As with any couple, my wife and I both decided to dedicate more time to reading this year. She is doing far better than me in that regard (3 books in 3 weeks while I’m at a measly 25% of a book) however, this led to a lengthy discussion about the importance of book covers. And, despite the common idiom telling us not to, we really do judge books by their covers.
Let’s begin with what we agreed was good. A good book cover should be simple and garner interest. Not just interest in the story within but also as to what’s on the book cover. Take, for example, Josiah Bancroft’s novel Senlin Ascends (Right). This is an excellent example of a good book cover because it presents the reader with a series of questions the first being “Why is there a man trapped within a city?” followed shortly by “What’s a Senlin?” This will, no doubt, lead to a quick read of the inside or back cover which may then lead to a purchase. Exactly what the author wanted.
Another great example is Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone (Left). This, like Senlin Ascends, presents the prospective reader with a series of questions that they might wish to have answered. But, the most important part of this cover is the artist’s use of the color white. Most book covers, and this is true of movie posters as well, have a blue-orange color pallet. It’s what’s in in the graphic design world at the moment which, in my opinion, makes these covers and posters boring. The color scheme of The Children of Blood and Bone stands out on a book shelf or display. It’s vibrant, unique and it’s bold.
Now for the bad, and there’s a lot of them. My wife and I agreed that one of things we hated most in a book cover was when the main character was depicted. We, as readers, enjoy imagining the main character for ourselves and making them our own so to speak. In addition, I cannot stand when the author’s name is larger than the book title itself. Maybe it’s an ego thing with me, but I want the story or art to be at the forefront, not the artist. Lastly, any book cover that depicts something only tangentially related to the story drives us insane. Like, if the story starts with a car crash so the cover is the wreckage of a car, that’s just lazy and only describes the first 10% of a story that could go in a completely different direction.
Look at the covers above. These stories could go anywhere, be about anything. Would you ever guess that Senlin Ascends is about a man who (Spoiler Alert) loses his wife in the Tower of Babel and must find her by stealing a painting, acting out a murder and becoming a pirate captain? Thought not. Now look at these covers.
This is just - bad. Now, I love Brandon Sanderson, I do, but his book covers make me cringe. Sure when you look at them you know for sure that you’re going to read a fantasy novel. But, would you in any way be able to pick out a Brandon Sanderson book when it’s on the fantasy shelf at your local book store? Not without his name plastered in gigantic letters on the top. That’s another pet peeve of mine. When the author’s name is larger than the title of the book. Maybe it’s just a thing with me but I always get the sense that it’s due to the author’s inflated ego rather than a marketing tool.
Finally, look at the colors. The James Patterson novel is beige, a color chosen by interior designers specifically to not be noticed. Same with the Sanderson novel. Now I know what you’re thinking, “Well, Bancroft’s book cover has beige in it.” You’re correct, but it’s so your eye is drawn the the interesting part of the cover. The tower in the middle not abiding by the rule of thirds, subverting your expectations.
As for Dan Brown’s cover, this is just - blah. It looks like a movie poster for a low budget science fiction movie from the early 2000’s looking to ride the coattails of The Matrix. It also REALLY wants you know that there is a female protagonist. And look, female protagonists are great and we need more of them, but if the simple fact that they are female is what you expect would garner my interest, then I immediately have very low expectations for the character and the story.
To find the ugly, you simply need to explore the world of self-publishing. Now, I have absolutely nothing against self-publishing a novel and I am almost certain that’s the route I will need to take in publishing my own novel(s). However, scrolling through Kindle store feels more like exploring the worlds worst art gallery than the shelves of a digital library. You wonder, sometimes, if these covers were created by the author in MS Paint. It’s like everyone is too scared to deviate from the norm. Self-help or spirituality books must have a birds eye view of the beach, political thrillers always must feature an intimidating man in a suit, a mystery novel about a woman in a thing needs an image of a female staring at the reader. If I had a dollar for every time I saw a cover of a fantasy novel with a white dude in a suit of armor with glowing eyes, I surely wouldn’t need to be working from 9-5 any more.
If you’re to take anything from this as maybe an aspiring or current author, please, for all of us readers out there. Take some time to think about what you want your book to look like, to feel like. It’s often said that it is in your first chapter or prologue where you make promises to the reader. I would argue that it starts with the cover. If your cover is generic or drab, so too do I expect your story to be. If it’s interesting, then I have the opposite, likely more desirable reaction that will get books off the shelf and money into your pocket.