Book Cover Formulas

Have you ever noticed that book covers in a particular genre are very similar? For instance:

Why do they look alike? Because the point of a book cover is to attract readers who will like it. For the most part, book covers are not an art, as many people perceive them, but rather a marketing tool – an extended advertisement  if you will, and so there are certain “formulas” to it depending on your genre. They instantly tell the reader what to expect, usually because they look similar to every other cover that has an even remotely similar story, as in the video above.For instance, let’s say you read a book with a tattooed lady’s back on the cover.You like it the book. Now you see a new book with a similar cover. Instantly, maybe without you even knowing it, you have associated this new book with the previous one you liked. It’s just a marketing trick like so many others.

But, if not applied properly that trick can back fire. When you associate that tattooed lady with the previous book, you don’t just associate that you liked it, but also elements of it that you liked. For instance if it had a lot of fight scenes you’re probably to going to expect this new book to have a lot of fight scenes. If it had a strong romance you’re going to expect the new book to have the same. In other words, whoever thinks of the new design first and manages to brand it –  the first book that came out with a tattooed woman’s back – is the one that will forever subtly set the tone for all the following books using that cover.

This holds true for all genres, but since I write primarily vampire novels I’m going to use them as the example for the rest of the post.

If we go to Amazon and do a search for “vampire”, we see that there are only six styles of covers for them, and each cover tells us what to “expect” and attracts a certain audience. (Of course, covers are not always used correctly, so there are always exceptions, many of which lead to unhappy customers – for instance: http://www.dark-readers.com/2012/05/my-opinion-on-ya-book-covers-looking.html – check out the post and the comments. )

1. Hunky man/Sexy scene.  This cover demonstrates that the focus of the story is on the hunky male and/or the sex between him and his counterpart. It caters to those readers who find hunky men attractive, most notably women, and tends to turn away straight male readers. If I buy this book I expect lots of sex. I expect the hero to be called “beautiful” and “sensual” at least ten times. There might be some violence. If the hero is alone on the cover, I expect violent scenes to end with the female trembling from fear or shock and being rescued by the hunky hero so that they can go have sex. If the couple are pictured together she may be a bit tougher, but they will still leave the battle and have hot, steamy sex. If there are two men, we automatically expect a steamy M/M plot. There’s a good chance that the book will be either from his POV or switch back and forth between him and the woman. Either way,  I wouldn’t be surprised if the hero has at least one monologue where he feels regret and angst and tells himself that he should “stay away” from his significant other.

2. Kick ass/sexy/sad woman. This kind of cover says that the woman is the main component in the story. Though this cover is more friendly to a male audience, it still attracts primarily women. If the female pictured is “kick ass” woman I expect the heroine to be  super tough and not need a man, the kind who deftly outwits all the men who cross her path and always comes out on top. I also expect violence since she is probably some kind of hunter/assassin/killer. If it is a sexy woman then I still expect her to “need no man” but she will be having hot, tumultuous sex with at least one, and possibly two or more. I expect very light violence, with the main focus being on her sensuality or her burgeoning relationship. If she’s in modern clothes I expect it to be clicky and feminist ala Sex in the City, but if she has more historical attire then the hero will “tame” her. If the woman looks sad or lost then I expect the book to focus on her emotional journey as she overcomes some terrible tragedy. There may or may not be sex in this story. Violence will be light.

3. The totally cliché vampire element. Dark castles. Bats. A man/woman with fangs. A goblet of blood. This cover is more male friendly and it shows that the main element of the story IS the vampires – everything else comes second. I would expect something heavy, historical and/or traditional ala Dracula with a lot of horror elements. Someone will use old fashioned/obsolete words. There is a good chance of violence and it will probably be bloody, though the descriptions may or may not be  gruesome. There will probably not be explicit sex (if the fanged woman is pictured alone, see #2. If she is posed with a man in a sensual scene, see #1). There is also a good chance that it is told from a male POV and someone is probably wearing a cape.

4. Cutesy art work. This cover says “Chic-lit” and makes me think of the Ya Ya Sisterhood and stuff like that. Cute, modern, edgy and feminine. I expect the vampires to be worried about fitting into their skinny jeans, or cleverly outwitting their boyfriends. They will drink margaritas and have girls night. Needless to say, these covers are more likely to attract women.

5. Totally random object/scene. Think Twilight, or Fifty Shades. Though the artists will cite symbolic bull, this cover tells you nothing. Their goal is to catch your eye with their simplicity. It is the color scheme and font choices that will tell you whether it is a “masculine” or “feminine” book. If it has a funky font I expect a YA novel with light violence and some romance, probably a girl who is discovering her “abilities”. A serif font leads me to expect a more serious story, possibly with a male protagonist who has deep regret over something. Sex and violence are both possibilities. A sans serif font will tell me that the protagonist (be they male or female) is tough, there is plenty of violence, and it’s probably going to be fast paced and contemporary. A script/cursive style font says it is a romance and more than likely the protagonist is a female. There is probably sex involved, violence is doubtful. If it’s super curly or cutesy then see #6.

