Book Covers: ARGH

We are once again in book cover talks, this time for the Rocky Start series. I love book covers, I love talking about book covers, but actually trying to get across what I want for book covers when I’m not actually sure myself? That’s hell.

So I filled out the questionnaire for the new series, and the designer who did the Liz covers send back two mock-ups, one for Rocky Start and one for Very Nice Funerals, and in a rare moment of synchronicity, Bob, Mollie, and I all agreed they were not good for us. So she asked for more info and possibly some existing book covers that we liked. That seems fair. So I went looking.

When did the entire publishing industry decide that large fonts on busy backgrounds were the only possibility for a cover. I hate those covers. First of all, they’re lazy designs. The first one back at the beginning of time was probably striking, but now they’re all just throwing type on jazzy backgrounds and you can’t tell one from the other and you don’t want to because they’re all ugly.

Alternately, you can do cute flat color cartoons of impossibly thin characters with big eyes that look like children’s books except that kids don’t eye each other like that. I hate those covers, too.

As you can imagine, I’m not fun to work with.

But then I found the perfect cover, a brilliant cover, which unfortunately is on somebody else’s book. That designer is amazing.

So Rocky Start seems like a sleepy little town in Tennessee (and North Carolina) but it’s full of ex-spies. And what Max does is look behind the facade and realize he’s in a box of snakes. So the imagery there is just dead on perfect. The landscape not so much, but that’s easy to change. Add in Maggs, and there’s our cover.

Except this isn’t a one book deal, so we’d need to use this idea for at least two more books, which is limiting. But I love it. I love everything about that cover.

Still, that was going to be a heavy lift, so we gave her another example of a cover that might work. We wanted store signs on every cover since the titles are all based on stores in the town. And I found this:

If we swapped out a store sign for the label, and then added miscellaneous things under it (Oddities is a second hand shop, remember?) like the Maltese Falcon, a tea cup, a gun, a wad of cash, Maggs, etc. then it would be new but call back to the Liz covers that had one main image and then smaller details around it.

So that’s where we are now. And I’m feeling better because I could find two examples that weren’t big fonts on awful backgrounds.

Oh, I also liked this one. It’s too busy, but I liked the use of fonts in the title and the offbeat image. Plus, you know, a dog.

65 thoughts on “Book Covers: ARGH

  1. I adore that first cover. As there will be several books could you set them up like a flip book or animation cells? Each cover would have a similar layout overall but the sign has changed and the figures are in different poses or moving from left to right across the covers, holding miscellaneous items that tell the overarching themes of arcs of the books.

    Think Outlander posters for Season 1. Claire is reaching back to Frank with her body turned towards Jamie who is extending his hand. Halfway through the season there is another poster with three characters in a similar stance but Frank’s hand is now Black Jack’s. Claire is not reaching back but extending a knife for protection. Jamie is leaning forward more and looks ready to draw his sword. There is also a third poster showing what Claire and Jamie are seeing. Black Jack has his sword raised and only Claire’s hand holding a knife is visible.

    1. Once we figure out what the concept is, the other covers fall in line, I think. That’s what happened on the Liz/Vince books.
      But first we need a concept we like. Argh.

      1. I need to rant!! I’ve been waiting forever for a new Jennifer Cruise book, thinking I would never find a new book. And, I’m counting years!! Last night, somehow I find the Lavender’s Blue book series and also notice there are Bob and Jennifer books out. So, hear I sit on my porch on a 78 degree Ohio day reading with 3 new books to read, instead of leaf looking. ARGH

  2. You know, somewhere in the click bait that pops up I got a list of the best book covers of the year. My husband and I both being book people and art people, we clicked on it. They were so disappointing. Neither of us were impressed and they were completely forgettable.

    I usually buy books by author now. We lost our big book store a couple of months ago, so my days of just browsing and picking up books based on the art art pretty much over. Which is sad. And I agree with Jenny that I really don’t like the colorful cartoon character covers. It almost makes me reminiscent of the headless, shirtless male torso covers…

  3. I hate the fashion for cartoon covers, too – infantilizing ‘chick lit’ even further. But I don’t like your first choice – looks like litfic, and not the kind of book I’d read. The store idea sounds really promising though.

    1. I agree that it looks like lit fic, which is also off-putting to me. I don’t read Lit fic. It’s still a pretty cover, but looks too serious.

