book published, to see what kind of covers you come up with!

    1. Such great and thoughtful responses today!

      I agree with passing over books that have covers which indicate a genre I don’t particularly enjoy. I know exactly what you mean. It is a weeding process, and that’s one of the steps.

      I want to reiterate, it’s not that I will totally nay-say a book when the first line doesn’t thrill me—brilliant first lines are hard to write…believe me! LOL. The first one in this book is an average first line. It led to the second line. Both were short and briefly telling. I had to read further to find out what was happening, and finished the first page. It improved enough that, combined with the beautiful cover, the great synopsis, and the author’s experience, I gladly shelled out the dollar.

      There’s never one thing that leads me to buy a book. It’s always a combination of things.

      On a side note: the cover served a twofold purpose. It piqued my interest in the author’s book, but it also will serve as an example of the kind of cover I want for my books. I like the colored-pencil sketch. I really want my covers to be original art or photos and not stock. I realize this will cost, but those are the standards that I set for myself.

      Back in the day, I drew all the time. I love the pencil and pen medium. Somewhere in this house (it used to be in my office) are all my art supplies, boxed up to make room for other people’s stuff. I plan on trying my hand at the covers myself, first, and if they meet my standards (I’m a bear to work for), hooray! If not, I’ll source them out.

      Thanks, Julie for such nice discussion!

  4. We all spend sooooo much time thinking and talking about first lines – but so little time giving examples! Thanks for being so specific here. It was helpful – and interesting.

    I’m not always a cover girl (C0ver Girl???) but jacket summaries and first paragraphs are the hook, for sure.

    1. I think it’s really a combination of things. Each is just as important as the next. One can wane if the others are acceptable, but if they all are below whatever the reader’s standard is, then I suggest spending your money on another title.

      Of course, when we’re talking 99¢, a lot of my standards are lowered. 🙂

      Thanks for coming by, Liz!

    1. Good content is indeed a requirement, but when I’m staring into a bin filled with a pile of books, I don’t see content. I see covers. I don’t have the time to pick up each book and see if the content is good or read 100 synopses. So my choice is made by the covers. “Oh, this looks nice…wonder what it’s about?” Then I read the synopsis to learn the content. 🙂

  5. Well, whether I agree with your theory about covers and first lines or not, one thing is for sure. I think you are a dang good writer. I haven’t read any of your books, but after reading your post, I want to read more of your writing. I was sucked into your post and didn’t feel like I had to make any effort to read—that is my kind of reading. I hope you continue writing and —by the way—I do agree with your theory about covers and first lines. 🙂

    1. Angie,

      Welcome to my blog! First of all, I must say that your comment was wonderful and quite well-written itself! I needed to read that today…life has been difficult…and a little flattery will get you everywhere.

      My first novel is in revision, and I’m working on a few other projects: novellas and lengthy shorts. Keep coming by and follow me on FB to check the status.

      Thanks for stopping to read and visit! I’ll find your blog and check it out. Like I said, your comment was written well; I’m sure your blog is just as good. 🙂

  6. I’ll admit it, I look at the covers first. Totally superficial, but it’s true.
    But of course, if I’ve heard a book is good, then the cover doesn’t matter.
    As to the 1st sentence, that’s never made or killed a book for me. However, jacket summaries are definitely eye-catchers too.
    Interesting what grabs us. 🙂

    1. Honestly, Tonja, we’re a visual species, so I think it’s perfectly normal that the first step in our selection process (whether it be a book or a mate) is based on its attractiveness. Heck, that may be superficial (and I don’t think you’re superficial at all), but standards of attractiveness vary from one individual to the next. And even to the same person. I love this cover, but I also loved a cover that was plain brown with a border trim. A one-word title written in great font. That appealed to me, too.

      First sentences are important to me in the same way that query letters are important. I really need to be sold right away. I’ll give up on a book if I’m not drawn in by the end of the first chapter. There are simply too many choices out there.

