If a Picture Paints a Thousand Words*

Cover ArtIn yesterday’s post, I mentioned the cover of David Rosenfelt’s Unleashed. As you see, it prominently features a Unleasheddog. So do several other entries into Rosenfelt’s Andy Carpenter series. And the novels do include dogs (Carpenter is a dog lover and owner of an animal rescue shelter). Rosenfelt, too, is heavily involved in animal rescue. So on that level, it makes sense to feature dogs on the covers. But these novels aren’t really about dogs. They aren’t cosy mysteries in which dogs find the clues, solve the mysteries, and so on. Instead, they feature a New Jersey attorney (Andy Carpenter) who does his best for his clients.

All of this has got me thinking about the messages that crime fiction fans get from the covers of their books. After all, a cover quite frequently gives a first impression of a novel. And many people believe that a cover ought to tell something about the story (without, of course, giving away spoilers).

quite-ugly-one-morning-coverSome book covers tell almost nothing about the book. Here, for instance, is the cover of my edition of Christopher Brookmyre’s Quite Ugly One Morning. All you see here is the title and Brookmyre’s name. The novel tells the story of journalist Jack Parlabane, who unwittingly stumbles onto a murder scene, and gets himself involved in a crime that leads to some high places. The cover doesn’t show any of that. On the one hand, the title and author’s name are prominent – hard to forget. On the other, would some sort of image help draw reader attention?

There are covers that give small hints as to the story. For example, A Dark and Twisted Tidethis is the cover of my edition of Sharon Bolton’s A Dark and Twisted Tide, part of her Lacey Flint series. The vaguely hints at a river, and this novel really does feature the Thames as a main setting. And the character on the cover is a reminder of Flint herself. It’s not particularly specific, though. And many people like it that way, as they don’t want hints as to the novel’s contents.

The Holy ThiefWe also see that sort of thing in this cover of my edition of William Ryan’s The Holy Thief. The cover places the reader in Stalin’s Soviet Union. And that’s where this series takes place. It features Moscow CID Captain Alexei Korolev, who works with his assistant, Sergeant Nadezhda Slivka. In this novel, Korolev is assigned the murder of a young woman whose body is discovered in a former church. He’s working on this case when there’s another murder. And another. These murders have ties to the dreaded NKVD as well as to the just-as-dangerous Moscow Thieves. So solving them may cause as many problems for Korolev as not solving them would. The cover doesn’t specify the church, or give other clues as to this investigation, but it does situate the reader.

There are also book covers that give more specific clues to the mystery. This, for example, is theHickory Dickory cover of my edition of Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock. That novel takes place at a hostel for students. It involves the murder of a young woman, Celia Austin, by means of poisoned coffee. And there’s a backpack/rucksack in the novel, too. So it’s easy to see why those things are represented on the cover. And of course, since Hercule Poirot is the sleuth in this story, it makes sense that he’s pictured on the cover as well. And yet, the cover doesn’t give the story away.


The same might be said for the cover of my edition of Ed McBain’s Cop Hater, which you see here. This novel introduces the members of the 87th Precinct, in particular Steve Carella. And the focus of the story is the investigation of two murders of police officers. This cover depicts that, as well as the hints at the fact that this isn’t a light mystery.


What do you think about all of this? Do you pay attention to covers? Do you look for hints about what’s inside when you see a book cover? What about those situations where the cover either doesn’t match the story, or says nothing about it? If you’re a writer, how do you go about matching your story to a good cover (if you have a say in the cover)?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bread’s If.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Christopher Brookmyre, David Rosenfelt, Sharon Bolton, William Ryan

30 responses to “If a Picture Paints a Thousand Words*

  1. To be honest I usually don’t pay too much attention to book covers. However I must confess some covers can put me off.

  2. Tim

    I admit to being either seduced or repulsed by book covers in libraries, bookstores, and online vending sites. However, even as this discussion moves forward, I will throw an off-the-wall question into the mix: When did book publishers go beyond embossing titles, authors, and publishers on the binding spins and begin using “illustrations” on book covers and/or dust covers? Perhaps you or book historians among your fans, Margot, will know the answer.

