How Book Covers Appeal to Readers

by Jami Gold on October 24, 2013

in Writing Stuff

Rainbow with text: The Promise of a Book Cover

The Writers Helping Writers Amazing Race is still going strong, where an army of writers are trying to help as many other writers as we can in one week. One category where people can request help is an “Ask Anything” question. Ask anything related to writing and there’s bound to be someone among the Amazing Racers with the knowledge to answer.

One of the participants had a long question that basically came down to “how much does a book cover matter?”

I’ve posted before about how we do judge books by their covers, so I could have answered that question with a flippant “a lot,” included a link to that post, and left it there. Of course I didn’t. *smile*

The much longer answer I gave kicked off deeper thoughts about why covers are important, as well as how they appeal to potential readers. I figured I should share those thoughts and see if others have additional insights.

Book Covers Are Usually the First Impression

Yes, book covers are important. Why? For one thing, they’re often the first impression readers have of the book. They’re a pitch to the reader: “this book is worth reading.”

Everything else—the catchy title, the enticing back-cover blurb, the praise-filled cover quotes, the outstanding writing quality, the well-rounded characters, the page-turning plot, and the sweeping storytelling—won’t matter unless readers pick up a book from a shelf or click to read more. And for that, we usually need a cover that won’t turn off readers.

The main alternative for creating a first impression is by recommendation. If we receive a glowing recommendation from a trusted source, we’ll likely check out a book even if the cover is awful.

While recommendations are a great way to introduce potential readers to a book, our sales will be limited if that’s the only way. In other words, a bad cover will limit our exposure beyond any recommendations. And that limited exposure will mean fewer people reading our book to add to the chorus of recommendations.

What’s a Reader’s Goal?

When we write, we have many goals. We want to communicate to readers, we want to share our thoughts, we want to make money, you name it.

However, readers have goals too. There’s a reason they picked up a book at all. Why did they choose to read instead of flipping on the latest reality show? And why did they choose that genre and that book?

Every genre and book category exists and has some amount of popularity because it meets a goal for readers: education, enlightenment, entertainment, etc. Put another way, readers read because it meets their goal.

Understanding readers’ goals for each genre is important when it comes to book covers. A book cover should give the impression that it will meet the reader’s goal. Each genre uses a different book cover style because it’s making a promise to the reader:  ”This book will meet your goal.”

Case Study: The Psychology of Romance Covers

I’ll be honest, even though I write romance, I’m not a fan of many of the cliches of romance novel covers. However, I understand how those covers communicate not only the genre but make a promise to the reader. In a romance, the cover promises a romantic and/or sexy story.

Many romance covers show the hero and/or heroine, and those covers have to fulfill another promise. They have to show someone the heroine/hero should want to get.

I recently saw a cover on a self-published romance book that is likely hurting sales. Between a Fu Manchu mustache, bushy sideburns, and lack of muscles, I didn’t see a single thing appealing about the hero cover model. Yet the heroine on the cover was super cute.

One of the main points (if not the main point) of reading romance is rooting for the couple to get together. If we see an unappealing cover model, we’re going to think the other character could do better. That’s not a recipe for a reader eagerly turning the pages to reach the “happily ever after” ending.

Romances are modern-day fairy tales. Readers understand that guys leave the toilet seat up and socks on the floor, but they don’t want to read about it. They want to read about larger-than-life heroes. Romance heroes are aspirational—a step up for the heroine. That’s part of the fairy tale.

In this example I found, might the story have revealed the hero to be the best guy in the world? Absolutely. But readers will never get that far if the cover fails to promise them a couple they want to root for.

Might some readers find a Fu Manchu mustache and bushy sideburns appealing? Sure. But I’d be willing to bet that most would not, so that cover choice limits the number of potential readers.

On the other hand, if that accurately describes the character in the book, perhaps it would be best to use that cover model for “truth in advertising” reasons. In addition, that cover would mean the “right” kind of readers would be drawn to the story. It’s all about choices and goals, ours and the readers’.

What Does Your Book Category Promise to Readers?

I’ve recommended before that we should check out book covers in our genre. What we learn can help us judge publishers’ skills and research self-publishing options. While analyzing those covers, we can also keep in mind the goal of that genre’s readers.

