Book covers fascinate me, especially for fiction. They’re a portal into a story and can be as creative as the novel itself. Sometimes, they’re so creative, you have no idea what the book is about, especially when it comes to literary fiction. They can be art unto themselves. But does the cover matter?
I’ve decided that it does, and it doesn’t. I’m designing covers now for a romance series that more or less falls into the New Adult genre. (That’s a fairly new genre defined in different ways – but it’s loosely about college-age and twenty-something characters, often romantic, possibly angsty and sexy.) Honestly, genre definitions make me crazy, because I always seem to write across the lines, and covers are seen mainly as marketing tools that let readers know what they’re getting. Look at any genre, from political thriller (the White House at night) to Regency romance (ooo, pretty dresses!), and you’ll see easily identifiable image and design similarities within.
That said, I asked folks on Facebook what helps them find new reads while browsing online: Cover art? Category on sites like Amazon? Or something else? I was asking about first impressions, of course, because after that first impression, reviews also had an impact on buying decisions.
It wasn’t a scientific survey, but the answers surprised me a little, mostly because they were so mixed. Some looked for category first. The promotional copy – the “blurb,” as many called it – often took precedence over the cover. If the cover was a factor, it was just a gateway to more information about the book that helped a reader make a decision. Title was a big factor, too.
But having a bad cover is almost always a turn-off. You can have the best reviews in the world and the slickest summary, but paired with an unprofessional cover, all those good words count for naught.
I’m not sure if my question got me any closer to resolving my quandary: What kind of cover should a New Adult book have, if it’s also a steamy romance (as many of them are)? I’m fascinated by looking at what’s out there now. Sylvia Day’s Crossfire books (and many of her other titles) clearly draw on the Fifty Shades of Grey presentation of an isolated object on a dark background. There’s an implied swanky opulence as befits the rampant billionaire bad-boy theme. That said, her self-published version of Bared to You, pre-Penguin-publishing contract, featured a stock photo with a sexy couple that was artfully shadowed for the cover; a high-heeled shoe appeared on the U.K. cover. (See them here.)
Her books fit into what I consider a subset of New Adult. They are New Adult/erotic romance. And in that genre, abstract or symbolic covers (featuring fabrics, flowers, liquids, keys) compete with covers showing scantily clad people, especially men who spend way too much time at the gym. Why the sexy dudes? Apparently, they sell books. Do they sell as well as the pretty, non-people covers? For an unestablished writer, probably better, is my guess, but I have no data on that. The sexy dudes range from well-dressed men in ties to darkly lit, scary, young (and clearly troubled) guys in hoodies who are probably into mixed martial arts.
Now that I’m attuned to such images and have browsed countless stock photos looking for them, I see the same sexy couples/dudes appearing over and over again on different book covers. I was considering the use of such a photo in one of my designs and thought I’d better do a TinEye search (a reverse image search) to see if it had been used elsewhere. And, how! It had been used on perhaps a dozen book covers. So I guess I have really good taste in images! Ahem. Once I got over my disappointment, I decided I didn’t want to use the same photo that had appeared on so many book covers.
At the top of this blog, I’ve posted a comparison of five covers that use the same image (this was not an image I had considered using, but it’s clearly an evocative image that screams “hot!” – and many authors/designers thought so). All of these covers have merit, and some designers have attempted to set the image apart by changing hair colors, backgrounds and textures – even adding a tattoo. The repetition, however, illustrates a danger of using stock photography. (In fact, there were even more book covers featuring the same image that I didn’t post here.)
I’ve had a taste of this phenomenon myself. I saw the same handsome model who portrays Jack on my Storm Seekers book covers appear in an ad on the same Amazon page as my books. The similarity wasn’t that obvious, since I’ve significantly altered the images, but it was still startling to see them on the same page. And in researching this blog post, I found him on another book cover. I’m not surprised; he’s gorgeous, and stock photos are cheap.
The question is, does it matter if an image is used again and again? Most authors, I think, would like to make a unique impression with their book, unless they consider their fiction disposable. But if the cover is attractive and sells books, who cares?
I care. Being like everyone else bothers me a bit. So for the book covers I’m designing, I’m leaning toward more abstract or people-free images using original photography, rather than stock photos.
The trick for any designer is to pick an image that broadcasts your genre while not looking like everything else – and in the worst case, exactly like something else.
If you are into the New Adult genre, does it matter to you if the cover has a flower on it or an amorous couple? Do you care if you’ve seen the cover image before, or would it be confusing? Once you’re shopping in your favorite literature category, any category, is the description your primary enticement to buy a book?
What do you think?
Excellent post, Chris.
I found the process of choosing a book cover extremely stressful. Not only is there the issue of making sure it fits in the genre, but also fits your image of the book. The one thing about indie publishing is that, if it doesn’t grab your audience, you have the option of changing the cover.
You are lucky that you have the talent to do your own cover. I wish I did! It isn’t easy to work with someone who doesn’t see your vision.
I’m looking forward to what you create.