I had a thought the other day when putting out my blog on Historical Fiction Covers for March. And yes, contrary to insidious rumour, I do occasionally have thoughts of my own.
Anyway, I thought it would be interesting – at least to me, if no-one else – to itemise the critieria I use when I look at book covers. I am specifically thinking of historical fiction covers but perhaps the criteria are applicable to other genres.
What qualifications do I have in this field? None at all. I’ve never studied design though I’ve always been interested in it. I think I have a reasonable “eye” when judging images and layout, but other than that I make no claim to be an “expert”. Like many folk, I have looked at a zillion book covers and wondered whether I might buy the book. OK, I’ve gone a bit further than that: in recent years I’ve really tried to take book covers apart and see what makes them work – or not.
In the end though, it is a matter of personal preferences and here are mine.
So, where do I start?
First Impressions – am I drawn to the cover? If so. why?
It might be something as simple as:
“the title stands out clearly”; “it looks pretty”; or “I like the colours”
Equally, there may be initial vibes which are not so good:
“I’m not looking at a bloke with a six pack like that”; “ouch – daring choice of colours”; “oh dear, another one with a headless woman!” “oh dear, another one with a headless woman in a red dress, blue dress, whatever dress…”; “I’d like to see the cover but I can’t – all I can see is the title”; “why is it the colour of mud?”
First impressions are only that – but they do matter because often a prospective reader will only glance briefly at a book cover.
Light and Shade – how are they used to emphasise key elements and draw the eye?
This is one of the aspects of cover design I mention on the blog most frequently because it is so important in the overall effect. Here are two examples of the use of light.
In The Winter Crown there is so much light, but it really works – as is shown by it being chosen by followers of these posts as their favourite cover of last year. It looks as if there is a light left on in the background and because of that the title text – which is not especially dark – still stands out very well. Also when viewed alongside other covers the light makes the cover shine.
As you can clearly see, light is used in Requiem more sparingly but just as effectively. This time it is a blaze of light that draws the eye to the centre of the cover. Without that, the image of the sword would be far less impressive. Light also plays upon the hilt to accentuate its colours.
Colour Palette and Colour Co-ordination
How the cover designer uses the colours will determine what sort of an image we end up with. Will it be one that uses contrasts or blends of colours to achieve its effect?
There are really two elements to this.
Firstly, does the colour palette “work” as a combination?
For example, in Gate of the Dead the combination of grey, silver, steely blue and a sort of dark shade of dried blood works very well. The purpose of the colours here is to create a whole image.
No one colour stands out to embarrass the others yet it is by no means bland or wishy-washy.
Whereas in The North Water, the colours are starkly contrasting so that the separate images stand out: the white ship inside the dark blue whale and the whale itself against the icy background.
In both examples the colour palette works, but in different ways.
Secondly, does the choice of colours match the story?
Here are a few examples of colour palettes which seem to me to reflect the nature or subject matter of the story – we’re only looking at colour choice here, not the images themselves.
The rascal at war, the pirate at sea and the imperial eagles!
Use of Fonts
Fonts can make or break a cover design, but I don’t think there’s a perfect font for every cover. As long as the choice of font – or font size – does not jar with the viewer then it works. The three covers above have different fonts and all three work well. As an example, if you try to imagine using The Scarlet Thief font for Eagles at War, I hope you would agree with me that it doesn’t look right – it’s too rugged looking and a cleaner font is needed.
Some covers use fonts which incorporate or enhance the style of the cover, such as Men of the Cross, where a cross is included in the centrally-positioned letter ‘O’.
In Search for the Golden Serpent the letter ‘S’ echoes the serpent shape and the whole of the text of the word ‘Serpent’ is given some golden highlights.
Layout of Cover Elements
Layout is important, but for me the only rule that matters is: are the individual elements of the cover arranged to complement each other, or are they having a scrap right there on the page in front of me?
Every cover shown in this post meets that basic requirement, but each one may achieve that balance in a different way.
There are two main ways of achieving it.
In Kingmaker Broken Faith, the separate elements of strapline, image, title and author follow each other down the page against a neutral background. With this method it’s pretty hard to make a mess of it.
The other way of doing it is used in An Officer and a Spy where the separate elements of text overlay an image in the background. I think this one is done very well: it is clear, simple and easy on the eye. In particular it does not look in any way jumbled or crowded. Unfortunately, some covers have titles so large they more or less obliterate the image beneath, so what’s the point of having it at all?
What does the image tell me about: period, setting and style of the story?
The period, setting and style of the book can be showcased on its cover by using mode of dress and specific artifacts. Here are a few self-explanatory examples [hopefully].
Use of minor elements and attention to detail
Occasionally a cover designer does something rather special, rather clever, and here’s a great example of using a small detail to create a powerful idea which gels with the book.
In the horse’s eye you see the same soldiers who are shown at the bottom of the book cover. Is it a horse-eye view or just a reflection? Either way, I like its ambition.
If you are looking for originality in book covers, well good luck with that, because it is rare. Like many examples of visual media, book cover styles tend to go around in circles. What was popular a few years ago might not be so ‘cool’ now but it’ll probably come back into vogue in a few years’ time.
Most covers fit into one of the following styles: an image of a man/woman, an action scene, a ship or a place. There are examples of most of these on this blog but there is one other, quite popular, type and that is the stylised design. This often includes an icon and is intended to create a style – usually for a series – so that it is easily recognisable to the reader. Here are a few…
Overall impact and consistency – Does it move me?
It’s often pointed out that books you view online are usually accessed by means of thumbnail images which, in case you hadn’t noticed, are a bit small.
As the manicurist will tell you, you cannot ignore thumbnails – unless of course you are in it just for the art.
What can you tell from a thumnail image? Here are some: and yes, I know, there’s an interloper in there… [don’t know how it got in…]
In my view thumbnails work more on text than images. Basically, if you can read the title and if you like the overall effect of the colour palette, you might have a closer look. A pity really, because larger images will quite possibly give you a very different impression.
Titles must be clear but the overall impact is also important. I would be surprised looking at the thumbnails above if many of you weren’t drawn first to one of these: Winter Crown, An Officer and a Spy, Feud, Wars of the Roses or Sea Witch because the titles stand out well as a thumbnail. By contrast, several covers which I liked a lot in full size, such as Lady of the Eternal City, The Voyage of Odysseus, Emperor’s Silver and The Terror don’t impress so much as thumbnails.
There is no such thing as the perfect book cover because the one thing I do know is that people will disagree about it – just as they will about what lies under the cover. That’s how it should be. When we judge a cover we only ever do so against two or three others, whether on a digital page or in a bookshop. So the quality and appeal of a book cover will often depend on what you are comparing it with. A cover might therefore stand out because of how or where it is displayed. Also, the first part of the book you might see is not the front but the spine – there’s a thought for cover designers…To be completely effective a modern book cover really needs to be eye-catching enough as a thumbnail to persuade the viewer to investigate it further AND it must have a quality image which rewards the viewer’s effort. It also needs to look fabulous on a book shelf!