Book cover clichés: why using them will actually help you sell more books

Recently I’ve seen some articles circulating about “Book Cover Clichés” which put a handful of book cover designs from the same genre together to point out the similarities. The point of such articles, I infer, is to shame those cover designers who went for the easy, the obvious, the “cliché” designs instead of trying to make something more unique and original.

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However, these articles are founded on a false presumption – that book covers should be totally new and unexpected – which is downright dangerous and misleading for indie authors who don’t understand the purpose of book design.

What does a book cover actually do?

A good book cover needs to grab attention immediately, be striking, beautiful, clean and professionally made, but also let readers know instantly the basic genre. They’ll also often convey the geographical locations and main character’s age and sex. So besides looking good, the most effective (and hence most used) book cover layouts will have a main character, not necessarily showing the face, with some famous city or landscape behind them.

Then, to make sure readers know the genre immediately, they will use fonts and colors that match the general design standards for that genre. An effective book cover will also be similar to other best-selling books in the genre. Not identical, but “sort of like” some other well performing books in the genre, so that readers will identify your book with other books that they liked and sub-consciously think, “This book kind of reminds me of those other books in this genre I liked… I guess I’ll buy it to see if I like it.”

That’s what a successful book cover does.

Why genre cover designs are all similar

So it should be expected that all genre covers will look pretty much the same.

All European thrillers will have big bold dirty fonts, a European city and probably somebody running. Maybe a gun.

All hard-boiled LA detective novels will probably have palm trees, a gun and some blood.

All chick lit with be light blue or pink or purple and have curly fonts and feel cute and simple.

All vampire romances will have sharp, gothic fonts and be mostly red and black.

This doesn’t make them a cliché, at all. Sure when you put a few carefully selected ones side by side, there will be (and should be) more similarities than differences. Just like, if you’re walking down the aisle at the supermarket you’ll recognize the cereal boxes because, even though they are all totally different, they also all kind of look just the same. You know what they contain. You know you’re in the right section. So you stop and turn the box over to read the details.

Human beings have specific emotional responses to various colors. When we see red we feel stress – it heightens our fight or flight. Perfect for thrillers.

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If you’re writing a book about magicians or people who wear hoods and you put a character on the cover, of course they are going to look like this:

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If you want a sense of space and mystery, adding a little silhouette man is an easy way to achieve it (I try to avoid this one, but it continues to be effective for most authors in the genre).

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I don’t even think these vampire covers have much in common (no obvious fangs for example), and I hate the “Bleeding Cowboys” font in the middle because it’s so overused. But they do the trick. You can guess where they belong.

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Free tip: if you have the specific topic word included in the title or subtitle, you can safely remove it from the book cover. The cover design and the title work together to give all the necessary information to readers, without them needing to read the description to find out more. So the third book here, it’s hard to even tell they are vampires, but it’s OK because that’s in the title.  Same with the first and second books, which have “Vampire” in the subtitles. If that were missing, I would say these books aren’t being obvious enough, because we wouldn’t know just from the art what the genre was.

These are obvious “Shades of Gray” ripoffs… on the other hand gray has been the color of corporate thrillers for a long time. If you’re writing a book about a woman in a corporate environment, possibly with some thriller or erotic elements, it should look something like these:

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Same with these: a story about a young child. What are you going to put on the cover? Why would you do anything else?

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I have problems with the following one: yes there are a lot of spooky roads to nowhere, because it’s a good, powerful image full of symbolism. But the first book has very little in common with the other two; and the other two are from the same author so OF COURSE they should be identical. That’s not cliché at all, it’s branding!

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Defy design standards at your own risk

Let’s say you read some articles about book cover clichés and decide “I don’t want to be a cliché!” so you ask your designer to deliberately avoid all standard book cover design conventions.

Let’s say you’re writing a Western Romance but you don’t want any curly, decorative fonts, or cowboy fonts, or cowboys, horses or sunsets, or couples kissing, or women in old fashioned dresses, or sunsets, or anything that gave away the genre. You wanted it to be “a surprise” rather than a cliché.

What would happen?

The book cover lets readers know the genre, and if they are interested they will read the description and reviews, and maybe buy the book. But if your book cover fails its #1 task – to communicate the genre – the precise readers you are after will ignore the cover because it isn’t hitting the right buttons.

They are looking for Western Romances. Your book doesn’t look like a Western Romance. They will probably never click on your cover and read the description because you didn’t get them past the first phase.

Better to be a cliché than to be a failure.

Incidentally, I’ve played this scenario out a dozen times with clients. They want something simple, suggestive, symbolic. I tell them to choose something obvious. A powerful, beautiful picture that hits all the right genre buttons. They insist, we finish the cover, six months later they decide they are frustrated with their low sales and they give me permission to redo the cover and make the design that will sell the best.

Are my book covers clichés? Probably. They also sell a lot of copies. For one project about a middle-eastern themed book, I forwarded this picture, which I’d saved for this article, to see whether there were any basic fonts or layouts we could use to get started, which would save a lot of time (the alternative would be for me to make 10 different layouts/cover designs choosing pictures and fonts that are appropriate for the genre, but they would have looked a lot like these.)

