The 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.
All – 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.