  7. Ah good sir,

    Yes, today is a very good day. For today you are finally getting a highly cherished, much anticipated and very collectable comment from me. Or something like that.

    First of all, I’m honoured that you participate in the ,”IWSG”, aka, “I Was Seeking Gary.” I’m flattered beyond any adequate adjectives. Thank you.

    If the first line doesn’t grab my attention, I may well say to heck with a book. Kinda’ like my opening statement in my comment might of not got your attention. Then again, you are now reading this part of my comment. That is good.

    The cover may well draw me in. The proof is in the pudding. Whatever that means. Next thing you know I’ll say some overused expression such as you “can’t judge a book by its cover.”

    I would add, keep them guessing. I like someone who can write variety. Heck, I even know of a famous internet superstar dog that is an acclaimed ‘pawblisher’.

    Be well.

    I’m going now.

    Gary 🙂

    1. Gary,

      I’m going to bronze this comment and hang it on the wall above my toilet. I’m sure it will be worth something one day on eBay.

      More people are seeking Gary than Waldo. I’ll be over khalanicockamamie way in a little bit (or whatever that foreign-named blog you have is called).

      Thanks for gracing these pages. 🙂

  8. Great post, Mike. Agree.
    Of course, online e-book shopping is a tad different, unless you get the free sample first. 😉

    August co-host and IWSG #110

    1. Free…always the best! I just went over and commented on your blog, probably at the same time you were over here.

      Thanks for co-hosting today. I know it’s a huge undertaking. That list gets longer every month.

  9. I definitely look at the covers because they can tell me so much at a glance. The genre, for one thing, but also someone who puts care into the creation of the cover will likely have put a lot of effort into what’s behind it. And with a physical book, I really like having a book be something beautiful to hold and treasure. A nice cover really enhances that quality, doesn’t it?
    A good blurb will entice me as well, but sometimes those are written by someone other than the author, so yes, the first lines will tell me whether the book is for me.
    Gosh, that’s a lot of pressure on a poor writer!

    Time for us to be insecure now. 😉

    1. Kirsten,

      You nailed it with your second sentence. If you’re going to put all that time, effort, blood, sweat, tears, and money into your book, why settle with an average or stock cover?

      I’m a stickler for details. I’ll release no book until I’m happy with it. Needless to say…no book yet. 😉

  10. cover art is so important. I don’t even read the back of books when deciding whether or not to buy an unknown. If I like the cover, the title and that one-liner that sits close to the title, then I’m in. lol.

    It’s a different story when it comes to ebooks though. I’ll always sample the first chapters first. Oh, and if I’m not hooked by the first paragraph, well, it’s all over. Harsh, but true.

    1. Finally someone whose standards are almost right in line with mine. I do the same. Cover, title, one-liner, but I do also check the description.

      I feel like a pretentious writing snot, but my time is valuable and I’m a busy man. I don’t have time to waste on bad literature. I’m pretty much a first-pager. I’ll give a book that much leeway.

      I like to be supportive of all writers, though, and am giving works more of a chance than I used to give. Which is exactly why I got so particular in the first place. Harsh, but true. 😉 Thanks for stopping, Lyn.

  11. You are spot on Mike. And I think for online writers, the blurb is their new first line. You really need to make the blurb a true representation of the tone of the novel. Grab those readers!

    1. Charmaine,

      Thanks for stopping by and letting me know about the blurb takeover for online writers. I didn’t realize that. All the ebooks I’ve bought have offered at least a peek inside or else I bought them because of the title for cheap (either free or 99¢).

      You had the bottom line, though: grab those readers as quickly as you can! You never get a second chance to make a first impression.

      Now…go paint your nails. 😉

  12. Arrgh! I havent’ even gotten to worrying about covers yet! Another insecurity to post about in the future. But you’re right, the cover is important, and if I wind up self-publishing, I’ll have to devote time to finding an artist who is experienced in this area.

    1. Ken! It’s been awhile. As a matter of fact, I was scanning the IWSG list and saw your Hogwarts blog and wondered if you were still around. I’ll be by later…lots of morning stuff to do offline and away from the house.

