The Cover Sometimes Makes the Book*

Book Back CoversI think we’d all agree that the quality of a novel has little to do with its cover. Speaking for myself, I’ve read plenty of unforgettable novels that didn’t have remarkable covers, and my share of completely forgettable novels with gorgeous covers. And yet, people spend a great deal of time and effort designing covers. There are cover reveals when books are released, and quite a lot of animated discussion about what should be on those covers when books are being planned.

There are probably several reasons for this. One is that, especially in today’s crowded market, it’s important to get people’s attention quickly. And that often means a great cover. A cover also can serve as a kind of shorthand to tell people about the novel. For instance, have a look at this cover of Will Thomas’ Fatal Enquiry.


Fatal Enquiry

It tells you right away that the story takes place in London. The man’s clothes also tell you that the novel takes place in the past.

This is the cover of Sam Hilliard’s The Last Track.


Last Track

Just one look at it tells you that the story takes place in a rural area. And the way the man on the cover is dressed tells you right away that the story takes place in modern times. As it turns out, both things are true.

But covers do more than just give a ‘snapshot’ of what’s inside. They also ‘brand’ a novel. Here, for instance is my edition of Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead (Yes, I know, it’s been much loved. I had it as a gift when I was a teenager, and no, I’m not saying how long ago that was).


Mrs McGinty

If you notice, there’s a figure of Hercule Poirot on the cover. Christie’s novels have of course come out in dozens of different editions. Each one has some way of ‘branding’ it as a Christie novel.

You can see that sort of ‘branding’ with this cover of Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Delicious and Suspicious.


Delicious and Suspicious

If you look at the top, it’s ‘branded’ as part of her Memphis Barbecue series. And that can be very effective in getting readers interested. Fans know to look for that little ‘brand mark’ when they’re looking for a Riley Adams novel, even if they can’t recall the title they want.

A cover can also give readers a sense of the sort of crime fiction novel they’re considering. For instance, here’s the cover of Lindy Cameron’s Redback.



The cover tells you right away that this is probably not a light, cosy read. And it’s not. The cover also has a ‘thrillerish’ sort of feel to it, and that’s exactly what this novel is. It involves terrorism, international intrigue, and a crack Australian rescue team that goes up against them. A-hem, Ms. Cameron – still waiting for the next Team Redback novel…..

Now have a look at the cover of James W. Fuerst’s Huge.



It’s bright red, so it’s attention-getting. But it doesn’t suggest a lot of violence or a fast ‘thriller’ pace. And actually, this novel has neither.

Some people pay particularly close attention to covers. For instance, collectors of books with certain kinds of covers, or from certain eras, look for the sort of cover they want. Others only pay attention to a cover if it’s particularly off-putting. Either way, covers are a really interesting aspect of the crime fiction novel, even if they don’t always tell you whether a novel is of high quality.

And…speaking of covers, here’s the cover of Patti Abbott’s forthcoming release, Concrete Angel.



You can tell just by looking that it’s got a theme of someone who’s trapped in a tragic situation. And that’s exactly what the novel is about. It’s coming out in mid-2015, and I’m looking forward to it!

What you do think of this whole issue of covers? Do you pay attention to them? Do you collect books from a certain era because of the cover? Do you look for a certain cover artist’s work? If you’re a writer, what are your thoughts on covers for your books?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Styx’s Miss America.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Elizabeth Spann Craig, James W. Fuerst, Patti Abbott, Riley Adams, Sam Hilliard, Will Thomas

47 responses to “The Cover Sometimes Makes the Book*

  1. As you have said in the very beginning: never ever just trust a cover! I do read the backside, minimum, if I wouldn’t know the author plus having a short glimpse into the book itself to learn about prose and style. 🙂

    • Salva – It’s true that covers don’t always tell everything about a book, do they? And you make an interesting point about the back cover. They can be really important too, and I’m pretty sure you’re by no means the only one who gets a sense of a book from the back cover….

  2. Not on a cover reveal but included in your topic today. You are a peach.

  3. Don’t forget those great old Dell Mapback mysteries – paper editions where the back cover was a map or sketch of the “scene of the crime.” They were usually accompanied by evocative, sometimes lurid, front covers, and the maps were a very good incentive to collect those editions. Some classics are being reprinted now with the original mapbacks included – Hake Talbot’s marvelous “Rim of the Pit” has one of the absolute best.

    If anyone’s interested, here’s a link to the books, maps and covers Google Images turned up during a search for “Dell map back mysteries”:

    • Les – Thank you for the reminder of those great Mapbacks. They’re real classics and they speak to that era really effectively I think. Folks, do check out Les’ link.

