Covers Matter…A Lot

All day long at my job at the library I watch people pick out books. Step one: the cover or the author’s name (if they’ve read them previously or heard something about them) catches their eye. Step two: they pick up the book and read the cover blurb to find out what the book is about.

The cover blurb process is for another blog or even a workshop, but I have a few observations about book covers. With the exception of literary fiction, which always seems to have very bland covers, covers can absolutely make or break a book. And I’m observing people choosing print books, where they can pick up the book and examine it closely. When you’re talking about the thumbnail-sized e-book cover, the science/art of book covers becomes even more crucial.

The first thing a good cover does is catch the eye. It shouldn’t have too many elements because that makes it look cluttered. Colors are important, as some colors are more striking/appealing than others. Also, certain colors subconsciously signal certain moods, and having the mood match the mood of the book is essential.

We have several shelves of paperbacks that are organized by narrower genre classifications than our general fiction collection. A lot of the time I’ll order a book that could fit into any number of these genres. For example, we have thriller-type books shelved in suspense, in romance, in mystery, in adventure and in general fiction. So, how do I decide?

If I’m familiar with the author and what they usually write, that makes it easy. Otherwise I start with the blurb: Is the focus on the romance? Is there a lot of action? Is there a clear puzzle/mystery at the core? Is the focus on nail-biting suspense, but not necessarily a lot of action? Is the book about an apocalyptic battle/struggle to save the world, or a more sedate courtroom drama?

When I can’t decide for sure where a book belongs, or it could fit into two or more categories, I often go by the cover. Is it dark and moody? Probably fits better in suspense. Does it show a couple? It will probably check out better in romance. Does it show a hot, half-naked, tattooed man on the cover? We’ll call it paranormal romance and put it on the romance rack. Does it show a hot, half-naked, tattooed woman on the cover? That signals urban fantasy, so I'll put it in the sci fi/fantasy section.

Colors are almost as important as the cover content. You don’t want dark/muddy colors on a romance, unless it’s a edgy romantic suspense. You don’t want pastels on an action-oriented book, a western or even a legal thriller. For mysteries, the covers should clearly signal whether they are cozies (with lighter, brighter colors like green, yellow and pastel blue), while darker stories use dark blues, blacks, grays and maybe a touch of red.

I said earlier that the cover shouldn’t be cluttered, and one of the most common mistakes I see is that the author will try to have the cover accurately reflect the plot, and hence include a lot of elements. They want to show it’s a romance and a time travel and so they show the couple and the elements that make the setting in the past clear. Or they show too many characters and images. Sometimes it works, but usually not. Simpler and subtler is almost always better.

Ultimately, you should rely on the experts. Which is the art department of your publisher, or your cover artist, if you are indie-publishing. And most important, remember that your vision of the book cover may be all wrong. I loved the cover of my first book designed by my current small publisher. It had all the elements I thought should be in my story: handsome, bare-chested barbarian type hero with a modern skyline in the background, perfectly capturing the time travel/fantasy romance plot.

But the book sold dismally, and I’m sure a lot of it was because of the cover. It didn’t reduce down well to a thumbnail, and it was too dark, much darker than mood of the story. And the bare-chested guy who I thought captured the look of the dark-age Irish prince didn’t seem to do anything for readers. He looked more scary than hot, and that’s the opposite of his persona in the book. There were other things wrong with the book and they way it was marketed, but I’m still pretty certain the cover was in large share to blame for the poor sales.

The final thing is the cover should not look amateurish. Which is to say that the art isn’t interesting, or of good quality and/or the elements don’t flow well together. I meet a lot of indie-published authors who want me to add their book to the library's collection. (And we’re talking free here, not books I’m spending library funds on.) If the cover looks amateurish, I’m probably going to say no right away. Because even if I put that book on the new book shelf, which gets a lot of traffic, no one’s going to pick it up. It might be a great novel, but it’s never going to have a chance with a bad cover.

There are lots of blogs and articles on the internet regarding the "science" of book covers. It’s probably worth your time to do some research. Maybe a lot of research. After all, this is your baby, and if nobody notices it, your baby is never going to get the love it deserves.

Mary Gillgannon

Mary Gillgannon writes romance novels set in the dark ages, medieval and English Regency time periods and fantasy and historical novels with Celtic influences. Her books have been published in Russia, China, the Netherlands and Germany. Raised in the Midwest, she now lives in Wyoming and works at public library.


She is married and has two grown children. When not working or writing she enjoys gardening, traveling and reading, of course! More about Mary on her website.


8 thoughts on “Covers Matter…A Lot

  1. Thanks for this helpful perspective, Mary! The psychology of color is so interesting. I recently read an article about a cover re-design, and one of the big changes was color. The original self-pub colors were vivid and bright, and the re-design cover artist noted that it looked more like a travel book because of the stark hues. The artist changed the colors to pastels and zoomed out, providing lots of soft, sunrise sky, which suggested hope for the future.

  2. Your observations are very useful. As they say: A picture is worth a thousand words. One thing I have noticed is that more and more covers seem to be using the same photos. This is true even in ones coming out from major publishers. Have you noticed that?

  3. Mary, thank you so much!

    Marketing can be quite a challenge, and I appreciate your perspective on one of the most important aspects of selling and gaining repeat customers.

  4. As a former Borders Bookseller, I can tell you that a bright, catchy cover will grab the readers attention, especially in romance. In addition, many customers would reach for the book (if it was their favorite genre) and toss it in their basket without reading the back cover. First impressions are important, so make your cover one of them. Thanks, Mary for the memories on this Saturday morning as a bookseller.

  5. This is really good info for those of us who may have to do Indie covers. The other thing that I found when I was looking at what I wanted for my cover is that using stock art on a “very specific topic” could result in multiple covers with at least some of the same elements, something to be considered. Thanks for some very useful info!

  6. Great article. I spend a lot of time on my covers. While I’m sure not everyone cares for them, I get a lot of positive feedback on them from readers. Terri, you need a cover artist who can do “headectomies”. I do this all the time – body and usually outfit of one model, and head of another because I like the face better, or the face is less well-known. Both of my cover artists manage headectomies really well. That can end your same model/same pose concerns for stock art.

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