Maybe if we understand that goal, we’ll gain deeper understanding into what role the cover plays in making a promise to readers. Then we’ll have better insight into why certain cover cliches are popular or why some covers work and some don’t. And that can help direct us when evaluating our own covers.

It’d be easy to say, well, duh, crime novels have to hint at a crime, etc. But by understanding the promise inherent in covers, we might see why similar elements help or hurt.

Just like how showing any ol’ couple on a romance cover might not work, simply throwing a knife or a gun on a cover might not be enough. It’s not necessarily the element itself, but about how the element adds to or takes away from the promise.

Match the cover to the genre’s promise, and then we’ll be able to reach the readers with compatible goals. Of course, given my dislike of many of my genre’s cliches, this might be easier said than done, but at least I’ll be going into the process with a deeper understanding of the role book covers play. *smile*

Besides covers or recommendations, does anything else create a book’s first impression? What would make you look past an awful cover? What promise do covers in your genre make to the reader? What elements beyond a bare-chested hero make you think “romance”? (Yes, I’m picking your brain for alternatives. *grin*)

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17 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Amy Keeley October 24, 2013 at 6:42 am

Wow. Lots of good questions there. I think I’ll answer them all.

First impression: Good typography is a big one for me, and something that’s often neglected on indie covers. Seriously, that matters more to me than even the picture because good typography can lift a so-so cover into some really amazing space. (Like I can talk. I’m still learning myself.)

Looking past an awful cover: I have only done this twice. The first time, I read the book because I was doing research on dragon shifters in the paranormal romance genre and the book happened to be one I found during a search. It turned out to be a surprisingly good book, in spite of the hideous hero on the cover. (I found out he was there because he was an accurate picture of the hero…ugh. But the hero himself was very interesting, so I kept reading.)

The second time was with a manga series. With manga, a bad cover is usually indicative of the quality of the rest of the artwork, and that’s a very, very bad thing. I saw it, put it back, and wondered how on earth it could get published. But someone whose taste I trusted highly recommended it, so I tried reading it.

Yes, the artwork was terrible, but the plot was great. I’m glad I tried it. :)

Promises in my genre: Fantasy often has illustrated covers with something magical or action-oriented going on. Romantic fantasy, the kind I love, sometimes uses illustrations, sometimes uses photos but in a way that turns the photo into an illustration by itself. Sucks for me because I can’t draw, nor can I afford someone who can. Not yet. And my photoshop skills are still limited. This means I often have sucky covers. At least I’ve avoided making my readers think they’re getting erotica. I think. Now that I think about it, I’m not sure. *makes a note to revisit covers for stories*

Elements that make me think “romance”: Well, “the clinch” is a no-brainer, but alternatives to that are:

* soft-looking landscapes (last one I read like that was a sweet romance so that’s what I expect now when I see this kind of cover)
* a woman alone, not really doing anything
* a couple in a non-clinch position (laughing, smiling, looking intense, etc.)
* a man alone, but he’d have to be giving off the sexy/powerful vibe for me to put it in the romance category

IIRC, Danielle Steele had some very lovely covers with a plain background and a symbol. That’s kind of what I was going for with the cover for The Baker’s Wife, but with more of a fantasy feel? Oh, well.

(Including a link to the cover for the curious: The Baker’s Wife Cover)

Thank you for the discussion. It’s got me thinking about a lot of things.

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Jami Gold October 24, 2013 at 8:24 am

Hi Amy,

Yes! I mentioned font types in that other post about covers I linked to, so I definitely agree with you. (The same cover that I used here as an example for the picture had a bad font too, but I didn’t mention it because it was kind of beside the point with all the other problems.)

*perks up at mention of dragon shifters* :)

Ooo, yes, that makes sense for why you’d look past a cover. I’ve had discussions with people about this “appealing hero” issue in relation to the diversity question. I hate the idea of whitewashing covers, and yet I know that a large number of people won’t give a second look to a book if there are people of color on the cover. (At the RWA National book signings, I’ve seen lines at the tables for free books with white people on the cover while tables giving away free books with diverse covers are ignored. *sigh*)

I don’t know a good answer to that issue. I think that’s part of why I dislike many of the cliched romance covers. I want a cover that indicates romance–but without people on the cover–for those cases.

