What makes a cover good?

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What makes a cover good?

1LShelby
Jun 3, 2020, 12:20pm

So we sometimes see comparisons of really bad covers, but what makes a cover good?

After five years of actually paying attention to this as an independent author, I'm about convinced that the number one thing on my list of "must haves" is a title that can actually be read when when the book cover is shown in thumbnail.

But I'm sure that's not the only thing that's important.

Of the covers you've seen and own, which ones are your favorites, and why?

What about a cover "grabs you" and makes you want to pick up the book and flip it over and read the blurb?

2MHThaung
Jun 4, 2020, 3:17am

Completely agree with being able to read the title. My eyesight isn't great, and if I have to squint because the title and author's name are jumbled up in images, I might well not get any further.

Hmm, a random thought that veers a bit off-topic. One thing that makes me pass on a book is if it starts with a cinematic description - that is, as if the author has translated a movie scene into a written description for the reader. For me, that just doesn't work. I think it's because in a movie you rapidly (within a few seconds) get images and sounds that set the environment, but it costs a fair chunk of "word budget" to describe it all. However, back to your original question. The book cover *is* a chance (the only one?) to quickly convey a lot of information via imagery. Personally, I'm more inclined to check out a book blurb based on the title. The cover gives me a sense of genre and mood - I tend to avoid ones with decomposing corpses, for example!

I don't have particular favourites. Once I have the book, the cover serves more on my bookshelf as a quick recognition cue (ironically) without having to read the title.

3thorold
Jun 4, 2020, 6:13am

I'm sure you're right that "legible in thumbnail" is what counts.

Otherwise, properly thought-out typography seems to be very important: the title should be laid out in such a way that our eyes are guided through it logically, and the title doesn't get buried in the subtitle or mixed up with the author's name. You can see at once when you look at automatically-generated covers that the line breaks are in the wrong places and the important words have not been made to stand out.

Bold and original artwork is a good thing to have, but probably only if the book itself can make a claim to be bold and original (that Penguin cover for A clockwork orange). For a book that's aiming to please readers in a well-trodden genre, there's probably no harm in using the clichés those readers are familiar with, as long as you vary them enough to make your book look slightly different from the one next to it on the display. Establishing a uniform style for a publisher/author/series is a good thing: I'm more likely to notice and buy further books by the same author if they match the ones already on my shelf.

As a reader, I get irritated by cover artwork that has clearly been chosen by someone who hasn't read the book and is just guessing from the title what it might be about, but that's only after I've bought it, of course. And I'm not going to let mediocre artwork stop me buying a book I already know I want to read.

Things you should never have on the front cover if you want someone like me to buy it: "soon to be a major motion picture", "PhD", "Rev.", or blurbs including words like "unbelievable", "bestseller", "controversial", ...

4Marissa_Doyle
Jun 4, 2020, 7:56am

I suppose that defining "good" in this context is necessary. Book covers are a sales device. The best covers IMO are legible at all sizes and are able to communicate genre and tone or mood, which at this point in the game (a consumer scanning the bookshelves or a website looking for a book to read) is even more important than communicating the actual plot.

5reading_fox
Jun 4, 2020, 10:06am

>3 thorold: has it: make it clear, have some relevance to the plot, and just a little contrast to stand out.

In these days of ebooks perhaps they're of little concern.

6paradoxosalpha
Editado: Jun 4, 2020, 12:18pm

I favor fairly austere covers for both the books I read and the ones I publish. The books under my byline have a standardized cover layout with left-justified title over smaller-font subtitle all in a colored block. My name is underneath that, right-justified on a differently colored band. And the bottom part of the cover contains a centered black-and-white line art image related to the theme of the book, e.g.



I do have a soft spot for the occasional lurid cover of a certain vintage, though.

A routine source of entertainment for me: http://www.goodshowsir.co.uk/

7LShelby
Jun 8, 2020, 10:50pm

>2 MHThaung:
As to your aside, the opening that is paragraphs of description also makes me bounce out of the story. :)

But back to covers. You said "Once I have the book, the cover serves more on my bookshelf as a quick recognition cue" I think this is a valid point of consideration both before and after purchase. My husband used to keep my regency romance addiction fed via used bookstores -- other than the two authors I specifically asked him to avoid, he'd pick up any regency with a cover he didn't recognize. For years he did a remarkable job of not duplicating covers, but I did end up with three copies of the same book, because it was released with three different covers (luckily it was a particular favorite of my daughters and they were happy to have their own copies.)
Now that regencies typically end up with "generic romance" covers, both he and I have a harder time telling them apart. I cannot for the life of me remember which story goes with which bouquet of flowers with ribbons. :(