  4. I love cover art, and am a sucker for a good cover.

  5. I have hated some covers of favourite books – for instance, I don’t like film tie-ins, so the latest cover of The Great Gatsby featuring Di Caprio looking bored in all his finery just didn’t do it for me. I also really, really don’t like the revamp of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with some little girl looking like Barbie on the cover.
    However, there seems to be a fashion in covers: the usual predominantly black background for crime fiction is timeless, but I’ve noticed a lot of blue around lately. In fact, I’ve just discovered a whole Pinterest site dedicated to these trends in book cover design.

    But, to be honest, I’ve lived through times when the books I wanted to read were banned so I was reading photocopied or badly printed versions of them, so covers are a bit of a luxury. I am not easily put off by a cover if the content is great.

    • Marina Sofia – It’s all about perspective isn’t it? The content of a book is an awful lot more important than the cover. I agree with you, too, that film and TV tie-in covers almost never have much ‘personality.’ And even though I absolutely loved John Thaw as Morse, I didn’t even care much for the Inspector Morse – themed covers for Colin Dexter’s series.
      Thanks very much for shsaring that Pinterest link, too. Folks, you should also check out Killer Covers of the Week .

  6. According to marketing experts, the cover is the number one promotional tool. The second is the back-cover copy.

    The cover has to be iconic of the genre, specific to the topic of the book, eye-grabbing in large and thumbnail sizes, and branded to the individual author. They also have to be trendy enough not to look like a book from a few years ago. That’s why they are so hard to get right.

    That’s also why I was considered such a demanding b*tch when I worked with small press artists. You don’t put an action/adventure cover on a romantic suspense, or a silly saucer-shaped UFO on a space opera.

    My funniest cover disaster was my science fiction romance, STAR-CROSSED. I asked for a man’s manacled hand reaching for a star. Unfortunately, the star looked like a breast, and the man’s fingers appeared to be pinching the nipple. I called it “The Galactic Grope.”

    The cover was changed once I explained the problem.

    Here’s a copy of the infamous cover if anyone is interested.

    • Marilynn – Thank you very much for your perspective. And you’re absolutely right that cover design is critical. I like the fact that you insisted on having the right cover for your books, too. I think it’s important for authors to think about the connection between the cover and what’s inside. It does matter.
      Oh, and thanks for sharing that first cover….I love your name for it!

  7. These are all great covers and I love your analyses of them.
    BTW I just visited your instagram page. Pretty impressive!

    • Oh, thank you, Carol! I think Instragam is one of a lot of effective ways to connect with readers, especially younger ones. And thanks for the kind words about my post.

  8. Over the decades I would have to put my hand and admit that on more than one occasion I have bought a book because of the covers or because I really liked the paper quality – and this is something that an ebook will never be able to equate, so i hope the paper variety never goes away. Some lovely covers there Margot and I must admit, sometimes I have ended up admiring the sheer chutzpah of a totally misleading cover, such as this one for instance:

    • Sergio – Oh, I’ve been drawn in by covers more than once myself. I know just what you mean. And there is something isn’t there about a ‘real’ paper book. Ebooks do have covers, but it’s not the same as a paper book cover…

  9. PS Looks like my attempt to embed the image failed – this is the one I meant:

  10. Back in the not too distant past, an author would be given a title to write about and the cover would already be made. More times than not the title had nothing to do with the cover

    • That’s a well-taken point, Scott. I think authors have more to do with the choice of cover design than they used to have. And for the author, that offers a lot of ‘food for thought.’

  11. I like the way that with the traditional authors – Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers – you can track changes in fashions over the years with the different editions of their books. Each era gets the covers they deserve. It’s a fascinating topic. I am particularly interested in the Christie covers by Tom Adams – they were very unusual and distinctive. Some worked better than others, but on the whole I liked them. They contained alllusions and clues to the story, sometimes quite strange choices…

    • Moira – Those Tom Adams covers really were interesting weren’t they? Folks, if you’re not familiar with them, here’s a Pinterest page to show you what we mean. As you say, Moira, some worked better than others, but all are innovative. And it is interesting to see how cultural and other changes are reflected in the way those series’ book covers have changed over time as new editions have come out.

  12. kathy d.

