Judging a Book by its Cover

“Why, it’s one o’ the books I bought at Partridge’s sale. They was all bound alike — it’s a good binding, you see — and I thought they’d be all good books. . . . but they’ve all got the same covers, and I thought they were all o’ one sample, as you may say. But it seems one musn’t judge by th’ outside. This is a puzzling world.”
–George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss

perf5.000x8.000.inddMarin here, and today I’m thinking about the puzzling world of book covers. Recently I worked with a cover artist–the very talented Rae Monet–to create the cover for my third book.

A cover’s primary purpose, of course, is to convince the reader to buy the book behind it. A great cover not only entices the reader, but captures the story in some way.  Cover artist Peter Mendelsund says “his job is ‘finding that unique textual detail that…can support the metaphoric weight of the entire book.’”   But beyond that, a cover needs to represent the book. The mood of the cover should match that of the book–a couple in a clinch for a romance, something dark and eerie for a paranormal, an illustration for a children’s book. Even things like font matter–you see the font that was used on the Harry Potter books, and you recognize it immediately.  The cover, according to Smashwords founder, Mark Coker, should be a promise to the reader. A promise that the book is as professional as its cover, that it is of the genre depicted by the cover, and that you will enjoy reading it.

There are plenty of sites out there which discuss the elements that make a great cover, and I list a few of them below. But as one of them points out, what really makes a great cover is what makes you purchase the book. I tend to like covers that are more abstract, that hint at the character of the book without revealing too much. Here are some of my favorites (click on the covers to visit the book’s Goodreads entry):

Deanna Raybourn was new to me, and I picked up her book in the library almost entirely because of the cover. The others are authors I know and like and would have read anyway. All of these covers evoke their stories and the genre. I think Julia Quinn’s cover must have worked quite well, because she has used a variation of it at least twice since then…

I asked my fellow Passionate Critters what they like, and don’t like, in a cover:

“I tend to gravitate toward books with real people on the covers. I tend to like couples too. I like feet/legs too–or just bodies with no heads–so I can get the gist of the romance while leaving something to my imagination.”

“I like illustrated covers, too, if they’re well done and not drawn by the author themselves. Actually…it’s easier to say what DOESN’T work. Go here to see some samples: http://lousybookcovers.com/.”

“I like a simple cover which conveys the mood or feel of the story that I’m buying.”

“I’ve always liked Kristan Higgins’ covers. You see a couple but not too much of their faces.”

“I’m the opposite of the others, I love faces.  At least the guy’s face, I’m OK with the back of the girl’s head.  Clinch covers work for me as well.  I want a sense of the time period, what the characters look like, and the overall mood of the book.  From the cover I should easily be able to tell if it’s a romance, sci-fi, fantasy, etc, as well as what era it’s set in, and a decent idea of what the main character, or characters, look like.  I also like to get a sense of who the characters are, is it a brooding alpha male?  Throw him in a tux and make him look angry….or heated…or both.  Character looks are huge for me, especially for the male, and nothing irks me more than grabbing a good book and then having the guy be described as someone I don’t find even remotely attractive.  It kills the whole thing for me.”

“I don’t honestly know.  Some are clearly just bad or rather lousy, but they don’t count.
But of good, well-done covers, where there’s nothing actually wrong with them…hmmm. There’s no type that appeals to me – some just look…right.
I think it’s sort of subjective to a degree – flowers and a wedding dress would put me off, because it screams sweet and I don’t particularly like sweet.
My favorite sort of covers are UF [urban fantasy], which always seem to be very distinctive of the genre, usually a beautiful background, a strong character (all of them, they never seem to have their heads chopped off) often a woman, and a few swirly bits to pretty them up.
I think it’s an arty thing (which is why I struggle) just getting the proportions and colors right and pleasing to the eye.”

“I like real people, faces, and even a bit of setting. I like to see the story. I don’t like the drawn covers–like chick lit has. And don’t get me started on the computer graphics that….are just…not real looking. LOL  But that’s just me.
I don’t like chopped off heads or flowers or wedding dresses or babies.  I don’t know what that says about me.
Oh, I also don’t like floating heads…over cities and stuff.”

Clearly, we all like different things, which only goes to show that you’ll never please everyone, no matter how brilliant your cover may be. What stands out for you in a book cover? Share your favorite!

Some other takes on what makes a great book cover:




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About Marin McGinnis

A lawyer in real life, Marin McGinnis feeds the more creative part of her soul by writing Victorian era romance and mystery. She's spent almost half her life in a tree-lined, unabashedly liberal suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. She's been married to the same great guy for over 20 years, and has one teen-aged son. They all live together in a drafty old house with their two standard poodles, Larry and Sneaky Pete. While her very first book will languish under the bed, the next book, Stirring Up the Viscount, won two contests in 2013 and was published by The Wild Rose Press in January 2015. Her next two books, Secret Promise and Tempting Mr. Jordan, are also available from Wild Rose Press. Marin currently serves as President of the Northeast Ohio chapter of Romance Writers of America and is hard at work on the next book. You can find her here, at marinmcginnis.com, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, and Pinterest.