Thanks for the thoughts about fantasy and romance covers! The landscape covers scream sweet romance, women’s fiction, or small-town romance to me. Like you, I’d rather go with a symbol or simple image. (I write paranormal romance and my current series is mythology heavy–like contemporary fantasy romance–so I might be able to get away with this if it could also indicate romance.

P.S. As you might guess from the above, I like your cover. :)

Thanks for the great comment and for sharing your thoughts!

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Amy Keeley October 25, 2013 at 10:38 am

Thanks! :D

(That thing with the covers is just strange. I wouldn’t have expected the color of the couple’s skin to make that big of a difference.)

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Jami Gold October 25, 2013 at 11:25 am

Hi Amy,

Yes, unfortunately, I’ve seen it happen–as though there’s a subconscious assumption that they wouldn’t be able to relate to the characters’ experiences. Yet there’s science fiction or paranormal stories where the author gets the readers to relate to aliens or dragons. *sigh* If the author is good, they can get the reader to relate to any situation. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Kim Handysides October 24, 2013 at 8:17 am

Great blog Jami.
I find I am really drawn to cropped images of couples lately. You know, the waist down foot bobbing kiss, the lower halves of two faces about to kiss or a pair of hands, one caressing the other.
I also like a clean neutral background with a pop of a reveal. Like a slice of cake or a daisy or some other simple symbol that ties into the story.
(My graphic artist daughter approves).

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Jami Gold October 24, 2013 at 8:28 am

Hi Kim,

Hmm, good thought! A body part or two rather than most of a person. Thanks for the insight and for the comment! :)

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Serena Yung November 2, 2013 at 7:51 pm

Ooh very interesting post!

Haha I don’t like muscular guys, so a lack of muscle would actually be appealing to me XD. Muscles really turn me off, for some reason. But you’re right that different readers have different tastes. I’ve been thinking A LOT about the subjectivity of beauty standards lately, and realized that some people have more unconventional tastes than others. (I mean, I always “knew” this, but this fact never HIT me before.)

For a concrete demonstration, look at these photos: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Hotornot_comparisons_manitou2121.jpg
Which girl do you find most attractive? (Please scroll down for my own preference…)

The numbers are the levels of attractiveness rated out of 10, with 10 being prettiest. These ratings were made after getting 100s or 1000s of men and women to rate each face, so these ratings should approximately reflect what “most people” think.

Well–I personally think 5.5-5.9 is the prettiest, even though by her rating, she’s supposed to be rather average/ plain. In contrast, I think the 8+ ones look horrible, lol. 5.5-5.9 also reminds me of my favorite actress–the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen, in my opinion.

In fact, I’m gaining more insight on what my “personal ideal” face is like (for both men and women):

–pointy but soft and gentle chin

–small nose and small mouth (so I NEVER understood why “full lips” were deemed attractive, lol, maybe it’s just me…)

–nose width to mouth length ratio of about 1:1 (whilst the “golden ratio” is supposed to be 1:1.6 Lol, I think a mouth like that would be too long to be my ideal)

–eyes NOT “big/enormous”, but of the RIGHT SIZE. And what is the right size depends on the particular face. Different faces look best with different sized eyes. I’ve heard WAY too many people eulogize large eyes like crazy, some believing that it’s always “the bigger the better”. Not true. There are a lot of actors with smaller eyes that I think are handsomer than a lot of actors with bigger eyes, for instance. Even with cartoons, there are some smaller-eyed cartoon characters who I think are prettier/ handsomer than some larger-eyed characters.

–soft and gentle lines everywhere! Don’t like straight lines and sharp angles very much, lol. I like curves. ^_^”

–most importantly, the face overall needs to give me a feeling of comfort, gentleness, tenderness, warmth, empathy, friendliness, stuff like that. And I feel 5.5-5.9 fits this bill most out of all the faces, and that’s why I think she’s the hottest, despite her supposedly “middling” looks, lol. 6-6.4 is my second favorite, and 6.5-6.9 my third fav. 6.5-6.9′s smile is a bit too strained, though.

