The Inscrutable Science of Book Covers

 You could say that as a scientist, I know a lot about a lot of things. I've even successfully explained string theory to Hawkeye - sort of. He glazed over at one point but didn't ask any questions so I assume that he understood it.

But the very real and very mysterious science behind the choosing of cover images for books, in print and electronic form, still eludes me. Maybe you feel this way, too. Maybe you've picked up a book with a striking cover image of - I don't know, let's say the silhouette of a tiger - and you read the whole book wondering when the tiger was going to show up. And you think about all the ways a tiger could be a metaphor for what happened in the book, but the book was about Inuit people fishing so you're left scratching your head and thinking that some editor somewhere must have heard that tiger silhouettes sell books. Or you've read a book with a blonde blue-eyed girl on the cover and been annoyed by the middle of the book because the main character has brown hair and, furthermore, it is very important to the overall meaning of the story that she has brown hair. You're not irritated because you bought the book only because you like books about blonde people. You're irritated because the cover image doesn't match the content. It's not quite false advertising, you admit, but you still feel some sacred trust between author and reader has been violated.

I have a friend who has released five YA contemporary romances and she's gotten cover approval on some of them. The first tine around, she couldn't wait to see what the publisher put together, and her first set of choices struck her as all wrong. It wasn't just that the couple on the prospective covers didn't look like her couple - though that was important to her, as I bet it is for lots of writers who get to know and love their characters as much as parents must know and love their children. It was that some of them just seemed so wrong. One of the cover boys was balding, which doesn't exactly scream "seventeen-year-old cutie pie" to most YA readers. This chapter in the saga ended well, though, as they found the perfect couple and the perfect image. But with each book, despite it being about the same couple depicted in each book, it was always a different pair on the cover. My friend didn't want to be a pill and knew that her publisher knew a heck of a lot more than she did about selling books, so she but her tongue when one of the covers featured a girl in tight jeans and high heels but privately wailed to me, "Bruce, my MC would never wear, those shoes! She wears beat up Chuck Taylors!" She worried that readers would expect the book to be a whole lot racier than it is and be disappointed. She takes these things seriously. Still, she trusted her publisher to know what they're doing, and all of the books have sold well.

But if you're the kind of person and writer who likes to control things,
 then self-publishing may be the best option for you, so you can get precisely the image you want. You can make your own art or scour stock photos or images at places like or or or for photos and clip art. (They're also useful for making promotional material images, like photo collages). Just read the fine print on the site about what rights you actually have for use - even if you are purchasing an image, you're not always allowed to use it in any way you want to, so check the licensing.

You're not supposed to judge a book by its cover, they say, but  a book cover design is chosen carefully, using some sort of science or algorithm I have not yet cracked, precisely to sell that book. Which book covers have been your favorites, the ones that drew you to pull that book off the shelf and dive in? Were there any books you liked despite their covers? Drop he team a line and let us know. I'm at an undisclosed location right now, but I can still get email. 

And if you see Natasha. tell her I'm okay, please.

Banner out.
P.S. If Stark tells you he knows the formula 
for the perfect book cover, 
be skeptical.


  1. I didn't like the covers on the Mortal Instruments books, because they looked very romancey (it was all shirtless guys and couple poses). They're being re-packaged though, and I like the new covers better.

    I've seen examples of 'gendered' covers -- where a book that publishers think will appeal to women has a ridiculously over-feminine cover, even when the content of the book is not that 'girly'. Like 'The Bell Jar'. There have been some ridiculous covers for that book.

    1. Oh boy... that reminds me... in my second fantasy novel "Generations", it's about the hero of the first novel teaching a young noblewoman (his apprentice) the ways he himself was taught as a child, as the powers of evil try to release magic, which could drive all of humankind insane and end the world. And there will be people who ship Winter (the middle-aged hero) and Elian (the teenaged apprentice.) THAT IS DISGUSTING. *cries into your shoulder* DEFINITELY not making that look like a romance novel cover. Gah.
      Honestly, if they want to ship, they should ship Winter with Tairya, the traitorous princess from the first book who he was sworn to protect, because that would make more sense than shipping him with Elian, however twisted it would be. *sigh* Oh, the terrors of founding a fandom... -_-

  2. (That grin in the top picture, and Tony's bizarre expression.... X-D So adorable.)
    Ahem. Yes.
    er.... lessee...
    I don't normally think about covers so much. Maybe that's because I don't write romance? No, it's probably... nope, that doesn't make sense, either.
    I think that the Ranger's Apprentice series has had some pretty good covers. They're redesigning them now, so I don't know if I'll like the new ones, but the old ones were all pretty good...
    I want my fantasy novel to have a court picture in the background, while in the foreground, a young man in a cloak holds something that would suggest that he's a servant (because the story is about a Middle-Ages sort-of-bodyguard who frequently gets mistaken for a servant.) :-P The second novel... um... I have no idea, it's about the hero of the first book as he teaches an apprentice, a young noblewoman who was basically pushed into it because she had too many siblings and her marriage prospects were not good.