Let’s Judge Them By Their Covers

I probably don’t have to tell you that a lot goes into a book cover. There’s psychology, design aspects, color theory, font decisions, genre considerations, and much more. When it all works, you probably can’t say why. You just know it pleases you and makes you want to take a second look at the book.

But when it doesn’t work, it’s usually obvious why it misses the mark.

When you work with a traditional publisher, they have an art department that handles the covers. Usually the editor will ask the author for input about the cover with the understanding the final word is theirs, and theirs alone, and it states that very clearly in the contract. The editor is the middleman between the author and the art department. (Even in picture books, which I find interesting. The author and illustrator almost never correspond about the story.)

I didn’t have any real ideas for the covers of Puzzling Ink (on sale for 99c) and Punning With Scissors (also on sale for 99c), the first two books in my Crossword mysteries, just that the first one showed a crossword puzzle grid, and the second a scissors. (So avant garde, right? That’s why I’m not an artist.) When they showed me the draft of Punning, though, I said, “Uh oh” because Quinn was decked out in a bulky sweater, but the book is set in the heat of August. In fact, there’s actually a scene in the book where she and Virginia Woof, the dog in that one, almost get heat stroke! Luckily they changed it, and Gin even got a primo spot on the cover.

For the third Crossword mystery, Fatal Solutions (on pre-order, out November 9th) I did have some specific things I wanted on the cover. I wanted that daruma doll because it plays a big part in the story, and I thought it was time for Fang, Quinn’s goldfish and sounding board, got a little cover love. Imagine my surprise, though, when I saw the final version and Quinn’s hair changed color and style!

With my independent books, the Mystery Writer’s Mysteries, I have complete control over every aspect of the cover. I was lucky enough to find a designer, Steven Novak, who I think does excellent work. And he’s fast, which I really love.

He and I have settled on a “chair theme” for those. Fiction Can Be Murder has the cozy reading chair, Foul Play on Words is set in a hotel during a conference, and Metaphor for Murder has a pivotal scene around a fire pit. It doesn’t take us too long to finalize them. I send him pictures of real chairs that make sense for the story and maybe the other clues on the cover—the key, the Do Not Disturb sign, the necklace and manuscript—and he puts his spin on them.

He and I just finalized Police Navidad (on pre-order, out in December) which was equally fast and painless, but also made me laugh.

We went back and forth a couple of times—star needs to be glittery, boots need to pop more, chair needs to be green, Mystery #3 needs to be #4 … but it took me quite a long time to notice my name wasn’t on it! When I pointed it out, Steven—who is a man of few words—said, and I quote, “Oops.”

I thought you’d enjoy a little peek behind the covers, so I asked some pals if they had any interesting cover stories. (And mystery writers should always have cover stories—ha!)

• Leslie Karst—

The cover that Crooked Lane originally designed for the first of my Sally Solari mysteries, Dying for a Taste, had the Golden Gate Bridge in the background. A lovely idea, but one major problem: the Golden Gate Bridge is in San Francisco, 70 miles to the north of Santa Cruz, where the series is set.

I pointed out this discrepancy and asked them to please change the bridge to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk’s roller coaster, which actually CAN be seen from the wharf, where Sally’s family’s restaurant is located.

No dice, they responded: “No one will recognize the roller coaster, but everyone knows the bridge!”

It took a lot of arm-twisting, first by me (to no avail, even though I threatened to refuse to promote the book if they kept the bridge on the cover) and then by my agent, but they finally relented and had their artist depict our glorious Giant Dipper roller coaster, instead. Whew!

• Ellen Byron—

The initial cover design for my first book, Plantation Shudders was wildly off. Instead of a bucolic Louisiana setting, there was the side profile of a guy in a fedora in front of broken shutters like the book was a 1940s noir instead of a cozy. The publisher owned the misdirection. But after that I took to giving detailed cover suggestions to my publishers. And luckily, they want to hear them. Recently, I’ve even used clip art to make rudimentary images to illustrate what I’m thinking, like here, for the cover of Cajun Kiss of Death. The final product doesn’t look anything like my images, but you can see some of the suggestions incorporated.