    2. Same here.
      Cover 1 reminds me of litfic, too and I avoid litfic like the plague.
      I get it that a different landscape would have a different effect but the overall effect wouldn’t have made me look closer to get the quirkiness.

      The second and third one would be more interesting to me. Hhumour and dogs = great.

      I’m usually attracted by interesting cover design but I’m not very cerebral.
      Have never analysed what it is that actually hooks me.
      Alexis Hall’s Boyfriend Material cover hooked me pretty badly so that I even got the slightly different German edition.
      Also I don’t mind cartoonish covers – as I read mainly MM these days, the girly stick like drawings are missing there. And at least it’s not headless ripped male nudes for which my kids mock me mercilessly… I liked the new editions of Sarina Bowen’s Ivy Years series and the new Colorado Cougars series (esp. the newest one), but I’m sure those are too simplistic for your Rocky series.

      1. I like the cover for Boyfriend Material too. I guess I consider that more illustration and less cartoons? There is some really pretty art for fantasy and urban fantasy that I love. The artist who did covers for Charles De Lint is just amazing. I would love to own those paintings. Or Frank Frazetta. I love his book cover art.

        It’s more the candy colored chic lot covers, overly stylized but still very nonspecific that I take issue with. They feel lazy and dismissive to me.

          1. Yes boobs, but also very aggressive boobs, unapologetic boobs and lots of swords. There is this one where there is a T-rex in the distance and the girl is pushing the muscle bound man back, her knife in had. I just picture her saying, “Stay back, I got this.”

            It’s kind of how I picture Tilda’s mermaids.

  4. I absolutely love that second cover. I just went through the same thing with your designer about my book Maybe This Time and she asked me to send covers that I liked besides the ones she did for your books
    End it was so hard to find anything. I hated the cartoon characters. I don’t mind blacks silhouettes I can’t bear photographs and busy covers. I haven’t seen the mock ups for any thing she’s done yet. But the hardest thing was finding anything to show her that I thought was a good cover. I do know I prefer symbols to people, and especially since my characters are older, I will now have a series with three non-matched covers. But as I get the rights back, I will match to the cover she’s working on now.
    I can’t wait to see what she does for rocky start.

  5. I think large fonts and object covers are a consequence of online bookstores, ebooks, and also self publishing. Even traditional publishers make a lot (most?) of their sales online now. So paperback and hardback covers are designed to catch a prospective reader’s attention in thumbnail, rather than as printed copies in a bookstore. Which means that the title and the typography need to do a lot of the work that would previously have been done by the images.

    The Dead Ends cover is beautiful, but it loses a lot when you shrink it to a thumbnail. The Bookbinder is eye-catching and works well at every size. I love the idea of something similar, with a store sign and objects, for Rocky Start.

    1. That’s a good point, about online selling. I liked the Liz covers in thumbnails and then loved them in real life print, so we got it both ways on those.

  6. I love the cover for Faking It, of Tilda wearing her scarf and her hair smoothed out for the sting. I also love the cover for your Maybe This Time, with the arm chair and the tea, with steam spiraling up in a ghostlike way. Those are eye catching, and make me want to know what’s up.

    I agree that those naked male abs, and the cartoon characters just don’t cut it. I’m thinking of a street a la old westerns, showing some of the shops, with the type in the center of the deserted street, and Maggs with something telling in her jaws. Just a thought. Good luck in your search. It’s a tall order.

  7. I really like the cover with the dog. I dont like the first cover at all. Something about it is depressing. The second one is forgettable and underwhelming while the book concept has lots of cool stuff
    I remember you do collages while outlining. What if the cover is in a collage format? Elements, characters, objects from the story like antiques, mountain trails and the dogs.

    1. I, too, find the first one depressing. It makes me think of the depression era, and then I think about Grapes of Wrath, which for me was one of the more tortuous books on the high-school reading list.

      I, too, will buy this series based on the authors, but if I didn’t know what to expect, seeing a cover similar to the first one would not make me think “fun, funny, romantic” even a little bit.

      1. I liked the idea of looking behind the scenes, but I have a feeling it’s going to be so difficult to design a series of three books and possibly six around that idea that it will not be the one we end up with.

  8. Book covers that come to mind that I like:

    Maybe This Time: I always liked this one. I remember seeing it in the travelling fiction section at the library in college. It was so rich and romantic and gothic. Also, I love velvet.

    The Goblin Emperor: It’s got a sort of M.C. Escher feel but also older. Maybe medieval tapestry?

