C is for cover art and how it gives a clue to the contents of the story

Author: Anne

Date Published: May 10th 2017, 7:01pm

I wrote these musings about cover art for books some time ago but I do think that they still hold true


Someone on Twitter recently pointed out that when you look at covers of books published recently they often portray only part of a woman or their silhouette. I had a look at books currently for sale and was astonished to discover that, on the whole, this was true. There are many novels featuring half a woman on their cover, or only their eyes or feet, or the distant shape of one, or one pictured with their back to the reader. The only novels which seem to feature whole women are historical romances where they are usually in an embrace with a handsome man.

A cover has been the way into a book for a long time now and the art or picture that adorns it has been very important. This is perhaps less so with the advent of e-readers but nevertheless it is still an important selling point and I suspect that a lot of time and money is still expended in creating the best first impression.

But a cover is about more than a picture. If you look at the colour schemes of books you can often work out their genre even without taking account of the image. Thrillers, suspense novels and horror, for example, are usually dark colours – grey or black predominate. Romances, family sagas, chic lit and similar books are usually lighter colours. If you group books together by genre on shelves you can see the differences by the spine colours.

When I was younger novels often had illustrated covers which represented a scene in the story, usually drawn by an artist and often not quite accurate to the contents of the book – this used seriously to annoy me. Today cover art is frequently photographs and very often figurative. Shadowy figures and foggy landscapes seem to feature a lot – it seems that the publisher is trying to give the potential reader a feel for the atmosphere of the book rather than a clue to its content.

A lot of covers seem very simple. Light romances/chick lit books often feature line drawings (an exception to the photograph rule) of stylised scenes of countryside, houses, cupcakes or animals all in pastel colours. Erotic novels very often show a man with body art and oiled muscles or a couple embracing, although there are many which follow the “Fifty Shades of Grey” rule and have just one semi-titillating item featured or a single body part.

Crime and suspense novels are prone to blurry images of landscapes, trees, storms or distant people. Serial killer novels often feature blood as part of the image which is usually the only colour on the cover. If they are a medical thriller they may have the tracing of a heart monitor as part of the design.

Fantasy novels feature swords more often than any sort of image although pictures of magical figures walking in storms are also common – and, of course, there are the many covers with dragon illustrations. Urban fantasy tends to resemble romantic novels in that it has half figures or tattooed and oiled men (or sometimes women) although very often we get some fangs or a werewolf featured too. At the very light end of the genre we find cartoon figures or comic drawings. Science fiction has images of space or alien landscapes often in a sunset and sometimes with a spacecraft included.

Literary fiction tends to be unpredictable but doesn’t very often feature people and classics often have no picture at all, relying on style alone or using representations of art masterpieces which vaguely match the contents of the book. If you look at the covers of this year’s Booker longlist you will find no people at all featured. I find that the lettering of the titles on such books tends to be more of a feature than it is on more illustrated covers.

This is all very much a generalisation and you will be able to find plenty of examples where none of these rules apply but I do feel that a lot of this applies to books as a whole – it is certainly true that it is not easy to find the full depiction of a woman looking out at the potential reader.