•JC Eaton—

The original Booked 4 Murder had a multi-colored Chiweenie which was later changed to a brown one. The basic design did stay the same. We actually liked the first, but it was up to the publishers. Our editor deserves the kudos for getting us to add the dog to the series. Turns out Streetman is a big hit with readers!

•Kate Lansing—

I’m so thankful to have connected with the mega-talented artist who illustrates the covers for my Colorado Wine Mystery series, Samantha Dion Baker, and always appreciate seeing the original artwork versus the final cover. The cover art for Mulled to Death has changed the most, the brilliant Berkley design team tweaking the colors to make them more vivid and fitting with the Valentine’s Day theme of the story. I love seeing them side by side because it really helps show that it takes a village to bring a book into the world.

•Claire L Fishback—

Book cover #1: My own creation. I entered my book in the Kindle Scout program and needed a book cover so people could vote for it. I painted a spooky landscape picture to use as the background (back then, I didn’t know anything about stock photography, Photoshop, or anything about book covers). The first version of it had “by Claire L. Fishback” like I was some novice, the wrong color text (as you can see), not to mention the wrong size and style of font.

Book cover #2: I decided to go Indie, but I wanted to do it the right way and hired a professional book designer. I used the same background painting, but she worked with it to make it so much better. As you can see, she made the focus of the cover the font and title.

Karen Docter—

When I decided to go Indie, I didn’t know a thing about covers, so, I didn’t even attempt to do my own. However, I was already published as a contemporary romance author and had a cover artist I really liked. So, when I branched out into romantic suspense, she did my cover. I thought it was good, but realized it didn’t fit the genre the same way my contemporaries did. I ended up participating in a romantic suspense box set, and the organizer had her own cover artist. I loved what she did so much, that I approached her to redo my Killing Secrets cover. My contemporary cover artist is a friend and I asked her if she minded. She said she didn’t because she knew the contemporary romance genre, but wasn’t as comfortable with romantic suspense. Needless to say, I was thrilled with the redo. It fits my book so much better.

I have another example with my first romantic comedy release, Satin Pleasures. At the time, there were still a lot of cartoony covers for romantic comedy so I had a local artist do my first cover. It did well enough, but when I decided to re-cover Killing Secrets, I had my friend (the whiz with contemporary covers) redo Satin Pleasures as well. When it went public, I got my first bestseller.

• Jennifer Chow—

Since I’d taken a trip to Catalina Island, which plays a role in Mimi Lee Cracks the Code (launching November 30, 2021), I sent my publisher my vacay photos for inspiration. I’m glad the artist used the iconic Casino building in the illustration. From the initial design to the final cover, only minor changes were made. Mimi’s face looks different, and her hair grew longer. Plus, the added clouds in the background appear more ominous. The finishing touches had to do with the font. We went through a few variations of color combos before finding hues that would make both the title and author name pop. 

Readers, how much time do you spend looking at a cover? What do you think of these redos? Do you judge a book solely by the cover when deciding to read or purchase? Did you already realize how much effort goes into cover design?

8 thoughts on “Let’s Judge Them By Their Covers”

  1. It’s amazing how much the right cover makes all the difference. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of detail. Sometimes, it’s the overall feel for the genre. Thanks for sharing my cover story. I know I learned the hard way to make sure that the cover is right. It’s the first thing readers look at and you need to intrigue them into looking deeper into the story. Loved all of the examples!

  2. Good morning from Ottawa 🇨🇦 .I am a very visual person so I respond very much so on whether to even checking out the blurb if the cover attracts my eye or if it repulses me or says not my type 🤔of read. Even the colouring of a diagram can turn me away or not. Your letter today showed me that writers can be also so I found it very interesting and informative. Thank You 😊 Kat

    1. Hi Kat! I find it fascinating how the same cover can pull someone in and turn the next person off completely. It’s why book marketing is so complicated!

    1. Interesting, Linda. I guess I’m cover first, then description. But even if the cover doesn’t wow me, I must have glanced at it for a reason, so I go ahead and read the description. As for the author, there are so many great authors in the world, unless they are someone I already know, I don’t pay much attention to the name on the cover. I’ve been known to “discover” a brand-new author only to find out they have a dozen books out!

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