    And I like C.M. Nascosta’s newer ones, but they are a homage/spoof of traditional bodice ripper paintings and I enjoy the tongue in check ridiculousness. That doesn’t really apply here.

    1. I liked that Goblin Emperor cover too, but it’s been changed (at least online) to a dark blue patterned cover with large white type. The Witness for the Dead and The Grief of Stones have received a similar makeover.

      1. Yes, the new ones aren’t nearly as fun in my opinion. It must be a trend though. Nalini Singh has some covers like that and Ilona Andrews just reissued the Hidden Legacy covers with just shapes and pictures of flowers I think. I didn’t care for the previous naked torsos either. Maybe I am just picky.

  9. You know, it’s so funny you posted a picture of The Bookbinder because a friend of mine highly recommended that book to me just yesterday! It sounds like a fantastic book.

    1. If only the legs weren’t disproportionally long…
      I like the cover, too, but those details (proportions) always bug me.

  10. Dead Ends reminds me of the colour palette and style for the British version of Welcome to Temptation, which was how I got into your books. Completely different cover but it strikes a chord somehow.

    1. I LOVE that cover. They sent me a poster of it, and I have it framed on my wall; it’s my fave cover ever.

  11. Good luck, publishing is so complicated. Covers are important, I got a secondhand Terry Pratchett book a while back, one with the black adult cover rather then then fun, chaotic ones he usually has. I found I actually avoided reading it, because it didn’t feel like Discworld. Same with the Undead series, the UK publisher piatkus had some great covers, the one US book I owned was the least read of the series

  12. I loathe busy covers too — they’re popular in my genre, as are the cartoons, although I think the cartoons are waning in popularity. My publisher changed the Danger Cove books from cartoons to still-lifes.

    That said, I want to reinforce what others said above — the first two scream lit-fic (although I looked up the first one and it’s YA about bullying/disability). A lot of your (and Bob’s) readers will buy on author name alone, but to expand the readership, you’ll want a cover that doesn’t scream lit-fic, since lit-fic readers are probably not, for the most part, your readers, and pop-fic readers will see the cover and think it’s not their genre. And we all know how badly messed up the categories are at Amazon (and presumably elsewhere), so readers know not to trust them if they’re at odds with the cover.

    I’d suggest looking for cover inspiration within the romantic suspense genre (although I suspect there are a lot of naked chests there), or the mystery genre (many have romance subplots). So maybe just in suspense (as opposed to romantic suspense), although I think they’re mostly foggy images of a woman on the run, but at least they’re not busy!

    1. I did look at covers in those genres. They were all . . . generic.
      Then I did a search for “book covers with signs on them” and found those two.
      I think part of the problem is that our books don’t really fit in traditional genre categories because they sort of fit in most of them: Romantic comedy mystery adventure fiction. If you search for that, your computer cries.

      1. Could you use that road sign with the bumps on it for Rocky Start, the yellow diamond with a bumpy road on it? Possibly speed bump sign. Maybe close-up of it in foreground of a foresty/road background going off into distance.

  13. You have me looking at the covers in my Kindle library… and my MobiPocket library… and my HTML library. I’m even glancing through my audiobook libraries. My favorite Crusie covers include the Liz Danger series, Agnes and the Hitman, Bet Me, Manhunting, and Wild Ride. Not that the others suck – they don’t speak to me. A great many covers are attractive to me because they are the covers of books that I enjoy. Chicken and Egg.

    I love the covers of the “Wearing the Cape” series by Marion G. Harmon, however cartoonish they might be to someone else. I don’t love all the Bujold covers, but the entire Penric and Desdemona series are wonderful, especially the three volumes of collected novellas published by Baen books. The original covers of her Sharing Knife series were wonderful, too.

    The Murderbot Diaries covers are okay – I love them for consistency, so of course Compulsory was different from the rest.

    I liked all of the covers for Deb’s Baba Yaga and Broken Rider books.

    I’m sorry, Brenda, but I don’t buy your books for their covers. I buy them despite their covers. 😉

    1. I avoided Murderbot for a long time because of the covers. They are well done, but somehow I got the impression that it was going to be serious and heavy science fiction. Of course I have no idea how one would market Murderbot. It’s such a thing of its own… Sort of like the Princess Bride. Apparently that panned at the box office because no one knew how to market it. At home vhs tapes saved it. Thank goodness.

