Covers: Trends in Cover Design

Trends in book cover design can be looked at on at least two major levels: traditional trends (which I’ll call genre signals) and current trends, which are much more ephemeral.

Genre signals have been used for decades to tell the reader at a glance what kind of book s/he’s looking at. They can include not only major elements in the artwork, but the style and layout of the text elements on the cover. Here are some examples of covers that signal genre:


How many covers have you seen with a bare-chested Scottish highlander? A bare-midriffed woman in black with a wolf in the background? A spaceship and a planet? Do you think you kind of know what they’re about?

Dozens upon dozens of books use genre signals. They’re an effective tool to communicate the book’s genre/subgenre (Scottish highlander romances often include time-travel, a subgenre created by Diana Gabaldon in her Outlander series and copied by innumerable other writers). They also carry the risk of being instantly dismissed, simply because the viewer doesn’t care for the genre s/he perceives based on the cover. Therefore it’s very important not to signal a genre that doesn’t describe your book.

Of course, you might also choose to put a cover without genre signals on your book. They are merely a tool–an optional one–to help the reader identify the genre/subgenre quickly.

The most intriguing genre covers combine genre signals with some kind of difference that catches the viewer’s attention even more. I’m going to pick on fellow BVCer Jeffrey A. Carver for a moment here, just because he’s handy. First of all, the cover of his Neptune Crossing above is a lovely cover and a classic example of science fiction genre signals. It does its job, and does it well.

However, some of Jeff’s other covers are even better. See what you think of these:


Great perspective, great atmosphere, and interesting stuff happening! All of these add excitement to the covers, without diminishing the genre signals.

All three of these covers say “science fiction” and even “space,” though The Infinite Sea is actually underwater, and The Rapture Effect is about cyber-space. Note the consistency of font type and title/byline placement. This is a way of saying, “if you liked this one, you’ll like these, too.”

cover-trends-clinchGenre signals tend to be long-term trends. The “clinch” romance cover has been around for decades, and led in part to the appellation of “bodice-rippers.” Nowadays, the man is more likely to be showing skin than the woman. Unless, of course, they’re both topless.

The clinch cover is still going strong. Why? Because it sells books. Readers see it and instantly know what to expect.

In mystery, a dark cover with a silhouette of a man, maybe holding a gun, signals your classic detective story or, with added elements suggesting the courtroom, a legal thriller. A pastel-hued landscape or kitchen with no human figures but maybe a cat, or a cartoony cover with bright colors, is more likely to be a cozy mystery. A cover with a fairly simple or abstract image dominated by large block letters and the colors red and/or black is probably a thriller.


We see these signals all the time, and we recognize them without even being consciously aware of them. That’s why they’re so effective.

Now, on to current trends, which are less entrenched in symbolism and come and go more readily than genre signals (although the most successful ones can develop into genre signals). They may be genre-specific, or they may not. They are more likely to be coattailing on something that’s current in popular culture, possibly in TV, movies, or the news.

A couple of months ago I spotted a trend that showed up as a cluster of covers all within a couple of weeks:


Interesting, no? There’s pink on the first three covers, and purple on the fourth.

The first, and pinkest, book, Divorcees.Biz, shows up under the Women’s Fiction, Contemporary Fiction, and Romantic Comedy categories. I’d call it chick lit, though that genre is sort of fading as a label. Consumed pops up as Erotica, Wanderlush shows up in Humor and Travel, and A Match Made in Mystery is a cozy mystery.

Why did all of these colorful cocktail covers show up at once? I have no idea. I’ve seen a couple since then, but not as many as in the original cluster.

This kind of trend can be fleeting, which is amusing. Or it can stick around long enough to be annoying. A trend–or a couple of paired trends, actually–that I’ve mentioned before are hanging in there and tipping toward annoying on my personal meter. They are the half-face and/or glowing eye.


EclipseAs I mentioned in a previous post, this one is probably the result of copycats following this Stephenie Meyer Eclipse cover. That’s certainly the first one I spotted.

Some of the covers above are very nicely designed. Others, not so much. The partial face is a variation on the half face, and I’ve seen a billion different kinds of glowy eyes. For my money, you can all just stop doing this right now, because it’s been done to death.

Next time, we’ll talk about copycats and coattailers.





Covers: Trends in Cover Design — 9 Comments

  1. What is dangerous about BVC is that, often, the author is the very last person who should be consulted about the cover. We have dumb visual ideas, because our tool is words. We have no idea what we’re doing, unless we’re artists as well as writers. I executed a painting for the cover for HOW LIKE A GOD, not once, but twice. Not only am I only an indifferent brush artist, it looked like a cozy mystery. It was awful. Thank God for Rick Berry!
    And what is difficult about SF&F is that, often, there is no signal you can run up the flagpole. What if =none= of the standard cover tropes are appropriate? This is why it took so long to get SPEAK TO OUR DESIRES out. I couldn’t imagine what the cover should be like.

    • True, Brenda. Authors can be obsessed with things that don’t matter for the purpose of marketing (like, getting the characters’ hair color exactly right, or their clothing exactly as described in the book).

      • I am all for fanatical correctness in the text, where frankly an ancient Greek horseman using stirrups would throw me right out of the work. But covers are semiotic signals — like the tail of a peacock. It is more important that it say SEXY! PEACOCK! than the exact number of quills on the tail feather.

  2. After the original (non Kristin Stewart) Twilight-series covers came out, there was a rash of black with red-and-white covers–for Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.

    • Not just that, but a slew of “here is an single, hopefully iconic object, probably held in a hand!” covers, especially in YA. It was visually striking the first half-dozen times . . . and then they all blurred together.

  3. The Carver cover brought to mind the thought that a lot of spaceships on book covers seem to be modeled after the remote control for the TV. (I think this is more common on self-published books, for some reason.)

  4. I wish this article had been around eight years back when I had a few long protracted struggles with inexperienced cover artists when I was publishing with small publishers.

    The artist who wanted to put an action/adventure cover on my romantic suspense.

    The artist who knew so little about science fiction that she wanted to put roses, then a saucer-shaped space ship on my science fiction adventure. I ended up hiring my own competent artist on that one.

    I could go on.

    I had to explain cover iconography to them so I have to disagree that all authors are visual idiots when it comes to covers.

    Of course, the funniest cover problem was with a very competent artist who had failed to notice that the manacled hand reaching for the star looked like a man groping a woman’s nipple.