We’ve heard it said that you can’t judge a book by its cover, but we all do. In a bookstore, I’m often drawn to pick up a book because the cover caught my eye. When shopping online, it’s the cover that draws me into the sales page. Getting the cover right is essential.
We’re told to know our audience and pick a cover that will attract them. Easy to say; much harder to do. While both women and men love many of the same books, the kind of cover that appeals to each can be quite different. What attracts one might repel the other, and the key to success lies in choosing a design that can draw in both.
A great cover should start making a connection between each potential reader and at least one important character in the novel even before the first sentence is read.
Considering the makeup of your audience is especially important for novels with a romance woven through them. Whether contemporary or historical, the same core question applies. Is the romance the most important point of the plot, or is there another plot line that is also important?
If the first, you might be writing a historical romance, and the vast majority of your audience will be women. If the second, your novel is a romantic historical, and your ideal audience will be a mix of men and women.
I write historical novels set in the Roman Empire of Trajan and Hadrian. They tell stories of dangerous times, difficult friendships, and lives transformed by forgiveness and love. A romance weaves through them, but that isn’t the only focus of the plot. At least one main character discovers the joy of following Jesus, and that happens as a friendship grows with someone of faith who shows the way.
These are stories that can entertain and encourage both men and women…but how do you capture that in a cover?
When a cover design features photographs or illustrations, it should convey a sense of what your reader can expect from the story. Enough to intrigue, but not enough to reveal all. It should create anticipation that will be fully satisfied by the time they reach “The End” or, in my Roman novels, “Finis.”
While there’s wide room for creativity, particular types of images are generally found on books in each genre. Selecting the right image is key to drawing in the people who seek out books of that genre. It’s important to choose an image that doesn’t subconsciously repel others who would love the book if they’d just read it. If they never click to the description or pick up the paperback because the image doesn’t connect with them, you’ve both lost.
In this article, I’ll discuss how we achieve broad appeal with the covers for my books. While a good designer might create an effective cover without deliberately targeting both men and women (and my designer did for Forgiven, the first volume in the series), a bit of research has produced four design guidelines that let my designer, Roseanna White of Roseanna White Designs and best-selling author of historical fiction herself, create covers with wide appeal every time.
First, I’ll give a brief summary of the guidelines we use, explained in terms of the five covers of the current volumes in the Light in the Empire series. Then I’ll share a case study of the cover of Faithful, volume four in the stand-alone series.
Five features that invite men to check out these books
When Roseanna captured the emotional distance between the lead man and woman at the start of Forgiven, the design settled into the historical, not romance, genre. But there are more important reasons the cover appeals to men.
1) A man is prominent on the cover and not in close contact with the woman.
The visual importance of the male figure suggests a major role for the man as a point-of-view (POV) character. These novels are adventures with mutiple POV characters and a mix of male and female leads. My long career in a mostly male work environment lets me get into my male characters’ heads and write from their POV. The prominent man promises many important scenes from the POV a man naturally understands, and these novels all deliver on that promise.
Many romance novels also include a prominent male figure, but they are usually touching the woman. Direct contact announces “romance,” while separation implies more to the relationship than that.
2) The woman isn’t dressed in revealing clothing or anything too feminine.
Clothing that’s too revealing isn’t usually a problem in Christian fiction, but the women’s clothes are often feminine, drawing attention to how beautiful the illustrated character is.
However, this can reduce the appeal to the male reader if the “romance” flavor is too strong. If the clothing is very feminine, the woman should have a body type better described as athletic than full-figured to downplay the “romance” feeling.
We discovered this effect while designing the cover for The Legacy. While the women on the Forgiven and Blind Ambition covers were not too feminine, the female lead on the first version of The Legacy was. The original version (left) of The Legacy cover and the final version (right) show how subtle the difference can be between a cover that says “romance” and one that says “historical.”
Although the man is the smaller figure, he draws the attention of men. The male lead had been horribly scarred in a childhood accident. Rosanna put him in deep shadow so she could make a beautiful cover that still included “the ugliest man in the Empire,” but the benefit of that decision went beyond aesthetics. Hiding his face in shadow created an air of mystery that made him the focal point of the cover for several men who gave me feedback. Not something I would have predicted, but it made perfect sense once they told me.
3) Direct eye contact between the man and woman shouldn’t be obvious.
It isn’t just physical contact between male and female characters on a cover that proclaims the romance genre. The man and woman often gaze longingly into each other’s eyes. As a male friend who also writes Christian fiction told me, men do enjoy romance in a novel, but they don’t want the book they’re reading to look like it’s a romance. They make a distinction between a romantic historical, which appeals to men, and a historical romance, which does not.
For all but Faithful, there isn’t direct eye contact. While the man and woman are looking at each other in Faithful, this was chosen as their favorite cover by most of the men I asked. Perhaps their physical separation kept the eye contact from being a problem. Perhaps his friendly but serious facial expression kept her obvious affection for him from crossing the line into the “romance cover” zone. Perhaps it’s because most men (and women) saw the mountain first when they looked at the cover. (A more detailed discussion of how people view the Faithful cover is below.)