    Most covers these days are pretty innocuous, except some do show violence against women. A few years ago a woman book editor wrote an essay, and one of her points was that publishers want violence against women on the cover — even if the murder victim isn’t a woman! I wondered who is buying books with those covers.
    When I first began reading crime fiction as a teenager, I read books by Conan Doyle, Rex Stout, Erle Stanley Gardner, Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie and Josephine Tey.
    There were some Mike Hammer/Mickey Spillane paperbacks around the house and some mystery magazines with covers showing brutalized women. I would not read those books or magazines then nor will I now.
    Cozies, which I usually don’t read, often have beautiful covers.

    • Kathy – That sounds like an interesting essay. I haven’t read it, but it’s an interesting premise. Certainly there are plenty of covers with that sort of violence. That sort of cover doesn’t attract me, at any rate.
      You make a well-taken point too about the visual appeal of a lot of ‘cosy’ mysteries. They are often really lovely.

  13. I have noticed that most YA books have very winsome covers. What is inside the covers is a different matter altogether 🙂
    I love covers of Pocket Book editions as well as those published by Fontana. Of late, Random House’s Vintage Collection has some lovely covers.

    • Neeru – You’ve got a very well-taken point. YA covers are often very appealing, aren’t they? And I like the Pocket Book covers, too. Thanks also for mentioning Random House’s Vintage Classics. They’ve done a great job haven’t they with some of those covers.

  14. Love this post, Margot. Till a few years back, when I discovered blogsphere and could therefore get author recommendations, I used to spend hours in bookstores, browsing random books in an attempt to find something I might like. And the first cut I used was the cover. If the cover was engaging, I’d pick the book up, read the blurb, and maybe the first page, and take a decision accordingly. There are very many books I might never have picked up had it not been for the cover catching my eye in some way. Now, things are different- there are blogs, there are amazon reviews, there is goodreads- but even now, if a cover jumps out at me, chances are I will give it a second look.

    Personally, I am not fond of covers that have actors on them. And the covers I like most are ones that are either stark, a lot like that of “HUGE”, which is almost epic, or which set the mood. I particularlly like the covers of the entire Martin Beck series, because it marries both those likes of mine.

    On a very different note, I bought “To Kill a Mockingbird” when I was in my early teens. Every few years, I’ve re-read the book. A few months back (after we shifted homes), I looked for the book and couldn’t find it anywhere. I know I can buy a new book to replace it- and even if I find it, having an extra copy doesn’t hurt- but the cover has changed, and I can’t bring myself to read the new one!!!!

    • Natasha – Thanks for the kind words. I know what you mean about cover changes for new editions of books. There’s something about that difference that can make even a much-loved book seem ‘wrong’ almost. One’s so used to the way the older edition looks. Odd when you remember that it’s exactly the same novel. But it happens.
      You make a well-taken point too about book buying. Before the days of the Internet, I think people probably did use covers quite an awful lot to help narrow their choices for reading. I know I did. Then of course, there’s the back cover/blurb. Today we have all sorts of book recommendations from trusted friends, blogs and so on. But still, a good cover does make a difference.

  15. Ms. Kinberg, I like holding books with “remarkable covers” and reading them too. There is a certain comfort level with books with eye-catching dust jackets; for an analogy, it’s like wearing clothes you are really comfortable with and walking around in.

    • Prashant – I like that analogy. An appealing cover does help a book stand out, just as exactly the right clothes can. And a well-designed cover brings out the main best points of a novel, too, just as well-designed clothes do. I like that thought.

  16. I have to admit I do like books with nice covers for my bookshelves but I wouldn’t dismiss a book ever if it didn’t have a decent cover, as you say on the other hand covers are the thing that may make us pick up a book to read the synopsis etc. so those with clues to what the book is about are useful from that perspective. I do love looking at the changes in covers for the Agatha Christie books as they have been through multiple changes over the years.

    • Cleo – It is nice isn’t it to have some attractive covers on the bookshelves. It’s one of the reasons for which I’ll never really give up on paper books, ‘though I do love my Kindle. There’s just something about it… And you’re right; there are some covers that just draw the reader, even if what really matters is what’s on the inside. As far as changes in covers goes, I think they say a lot about the fashions and taste of a given era to take a look at how those covers have changed. Sometimes it even says something about who the dominant publishers are in a given era.

  17. I do have a weakness for great covers and that’s often the first thing that makes me pull a book off the shelf at a bookstore or library, especially when looking for mysteries and thrillers. Vivid colors attract me, especially blues and reds.

    • Pat – I think really well-done covers can have exactly that effect. They capture the attention and make you want to find out what’s inside. And it’s interesting you mention blues and reds. Those shades really do have an impact.