>3 thorold: "Bold and original artwork is a good thing to have, but probably only if the book itself can make a claim to be bold and original""

I was poking around on deviantArt the other week, and comparing my covers to that of someone who was offering generic covers for sale and IMHO mine looked bold in comparison, but I thought it was an effect created by how different my covers were. There were more of theirs, and theirs had a very standard look and feel, and then mine were suddenly a complete change of visual idiom... Being different is inherently bold? Or at least it enhances the effect of boldness?

(Somehow I came away from the experience feeling more confident in my skills as a cover artist, though. I'm not exactly clear on why, but I looked and said... okay, so I already knew I wasn't fashionable, but I never wanted to be fashionable, so I guess I'm doing alright.) :)

"As a reader, I get irritated by cover artwork that has clearly been chosen by someone who hasn't read the book and is just guessing from the title what it might be about"

...Or maybe they'd purchased some cover art and the book it was for hadn't materialized, and so they stuck it on the cover of the next book they thought they could get away with?

The ones that irritate me the most are the white-washed covers. I feel like I'm being insulted as a reader and a person. I do too read books with people who are different colours than me on them. Black, brown, red, green, purple, and blue, I've read them all. Also white, come to think of it, since "white' people aren't, really.

>4 Marissa_Doyle: and >5 reading_fox: between the two of you, we have:1. Clear and legible, 2. Relevant to the story, 3. Conveys genre and tone, and 4. A little bit of a contrast so it can be differentiated.

I like that. :)
We could shorten it to Clear, Relevant, Evocative, and Differentiated, and use the acronym CRED. And then we could write a book... (I'm TOTALLY kidding here. )

>6 paradoxosalpha: " I do have a soft spot for the occasional lurid cover of a certain vintage, though. "

Me too! (Although, like >2 MHThaung:, not the ones with rotting corpses so much.)

But I think anyone bold enough to put "Erotopharmakohymnia" in the title of their work is probably wise to keep the graphic elements subdued. :)

Your cover clearly achieves points 1, 2 and 4: It's legible, appropriate, and distinctive. I'm not sure how well it conveys genre and mood, but then, frankly, I've never heard of anything like what you describe your books as, so how would I recognize a typical cover of its genre if I saw it? If I had to guess at what lies behind that cover, my first guess would be scholarly/classic, and my second would be something poking fun (in an intelligent way) at something scholarly or classic.

(But if it were me I wouldn't manage to be quite that restrained, no matter how appropriate. I'm one of those people who has to keep reminding themselves over and over that less is more, and to keep it simple. So, thinking about it, I might want to avoid any words with more than a dozen letters in my titles, just so I'm not at war with myself.)

8MarkRobijn
Jun 28, 2020, 4:12pm

I know I have passed over books because the cover had only the title on it and didn't look very interesting. For me, the cover must give you a hint of what's inside, spark your imagination so you want to enter the author's world.

9StorybookCat
Nov 28, 2020, 10:25pm

I feel like the cover is a summary of book blurb. Like this one: There's a dragon, and a rabbit on a bicycle. Kenny and the Dragon I can see it's aimed at a younger audience, it's probably not very violent, and it's a fantasy with anthropomorphic animals. That's enough for me to pick it up and read the back to see if I'd like it.

I really prefer to be able to tell the genre and intended age level. Interesting plots are a bonus, if the cover art can convey that without sacrificing the first two criteria. Known authors like Agatha Christie or Isaac Asimov I already know what I'm getting, and I'd just prefer consistent color and size choices so I can find them easily on my shelf.

10StorybookCat
Nov 28, 2020, 10:44pm

I feel like the cover is a summary of book blurb. Like this one: Kenny and the Dragon There's a dragon, and a rabbit on a bicycle. I can see it's aimed at a younger audience, it's probably not very violent, and it's a fantasy with anthropomorphic animals. That's enough for me to pick it up and read the back to see if I'd like it.

I really prefer to be able to tell the genre and intended age level. Interesting plots are a bonus, if the cover art can convey that without sacrificing the first two criteria. >3 thorold: I also prefer consistent color and size choices so I can find them easily on my shelf, my Hitchhiker's Guide set has three different cover style choices from different printings, LOL.

