book covers

When the Book-Cover Stars Align

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Every genre has its aesthetic. Book covers act not only as visual cues for the characters and story within, but they can also preview the mood of the narrative. Women on book covers, in particular, set pretty specific expectations.

A woman smoldering in the arms of a submissive, attractive man lands the book in the realms of horror or erotica. If she’s wide-eyed, she’s the victim in a thriller. A powerful stance indicates dystopia or adventure, particularly if she’s also holding a weapon and surrounded by a lot of light flares. Classical literature leans toward classical paintings. Modern literature tends more toward word art rather than pictures. (The lack of a woman on a cover communicates expectations too, in other words.)

The patterns inherent to each genre serve as a strength or a stumbling block. Art is more than just buzzwords and trendy aesthetics, and if the cover design fails to reach beyond these points, it can fall miserably flat. One of the dangers of pre-fab covers is that, because they’re formatted without any source material in mind, they can lack the extra ambiance that makes a great cover special. Generic art does no one any favors.

But that’s not to say the ambiance can’t be tweaked into place.

One of my favorite features to look for on book covers is the color palette. (I bet you thought I was going to say “the hot, shirtless guy” instead, right? Haha.)

Just as the color of walls in a room affect our moods, so also do the colors on a book cover. A well-blended palette brings me joy. Mismatched tones create internal discord. Monochrome can be comforting, powerful, or just plain boring. Busy patterns can spark interest or translate to visual static on the brain.

Perfect color palettes are a thing of beauty.

Or maybe I’ve spent far too many hours of my life playing Blendoku.

(There’s really no “maybe” on that. It’s flippin’ addictive.)

When the book-cover stars align—perfect image, perfect font and word placement, perfect color palette—the result can be breathtaking.

Every author wants to wrap their masterpiece in pretty paper. Still, all the sparkly trimmings in the world won’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, as the saying goes. For all of my high talk of aesthetics, for all the market power a cover can bring, in the end it’s only window dressing. Covers may come and covers may go, but the words within endure.

And so, as far as books are concerned, image is not everything after all.

(But it sure is a lovely detail.)

This Book Has Got You Covered

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If you’ve ever wondered what a stick figure looks like from behind, wonder no more.

I don’t really know what Average is complaining about. With cover trends nowadays, the female protagonist is lucky even to make an appearance. Romance covers in particular are trending toward the beefy-man-dominates-the-spread aesthetic, but the marginalization of women in visual media isn’t exclusive to that particular genre.

It’s almost laughable how often women are portrayed in wistful, submissive, vulnerable states on book covers. Usually, those who do have a “powerful” pose are back-facing, looking over their shoulder at the audience, or else pointedly focusing their intensity off to one side—so as not to confront the reader directly.

Because, you know, that would be bad.

Compare that to the dynamic, aggressive, authoritative stances that men usually take, and the meta-narrative gets pretty depressing. But sexism in the visual arts is nothing new.

And for the romance genre at least, it makes sense to minimize the woman on the cover. She’s not a real character. She’s an avatar for the reader to imprint upon, and the best way to establish that imprint is to ignore her facial features and identifying attributes. Is she blonde or brunette? We can’t tell, because she’s standing in the shadows. Any tattoos? Probably not, but the man can have as many as he wants. That’s hot.

(Do I need to add a sarcasm tag to that last sentence? You know my voice well enough by now, right?)

I suppose we’re meant to live through every protagonist of every book we read. For whatever reason, I’ve always kept a firm fourth wall between myself and any fictional characters. I might love them, but I don’t want to be them. I never claimed Mr. Darcy or Mr. Rochester or any of the dozens of other uncontested literary heartthrobs that so easily climb atop a reader’s idealistic pedestal. Darcy belonged to Elizabeth, Rochester belonged to Jane, and me inserting myself into those equations would have ruined everything.

(Now, whether I wanted to find someone akin to Darcy, Rochester, et al. is another story. But such men don’t exist beyond the pages of literature, because they’re the fantasies of what women want men to be rather than true records of humanity. And we can chalk up my disappointment on that count as yet another reason I’ll die alone.)

When the models on a book cover don’t match the character descriptions within the book, I get annoyed. When they’re too obscured to provide any reference for me at all, doubly so. But of course, I don’t even like people on book covers. I’d much rather get my visual cues from the written words within.

And I realize I’m probably in the minority.

Even so, the passive portrayal of women on book covers is something I lament. Show me a woman of intelligence, bravery, steadiness, intensity, and I will gravitate toward that book. I’m tired of reading about passive doormats who are led around from one calamity to the next as they’re acted upon by both the hero and the villain of the story. I certainly don’t want that aesthetic reflected on the cover.

When Presentation Is Everything

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People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

I know this. So before I launch into an analysis of book cover trends, I here acknowledge that my own covers qualify for the High School Art Student’s Midterm Project Award, insofar as grading scales are concerned.

Which brings me to another old saying: Don’t judge a book by its cover.

In today’s world, this is rubbish. We all judge books by their covers. In fact, book covers affect sales to such an extent that online services like PickFu offer quick A/B feedback on this very endeavor. Heck, PlayJudgey has made it a game.

Gone are the days of monochrome-canvas-wrapped board with gold-embossed titles. Covers are a work of art unto themselves, and creators wisely use them to their advantage.

(Unless you’re me. I do what I want and reap the consequences.)

There is a growing trend in writing communities, however, that seems to place more emphasis on the cover than the content within. It’s not just the focus-group inquiries mentioned above. It’s a whole industry of pre-fab covers, where authors can claim the designs they love for books they haven’t even dreamed up yet.

Now, I’m all about finding inspiration in diverse places. The practice of acquiring book covers before a book is even minutely plotted, though, seems about as useful to me as seeing something shiny in a store window and then bringing it home with nowhere to put it.

Admittedly, where pretty things are concerned, “useful” often falls by the wayside. There’s a danger in snapping up that shiny bauble, though: design is a fickle pet. As with any form of art, it changes and transforms over time, its features tied to the era in which they came together. A great cover today might look outdated within a few years, depending on where design trends go.

Peruse any used book store for titles 8 – 15 years old and you’ll see what I mean. It almost makes a girl wish that cover art came with an expiration date as warning: “Best used before 26 Aug 2020” or the like.

In my case, the perception I have at the start of my novel draft is so vastly different when I’ve finished. After immersing myself in characters, plot twists, settings, and themes, I look back on my initial perception with that foreign-but-familiar sense of nostalgia: the me at the start knew nothing compared to the me at the end. Creation is an act of growth and change.

But that’s my overly analytical brain at work. The Market doesn’t care about an author’s growth process. It doesn’t even care whether the book is well-written. Slap a pretty cover on that sucker and stick it up for the world to admire. The prettier it is, the more copies you’ll sell.

And therein lies my struggle. My primary ambition is to write a good book.

(Sorry.)

The process is different for other authors, of course. Some have their aesthetics in place from the start and stay true to that vision. Kudos to them. Others find brilliance in the cover and transfer it to words on the page. Again, they have my admiration.

If we really take book covers as a work of art unto themselves, like any work of art, they deserve to stand as tribute and inspiration to creativity. Perhaps they even deserve merit independent of the work they aim to represent. Interesting thought, that.

The book world is full of gorgeous covers. What are some of your favorites?