    • Interesting question, Tim, about illustrators. I did a little research and found that illustrated dust jackets have been around since 1890. But it wasn’t until the post-war era that cover designs really started to become popular. That’s just my research, though. Folks, if anyone knows better, please put me right.

  3. I rather like the plain black covers with yellow writing of some French publishers of crime fiction (in the early days at least). It shows you it’s crime, but it doesn’t give too much away. And I’m not usually all that bothered. However, there are some that have stunning covers, so that does make me pick them up in a bookshop (less so online). While if it’s a really garish or unsuitable cover, I must have a personal recommendation to make me pick it up…

    • I feel exactly the same way about those garish covers, Marina Sofia! I really don’t care for them at all, so the book has to come with the highest, most trustworthy recommendation for me to read it. And I know what you mean about stunning covers. Some covers really can sweep you away, can’t they?

      Interesting, too, that you notice a difference between online shopping and bookshops. Picking up a real book and looking at the cover is different. And ecovers have a different sort of effect to paper book covers.

  4. I do enjoy looking at the covers of your books here Margot. I am someone who takes notice of outstanding covers and have noted that lots of my reads this year have moved away from the more traditional black to a kind of turquoise blue, particularly those that are in the psychological genre. I presume this is off the back of some market research somewhere because it seems far too much of a coincidence. I have to say I do like the cover to reflect something of the story but on balance it will be the synopsis that makes me chose. On the other hand I really don’t like ‘pulp-fiction’ types of covers and actively don’t chose these.

    • You know, Cleo, I hadn’t thought about the move from black to turquoise, but you have a point. It certainly could be a case of market research showing what appeals to people – or at least prompts a purchase. Hmm…..interesting! I know what you mean, too, about the cover reflecting something about the story. I prefer that, too. As you say, the synopsis is also really important, but a cover that fits with the rest is appealing, too. The only exception I make is if the cover is too violent, garish, or exploitative. I must confess I’m not a fan of those sorts of covers.

  5. I think we all are guilty of judging a book by its cover and I think I’ve actually bought several based purely on the artwork on the cover! The Bellwether Revivals is an excellent example.

    There are some books I keep on my shelf because I love the covers too. I think it’s safe to say I enjoy the art in covers although it does irritate me when they bear absolutely no resemblance to the novel inside.

    Oh, and I loved ‘Quite Ugly One Morning’ although I have to say I wasn’t all that impressed with Brookmyres later work :-/

    • Some editions of the The Bellwether Revivals have beautiful covers, D.S.. I can see why you were drawn in. I’ve got a few books like that, myself – books where the covers just were irresistible. And you’re right; even the best cover is made less if it has nothing to do with the story.

      As for Brookmyre? Some of his work really is great. But there are some novels I wasn’t too keen on myself. Still, I do like his wit.

  6. Col

    I’m drawn to books very often by the cover, especially in the case of authors I haven’t read previously, but I don’t really reflect on the relevance or not of them to the stories afterwards.

    • That’s really interesting, Col. So covers can be a ‘draw,’ but perhaps just at first. That makes sense since, after all, it’s really the story itself that matters.

  7. I think covers are very important – attractive or interesting covers do encourage me to pick up a book. Whereas I steer clear of scenes of violence or ugliness! I realise authors may not always get much of a choice. I didn’t with the first edition of my first book, but then my daughter and son-in-law (who are keen photographers) took over the task of providing me with really good covers, with which I am extremely happy. And fortunate!

    • You are fortunate indeed, Dawn. There’s something about getting a cover that’s really right for a book, isn’t there? I’m glad you’ve got covers you like so well. And you’re right; a good cover does make a difference.