    2. The Agnes hardcover copy was genius. And I love the Liz/Vince covers.
      Mostly, I’ve been pretty lucky with my covers. I was excited about getting the rights to all my category novels back and self-publishing them with covers that all related to each other, but I was told it will be a cold day in hell when I get any of them back, so there went that fantasy.

  14. Book cover with leaping woman for Welcome to Temptation under discussion in blog and podcast (60 Weeks 60 Books on apple, amazon and spotify). I have been baffled for years by how book covers are designed and why it has been so fashionable to have women’s faces concealed or only the smile and chin. I am very fond of the WTT book cover, but I really do not understand how it relates to the book – it can’t be Sophie Dempsey leaping around a wheatfield in a tight red shorts/t-shirt combo…

    Anyway, just want to thank you and the Crusie-Mayer combo for 21 years of joyful reading. I am so happy you are back, and really looking forward to Rocky Start. I hope you find the right cover.

    1. I don’t know that cover for wtt. All the ones I run across just have a red apple on them. Huh.

    2. Thank you, Zeba!
      I loved that cover because it was so happy and the colors were beautiful and it was well-designed. I think it fit the mood of the book, but yeah, that wasn’t Sophie. At least not in the beginning.

      1. I hate that cover! I’ll take the red cover with the redder apple sans-a-bite or the green apple chewed down to a core.

        I mentioned some favorite Bujold covers. Somewhere in the archives of someplace (I think it was Baen’s Bar/Miles to Go conference) Lois discussed her dissatisfaction with the covers on her books. It’s only the last ten years or so that she has had creative control over cover art. There is a fan-run website which no longer updates that displays an international assortment of her older covers at .

        I had never seen the Physicians of Vilnoc cover that LN linked to! I’m more familiar with the No Hands But Ours thumbs up and down in a pentagon (for the five gods). But my image of Penric comes from the Baen covers.

        The late Eric Flint, being senior enough at Baen for some Perks, used to insist on seeing the cover before turning in any final manuscript. Then he would write in a scene or modify an existing scene that made the cover relevant to the book. That may totally be cheating, but it made his covers better.

        I’m picturing a cover with an image resembling “Rocky Balboa” of the eponymous series on the left and a bunch of runners and someone firing a pistol on the right with author’s names in a brown info sign.

      2. Oh, I just found it by googling. Very cute, pin-up art Betty Page type look but wholesome.
        I do like the green apple core cover- that is the one I am used to.

  15. My guess is you and Bob are getting most of your initial readers off of name recognition/people who already love you, so I vote go with a cover you love, even if some people think it feels outside of what’s trending in your genre. Start a new trend!

    Here’s my confession — I mostly don’t like the classic painting-style clinch covers that have been so popular for so long in romance. And it’s not an “I’m embarrassed to be reading romance” thing. I just don’t think most of them tell me what is unique about *that* book, and I don’t find most of them sexy. To me they feel impersonal, and in their own way as flat as the cartoon characters. I mean, the aesthetic as a whole is fun — it’s pretty cool to walk into a used bookstore and see decades of romance books all lined up with the same kitschy aesthetic. But that style doesn’t ever inspire me to make a move on a particular book.

    I read a comment once that a lot of literary fiction covers try and show what is unique about that book, and a lot of mystery/romance/fantasy covers try to show how this book is similar to other books you’ve loved. I think there might be something to that. Most of my favorite books are romance and I definitely read more genre fiction than literary fiction, but when I think of most of my favorite covers, they’re often literary fiction.

    And then there’s YA covers, which more often than not are just having *fun*. Seriously. They’re so bright, and vivid, with so many different art styles. I think maybe part of it is the general lack of snobbery in YA, plus the knowledge that most of their readers don’t have decades worth cover art context. They really need a cover that can catch attention and hook you all by itself. My publishing friends are all YA people, and I get a bit jealous whenever we’re wandering through the YA section of a bookstore.

    1. Oh, other genres including literary copy each other, too. Remember the summer of Adirondack chairs? Or all those novels with marble covers after Grisham started publishing?

    1. I like the old & the new. And, I do but don’t like the women’s faces cut out of the picture. I do because I usually form a picture in my head and yet I don’t because it feels misogynistic.

  16. Have you considered using an AI art generator as a way to brainstorm?

    I was imagining an illustration/photo of the town (or the shops) with the store sign showing the title of the book,– different store front for each book.

