Whoever said “you can’t judge a book by its cover” has obviously never tried to sell a book.
Books are judged by their covers. All. The. Time.
The cover is a promise you make to your reader about the content of your book. A cartoonish cover should not have extreme gore or sex; that’s betraying your promise to your readers. A sloppy, slapped together cover will convey a sloppy, slapped together book.
What’s worse, though, is a cover that is almost right. A cover that shows you don’t understand the conventions of covers in that genre also shows you don’t understand the intricacies of writing in that genre.
No one wants to read an almost book.
Every genre, both fiction and nonfiction, has its own ‘style’ of cover. One of the things that I point out to my clients is that when it comes to covers, ‘standing out’ isn’t necessarily a good thing. A cover that takes too much of a risk and stands out too much could easily be passed over in favor of one with a more traditional one.
Let’s take a look at the differences between some similar genre covers.
Above we have three books. The first, “How Not to Die,” by Michael Greger, M.D. is classified as Science Diet Book. This book features a lot of text, and is information-heavy, without a focus on recipes.
Science-based books (ones explaining a particular diet) traditionally have very clean, minimalistic covers, with title art only, or perhaps just a picture of a single food against a transparent background with the title art. These books tend to use cover space to tell of the author’s qualifications in a very clear, clinical manner.
Recipe Books are going to have a fraction of the narrative block text that the Science Diet Books have. They rely much more on photographs, and the cover art should reflect that. Recipe Books frequently feature someone in a kitchen who looks like they belong on a cooking show or a close up of some delicious finished recipe. These images are meant to make us crave the dish on the cover, and purchase the book based on the hope of creating the same delicious looking dishes.
If the cover styles were swapped one would likely be disappointed by not getting an abundance of pictures inside the books with pictures on the front, and not enough information from the book with the clean design.
The two sub-genres here are Cozy Mystery, and Thriller.
We all know what a Thriller is, right? Thrillers are dark, gritty, and super suspenseful. Cozy Mysteries, on the other hand, are more like old fashioned whodunits, usually set in a small town where one of the secondary characters ends up being the culprit. Cozies can be suspenseful, but can also be zany and humorous. Part of what makes these Cozy Mysteries so, um cozy, is that they do not feature sex or violence the way thrillers do. Cozy Mysteries should be much lighter reads than Thrillers.
The two covers above appear to pretty accurately reflect their genres. The Cozy is cartoonish and playful, and the Thriller is eerie. These two are a good example of correct cover style, regardless of title. Substitute the title “Cut and Run” on the Cozy. It works. Place “Bed and Breakfast Murder” on the Thriller, and it seems to also work.
But if the covers were swapped, regardless of title, we could have two very disappointed (and possibly disturbed) readers.
‘Classical fantasy’ in this context can also be called ‘traditional fantasy.’ These are the stories we are used to when we say ‘fantasy’. They have magic and fae folk, witches and wizards, lords (both light and dark) and even the occasional dragon. They are based on cultures of the pasts; especially the European Middle Ages, as well as more ancient and exotic cultures like Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, Ancient Arabia. It’s what used to be called ‘Sword and Sorcery’ except that today’s’ books like this don’t always feature a sword. Sometimes they use wands, like in Harry Potter, a different enchanted object, or just their wits. And the supernatural creatures are mostly fantastical animals. These stories ground us by showing us ‘ordinary humans,’ who sometimes have powers, in a fantastical world.
In contrast, Urban Fantasy is set in the modern age, and always in a city, either bustling or abandoned. The ‘creatures’ here are not animals, but rather humans who are more animal in nature, such as vampires, shifters and other predator / human hybrids. These stories frequently have non-ordinary characters within our own ordinary world.
With the stark sub-genre differnces the expectations of both covers are very different.
Both covers above do a good job of depicting their content. The Classical Fantasy book with the woman with shades of blues and purples against a forest or castle has an ethereal feel. Purple is the color of magic for both. The world behind her is fuzzy, because it’s not a world we’re familiar with. She’s also wearing a more ‘middle ages’ inspired outfit, like something you’d see at a renaissance fair.
The Urban Fantasy cover makes use of dark colors and has a more gritty feel, though it too, has smatterings of purple. You can clearly see the city behind her, which puts these strange events in our world. You’ll notice that her clothes are more modern: a leather jacket with pants underneath.
These depictions are two vastly different types of women, and two very different types of world.
Readers who pick up either of these books should be satisfied they are getting what they are looking for, based on the covers.
Modern 1820’s Romance
At first glance, the 1820s seems like a weird time period for a story. Was there anything really special about that date? If you lived in England, yes. That was the time where the politics of England were in an upheaval as the Regent ruled instead of the True King. Lords and Ladies of this time reacted by making everything overly formalized. Men were not allowed to be alone with unmarried women even for a moment. The aristocrats, who had previously only married for wealth and status were starting to marry for love instead. This was the time of Jane Austen and Bronte novels. Since nothing sexual could ever be done seduction was always done through witty banter, fashion choices, ‘accidental’ meetings or balls, and other such events. The pageantry alone makes this time period fun to read about.
Set in this time period, there are two types of romance stories; the Regency and the Historical. The main difference between them is the level of heat. A true regency is always ‘sweet and clean’ meaning no obvious innuendo, no sex or touching beyond kissing, and a lot more adherence to propriety, which means the house and the gardens play a bigger part. In a Historical 1820’s romance, the heat is turned way up. It’s common for these historical romances to have multiple elaborate sex scenes, and ways to ‘get around the rules.’ The house and gardens don’t play as big a role as the ‘hidden places’.
The covers reflect the difference.
In a Regency Romance, the cover is a woman in a fancy dress against the interior or exterior of a fancy house. However, a Historical Romance cover usually features two half-dressed characters with their hands (or lips) all over each other as a promise of the heat inside. The titles are also different. The overly formalized title for a regency is meant to keep the reader at arm’s length, just like the characters do to each other, while the title of a historical is more intimate and designed to pull you in.
People really DO judge a book by its cover. A cover is a promise to a reader, so not just any cover will do. The secret to a successful cover is that it needs to ‘fit in’ more than ‘stand out’. Truly understanding the genre you write in is the first step. Choosing the right cover is a simple thing you can do to assure the success of your book.
Devlin Blake is a book coach, author, and former ghostwriter who has been in the writing industry for over 10 years. In that time she’s assisted over 200 people with bringing their books to life. She’s also a published author of over two dozen books of her own, including nonfiction, novels, and popular line of craft books. She knows what it takes to make a book bestseller worthy.