 

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The person in charge of the project wrote back pointing out (rightly) that the image came from an article about book cover clichés; recommending that we start from the clichés must have seemed unprofessional, even ridiculous to him (shouldn’t professional cover designers avoid clichés?).

Actually, the covers above don’t have that much in common. Some are all black, some all white and yellow. The fonts are mostly boring serif or sans serif, a few in script fonts. Most of them have some type of veiled woman on the cover, but most of them are about Muslim women. Imagine starting a book cover design that needs to convey the book is about a Muslim woman. Should you go for the obvious and include a veiled woman, or do something symbolic that could be about anything, or any genre?

I could easily design a ton of samples with a whole bunch of different fonts and pictures until we figure out what kind of style the author wants, but it’s a big waste of time if the author could just decide first if they want a light or dark cover, or whether to use a serif or script font, by looking at what other book covers in the genre have done.

Turning your nose up at book cover clichés is like scoffing at The DaVinci Code because it was poorly written or because he mixed so many bad clichés into his writing. Did those impede the book’s success? No. Having a cover design that fits the genre won’t only not impede sales, it’s necessary for commercial success.

Take a look at these movie posters for example:

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Movie posters are terrible with clichéd design. Almost all movie posters in the same genre will look alike and use the same fonts and colors. But they have millions of dollars to spend: do you think they are choosing these designs by accident? Or making mistakes? They know exactly what they are doing.

They don’t need their posters to be unique or creative or different. They need them to appeal to the right type of people and get them to buy tickets. Do you think publishing should be more elitist and creative than the movie industry? If so good luck to you – you’re going to need it if you ignore design standards that drive commercial success.

The Obvious Idea

Let’s say you’re writing a book about Adam and Eve, or the Fall, or Satan’s Temptation, or Forbidden Sin, or Fallen Angels, or the Garden of Eden. You want one powerful symbol that will represent the subject.

The obvious idea is going to be a bitten apple. The symbol is so well known it’s obvious and immediate. You could try to avoid it and think of something “clever” – but it’s dangerous to use a symbol that readers won’t understand until after they’ve finished the book (if they don’t get the symbol before they’ve read the book, it’s meaningless to them, so you’ll probably lose the sale.)

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Luckily there are hundreds of paintings that feature Adam and Eve, the garden, and hundreds of stock photos that feature a bitten apple. It’s easy to find one that isn’t being used. You can add appropriate fonts and colors for the genre, and make a completely unique and beautiful book cover design.

The Easiness or Obviousness of the idea does not mar the impact of the book cover!

There are only a few genres, for example a book about Creativity, or some general non-fiction books on business, that need a “clever” book cover design. This is usually because, while fiction books are about setting, characters and emotion that appeal to the heart (which can be achieved with pictures and colors) non-fiction books are about ideas that appeal to the head.

So for some non-fiction, you need a clever, non-obvious juxtaposition of things that represents your topic. It grabs attention by “shocking” or “confusing” the reader, who wants to take a second look so they can “figure it out.” But this won’t work for fiction – don’t try and make your readers “figure out” your cover. If they don’t get it, if it doesn’t hook immediately, without consideration, in less than 1 second, it’s a failure. It works in non-fiction because you’re usually using a simple background and 2 very simple objects merged together in a new way.

Even so, I could easily put a few dozen of the best-selling nonfiction books side-by-side, and although they all have clever and unique central ideas, the fonts and colors and layouts would be nearly identical. Clever and non-obvious cover design choices are actually the genre standard for those types of books, so even though they may seem clever and brilliant, they are adhering to the design standards rather than avoiding them.

Cliché vs. identical

So your book cover should look like a bunch of other covers in your genre. It should “Fit in” with the others and it will probably be very similar to 4 or 5 (out of thousands in your genre). That’s no big deal. However some of the articles talking about book cover clichés are actually talking about using the same stock photography – and that’s a totally different issue.

This Buzzfeed list for example has 19 “Book Cover clichés” but most of them aren’t clichés at all – they are just using the same image.

 

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Everybody is using stock photography – even major publishers. Duplicates can’t be avoided entirely and they aren’t as much a big deal as you think they are. If you find a perfect, beautiful picture, there’s a good chance someone else is going to use it also.

You should scroll through the first 10 pages or so of bestsellers in your genre to make sure nobody is using it already. (If they are using it in another genre, it’s not a major problem, but you don’t really want your cover to show up right next to another cover with the same photo).

However, if somebody used the photo and their book isn’t selling well at all, it’s probably fine to go ahead and use it, since people won’t see their book much. ALSO – that excellent, beautiful picture you want to use may double your sales over the next best alternative, so even if a few people say your book cover is cliché or that you “copied” some other book cover design, who cares? Get as many sales as you can, because that’s all that matters.

(If you think you are defending your honor or integrity or reputation – what’s it worth if nobody knows who you are and nobody has ever read your books?)