6. Completely out there. This cover says “I may have vampires, but I’m different”, which makes me expect different. In fact I will expect it to lean heavily towards another genre, depending on the style, such as fantasy, sci-fi etc. That there would be lots of violence would not surprise me at all. The same with sex. There may even be deeper themes involved. I’m not going to lie when I say that these are the covers I am most attracted to.

signature for whiteWhen you run across these kind of covers, what do they say to you? Do they make you expect the same things they make me expect, or do you perceive them differently? What patterns have you noticed in other genres?

20 Comments

  1. RavenWest says:

    The saying ”A Picture is Worth 1,000 words”, (or in the case of “First Class Male” around 96,000) has probably never been better illustrated than when it comes to the cover of a book. As a writer, I consider myself to be an artist with the literary word. My creativity with graphic design however, is pretty much limited to stick figures.

    Which was why I relied on others to do what I cannot. With a little collaboration, we created the covers of my first novel Red Wine for Breakfast. I LOVED it. For my second novel, First Class Male, the cover was a bit dark and I have to say confusing to the story. But since my publisher hired the graphic artist to design the cover, again with my input, and the book sold quite well, (especially to members of the National Association of Postmasters of the US (NAPUS) at their national convention in Long Beach, California in 2005) but after more than a decade, I felt it was time to give the book a new look

    I hired the same graphic artist who designed the cover for my third novel Undercover Reunion and could not be happier with the new cover design for First Class Male. But art is very subjective. My readers LOVED the new look, or else they were lying. Other authors criticized the hell out of it, but they’re not my audience because authors very rarely buy other author’s books.

    You can’t judge a book by its cover, but we, as authors do the very best we can to make sure the WORDS in between are unique and exceptional so that the only graphic readers need see on the cover is our NAME!

    Someday!

    Check out my covers on my website: http://ravenwest.net and let me know what you think!

    1. I’m going to try to leave a comment again – wordpress has been arguing with me 😉

      One of the most important things is that YOU love your book cover. You should look at it and think “Yes! This is it!” because in most cases you’re trying to attract readers who have the same taste you have – after all, we often write for ourselves first and everyone else second. So long as it conveys what you want it to – or what you need it to – then it’s doing its job. 🙂

  2. Cathy Jo says:

    Jo, great article! You seem to have a good grasp on book covers–what works and what doesn’t. Let me ask you this: what sort of cover would you expect to see if the story is about a woman with a grave illness who rebuffs the advances of a suitor because of the illness? Their is no sex in the story and the man is relentless in his pursuits.

    Cathy Jo

    1. Is it a romance novel – aka if they end up happily ever after in the end – then a more romance feel would be appropriate, something perhaps involving a fully clothed couple in a romantic but not overly sexy pose. A close up of flowers could also work well. If it doesn’t have a happy ending, then perhaps a sad or pale type woman could work, maybe with the man over her shoulder – aka behind her, and smaller, though if the colors are too dark that could come off as a creepy-stalker-esque kind of image, so it would depend on the “feel” of their expressions etc. Hope this helps 🙂

  3. I completely love this article. I spent time thinking about what my covers should be and how the content of the covers are relevant to the content of the book; however, my covers tell you nothing of the genre (as you mention, a dangerous way to do a cover). It’s been interesting. I think at first its going to hurt sales. But I think, if the content can build readership, then the interesting mix that I constantly play on (Paper Art and Erotica) will be unique as opposed to irrelevant to each other. Plus, it’s a combination that has a lot of adaptability and a decent amount of fun associated with it, particularly because I like play with the Phrase of my title and “it’s where paper art and erotica….” on twitter. I was scared it wouldn’t work, but I just have so much fun with it, hopefully that fun will come from it and be obvious to those who begin to recognize it. As a result, I’m hoping all the original paper art covers will be associated with my serialized fiction title, Jane Smith Divorced.

    1. That is an interesting question and one i have been asking myself and others lately – what’s more important: genre branding or author branding. I know my covers have had a unique look (I’ve had people comment that they immediately know my books because of the covers) but at the same time I have had other people complain that they don’t look like vampire books. I’d say try what you like and if the sales aren’t what you expect maybe try another set of covers temporarily. You can always switch back if it makes no difference (I am in the middle of this experiment myself.)

  4. I like the covers of Rob Thurman’s UF series, The Leandros Brothers. They really do reflect the stories.
    I admit, I don’t think the covers mean similar stories – learned that lesson the hard way! LOL Every book is different, every story is different. I go by the blrub. But true, the cover is what first draws the eye!
    BTW – Joleen has been doing my covers, and she does a great job! I’m hopeless…

    1. Thanks, Angela! 😀

      heh-heh, yeah a lot of times similar covers just mean the advertising/PR department is cashing in on a trend 😉

  5. After Twilight came out, I remember how many books were out on the shelves that were blatantly ripping off the cover designs for that book.

    1. yep! Once something sells everyone will run and copy it, hoping to carry through on its coat tails.

  6. dm yates says:

    Great post. I live covers that are different. Once I’ve seen a cover, if I see a similar by a different author, I’m not interested in the book.

    1. The authors I always feel sorry for are those who have no control over their covers and end up with one the marketing department picks just because it’s “popular” and not because it fits…

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