I’m a bookshop lurker. And a library dweller. Basically, wherever there are books, I’ll wander over and stare at them. It’s always been a thing, from when Mum was in charge of the creepy, crappy demountable library in the desert town (if five streets, one shop and one pub counts as a town) I was born in to visiting a book shop in almost every city I visit just see what they feel like. I like cosy bookshops better than shiny ones, overstuffed shelves better than orderly shelves and I like bookshops with dedicated Spec Fic and Young Adult sections.
But this blog post isn’t a love letter to bookshops, though I could pretty easily write one.
An activity I’ve particularly grown fond of since I found myself in a publishing way is looking at covers. I always have, obviously, but it was more of a subconscious thing. I was looking at books to find a book to read. Now I look at covers to see what they’re doing, what they’re saying about the book or tone they’re trying to set. How professional do trade published covers look compared to some self published covers I’ve seen (often there’s no difference, sometimes the indies even come out on top)? How does a new-edition’s cover reflect what I know of a book I’ve already read?
It’s kind of fascinating, when you really get into it. Sometimes it’s disappointing. Other times it’s bizarre. But what it does tell you, more than anything, is how important a cover is to a book. And doing this really helped me identify what I wanted in my cover.
There’s an old saying, which everybody knows – and not just because about 70% of indie cover designers cite it on their welcome pages – that you shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover. But that’s kind of the whole point of a cover: to give you vital information you need about genre and tone so that you know within a second whether or not it’s the sort of book you might be into. If you can’t judge a book by its cover, then the cover isn’t really doing its job.
The problem then is to convey genre and tone in a way that appeals to the target market. That’s a hard one, because different people respond to different things.
Let’s take me, for example. An avid book buyer of about seventeen years (choosing my own books), with a focus on fantasy and young adult and whose debut novel sits in both of those categories. I tend not to respond to characters on my covers, as they often seem to be portrayed as the same-looking conventionally attractive stock models with no personality indicators. I also like to come up with my own image of the protagonist, and if they’re already some bland beefcake/beauty it throws me off and colours the way I read them – if I get that far. I will make exceptions for illustrated covers or models who have some personality to them. I don’t really like silhouette covers unless they’re illustrated, and I don’t like covers that are so vague they tell me nothing.
Let’s look at some examples.
Zac & Mia is a really wonderful contemporary young adult book. I picked it up to read before doing a workshop with author A.J Betts at the Perth Writers Festival earlier this year. It’s a good thing I was going to buy it either way, because the Australian cover does absolutely nothing for me, nice as it is.
It’s very graphic and cool, but at best it tells me it might be aimed at young adults. What’s the tone? What’s the genre? The Canadian edition, however, gives me much more of what I need:
The whole thing kind of screams ‘young adult,’ and further than that the handwritten design implies quirkiness (the new international symbol of humour, I guess) and the love heart implies romance, sweetness and has elements of innocence. We have a genre and we have a tone. Job well done, Canadians.
Let’s take another cover that does absolutely nothing for me, the original cover of Throne of Glass:
Here we have my pet hate: pretty stock-art/model girl with a neutral facial expression. She implies young adult by default by her age, but I’m not sure whether the photoshopped dagger and glowing cityscape denotes fantasy or historical fiction, and personally I don’t really get a sense of tone. This cover doesn’t inspire me to look at the blurb, but it does kind of make me want to watch Xena reruns.
But then, thank heavens, Bloomsbury re-issued Throne of Glass with this:
Who is this awesome looking girl? Straight away we know this is a fantasy from her weapons and armour, and we get the idea it’s a younger, ‘cooler’ version of fantasy from the punk-ish twist on the traditional fantasy get up. But look at her face! That’s some grim determination. Immediately we can see that this is a woman who knows how to use those swords and won’t hesitate to do so. She’s beautifully illustrated and looks unique, which is impressive for a pale, white haired girl in the time of Daenerys Targaryen, and she makes me want to know more about her. All up, we can take away that this is a female-led adventure fantasy with a bit of a dark twist to it. I haven’t read this book, but now I really, really want to. And remember how I said I don’t like to have my character images dictated to me? Here I really don’t mind.
And what does this have to do with designing my young adult cover? I’ll tell you next time!
Now this is not a hard and fast guide to covers, or even young adult covers. These are just my thoughts and my process. Other genres have completely different rules and target audiences – erotica and romances probably should feature characters, literary fiction can be a little more artistic, and so on. You need to figure out your genre, your audience, your tone, and what you want your cover to say about your story.
But what about you, readers? What do you love to see in a cover? What are you sick of/wish you’d see more of in your favourite genres?