What Makes a Book Cover Great?

cover-areaxThe short answer: it’s entirely a matter of opinion.

I was inspired to write on this subject by an article I spotted today whilst on my daily social media cruise: “The Best Book Covers of 2014” by Nicholas Blechman, in the New York Times. It’s short; go ahead and look at it, then come back.

Mr. Blechman’s taste (what a great name – Blechman – have to use that for a character some time…) does not align much with mine. Of these twelve covers, I found two attractive, two others interesting, and the rest told me that I probably would not like the books (I suppose they did their jobs in that respect).

What interested me about these covers is the almost complete lack of genre signals. Some of them are non-fiction, and one could argue that the covers for American Fun and The Third Plate signal non-fiction. Some of the minimalist ones may be literary fiction, a genre I don’t follow so I’m not completely up on the signals for it. A couple have “a Novel” on the cover (a stupid and unnecessary addition, in my opinion, but I recognize that I’m in the minority on this point) and that’s probably a literary fiction signal. Even the one science fiction book in this group, Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer (up at the top of this article), gives none of the expected signals for its genre.

cover-murakamiAll – well, most – of these covers are evocative. Their design is outside of normal expectations for a book cover, which is probably why Mr. Blechman thinks they’re the best of the year. Notice that none of them look conventional. The closest to a conventional layout is The Third Plate, but the image of plants sprouting from soil, a reference to the subject matter, saves it from being ordinary.

I like the ones that make you work a little, like the minimalist dice on Never Love a Gambler and the use of handwritten letters on The Silent History. The Murakami cover is designed for the reader of a physical book, with its tactile cutouts; the ebook version (right) is less exciting.

None of these books use what I call “word processor” fonts – the fonts typically found on a personal computer and which many self-published covers employ. None of these books say “Book 1 of the Whatever Series.” The omnibus, Area X, not only doesn’t declare it’s an omnibus, it doesn’t even give the full title and byline. That’s a little extreme, but I (the shopper) forgive it because the cover is just so wonderful as it is.

And I notice that only one of these twelve books has a cover quote. I wonder if that’s because so many indie publications use them. The idea going around indie circles is that the presence of a blurb makes the book look more professional (i.e., more like a NY published title). Maybe the NY publishers are moving away from blurbs for that reason.

Are any of these great covers in my opinion? Possibly Area X (it’s certainly beautiful, and it did make me curious). The predominant image on Silence Once Begun is striking, but I didn’t care for the tiny boxes with the title and byline, and the big “A Novel” scribbled out in red crayon just made me laugh. Did any of these covers make me want to read the book? Maybe The Third Plate.

So, what does make a great cover?

Evocative is good. Minimalist can be good. Thinking outside the box is good, but your cover still needs to sell your book. Ultimately, the cover’s job is to make the shopper pick up the book and look at the text (maybe the back cover copy, maybe the first page). That’s a step toward buying the book.

So, even more than evocative and creative, I think intriguing is an important quality for a cover. Here are some covers that I found intriguing this year, enough to make me pick up the books (note that they were not all published this year – I just found them recently). I’ve posted about some of them previously.

cover-lovingfrank cover-gardenspellscover-intelligentguide





What Makes a Book Cover Great? — 21 Comments

  1. I must have no design eye at all, Pati. Not one cover from Mr. Blechman’s list would entice me. To me, they all look curiously sterile, so minimalist they give me no emotional cues to react to. If I’m browsing a bookshelf or on-line page, I’m probably spending split-seconds on any one cover. That isn’t long enough to ‘unpack’ these covers as though I were studying them in a museum. By contrast, several of the covers you picked intrigue me, especially the one for GREEN. In fact, I’m off to look up that one right now. 🙂

  2. I would not give any of the covers even a glance. They were all very cold and dead to me. I like covers that pop! I liked all of your choices much better. Especially Green and Lady Of Ashes. That is the type of cover art, that makes me take a look at the books.

    • Dawn, we are in accord! One of the differences is the use of color. The covers that appealed to me were a lot more colorful than Blechman’s choices.

  3. He leans toward stark and minimalist. His ability to judge covers is enormously suspect.

    • “Enormously suspect.” I like that.

      I found the covers pretentious and annoying. Really? You’re going to make me work to figure out the title of the book? How about a crossword puzzle, then? (Someone’s done it, I’m sure.)

      But my taste has never been pundit taste when it comes to book covers.

  4. Blechman is, I suspect, going strictly from a “looks” perspective and not worrying about whether these covers are going to do what they’re supposed to do–that is, sell the books. The only one I find really appealing is Area X, and that’s because it’s a handsome image; it doesn’t tell me anything about the book, heaven knows. The one for Colorless Tsuturu Kazaki looks like a bad 1950s textbook.

    • Spot on, Mad. You’re right, he’s judging from a design perspective (just design, as opposed to cover design). I agree with you on the two you mentioned.

  5. I would say a book cover is great if it really moves books.

    The only question is whether that should be into the hands of customers who will be satisfied after, since false advertising is a problem if you want work of mouth — not to mention people who will read the next book.

    • False advertising is definitely a bad idea, which is why I think genre cues are important. Blechman wasn’t considering that aspect; he really wasn’t thinking about whether the covers would do their job. He was just looking at the design for its own sake.

      • That’s weird. How can one separate the covers from their purpose when calling them “best covers”? Now, if he wanted to call them “Best designs that happen to be book covers…” ;>

  6. Pati, I much prefer your picks over any of Blechman’s, which give me, well, a blech! response or, in the case of a few, make me think I might hate the book.

    I’ve been wondering about blurbs, whether they’re slipping out of fashion. Seems like I’m seeing fewer of them these days.