17 Responses to Judging a Book by its Cover

  1. Becky Lower says:

    Like you, Marin, I want my covers to reveal the time period I’m writing in, since I bounce between historical and contemporary. What I’ve seen way too much of is a man’s face that takes up the entire cover, with other-worldly eye color. And enough of the naked torso. I love Ashlyn McNamera’s covers featuring the backsides of men in breeches. Coming at it from a different angle, as it were. And, I agree, Rae Monet’s one of the best at cover design.

  2. Hi all! I just published my first naughty romance novel, Tamed by the Virginian. I didn’t think I cared a lot about covers, but the process made me realize I did. I like the cover to portray the tone of the book, and I don’t like to be disappointed. The first cover option given to me by the publisher had a sweet looking guy and a girl in a print dress that looked like she belonged at the PTA, and I asked for a second one. What I got was a built looking frontiersman that looked a lot more like what I had in mind when I wrote about stern and dominant Nial McKay. If I see two guys and girl on a cover, I should know what to expect on the inside! If I see a romantic sunset and a puppy playing in the foreground, I should know it is gentler and something I would read with my kids around!

    • Hi Isabella! Congrats on your new release! I would agree–the cover should match the tone of the book. I didn’t like the first cover they offered for my debut novel for the same reason.

  3. Tena says:

    Hey Isabella!

    Congratulations on your new release. I agree the cover should match the tone of the book. I have been extremely fortunate. The covers of my books were created by Kristian Norris and I loved each one. My debut novel, A Demon’s Witch, was my favorite, if I have one, until I saw the cover for my 2016 holiday release. Kristian knocked it out of the ball park. LOL Best wishes for Tempting Mr. Jordan!
    Tena recently posted…Dog Walking – Loose DogsMy Profile

  4. Thanks, Tena! I’ll have to check out your covers. 🙂
    Marin McGinnis recently posted…New Blog Series! Victorian FoodMy Profile

  5. Amanda Uhl says:

    I love your new book’s cover! Wow! This post is really timely since I just got my cover. I looked at a lot of books covers on Pinterest before choosing my own. I elected to have a face on the cover because there’s something about seeing a face that is compelling to me. I think different genres call for different types of covers though. Mine’s a paranormal, so having an otherwordly look to it is important. Great post.

  6. I love all the covers Debbie Taylor has done for me. She’s DC Productions if you want to look her up.

  7. I love reading your posts, Marin. You’re always so thorough, no matter the topic.

    I just know when a cover works for me and when it doesn’t. I don’t like faces. I prefer the mystery of not knowing exactly how they look.
    Lori Sizemore recently posted…Revisited: Tools of the TradeMy Profile

  8. I tend toward the abstract, too–and I like to imagine my own people. For me, a good cover will just hint at the mystery or conflict and give me an idea of setting and tone. I’m more a word person, so the front cover may catch my eye, but I will always flip it over to read the blurb, regardless. The stereotypical male torso (while very nice to look at) or clinching couple suggests the book is not breaking new ground. If that’s what I’m looking for, great–but a unique cover will pique my interest quickly. The covers for both my books so far make me happy but it is yet to be seen if they sell books 🙂

    • Hi Sorchia! You do have beautiful covers. 🙂 I actually do the same thing–the cover will catch my eye, but if the blurb doesn’t work for me, the book will stay on the shelf.

  9. Hywela says:

    First of all, congratulations on your new release – and that cover is absolutely gorgeous! My cover artist for my latest release ‘Beloved Enemy’ is also Rae Monet, and I absolutely love it, she gave me exactly what I wanted For this book, the third in the trilogy, I felt I should have both m and f main characters, but I also wanted an ‘alien’ landscape since it’s an SF/adventure and she gave me exactly what I had in mind, but even better, and the icing on the cake was the two models I wanted as well! I think it all depends on the book – some stories, like the second in my trilogy, worked better with just a landscape. Personally I don’t like headless torsos but not much else puts me off, I love a cover that indicates the setting of the book and if there’s an animal on the cover as well, I’m usually hooked! I do read the blurb as well though, and like Marin, if I don’t like the sound of the story from the blurb I’m not likely to purchase it.

    • Thanks, Hywela! Rae gave me everything I wanted as well–she’s so responsive. Interesting that an animal on the cover is a selling point for you–I try to put at least one animal in my books but it never occurs to me to put one on the cover. 🙂

  10. IreAnne says:

    I love your cover! Love the colors, love the photos. I agree the cover should reveal what’s in the book. My favorite covers are also by Debbie Taylor and Rae Monet. I also love Jon Paul covers. I have a thing for book covers, almost like some women have for shoes LOL 🙂

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