    1. I believe you’re doing it just right, Misha. 🙂 Hey, my post before this one was about the Pay It Forward package. It really made my day. Thanks again for sponsoring that.

  13. I think along the same lines, Mike, a good cover and a decent synopsis will draw me in, but I think the first line just -has- to grab me.

    Now, that said, I have read books that didn’t grab me right off, but did grow on me.

    Those are few and far between, though.

    Best wishes!

    1. I think we all have read books that didn’t appeal to us at first and are glad we continued on. But, that being said, why take the risk and plop out one without careful thought? Best wishes back to you!

  14. You’re SO right – a great cover is vital to selling a book. It’s the one reason I envy indie-pubbers, they can pay for exactly the cover they want. Other authors have to abide by their publisher’s choice… Great post! 🙂

    1. When I first started, I was adamant about going the traditional pub route, but the more indie publishing improves, the more I consider it. I like things done my way, and I’m a stickler about some of it. The cover is one.

      Thanks for coming by, Lexa! Hope you’ve been enjoying your summer.

  15. I love how I can feel your heart in your posts. It’s such a beautiful thing.

    Spot on post. I think in today’s market, first lines, first paragraphs, covers (all of it) are more important than ever. We *can’t* give the reader any reason to put down our books down. I’m totally drawn to covers, but I’ve also put countless books down after not being hooked on the first page! Sad, but true!

    1. I know, Morgan. We cannot give them any reason, and that means the “firsts” need to be eye-catching and brilliant: first look (the cover), first sentence, first page, first chapter. Not that the writer can relax afterwards, but if they do these things, I’m sure they won’t slack on the rest.

      Thank you so much for your first line in the comment. It made my day. See how important they are?

  16. Aw, Mike. *Sigh.* So much pressure. And with this move, I’m kinda putting all that pressure on a cork board with a pin in it, you know? Sometimes it feels like the only thing for it is to smash hell out of that reset button. I know I’m rambling like mad but I’m also hoping some of this will make sense as a response to your well-written post …

    1. I speak fluent ramble, Suze. Yes…many times I have to stop what I’m doing and meditate in the spirit to relieve some of the pressure and calm down. Then my mind begins to wander to the price of tea in China or whether that bump on my foot is a wart or bug bite and the meditation is over.

      Where’s that reset button? Thanks for coming by. I know you’re pretty busy, so I really appreciate it.

  17. Yeah, with over a million books out there, the cover is the ONLY thing that will distinguish our books from others at first sight. Good point and well illustrated, Mike, in more ways than one. (That is a good cover.) You’re kind to have bought it. If I don’t like the first sentence, I don’t buy a book – no matter how pretty the cover.

    Thinking of you.
    Thanks for visiting.

    1. Had it been regular price, I doubt I would have, but for less than a dollar? Couldn’t pass it up. And it actually seems like it’s going to be good.

      Thanks for coming by, Robyn. Keep rawkin!

  18. The cover is usually the first thing that grabs me. Then I read the jacket. If the jacket interests me, I’ll read the first line of the book. Though, first lines don’t make it or break it for me. I’ll at least read the first chapter of a book before abandoning it altogether.

    However, you’re most definitely right…..once you’ve penned your masterpiece, spend time on the cover.

    1. Oh, Demetria! Apologies! Sorry it took me sooo long to respond. I saw your comment in email and meant to reply next time I was here. It flew right out of my mind as I’ve been trying to do so much, make changes, both online and IRL. Things are suddenly different now after the loss of Mom, and that’s where my mind is most of the time. Again…sorry it took so long.

      Your process is like mine, a catchy first line is great, but it’s not a must if everything else is above par. I’m just thrilled when there is a memorable first line. It’s the simple things that excite me.

      Good to see you. I’m in the process of revamping (changing from blogger to WP) my other blog and resurrecting it, so I’ve been ultra busy. Are you officially off hiatus?

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