Okay. I admit it. I judge books by their covers!
While all manner of books grace my shelves, I have to say that I am more fond of certain ones (some to the point where I have a “reader’s copy” and a “collector’s copy”), so I decided to start this little series for great book covers (in no particular order).
So what makes a good book cover? Obviously, there’s a great deal of subjectivity to such a question. For instance, I can be made to stop for anything with a dragon, monster, horse, or cat on the cover (However, I will be very cross if the book has nothing to do with them...I dislike false advertisements). My eyes glaze over anything I think looks too much like a “stock photo” and, unless I’m looking for a book on photography, I tend to shy from photograph covers.
My number one reason to pause when I look at a book cover—good or bad—is often the font choice and placement. The book title and author title should never look like an afterthought. Whether you use a photo or a full illustration, simple graphics or oil paints, you or your artist should know ahead of time where the various bits of text need to go. That goes for the information needed on your spine and back cover (I’m looking at you awkwardly placed barcodes).
I’m always thrilled when I realise a book’s design had purpose beyond just covering pages. As I mentioned, I don’t like false advertisements and there are a lot of ways to make your book’s cover relevant to its contents. It is a famous flaw of publishing houses that, many times, the book illustrators aren’t given appropriate reference (or even know what they’re illustrating for!), but I think the industry is moving beyond this old foible. (Not that I’d complain if we got another Wayne Barlowe’s “Guide to Extraterrestrials: Great Aliens from Science Fiction Literature.”)
Of course, what it comes down to is an overall cohesive design. A book cover that stands out to me is one that looks like all the elements were considered, not just the images used. A good book cover, for me, is not just a clever or gorgeous illustration, but one that is cohesive in its design—all elements of its design. This is no easy feat. From considering the front, spine, and back (as well as dustjacket flaps if you have them) as a single unit, there are many elements to each: titles, authors, blurbs, quotes, publisher’s logos, barcodes...there’s a lot to look out for, but it’s entirely doable. As much as I love a good illustration, a book cover needs to be more than that.
With all of that said, let’s look at a few book covers that meet this criteria!
The Book Covers
“Wizard’s First Rule” by Terry Goodkind
No “Great Book Covers” collection would be complete without one of my old-school favourites: the fully illustrated cover. I chose the original hardcover for Terry Goodkind’s “Wizard’s First Rule” because of the illustration’s composition: it wraps around perfectly with a well-placed urn on the spine and the back cover is detailed but doesn’t draw away from the text. Doug Beekman is one of those classic book cover artists in science fiction and fantasy that make me miss these oil painted cover designs.
These have to be done right though. A big reason this one works is because the text isn’t an afterthought. Or, at least, the publisher didn’t just throw whatever font in whatever place. The title and author name are clear and legible and, while they stand apart from the illustration, they’re not in the way. And aren’t they just lovely with the colours juxtaposed like that? Both the yellow/gold strip at the top and the black strip at the bottom also wrap around the book. This gives the Tor logo (though the colour clashes a bit) and book barcode somewhere to sit on the spine and back cover respectively.
It’s a wonderful example of a fully illustrated cover still being considered with the other elements of book design.
“Warden’s Call” by Nino Vecia
Okay, okay, I may be biased because I worked on this one, but I can list a lot of hardcovers on my shelf with this kind of design aesthetic...most of them are decades—if not a century—old, however. It’s simple, it’s clean, and it makes a gorgeous art piece as much as a wonderful book. The cover, I should mention, is linen with a gold-stamped design. Yeah...it’s as nice to touch as it sounds.
While not a design I’d recommend for every book, this is a wonderful example of a book designed with purpose. The author (and artist) Nino Vecia and his brother Giancarlo wrote this book around Nino’s artwork (which features in the book, of course) and set up a story that reads very much like a Greek myth. What better way to convey all of that by making the book look like a mythological tome? When I first saw the design I thought, "This is like the books that transport protagonists to new worlds!" (à la “The Neverending Story” or “Warriors of Virtue”).
With no title or author, most writers might (and likely should) shy away from so simple a book cover. The Vecia brothers display the book next to all of Nino’s lovely artwork at conventions and, having seen them in person, these books look like an artifact you just want to pick up and look at (or just to touch it, seriously, linen covers are amazing).
“Kraken Bake” by Karen Dudley
Well, you knew this one would show up. I reviewed Karen Dudley’s “Kraken Bake” a couple of years ago and extolled the virtues of the cover. It deserves another mention though because it was the only reason I noticed the book on the shelf—and from the spine no less!
At first glance, it seems a simple design: three colours, a couple of fonts, and a single, flat image. But in its simplicity, you get everything you need in a clean, legible cover. Those colour choices and crisp lines make everything pop. The colours also tie things together: the red border to the author’s name; the title text and subtitle border; and the bottom border/subtitle text and the octopus. Nothing is overshadowed or difficult to read. The bands of colour also wrap around the book giving an extra space (and separation from the synopsis) for a quote (and, on the spine, for the author’s name). It’s very well thought out, cover to cover.
My one nitpick is the octopus design doesn’t wrap, so you get a few random tentacles from the spine wrapping to the back cover. Everything else wraps around so it’s really just a tiny distraction. Overall, it’s such a cohesive design though that I keep going back to it as an example of a book cover done well!
“Dragon Age: The Masked Empire” by Patrick Weekes
This cover has it all for me: cohesive design, impact, and illustrative quality. The font choice for the title and even the author’s name is a nuanced addition that works in the design. If you bought a print of this book cover, you’d feel something would be missing without the title and author name. They belong which is a rare thing in cover design. Made by an anonymous Senior Concept Artist at Bioware—going by the name of “Doe” on ArtStation—it’s the best cover of the Dragon Age books.
I like that the spine has a mini portrait of the cover character even though it’s just the same image reduced in size. My only complaint is that the only thing tying the front cover to the spine and back cover is the colour—and a small border design. I like wrapped covers, but I can understand why it may not have worked here.
Technically, this is also part of a series...but it has no connection to the other books (design wise). Despite those minor complaints, it’s nice to see a book cover that doesn’t just slap on whatever font is available like an ugly stamp. It shows a real forethought by the artist that this was meant to be a book cover as well as an illustration.
Consider Your Covers...All Parts of Them
Well there’s four gorgeous books in a rather long list of Great Book Covers (according to me and in no particular order)!
The old adage advising us never to judge books by their covers is a good one...but any writer who thinks their book’s cover won’t matter is forgetting a fundamental fact of human beings: we’re very visual creatures! Brick-and-mortar bookstores often have shelves upon shelves of so many books (never mind those used book stores...wow…) and online bookstores are even more inundated with images of all the books available...so the cover (and, yes, the spine) are a writer’s first impact on us as readers.
There’s a lot to be said for eye-catching artwork to draw readers to your book but if you consider your book’s purpose and don’t leave font choices as a last minute decision, you can have a book cover that truly shines as a part of your story and not just the cover for the pages.
Next time on Great Book Covers Part 2...Book series covers!