  18. If I’m buying a series, I like the books to all have “matching” jackets. That rarely works out over the life of a series but the neatnik in me likes it. I will often pick a book up because I like the jacket, but I always read a test page and it’s that snap judgement that determines whether I’ll actually buy the thing. I tend to prefer monochrome or low-contrast covers (whether a drawing or a photo or a graphic) which is simply a style bias. I guess I like a cover that conveys a mood. The “Fatal Enquiry” cover was right up my street.

    The only really BAD cover I can think of is Sheila York’s terrific “Star Struck Dead” paperback original. Oy that was a bad cover. I got the Kindle edition of the book as soon as it was available just so I could ditch the paperback – it made me mad that such a good book had gotten such a crappy cover.

    For the things I am writing that are all set in Los Angeles, I’m using a consistent design for the e-book “covers.” Nobody has commented on them so I’m assuming they are at least not distracting or irritating. 🙂

    • ChaCha1 – I know what you mean about wanting consistent covers. I’m like that too about series, although I must say, I don’t have a whole lot more luck than you do achieving it… I do try thought, when it’s a series I like.
      You also make an interesting point about personal bias when it comes to cover design. I think people are attracted to one kind of cover or another, or perhaps to one shade or another. And I can see how those more muted shades would appeal to you. I’m not much of a one for very, very bright colours myself, although I do admit they get people’s attention.
      And I’m sure your own covers aren’t distracting. I think even if people do stop for a moment at the cover (or longer, if the cover is very bad), they end up either liking a book or not on its own merits.

  19. I do love a good book cover, Margot. Design will often make me pick up a book and read the blurb, though it wouldn’t be enough alone to make me buy the book. That said, I love the look of Concrete Angel. Looking forward to that release.

    • Angela – Oh, I am very keep to read Concrete Angel too. Patti Abbott is a very talented writer. If you’ve not tried her work yet, I recommend it.
      As for book covers, I know what you mean. They can be absolutely stunning. For instance, I love the ones designed for your Jayne Keeney series, both the original and the other set. Very appealing and atmospheric.

  20. I am definitely swayed by covers, although the content of the book has to be interesting too. I love vintage paperback covers, but newer covers can be great also.

    The cover for Patti’s book is gorgeous. Seems like a long wait until mid-2015 but it will be here sooner than I think. Definitely a pre-order for me.

    • Tracy – Oh, I hope you’ll enjoy Patti’s book. I’m very excited about it. And yes, that cover really is beautiful. Like you, I think that some of the vintage paperbacks really are lovely. And even the plainer covers still have that ‘vintage’ feel about them.

  21. Hi Margot – Wonderful topic. And that’s sure one knockout of a cover for Fatal Enquiry. Les beat me to the punch but I’ve just got to plug those wonderfully, deliciously lurid paperback covers from the golden age in the 40s and 50s. Dell of course, but also other publishers: Avon, Lion, Bantam, Pocket et al.

    Echoing Kathy’s comment, a dark side of the vintage era covers was the depictions of violence against women, made even more objectionable by the she-had-it-coming mentality, often not very disguised.

    More recently, and seconding Sergio’s reference, Hard Case Crime does a great job capturing the vintage style.

    p.s. I just love designing my own covers. It’s more fun than writing the book (don’t tell anyone I said so!)

    • Bryan – Don’t worry; it’ll be our little secret… And I like the cover of Fatal Enquiry too. You make an interesting point, and so does Les, about the GA covers. Kathy’s right that they too often depict violence against women, and certainly prejudice the reader against female victims. But they were/are lurid!

  22. Col

    I do like striking covers and will pick up a book on the strength of one, before reading the blurb on the back. Never felt the urge to check into the designers of them though. The Hard Case Crime books are quite easy on the eye.

    • They are indeed, Col. And you have a point about the power of a cover to catch one’s eye. Sometimes that’s enough to get you to at lest pick up a book and read the blurb.

  23. Johnny Ojanpera

    This is very timely for me. I am wrapping up a novella, and mulling over what I want the cover to look like. I have some ideas that match the title, but I am such a minimalist that I feel the title might stand alone just fine. I might make several covers and put it to a vote. I think that despite the content, readers are still taken in by the cover, at least as a first impression. That can be the biggest part of one’s decision to purchase a book.

    • Johnny – Covers really can play a very big role in getting a book noticed. So the decision of what the cover should look like is a vital one. I don’t blame you for approaching the task carefully. Like you, I’m a minimalist at heart, so I appreciate exactly what you’re going through as you decide what to include or not on your cover. I’ll be really eager to see your choice!

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