4) Some element of the design has to suggest action.
The action doesn’t have to be displayed on the cover for the promise of action to be made. The covers of Forgiven and Blind Ambition both feature men in uniform. While military images naturally imply action, the action doesn’t need to feel aggressive.
The man should look like he might do something other than talk. The first version of Second Chances said “romance” to my male consultants until the man was given a hand ax. As soon as he held that tool, the impression flipped from romance to historical.
The promise of action can be even more subtle. For The Legacy and Faithful, the background scenery makes that connection. The ship promises a journey, and the amphitheater hints at men in combat. The dagger hanging on the man’s belt signals potential conflict as well.
5) If two men are on the cover, their position relative to the woman does not suggest they are competing for her affection.
I discovered this rule with the initial cover design for Honor Bound, where the friendship between two men, one married and one widowed, plays a vital role in the action and spiritual arcs of both. The first layout had the two men in the foreground, one on each side of the cover, with the female lead in the near distance, framed by their bodies with Lake Geneva in the far distance. All of the women I shared it with liked it. None saw any problem.
But the moment my top male advisor saw it, he said, “Uh, no. It looks like Brutus and Africanus are in competition for the girl. Bad vibes here. The body language of both men is ‘challenging.’ The position of the girl between them makes her an implicit object of contention.”
When I checked with my other male consultants, ranging from early 20s through 60s, all of them told me the implied competition over the woman was a turn-off for them.
So if you don’t want a male-repellent romance cover that suggests two men are in a contest for a woman, don’t position her between the two of them.
What People Notice When They Look at a Cover: A Case Study with Faithful
To gain some insight into what catches a person’s eye, I asked both men and women what they noticed when looking at the first four of my book covers. The three questions were:
1) What do you see first?
2) What do you see second?
3) Was there anything else that strikes you?
Let’s look at the responses of nine men and twenty-one women to the Faithful cover. While that’s not a large enough sample to draw definitive conclusions, it can give us some insights.
Seven out of nine men (78%) saw the mountain first compared to fifteen out of twenty-one women (56%). But eight women mentioned being struck by the mountain image, including four who saw the mountain second, not first. So, nineteen out of twenty-one women (90%) quickly noticed the mountain.
None of the men explained why the mountain struck them, and the women who did gave opposite reasons. One said the mountain made the cover serene, and combining the title (Faithful) with the mountain image reminded her that God was faithful. On the other side, one woman said the mountain implied challenges. A third gave a neutral answer that the scenic view promised an interesting setting.
For whatever reason, the mountain worked well for catching the attention of both men and women. This cover has been effective clickbait to lead visitors to the book’s Amazon sales page from my Roman history website. But not every story I write involves crossing the Alps, and all the covers except The Legacy feature background scenes from a location in the story: Galilee for Forgiven, Germany for Blind Ambition, and present-day Turkey for Second Chances.
My novel that will release in May 2019 takes place entirely around Rome. The novel planned for November 2019 does involve crossing the St. Bernard Pass between Italy and Switzerland and action near Martigny and along Lake Geneva; perhaps another mountain view would be a good choice for that one.
Because so many focused on the mountain, the effect of the gender of the viewer on whether they saw the man or woman first is hard to interpret. While several men said they saw the man and woman equally, roughly equal numbers of the men who did notice one first chose the woman and the man.
For the women, three of twenty-one noticed both equally. For those with a preference, about twice as many noticed the woman instead of the man (ten versus five). Three didn’t mention either person. While these observations are interesting, the sample size is too small to draw any firm conclusions. Adding to the uncertainty is the large effect of what the character is wearing. The brass armor of the tribune on the Blind Ambition cover was the first thing to catch the eye of the majority of both men and women.
Professional Cover Design or Do-It-Yourself?
While I’ve learned some of what can help the cover of a romantic historical appeal to both men and women, I could never hope to create an effective cover by myself. My covers look like the Romans had color photography, but it takes a master artist with Photoshop to create them. The sword on the tribune in Forgiven is from my own collection. The body of the woman in Second Chances is my daughter dressed in a costume I made for the genre dinner at the American Christian Fiction Writers annual conference. Almost none of the people have their original heads. My designer couldn’t find the right hairstyle at the right facial angle, so she braided her daughter’s hair and digitally dyed it red.
Each character is made of bits and pieces of images masterfully combined to look like a real person. If you’re curious about how that was done for Forgiven, visit Roseanna White’s Behind the Design blog post. Her artistry and skill in creating stunning covers for contemporary, historical, speculative, and young adult/juvenile fiction and for nonfiction works amazes me.
I would advise anyone publishing independently to include cover design in your budget. Your cover is your invitation to a reader to stop and check out your book. You only get one chance to make a good first impression, and a great cover is key.
If you’re writing books with a broad appeal, I hope these guidelines prove helpful for creating covers that appeal to your whole audience.
If you’d like to share your thoughts with me, I’d love to hear from you.
A shorter version of the four-feature discussion can be found after December 12, 2018, as a guest post at Seriously Write, a blog for writers that I really enjoy.