I’ve asked several of my friends, including my mom, which face they found most attractive. Most of them picked an 8+ pict, showing that the ratings do indeed reflect what most people think. But some of my friends faved more closer to “average/ ordinary” faces like I did too. One friend even chose 4.5-4.9 as one of her favs. Lol!

Btw, the face labeled “average” is just an averaging of all the faces in the study combined, done by computer. It’s supposed to be the most attractive face out of all faces. However, I personally think she looks perfectly ordinary and not very attractive at all. XD Hurray personal idiosyncrasies!

Anyway, wasn’t that experiment fun? XD

But yeah, I agree that if we want to appeal to the masses, we should conform (yikes) to these social ideals, rather than people’s (like my) idiosyncratic ideals. Eek….but this is the problem. If I conform to the social norms, then my couple would look good to other people, but they would look terrible to me. :( I don’t want my cover to feature a couple that look less-than-ideal to me. :( It would be disheartening. Haha so I wouldn’t know what to do. XD

Ack, about romance novel cover norms, I hate them too. VERY OFTEN these covers repel me. XD But luckily for them, I’m a reader who’s grabbed by the names of titles and interesting blurbs more than the prettiness/ not-so-prettiness of the cover. Most covers I see nowadays look so-so or not that great to me anyway. There are very few out there in the bookstore that I would actually find “beautiful”. Haha the petulant side of me thinks: why should I market to other people when other people can’t even market to me? XD Lolol just kidding. I ultimately do care TONS more about title names and blurbs, esp. the latter, for first impressions of a novel, only because I never expect to find an ACTUALLY beautiful cover. (Maybe I have unreasonably high expectations–or my tastes are just super idiosyncratic, I don’t know.)

More rants on romance covers…

Bare-chested men? Ewwww…..sick. DX Well, that’s just me. You can see why I don’t seem to find many book covers appealing, haha.
In fact, the more manly/ masculine the guy looks, the more I am turned OFF. I absolutely do not want muscles, mustaches, beards, or even angles. XD
Instead, the SOFTER AND GENTLER (and curvier) his lines are, the better. He must have no muscles but not be skeletal either–i.e. he looks normal. His face looks pleasant and sweet and cute—NOT provocative or trying too hard to get my attention. Yeah, the more MILD and innocent and cherub-like he looks, the better. He must look friendly, comforting, affectionate, adorable, sweet, etc. etc. Oh I’m repeating myself. You get the picture. XD

In fact, once, I drew a picture of what I would consider the “handsomest boy in existence”, and when my friend looked at him, she thought he was just “okay”. =_= (She said it was not because of my lack of drawing skills. XD) But I thought: O_O What??? How can you not think the hottest boy in the world is NOT the hottest boy in the world??? Anyway, that was fun to discuss, lol. I have my “handsomest boy in the world” drawing as the desktop pict on my phone now.

But I really like your idea of finding COMPATIBLE readers, rather than trying hard to please everyone and then failing and crying about it. XD Like for the example above, I wouldn’t want a picture of my hero as the stereotypical rugged/ masculine-good looks guy (because that would probably look hideous to me, unless I like the guy’s personality). Instead, I would follow my heart and have a picture of my personal ideal–the soft, gentle, fairy-sweet, dainty and adorable type. Lol. (Yeah, am I weird? I like em dainty and elegant…) I believe that as weirdo as I am, there must be SOME OTHER girls who like dainty/ fairy/ soft and gentle and sweetie type guys best too. Haha.

P.S. I forgot to mention that there are some cultural differences in beauty ideals too. My Filipino friend said that Filipinos like big lips. I was surprised, because I had always accepted that SMALL lips were the ideal. Turns out it was because I came from a Chinese community, haha.

Reply

Jami Gold November 4, 2013 at 9:36 am

Hi Serena,

Very true! A couple of years ago, I posted a hot-or-not style picture of a random guy to point out how everything is subjective. (i.e., How rejection isn’t personal. :) )

I find beauty and attractiveness in many styles. (I would have rated all but the bottom couple of faces on that picture as “prettier than normal.” So maybe I’m not that picky–which might really be saying something about the unattractiveness about the guy in the cover I mentioned. LOL!)