Another example of book cover duplicates from Caustic Covers features these covers, about 8 in total, all using the same woman with a birdcage.

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Even though the fonts and style is different, side-by-side it’s obvious they are using the same image. But some of them are designed poorly, so the image doesn’t really matter. And some (like “Little, Big”) are designed so well that it makes the others look bad.

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If you are using a picture that other book covers are using, make sure yours is the best one. If yours is the most professional, people will subconsciously assume yours was first and the others are bad copies of yours

If you were first, but others came after you, don’t assume you were “copied.” It’s very rare (I’d like to say it’s never ever happened, ever) that someone else will deliberately copy your book cover and use the same image. It happens by accident, and is increasingly common. If somebody uses the same picture, they’ve probably never seen your book cover before, because you aren’t selling well.

Note: I’m a boyscout and I have faith in people… but it seems flat out copying does happen, like in this example.

Even so, I would argue, you just need to have the better design and the better book. There’s nothing that can be done about someone using the same colors and fonts as you. If they used the same picture as well, you both used a royalty free image. It wasn’t very nice of them but ranting about it isn’t going to do anybody any good (in fact your rant just means free marketing for them – maybe that’s why they did it in the first place, to piss you off so you would share their book for free!)

Cliché vs. Cultural stereotypes

A similar but vastly more interesting topic is the use of cultural stereotypes in book cover design.

A great article from Africa A Country pointed out that most book covers for books about Africa involve a sunset or orange sky and an acacia tree.

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The reason this is a bigger issue rather than just the topic of design clichés, is that these covers represent (and perpetuate) cultural stereotypes and bias. Readers in the West don’t associate Africa with bustling cities or technological development. We picture “The Lion King.”

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Indeed The Lion King might be the only full-feature film the average reader has ever seen about Africa, although even movies like “Blood Diamond” are full of cultural stereotypes.

But if you’re writing a book about Africa, you still need a way to let readers know that the book is about Africa. How do you do that when the average reader doesn’t know anything at all about Africa, couldn’t pick out a single country from the African map, and only has vague ideas about sunsets and acacia trees?

In other words, do you design for what’s real and accurate, or do you match the false stereotypes that readers already have in their heads?

It’s an interesting and complex issue, but you can’t teach people about Africa through an accurate book cover!

All you can do is use their stereotypes to present an “African Cover” that they can recognize, and then use the book itself to teach them and educate them about “The Real Africa.”

Clichés don’t matter

Don’t obsess about being different.

DESIGN matters. Make sure yours is amazing and professional. Get feedback, because most authors have a very poor grasp of quality design. If you make your own book cover, you’re going to really like it (and that’s probably bad for you).

Make sure the cover design, title and subtitle communicate all the information readers need, so they don’t have to read the summary to get answers or find out what the book is about. The cover should already make it clear which genre the book is in; the description details are just to push already interested readers over the edge.

 

About Derek Murphy

I help authors and artists turn their passions into full-time businesses, make a bigger impact, and blaze a luminous trail of creative independence. Right now I'm in Taiwan finishing a PHD in Literature, writing several books, and managing a handful of online businesses. Find me
  • Angela Ackerman

    I noticed that you had linked to my site and so followed the trackback…and am so glad I did. A lot to chew on here, Derek. You make some really valid observations. As savvy marketers, we want to make sure our covers evoke an emotional response. As you explain, certain colors, shapes and designs are well imbedded in our minds as far as associations go, and it would be foolish to ignore these.

    A cover should always stand out as being unique to the book’s content, but it need not be a big bold shift away from everything that “works” or “appeals” to the current genre audience. Sometimes smaller details are both subtle and powerful.

    And I agree that being noisy about copied covers can make a bad situation worse. I’m very glad we were able to resolve our situation quietly. 🙂

    Angela

    • Thanks Angela, I can’t believe somebody would just steal a design like that, but I guess if they have a crap book and just want some quick sales, it makes sense to tap into a bigger brand. The cover should look like everything else in the genre, only be better, and distinct, and specifically focused on the unique features of that story…

  • Aimlesswriter

    Excellent article. Thank you!

  • Adrian McKinty

    Hey you picked one of my books!

    Cool.

  • Cover Cafe

    Thanks for the great article with sound advice for cover designers. I prefer to use the word “trend” and not “cliche” when describing popular and similar cover designs. Cover Cafe sponsors a cover contest every year for the romance genre and we’ve been celebrating excellence in covers for years. This past year, we created a new category that celebrates new trends or new twists on established trends in covers and covers outside the romance genre.

    Stock photography is both a blessing and a curse. There are too many cookie cutter covers but just when I become discouraged with over used trends, a cover designer will use a trend and make it unique and fresh.

  • Léonard Belmont

    I love your vision and idea about book cover

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  • Jo Malby

    Loved this. *Signs-up this instant* thank you Derek.

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  • SteveAedy

    Very interesting points. Thank you!

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  • Neville Sherriff

    These were very useful and practical guidelines. They made a lot of sense.

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