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October 24, 2013

How Book Covers Appeal to Readers

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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What do you think?

18 Comments on "How Book Covers Appeal to Readers"

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Amy Keeley
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,… Read more »
Kim Handysides
Kim Handysides

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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Serena Yung
Serena Yung
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: 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… Read more »
Serena Yung
Serena Yung

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. 😀 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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[…] me yesterday asking my thoughts on whether book titles are important. While I’ve talked about the importance of book covers, I haven’t mentioned titles much, partly because I struggle with coming up with good ones, so […]

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