Writers on the Reality of Book Covers

No matter how the saying goes, we all judge books by their covers. Some covers are so good they transcend the author’s fame (or lack thereof) and make you buy it anyway. And others induce a head-shaking shame for the writer who allowed their story to be tarnished by that terribly tacky image the publisher chose.

As readers, we tend to forget that the author may be the brand behind their novel but they may not necessarily choose the book cover that represents them. This is a particularly scary thought when we live in an age where individuals have the power to project their own image on social media, but a writer cannot always project their own image on the cover of a work they toiled over for years.

book cover_template
Just how important is a book cover? And how much control does an author have when it comes to designing the face of their story?

How important are book covers?

The obvious answer is: very. We use book covers to determine the worth of a book, the kind of story that might be told within, and whether or not we should take it seriously and buy it. Covers spark our imagination (like those winners of the recent Australian Book Design Awards for 2014); covers start trends in publishing (just look at popular YA novels and their minimalist designs); and they give us an impression of the legitimacy of the author and the story.

The cover of Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker winning novel ‘The Luminaries’ took out first place for Best Designed Literary Fiction Book .

First and foremost, a book cover must stay true to the story within. Misleading the reader has many consequences, particularly when you consider the gap between YA and adult books and the graphic themes that may be portrayed within. The book cover needs to represent enough content about the genre and story that the reader knows exactly what they’re buying without being explicitly told. Author Pip Newling agrees, that the cover must always look like the story the book tells:

If it is a romance, the cover has to illustrate that. If it is a young adult vampire story, then the cover would be quite different to an adult vampire story. If it is about death and war, that pretty image of a girl in a white dress might be misleading the buyer. Don’t mislead the reader is always the first point, I think.

There is always an ideal reader for a book – it might be age specific, story specific, socio-economic or gender specific whatever the target is. It makes a sale much easier if the ‘right’ person is attracted to it for all the right reasons. We recognise ourselves in stories and therefore, there must be something about the cover of books we buy that strikes a chord with us.”

Book covers need to navigate tricky ground surrounding marketing while not misleading the reader and taking into account whether the design will appeal to the right audience. Author Shady Cosgrove says that:

The marketing department cares if it’s a cover that will sell books. The author (usually!) cares if the cover represents the book. I think it’s important to consider both because you may sell a lot of books based on the cover but if readers feel that they’ve been misled in some way they’re not going to recommend the book to their friends”

However, online publishing and self-made authors complicate the importance of cover design. Book covers seem to matter less when browsing and purchasing online. Shady says that readers who browse online lack the ‘book as artefact’ experience:

While the image is still important, the book isn’t an object in a reader’s hand if they’re perusing online books. I do have to say though that I’ll peruse book shops but I don’t peruse online. Instead, I tend to go off of recommendations, so in that sense social media has a bigger role in light of book sales.”

Word of mouth, book reviews, and social media have created a shift toward more creative online marketing strategies rather than an atmospheric dusty bookstore rummage; the number of stars on a review or the discounted price can be the clincher for the online-book-buyer and this means that a knock-out book cover may not be as vital as once thought.

Does the author have any power?

In July 2014, Anne Rice released the cover for her latest ‘Vampire Chronicles’ novel, Prince Lestat. The cover detailed a generic looking handsome man, just standing and looking broody in a moody setting. Needless to say, the author’s Facebook post was flooded with comments from disappointed fans. They knew that the cover didn’t represent the story, and it carried a boring and tacky look that turned readers off. Rice responded:

I have no control. Never have had. Of all the covers on my books over the years, I have liked a few”

So why would such an established author consent to the use of a book cover that she hated? Why permit the publisher to brand your author image in a way you don’t agree with? The issue seems to be one of loyalty to the publisher and trust in their vast marketing resources.

I do respect and have confidence in my UK publisher and my American publisher. And if the UK people think this is good for their market, well, I support them. We’ll see, I guess”

This begs the question, for many emerging authors hoping to break into the publishing industry: how much power do we really have over a book cover? It’s kind of heartbreaking to think that after all the effort a writer puts into their work, they have no say in the way it is presented to the all-important reader.

prince lestat_anne rice
Long term fans of Anne Rice’s work have expressed dismay at the cover design of her latest book ‘Prince Lestat’.

The publisher’s main goal may be to market the book and sell copies, but this is sometimes (not always, but sometimes) at the cost of the author’s intentions for the work. A publisher may push for a cover that repackages the story in an unexpected way, or a UK publisher may market differently to a US publisher (as Anne Rice has pointed out on her Facebook page). New covers may become available with film tie-ins that target readers coming fresh to the book from the movie.

This lack of authorial influence may be just another harsh reality of the publishing industry for some; a fact that many authors just have to deal with to ‘make it’ in the writing world. But Shady Cosgrove leaves some much-needed light at the end of the tunnel:

I couldn’t have been happier with either [of my books]… With both Allen & Unwin and Picador I was able to offer ideas during the brainstorming process but the important thing to remember is that as a writer, my expertise is in crafting the books. I don’t have any training in graphic design or marketing. So frankly I’d trust my publishers more than me. They came to me with possible covers and in both cases I loved the outcomes”

what the ground can't hold
Shady Cosgrove’s second book ‘What the Ground Can’t Hold’ (Picador).

Protecting the author’s power

Every author’s experience with their book cover design will always be unique. This depends on the avenue you use to break into the industry, whether by traditional methods or by self-publishing, and how you choose to negotiate the issue. Both Shady and Pip gave me a more hopeful view of the publisher/author relationship than Anne Rice, both detailing experiences of discussions between designer and writer (although the ultimate decision lies with the publisher). In terms of having complete control of your cover, Pip says that:

Some publishers are better at consultation than others. In the realm of self-publishing though, the story is very different. Writers who self-publish have sole control over the design of the cover”

Pip Newling’s first book ‘Knockabout Girl: A Memoir’ (HarperCollins).

This control can be a good and a bad thing, considering that writers are not (usually) designers. We’ve all seen those indie book covers and self-published stories that just make you cringe and question how an author could do that to their story and their brand. And then there are those amazing covers that have you marvel at how they created something so great with such scarce resources.

There are ways to avoid damaging your book’s branding when designing your own cover or negotiating with a publisher, by steering clear of cover cliches that can damage the uniqueness of your story and avoiding obvious book cover mistakes. You can also back-up your profile and the legitimacy of your book by creating an author platform, a place where you can form a community surrounding your novel and generate some publicity through discussion with other writers and readers.


Writer’s Edit would like to thank authors Shady Cosgrove and Pip Newling for their insights and experiences with book covers and publishing. Quotations from Anne Rice were taken from her official Facebook page on the 24th of July 2014.

Kyra Thomsen

Kyra is a writer and editor from Wollongong. She works full-time as a content writer while reading on the train and drafting short fiction stories in her spare time. Kyra won the 2012 Questions Writing Prize and has been published in Kindling, Seizure Online, Space Place & Culture and Tide. She enjoys admiring her bookshelves, watching cheesy shows on Netflix, and browsing her Tumblr. You can learn more about Kyra's previous publications, plus find fortnightly posts, on her website: kyrathomsen.com.

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