Recently, I asked readers for their thoughts on cover designs, specifically those featuring women. People responded with great enthusiasm, adding much more perspective to the matter of cover design than I had imagined when posing the question. And while many readers are attracted to women on the cover, they often add caveats.
I’ve summed up more than 90 comments with 7 tips. If you would like to weigh in, I’d love to hear your thoughts as well.
- Go for the overall effect: “it’s really the overall effect of the cover: treatment of the illustration or photo, font selection, text placement, use of white space etc.” Or as other readers said: “I’m attracted to any book with a really beautifully designed cover, even without people on it.” “I think the use of color drives the eye catch factor of any cover.”
- Create covers that tell a story: “the design needs SOMETHING to tell us what to expect.” Or a variation: “as long as it’s pertinent to the story, that is all I care about.” “The cover should have something to do with the main character and the setting/period.” “For me it’s more about a snapshot of what’s inside.” “I love covers that I refer back to sometimes as I read to help give me a visual impression.”
- Avoid tropes like a woman’s back or a headless woman. “I’m tired of seeing women’s backs.” “I’m really tired of the WWII books that take place in France and have the Eiffel Tower in the background, with a woman in the foreground.” And another one: “not big into the bodice ripper look.”
- Women on the cover need to grab attention: “if to me there is something striking about her then I will be interested.” “If it’s a Queen or a Princess that I have not heard of. Then, yes.” “I would say ‘yes’ but it’s all about the picture.” “If she’s alone in a beautiful or interesting setting, that would work.” And here are a few cautionary notes: “If a woman is objectified, I pass the book over.” “Too often the look of the women on the cover are too modern for the book.” “I love a cover with a beautiful artistic portrait of a woman.”
- It’s more than the cover: “Any striking image will draw me in, and the greatest cover in the world won’t induce me to buy a book if I don’t like what I see when I flip through it.” “I choose solely on the author, genre, or strong recommendation from friends I trust.” “the title and the imagery catch my attention, not necessarily the gender.” “The cover doesn’t matter to me at all. It’s all about the synopsis of the story that draws me in.”
- Bring the setting into play: “For me, it’s the setting. A forest, the beach, kitchen table etc. If a person is included, unrecognizable is preferred.”
- A cautionary note: “sometimes I’m annoyed when my version of the character would look very different from the cover, or she seems inconsistent with the character.”
On Great Thought’ Great Readers, Stephanie Nelson added this broad perspective on cover design:
Cover design is important and underrated! The photographic content is only a fraction of the attraction. I would say that type and color may be even more important to convey the mood of the book. All the elements should be a workhorse in selling. (I’m an advertising person and believe this in my bones. I’ve seen the benefits of a good creative.) If you are trying to say “female,” there are so many ways to do that other than a photo of a woman. Photo of a handbag, makeup, mirror, clothing article, fabric, room decor etc, etc. Feminine typeface. Then break all that down: Sophisticated or not? Young or old? Endless considerations! Zero in on your target.
In closing, writing in The Millions, author Anna Solomon has this to say about women on the covers of novels:
Maybe the point isn’t banishing the women from the covers. And maybe it’s not even that the women should be more active and less sexualized—though there are still plenty of covers that shamelessly traffic in women’s backs and belittle authors and their work. The bigger problem may be how the women on book covers are received, and not only by top review outlets that routinely cover men’s books in egregious disproportion to those by women—check out the Vida Count if you’re unfamiliar with this issue—but by women ourselves. We’ve internalized the establishment’s dismissal to the point where we can write a book about women, and maybe about children, too, and sex, and then feel pissed off when women and children and sex show up on our covers.
Many thanks to all the readers who offered their input. Feel free to add yours!
DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION. FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)
M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.
Great post, Mary! As a creative director-turned-author, I have a couple of thoughts:
“I’m tired of seeing women’s backs.”
There’s a reason for this approach/technique. Especially in historical fiction, the last thing you want is for the reader to think even for a nanosecond about a modern model who has to call an Uber to get to her next photoshoot. Mary handles this well in “Time and Regret” with a side view of the main figure with her head turned away.
“sometimes I’m annoyed when my version of the character would look very different from the cover…”
Which is another reason to use backs and chopped off heads or otherwise obscure the main figure.
Excellent points, Harald. There’s no easy answer.
So true. A good cover is key to whether or not we pick up and look at a book in the first place. Great post.
Many thanks for your encouragement! And for those searching for an e-book, the cover also has to stand out in thumbnail mode!
Interesting survey, Mary! I especially agree with #1. The design should be beautifully rendered by someone who knows what they’re doing.
A woman on the cover tells me the book is oriented toward female readers. That said, when a woman (or a man for that matter) is on the cover, I much prefer not being “informed” what they look like by a full face image. I’d rather create my own vision of how the character looks as I read her story.
I don’t at all mind back views or profile images. In cases where the woman is a well-known and often pictured historical figure, then I have no problem with full-face images as long as they are accurate.
Many thanks for weighing in on the topic, Pat. So many things to consider!
The biggest problem I have with books that have women on the covers is when the faces don’t match the era of the book. I do not want a woman who is supposedly from the 1930s to look like she belongs on the cover of Vanity Fair or worse, Playboy next month! The other thing I hate is women swooning, like they’re about to faint.
Thanks for this, Davida. No swooning women … check! No modern looking women … check!
Modern women for modern books, are okay.
Good point …
It all depends on the genre as well as the woman. I think if it’s a historical story about a woman, then it’s all right to have a picture on the cover, I don’t find the picture in any way hinders my own imagination of the person.
I do take the point about a ‘modern’ face on the cover of a historical book. I was searching for a Viking for my latest wip. It’s about a young woman, so I was looking for a young Viking woman. In all the pictures I could find, the woman was wearing makeup. Hardly the thing for a 9th century girl.
on another point, but connected, I don’t like covers that show muscular men showing off their physique.
Makeup … of course that would be a no-no! The first design for my novel Time and Regret featured a WWII plane which would have been fine except the novel featured WWI 🙂 Thanks for your input, V.M.
Hi, I’m very new and need an answer to a question about historical novel characters. If this isn’t the place to ask, please deielete.
If a named character is an actual historical person, but is only used to add veracity to the main story line, can I create a daughter for him? I’d like for her to have an important story line, that doesn’t involve him.
Hi Donna .. thanks for stopping by. I’m no expert, but those who read historical fiction are firm believers in authenticity. Although you could construct a ‘what if’ scenario and explain it in your author’s note. How prominent a historical figure are you talking about? Is this historical figure essential to the story? In fiction you can do so much …
Some time back, I did my thesis on the history of the Children’s Playground in Golden Gate Park. There was a lot of passion and shenanigans, but not enough for a book–not to mention the amount of work I’d do to write a history book that only ten people would read.
I did more research on the time in San Francisco and discovered they had a Settlement House not long after my period. I was thinking of moving the Settlement house back a few years in time and have one of the women at the House work for the Park Commission to bring the stories together. The character I’d like to create would be Olmsted’s daughter (he designed NYC’s Central Park and visited the GG Park during construction of the Children’s Playground. Maybe she’d be the connection to the Park. She’d want to stay in SF and she’d become an early member of the House.Olmstead’s visit is a fact (he was helping design the Stanford University at the time), but he’s not important to my story, just a way to get his daughter there.
Thanks for your help. Donna
Hi again, Donna. Just doing a little research of my own into comparables for a novel I’ve written and came across Robin Oliveira’s I always loved you. It imagines a relationship between Mary Cassatt and Edward Degas. You might check it out and see if it helps you think about your novel. Best wishes,
Thanks! I’ll check it out.