Like so many things, this all comes down to knowing what our goals are. If we’re trying to appeal to people who would like our preferences, go for it. Otherwise, we might keep the readers’ preferences in mind. :) Thanks for the insightful comment!

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Serena Yung November 4, 2013 at 2:19 pm

Yeah I feel quite conflicted about it. I want my story to please me, but I also want my friends and family to think the guy’s handsome. But this is near impossible to do because we all have different preferences. XD. As you know I like the angel/ fairy, elegant and delicate kind of boy, another friend of mine likes the manly type, and another likes the Hispanic look. Lol. Well at the very least, I can have a feminine looking guy, as I know some girls like feminine and some masculine guys. At the end of the day, though, my brain can pretty much make ANY boy look handsome if I really like his personality. :D. So I guess it’s great that I care more about the blurb, eh? XD

Yay you have a more unconventional view of beauty too!! Yeah I don’t think the top girls look THAT bad. And the top left girl looks less attractive to me mostly because she isn’t showing her teeth in her smile, lol, whilst everybody else is. People look more attractive if they show their teeth while they’re smiling. It’s a trick I learned from my aunt while taking pictures, lol.

Reply

Jami Gold November 4, 2013 at 9:26 pm

Hi Serena,

Yes, sometimes the best we could do is compromise on a happy medium. Like you mentioned about the smile, many times, the people who look more attractive to me in pictures are the ones whose facial expression looks like a good personality. So maybe you could ensure any guys on your covers work for others on the manliness scale and that their expression works for you on the personality side. :)

Good luck with it and thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung November 5, 2013 at 5:58 pm

It’d be more attractive to me if he looks feminine AND has that wonderful personality beaming out of him though. ;) But I could have SOME characters looking manly and some feminine, haha. So far my guys are all feminine though…haha. Though I do have a guy who has a six-pack (for parody purposes) but still has a feminine face. XD

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Jami Gold November 5, 2013 at 6:01 pm

Hi Serena,

LOL! Whatever works. :)

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Serena Yung November 2, 2013 at 8:14 pm

After reading the above comments, I realized one reason why I’m unimpressed with most covers nowadays, is because I don’t really like simple covers that much. I mean, I don’t dislike them, but they just bore me. It’s like nothing’s happening. =_= But then again, I look at the title name and blurb most, so plain-looking (to me) covers don’t really bother me.

Examples of covers I do like: Speaking of dragons, I like all of the Inheritance Cycle (Eragon) covers. :D I like most of the Harry Potter ones. Oh oh I like the Artemis Fowl and Percy Jackson ones too. For the Pellinor series, I loved the second book’s cover, but I really liked the SPINE designs on all four books.

Haha so that’s an idea of what sorts of things I like. In general, something with a BACKGROUND/ ACTUAL SETTING from the story, with the main character(s) IN ACTION. Maybe the physical attractiveness of the characters don’t matter to me that much, perhaps because they’re not romance novels, lol. I rather disliked the City of Lost Souls cover though, the stereotypical naked/muscular guy with his arms around a girl’s thin waist. Yuck. XP Sorry, I know I’m weird. ^_^” But the City of Bones series’ covers didn’t matter to me either, because I read the kindle books, haha. And I LOVE the plot and characters!

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Jami Gold November 4, 2013 at 9:51 am

Hi Serena,

Ah, I can see that, but I also like the symbolic style covers in some cases. It depends on if the “symbol” seems random or boring or provocative in some way. Does it make us think?

All good things to consider. :) Thanks for sharing your comments and examples!

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Serena Yung November 4, 2013 at 2:24 pm

Good point. I was probably more thinking about the meaningless or arbitrary symbol types, haha.

One simple cover I did like was a sort of romance called My Name is Memory. The cover is simply blue and green but glistening water, very beautiful but also well reflective of the story.

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Jami Gold November 4, 2013 at 9:28 pm

Hi Serena,

Oh cool! I love checking out covers other people like to see what I can learn. :) Thanks for the comment!

Reply

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