Recently, two of my writing buddies had been working on getting design work for their book covers. I noticed that one of the obstacles that they ran into was that they couldn’t articulate what they wanted. They were at different stages in the book cover design process. One was looking for a designer. The other was working with a designer. Both were feeling frustrated. Part of the frustration, I felt, was a matter of not knowing how to think of a story in a visual way and how to communicate that story in a visual way.
Although I’m not a trained artist (I didn’t go to art school or study art history), but I am informally trained in nonverbal storytelling. I grew up around artists, dancers, and other creative people. So I learned to “speak” visual and performance art in conjunction with learning how to communicate with words. I am a big fan of art shows and artist documentaries, from which I’ve gleaned more about the visual lexicon. I love the how-to videos made by artists, describing their process, learning about the grammar of visual art. I’ve written a couple of art show reviews for a local weekly. I’ve even done some art myself. So I’m at least familiar with using nonverbal means to tell stories, though by no means a scholar or expert. Visual and performance arts communicate in an analogous way as the written word. They have their own lexicon, their own grammar, and their own cues for communicating ideas and feelings. What a book cover should do is tell the story contained in the book in order to sell your book, in a similar way that the blurb on the back of the book or the description on an online book page sells the story.
What I’m going to do is to write about some book covers to bring up some points on how the visual tells a story, and then give suggestions on things to think about when trying to figure out what you want for a book cover and how to communicate what you want. The books were chosen kind of at random. (I found them all on Amazon.com, and the images I got from the book pages on Amazon.com).
How does a book cover tell the story?
I mentioned in my post on branding that book covers and social media imagery should communicate at the very least the genre that your book or your story is in. The genre is communicated by color palette, typography (fonts used and lettering placement), and images used. There are generally accepted fonts, color schemes, and images used within certain genres.
Example of using typography, color palette, and images to tell a story
For example, historical regency romance novels (bodice rippers) generally have scrolling script fonts with lots of swirls.
You’ll also notice that the font for the author’s name and the title are different. This is of course a design choice. If you look at the author’s name versus the title, the author’s name is more easily understood than the more scrolled title font. The title is more decorative and visually more cluttered, if you will, so more difficult to read (especially for the modern reader). This might have been a design choice to emphasize the author’s name more than the title, which is acting almost as decoration in service of the author. The author’s name is also a little bigger relative to the title font. Why do this?
Since the author’s name is so big and has a color that stands out, it’s one of the first things you will notice about the cover. Placing the author over the title is another way to indicate that the author is more important than the title. Emphasizing the author rather than the title is generally reserved for established authors, where the author’s name is a selling point. So part of selling the book is that it was written by THE Jane Ashford. For unestablished writers, the title of the book should be more visually prominent than the author’s name.
Images and color palette
You’ll also notice that the two characters are looking towards each other and touching. The woman is looking back towards the man. The man’s shirt is unbuttoned and standing behind the fully clothed woman. She is wearing an empire waisted dress, indicating time period and setting. His hand is holding hers, and it looks like he’s guiding her hand towards him. This is the classic sneak up on a woman to seduce her stance. Without having ever read the book, I would think that this is the virginal woman with possibly rogue man who seduces said virgin trope. She is also wearing blue, which in Western art history often indicated Mary, the mother of Jesus. The dress that the woman is wearing is of the Regency period, so it is likely taking places within the Regency period — early 19th Century — the time of Jane Austen’s books. In this way, the book cover told the story of the book, sort of. It is like one of those book blurbs on the back, designed to lure you into picking up the book and buying it.
When a cover tells a different story than the book
Visual Clues for Setting
He is wearing a modern suit, so we can assume that he is from sometime between the 2nd half of the 20th century until today. He is wearing a black jacket with a black tie and white shirt. This could indicate a number of professions and situation. (Contrast this with if he were wearing a t-shirt and jeans.) His glasses look like pilot glasses or some sort of law enforcement. His tie is undone, indicating that he was uncomfortable or that it was the end of the day or that he was tired. The background around him are trees, so he is outside. Below him is the title of the book over reverse typeface of the author’s name (solid block with cut out letters). Under the author’s name is a misty cityscape with tress, presumably the setting. The male protagonist’s dress is consistent with how federal law enforcement are portrayed. So in that respect, the book cover does tell the reader that this is probably a mystery, suspense, or thriller book.
