“Don’t judge a book by its cover.”
It’s advice everyone’s heard at some point. Covers, people seem to think, represent only the surface level appearance of a book, which is why it’s bad to judge books for their appearance instead of their substance. And while it’s true that the content of a book is the most important thing, readers should also remember that professionally designed book covers are expertly codified items of information, ripe for interpreting!
Indeed, if you approach book covers with a sharp eye, they can tell you a lot: the genre, the intended audience, what mood the story evokes, and even which plot elements were important enough to be selected for the cover art. (In fact, designers need to be careful not to spoil the book, as cover art can act as both content warning and spoiler).
This means a book cover, like the book itself, is subject to analysis. So put on your analytical hat and let’s see which clues you can look out for on covers, Sherlock-style. To do that, we’ll examine some recently published books from four distinct genres: YA, Romance, Thrillers, and Memoirs.
YA: Think Exclamation-Mark Energy!
YA is a joyful place in the world of book design, even if the books deal with heavier topics. As you can tell from just three examples, this genre’s covers radiate energy and enthusiasm. They use bright colors, often going for one color that really makes the entire cover pop with activity, like Holly Bourne’s It Only Happens in the Movies.
Now let’s talk fonts: the typography on a book’s cover is one of the most crucial aspects of book design. It’s a choice that reflects the spirit of a book, and paying attention to it can help you identify genre and mood—here, all three covers have lettering done by hand, a choice common in YA as it gives the covers a youthful, doodly, informal look. As YA is so broad, these covers also indicate sub-genres: they all fall under YA Romance, but communicate this information in different ways.
It Only Happens in the Movies clearly identifies romance as central to the story (notice the little heart inside the ‘O’ in ‘movies’), but the choice of popcorn suggests a humorous side. The Gravity of Us signals LGBT Romance with its beautiful illustration of two boys looking out toward the sky, whereas All the Bright Places chooses to remain more ambiguous, though the sticky notes nod toward a school setting. (If you take a look at Wilder Girls by Rory Power—The Wordy Habitat review here—you’ll see that this book defies YA’s preference for bright colors, choosing dark shadows to show it’s a mystery, but demonstrating it’s still within YA through the playful lettering.)
Romance: Titles Taking Center Stage
When an author is in the process of publishing their book, they are sometimes advised to revise their title to make sure it appeals to the right readers (famously the case with Toni Morrison’s Paradise). This is especially important in romance books, as the trend here is to feature the title as the central element of the cover. (Note that I’m talking about the rom-com type here—this doesn’t apply to more dramatic romance books, as those tend to feature photos of chiseled bodies.)
Here, delicate illustrations accompany the title lettering, standing in for an element of the plot, and the palette of the genre is generally limited to pinks, whites, blues, reds, purples, and various shades in between. There are exceptions, of course, but generally romance covers are chromatically muted—you aren’t likely to read any bright green or electric blue romances (unless they’re paranormal romances about zombies, radioactivity, or aliens)!
Thrillers/Crime: Bold in Every Way
Thriller covers are notoriously loud. It’s understandable — they’re meant to thrill you, and designers are doing their best to help authors market their books, so a strong cover is a must. Thriller covers generally use sans serif fonts (in other words, straight and clean lines, no decorative flourishes or
squiggles). A no-BS genre demands a no-BS font!
Fonts aside, thrillers are unafraid to choose confident colors (looking at that neon green on My Sister the Serial Killer) and brave contrasts: in this small selection, we’ve got a combination of orange-white-black, neon green-black, blue-white-yellow, and black-white-red. These palettes are not fooling around. They demand your attention, and they demand it now.
A final note on thrillers: they’re more likely to feature photographs or illustrations as a larger element of their covers than, say, rom-com books, as they provide an intriguing way into the story. The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell, for example, displays the front of a building with an eerily lit window to hook a potential reader’s curiosity.
Memoir: Keeping It Personal
Memoir is a deeply personal subgenre of nonfiction, and memoir covers vary widely. These are truly an accomplishment of multi-tasking, as designers need to carefully balance authority with openness. To do that, they often go down two avenues: one is the use of personal photographs, sometimes edited to achieve an ‘aged’ look for a nostalgic feel (as you can see above, four of these covers use photos).
The other is choosing to emphasize the deeply personal nature of telling a story about yourself, so some designers will use hand-drawn lettering to convey the playfulness, intimacy, or sincerity of a diary (see The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell, Everything I Know About Love by Dolly Alderton, and The Prosecutor by Nazir Afzal respectively). Either way, the cover functions as a paratextual confirmation of the content’s veracity.
There are no hard-and-fast rules in book design—there are only patterns (see what I did there?), so exceptions are inevitable. Still, being aware of common tropes can really help you understand what a designer is trying to communicate.
Now that you’ve learned the basics, why not put your knowledge to the test by turning to your bookshelf or Reedsy’s book design gallery, and judging some more books by their covers? Look at examples from similar genres and see if you can detect the unspoken principles guiding the designers—this is especially entertaining when you know nothing about a book, as you can then test yourself by reading the synopsis at the back. Have fun!
This post was written for The Wordy Habitat by Desiree Villena.
Desiree Villena is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects authors and publishers with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. In her spare time, Desiree enjoys reading contemporary fiction and writing short stories.
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Are there any other patterns or trends that you have noticed in book covers?