11Cecrow
Nov 28, 2020, 11:50pm

I used to like a cover that suggests an action scene which takes place in the novel (and there's nothing worse than a depicted scene that does NOT take place in the novel!). These days (older now), I'm more of a sucker for generic abstract stuff that just looks good on the shelf without being so garish. Definitely past the point where I judge a book by its cover anymore.

12LShelby
Nov 30, 2020, 11:56am

>11 Cecrow: I confess to have been considering scenes that don't quite take place for covers.

For example. For Eyes of Infistar, a very-slightly tongue-in-cheek tribute to pulp sf, I keep thinking that showing my heroine doing her "hot babe in distress" routine, but with a gun hidden behind her back would accurately convey her character and the tone of the book -- but there isn't any such scene in the book. It would be a scene made out of elements that appear in the book rather than a scene that actually happens in the book.

As far as non-illustrative art goes, I told my publisher cum husband that I could make covers for all five (or six) books in my fantasy epic, much faster and easier if I used the playing card motif in the book titles as an excuse to use the card suit symbols rather than painting scenes from the books. (Not the usual suits, the suits for the cards used in the book: winds, flames, stones, waves, leaves.) His first reaction was "Noooo!" But I think he's warming to the idea.

But I do worry sometimes that abstract and symbolic art doesn't reveal nearly as much about the story inside as a well chosen scene from the book does.

13paradoxosalpha
Editado: Nov 30, 2020, 12:50pm

"Scene from the book" is such a genre thing. I'm trying to imagine what "literary fiction" would look like if the expectation were that the cover would carry a scene from the book. Gravity's Rainbow, for instance, or White Noise. For mysteries, romance, sf, and fantasy, "scene from the book" is still common. Even in those genres, though, there's been a real shift toward more abstract and impressionistic designs.

14LShelby
Dic 3, 2020, 8:30am

"Literary fiction" is also a genre.

But clearly there needs to be something happening in a book in order for a picture of something happening to be an appropriate cover. I'm not sure why a picture of the central character can't be an appropriate cover for literary fiction, however.

I seem to recall reading that illustrative covers are more popular in the US than in the UK, which is fair enough, but I have also read people claiming that illustrative covers are "tacky" which I don't understand. Surely the tackiness thereof is dependent on the details of the actual image, not merely the fact that it is not abstract?

15thorold
Dic 3, 2020, 10:04am

I think there must have been a shift in taste somewhere around the 1980s. In the 60s and 70s most serious fiction still came out with specially commissioned artwork, usually illustrative, even on Iris Murdoch dustjackets. Penguin Modern Classics often had clever line-drawings. But at some point it switched to new releases with abstract/symbolic designs and reissues with either reproductions of generic period paintings (ideally, with the faces cropped out) or slightly blurry black and white photos.

16paradoxosalpha
Editado: Dic 3, 2020, 12:31pm

>14 LShelby: "Literary fiction" is also a genre.

I entirely agree. That's why I put it in scare quotes. But to imply that "nothing happens" in literary fiction (particularly the instances I gave) is a bit off base. And I admit I have no idea what Slothrop looks like in Gravity's Rainbow.

>15 thorold:

"Scene from the book" not only went out of vogue at some point, but didn't really come into full currency until the pulp era and the "paperback revolution," I believe. So it's also peculiar to a particular era as well as certain genres.

17thorold
Editado: Dic 3, 2020, 1:42pm

18paradoxosalpha
Dic 3, 2020, 3:59pm

>17 thorold:

That cover makes me smile. Speaking of pulps, there's a bit of Margaret Brundage to the style of the central portrait! I'm guessing it's a collage of pre-existing images, rather than original art, but just guessing.

If it's a "scene from the book," I'll have to be forgiven for not knowing how, exactly. I note that Slothrop is not pictured.

I guess psychology of marketing would encourage putting a face on your book cover: people want to look at people, especially people that seem to be looking at them. On the other hand, consumers who want books that won't draw attention to themselves in public will perhaps avoid these.

19LShelby
Mar 17, 11:14am

>17 thorold:

That cover is hilarious even when I haven't read Gravity's Rainbow.

The cover you would want to be seen in public with is an interesting thought exercise... for me, I don't care, I used to read ERB novels in public without the least bit of self-consciousness. But some of my daughters might feel uncomfortable about it.

But how can we know what image our readers will want to project for themselves? It may have no relationship whatsoever to the sorts of things they want to read?