    You can search for “best AI art generators.”

    1. The project manager wanted to use AI, but Bob said no. I think he’s backed off of that, something to do with checking a box about AI when self-publishing?

      1. There is a lot of controversy over using AI. As a struggling artist, I am not a fan. I played with it a little bit, but until the question of who the art belongs to and who gets paid for it is sussed out, I am staying away.

      2. Amazon KDP does now ask if you’ve used any AI generators for text or images. It also now asks if your title or cover contains sexually explicit material. And, annoyingly, defaults to Yes. *sigh*

  17. I am sick to death of man-chest/six-pack covers.

    Another cover that I think has been done to death is the solitary woman image being looked at from her back against a moody background to convey romantic suspense or even thriller. It’s as if a book with that cover sold well and so everyone and their mother had to have a cover with a solitary woman being looked at from behind. Way too many of them out there.

  18. When I started self-publishing I was a) very cheap b) totally cavalier. Cover required? Fine, I’d make one myself. Mostly shitty little still-life covers (the images weren’t bad, but since I was making them in PowerPoint, the fonts were *terrible*). Then 6 years on, my sibling said “you need better covers” and nagged me into professionalism upgrade #1.

    We wound up using royalty-free images, mostly of humans who fit one of the main characters. It was very difficult to find useful images in the bigger stock photo collections (many of my characters are not white); Unsplash was a blessing.

    Our first round used a complicated font scheme which has now been drastically simplified, but only a few of the images have changed. Two of the books use my own photographs (‘Million Dollar Death’ and ‘Face The Music’), one (‘A Braid Of Love’) uses a photo my sibling created.

    I’ve commissioned exactly one cover from another artist (for my queer Edwardian comfort read ‘Sextette’) and the experience was fine but I am still nowhere near breaking even on publishing, much less making a profit, so I’m fortunate that JMS has agreed to publish (and make covers for) everything I’ve submitted so far. When the time comes that they don’t want something, we’ll go back to our tried & true el cheapo design.

    Romance readers are all over the place on what kind of covers they like or dislike; I didn’t spend much time canvassing for opinions before deciding I had to do what *I* like. 🙂

    Definitely feel your pain re: trials of creating covers for cross-genre books. I think if pressed to describe the cover that would tempt me to ‘Rocky Start’ if I weren’t already committed to it: view of the small-town street with storefront featuring in the book, proprietor outside the door staring across the street at love interest looking back at her with ‘I smell trouble and it smells good’ expression. 🙂 But that means two humans and a lot of compositing, ugh.

  19. Have you considered the covers for “cozy crime” books that are coming out now? They often have no people on the covers, just items key somehow to the story, often with a landscape drawing in the back that gives a sense of where the book takes place. They somehow convey a sense of slightly mysterious danger, without its being akin to horror or crime-based novels.

    1. They’re not really cosy novels, the towns aren’t sweet and the people all carry guns. Definitely don’t want to mislead readers,

  20. I like all 3 covers you picked. Of course, I like all the Liz Danger covers so it figures we have similar tastes in covers. Actually, I’ve never seen a Crusie cover that wasn’t appealing.

    I especially like the ‘Dead Ends’ cover because it reminds me somehow of Banksy.

    I, too hate those way too busy covers. The cartoon things – yuck. The bare male chest or the couples in pda covers are embarrassing (at least for me as a person who thinks too much is made of physical appearance) to buy.

    And I am proof that a bad cover influences whether or not I buy a book. Kristen Ashley has been an automatic book buy for me but she switched to those too busy covers and I haven’t started her latest series. To be fair I was already getting to that point but the covers were the tipper.

    Those Frazetta covers Bob likes are definitely not my taste.

    I will buy your books & your collaboration with Bob books regardless of the cover. I don’t generally buy print books anymore but I kept my collection of your print books since my copy of Maybe This Time is signed & also I feel possessive of your work – lol.

    So I have and will continue to buy your books in ebook & print.

    I do appreciate all the thought/work you put into the covers.

    I have to say as a whole, though, if I’m at a book store looking at a cover I like but an author I don’t know, I’m going to pick up the book, read a little and the read will determine whether or not I actually purchase.

  21. When I read the blurbs from Rocky Start, I immediately thought of the cover of Harris’ Midnight Crossroads, the shot down the highway that goes through town, the dilapidated buildings, it set such a perfect tone for the book.

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