Since the book was one of the results from a search for romantic suspense, we will assume that this is the genre of the book. So far, the book cover hasn’t told us that the book is a romance book. However, the suspense is indicated by the book cover (and book blurb). The font is what is often used in suspense (sans serif). The male protagonist is seen in an action scene with a cityscape as a background. The mistiness of the images could give the feeling of mystery.
Doesn’t tell enough of the story
Unless I knew that Toni Anderson wrote romantic suspense novels, I’m not sure that I would know that this was a romantic suspense novel from the cover design. Given that the male protagonist is more heavily featured in the book design (and mentioned first in the book blurb), one would expect that the main point of view would be this character’s. This is an important point. The book cover and blurb have set up this expectation. The expectation that this is a story about a man and all else is in service to his story. This may not be the intention, but it is certainly what can be arguably interpreted.
Cold & Deadly versus A Cold Dark Place: same author, same series, this works
The typography is what fonts are used and the placement of the text. On this cover, the typography suggests a story that the story is not just a romance. The font is sans serif (no additional marks on the letters, just block letters). Romance novels generally have scrolling letters or serif fonts, whereas the block lettering (sans serif) is often used in thriller and mystery stories (sometimes horror). So this book cover’s design is a hybrid of romance and suspense imagery. The main characters are the man and woman, which may be part of the conflict. The conflict may be caused by their union or the union may be tested because of the conflict. Romance and suspense are both hinted at in the illustration.
What about the layout? What does the layout tell you?
The most important feature of the typography (font and placement of the text) is the author, where it is not only emphasized as a reverse (the cut out on the colored band), but is also over the title. The tag-line under the author’s name, New York Times Bestselling Author, further emphasizing the importance of the author over the individual book. The main selling point for this book is who the author is.
What should you have on a book cover? How do you tell your story?
I mentioned that the book cover should tell the story of you book, sort of. Like the blurb on the back cover or description on an online bookseller page, the cover should give you a hint of what the book is about and the hook. Who are the main characters? What is the source of the conflict? What genre is it? What’s the setting? Enough for us to decide if we want to spend the time living in the story.
How do you apply this to your story?
As the author, how do you condense all of the beautiful nuances of your story into a description to tell the cover designer? Start with the genre. That will give you some color palettes and fonts. What genre is your story most like? I’m writing slice-of-life short reads. The genre that they are most like are heart-warming vignettes you’d find in chick-lit or romance stories. Great. There are palettes and fonts that are often used for those novels. I’m an unknown author, so the title should be emphasized more than my name. They are short reads, which is an important selling point for my stories. (I imagine my readers are busy women who just want to curl up for a little while, read a heartwarming story, and drinking their favorite beverage.) In one story, the main metaphor for the theme is a childhood memory of diving from a high dive.
In the English speaking world, people read text from left to right and from the top of the page then down. We read images in a similar way. The first thing you’ll see is that it is a short read. I’ve seen a lot of comments from disappointed readers who didn’t realize the story that they were getting was short. The next thing you see is the series title. In a circle, you see the title of the story. Then the last thing you see is my name. The biggest and most emphasized lettering is the title. The series name and the story length are emphasized more than who I am. The fonts are what you’d generally see in chick-lit books. The circle is serving the same function as the reverse on the other books. I’ve seen quite a few touchy-feely books (i.e., Nicolas Sparks) use a shape to frame the title. I happen to like circles, and I use them a lot in my social media images. The color is blue, which is within the general palette of chick-lit and a favorite color of mine. And lastly, the diving board. It implies the presence of people (which is engaging) but also introduces an important image in the book. So the cover tells the story without giving it completely away.
When you’re getting ready to talk to potential designers, here are some prompts to help you to communicate to the designer what you want.
- What genre is your story? Do you have examples of covers to show the designer the fonts you want and the color palate?
- What do you want in terms of typography design? Should the title be emphasized more than your name? Is your story part of a series? Is there any other information that you need to include, like story length?
- Who are the main characters or character? If a single person, have a brief description of the character. If more than one character, what is the relationship like between the two?
- What is the setting? Is it a New England coastal community? A city? In a sentence or two, what role does the setting play?
- What are some important elements of the story? In my story, it’s a high dive.
I hope that this helps. So what do you think? If you’re a designer, what information would be helpful to you? Did I miss anything? Let me know in the comments below.
Feel free to contact me if you have questions about your own work.
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This website does not own the images, except for the I Think I Met Someone. All other images used were from Amazon.com. Links to the book pages were provided.