  8. I am drawn to covers and will more likely pick up a book if the cover is catchy. It’s nice when a cover has a hint of what the story is about. However, I would rather a cover not have any images than to have images that have nothing whatsoever to do with the story. That’s like titles. I’ve read several books that the titles have nothing to do with the story and makes me wonder why they were named that.

    • I know what you mean about titles, Mason. That’s a whole subject in itself, I think. And I agree: it’s best when covers have at least something to do with the story. If a cover is particularly appealing, that makes it all the better.

  9. Margot, I have often bought novels only because I liked the covers. I am not so sure of their reading, though. I am a real sucker for mid- to late 20th century paperbacks, especially Pan, Bantam, Corgi, and Ballantine imprints, to name a few. I like the new Hard Case Crime covers too. My wife has a good collection of some of the early editions of Agatha Christie which are far superior to modern covers. We have also held on to several P.G. Wodehouse’s popular orange-and-white Penguin paperbacks with covers illustrated by Ionicus.

    • Ah, yes, the orange Penguin covers! I can see why you’ve held on to them, Prashant. And some of the other imprints you’ve mentioned do have some terrific covers, don’t they? I’m also glad you mentioned the new Hard Case covers; some of them are terrific.

  10. I do pay a lot of attention to a cover but it doesn’t factor into whether I read it. So many covers are generic nowadays. Especially the ones where a woman is seen from behind in the distance.

    • I see a lot of those sorts of covers, too, Patti. And I know what you mean about noticing a cover, but not using it to make a decision about whether to read a book. I’ve done that, myself.

  11. Very interesting and thought-provoking post, Margot!
    The front cover should catch the eye, and the back cover should make the sale. At least that’s my opinion. A problem with some covers is they are so bland a prospective reader (me!) might not be enticed to read the back (or, flyleaf). The late Larry Brown’s book JOE had such a boring cover that had I not known of the author I would’ve most likely passed it up.
    A cover should give at least a “sense” of what’s inside, such as the Agatha Christie cover you chose. My next Mac mystery (don’t want to advertise here) opens inside an old hotel thought to be haunted. The cover shows the abandoned hotel, and I think it works nicely by setting the tone of the story.
    Thanks again for an entertaining post!

    • That sounds like an interesting cover, Michael. And it certainly does reflect what happens in the story, which is important. I hope your book will do very well. You’ve got a point that the cover should have something interesting about it that catches the reader’s eye. At the same time, I like it when the cover gives at least some hint about what’s in the novel.

  12. I do pay attention to covers and like it when there’s a hint of the story in the cover art. My publisher has authors submit a novel synopsis and five suggestions for the cover. It’s hard — I know what I like when I see it, but coming up with the ideas from scratch takes me a long time.

    • It does sound challenging, Pat. The company that published my second book wanted a similar thing from me, and it was a challenge for me, then. And yet, it’s nice to flex those creative muscles. And I agree with you; I like a cover to give at least a hint of what’s in a story.

  13. I don’t like the copycat covers: quite often it is easy to see which earlier bestseller a new book is ‘paying homage’ to. I suppose the argument is that it lets readers know it’s in a similar vein, but it just looks unimaginative to me.

    • I know exactly what you mean, Moira. I understand the motivation, but it doesn’t seem to show much creativity, does it? I’d far rather have someone make an effort to be distinctive, and perhaps not get it perfect, than to do a ‘me, too’ sort of cover.

  14. Great article, Margot, on the all-important area of cover designs. I’m especially partial to the vintage covers from the lurid era of paperbacks in the 1940s and 1950s, sensationalist at the time but almost quaint today and regarded with much affection by collectors.
    It’s difficult to be objective on the topic of my own covers, since I design them myself. Nonetheless, I hope they give a flavor of the story to follow, and most of all, encourage readers to buy, and read, the book!

    • I know what you mean about those lurid covers, Bryan. There’s just…something about them, isn’t there? And they are in great demand by collectors. They’re almost nostalgic, I think. As to your own covers? I think they’re terrific. Hey, folks, do go check out Bryan’s great blog and check out his covers.

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