Cover Design – The Special Challenges of Historical Fiction

Helena P. Schrader is an established aviation author and expert on the Second World War. She earned a PhD in History (cum Laude) from the University of Hamburg with a ground-breaking dissertation on a leading member of the German Resistance to Hitler. In addition to several non-fiction books, Helena has published eighteen historical novels and won numerous literary awards.

I’m delighted to have Helena her today as she launches her newest novel Moral Fibre, and shares thoughts on the topic of cover design.

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Make no mistake about this: Everyone judges a book by its cover. A great cover will attract, while a bad cover will put readers off and a mediocre one will simply get lost in the deluge.  Finding the right cover entails both attracting initial attention and evoking a positive response from the target audience. The key here is target audience. Authors of historical fiction need to connect with fans of historical fiction promptly and positively in order to succeed.

Admittedly, there are fashions in covers as well as clothes. Colors come in and go out of favor.  Bold replaces impressionistic – or vice versa.  Victorian art yields to abstract designs — or the opposite. Nevertheless, readers tend to associate specific colors, fonts and styles with different genres. For example, horror books almost always have bold fonts and favor the use of red and black. Fantasy books usually have a cartoon-like feel and make use of lots of silver and gold. Historical fiction, on the other hand, requires realistic looking covers that clearly evoke the era and the geographic region in which the book is set. 

Evoking a specific era and place is important in historical fiction because readers rarely love all periods of history — and there is a lot of history out there! Fans of Tudor fiction don’t necessarily want to read about Ming-Dynasty China, and enthusiasts for Ancient Rome generally couldn’t care less about the Vietnam War. A cover that is too generic will not increase sales; it is more likely to simply get lost in the flood of covers overwhelming our screens and senses. In contrast, a cover that instantly conveys a specific time and place is like a flag waving at the very people interested in that topic.  

This means, however, that the cover must accurately depict the time period it advertises. A novelist is instantly discredited if the cover visuals are wrong. If a novel set in the 12th century uses a cover image with a knight wearing 16th century armor, or a photo of a transport plane is on the cover of a book about strategic bombing in WWII, the readers immediately assume that the author knows nothing about the historical period in which the novel is set. Fans of historical fiction notoriously know a great deal about history and most of them won’t buy a book if it appears — based on nothing more than the cover — that the author doesn’t know the basics about the period in which a book is set. 

Publishers, however, are not historians. They don’t know the difference between 12th and 16th century armor or between a B-17 and a DC-4. Which means that you as an author have to take a strong hand in guiding the publisher and if necessary, vetoing suggested covers. Yes, the publisher always reserves the right to “select” a cover, but I have not yet encountered one that did not listen to an author’s reasoned and articulate objections. Furthermore, most publishers are more than happy to receive input, which means you can control the images that they work from in the first place by providing images or suggestions.

Moral Fibre by Helena P. Schrader

When self-publishing, obviously, an author’s control over the cover is complete, but this does not mean an author should design the cover. Professional graphic designers are essential because cover design is about more than content. It is also about colors, fonts, spacing, placing, and balance.  A good cover, regardless of genre, is not over-crowded. It is clear. It is evocative. It is dramatic. Those elements cannot be created simply by crowding in a lot of information both visual and written. As a rule, less is best, and the challenge is selecting from a pallet of options the one or two elements that evoke an era and a mood — and then letting a professional graphic designer place those elements in an overall framework. 

Yet even the professionals will admit (if they are feeling candid or have had a glass or two) that they often fail to anticipate reader reactions to covers. Fortunes are made and lost on Madison Avenue because attracting buyers to a product (in this case a book) is not a science but an art — and even masters can make mistakes. If a book isn’t selling well, take a second look at the cover. It is often the problem — and it can always be changed.

Moral Fibre by Helena Schrader

Riding the icy, moonlit sky—

They took the war to Hitler.

Their chances of survival were less than fifty percent.

Their average age was 21.

This is the story of just one bomber pilot, his crew, and the woman he loved.

It is intended as a tribute to them all.

Flying Officer Kit Moran has earned his pilot’s wings, but the greatest challenges still lie ahead: crewing up and returning to operations. Things aren’t made easier by the fact that while still a flight engineer, he was posted LMF (Lacking in Moral Fibre) for refusing to fly after a raid on Berlin that killed his best friend and skipper. Nor does it help that he is in love with his dead friend’s fiancé, but she is not yet ready to become romantically involved again.

You can find Moral Fibre on Amazon, Bookshop.org, and Barnes and Noble.

Many thanks, Helena, for sharing thoughts on the topic of cover design. Best wishes for success with Moral Fibre.

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The historical fiction author behind A Writer of History...

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17 Responses

  1. Very informative. Sometimes we writers get caught up in our own egos and forget we’re trying to sell this story. It’s important the buyers get a taste of what they’re thinking of buying. The cover is vital for that first taste. Thanks for this reminder.

  2. I love studying covers. This article is a great starting point, and it would be fascinating to have a follow-up on current trends in hist-fic covers. Thanks, Mary!

  3. So true! The first cover created by my traditional publisher for my wartime aviation novel Bird’s Eye View had the wrong aircraft flying over the wrong city in the wrong direction. And the cover was pink! I almost had a panic attack! I ended up hiring my own designer and it cost $500 to create a cover that I liked, but it was money well spent. You can check it out on my website if you like.

    1. I will look for “Bird’s Eye View” at once. My publisher tried to put a modern Cessna on a book about ATA pilots in WWII entitled “The Lady in the Spitfire.” Now, as you know, Spitfires are very distinctive and they don’t look like Cessnas…. Getting the cover right is well worth $500.

  4. All excellent points by Ms. Schrader. On the bit about self-publishing, I’m lucky that I’m also a veteran designer, so I’m able to create my own covers. For my first historical fiction novel (about which Mary generously blurbed), the cover image was so spectacular that I licensed it before I wrote a single word, using it as inspiration. And the Hollywood producer who just bought an option to adapt it to screen told me that the cover was the first thing he fell in love with. So you never know where a good cover will take you.

  5. Mary, thanks again for posting this on your blog! I was a little mixed up because Nicole said it would appear Aug. 24, which is why I’m late checking in. Glad to see it resonated with some of your readers!

    1. Hi Helena .. thanks for stopping in! I may have lost track of the date … I hope it didn’t cause a problem.

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