When does a genre specific cover work

This episode of the Career Indie Author is overdue. This week has been full of editing my wife’s first book, “Suburban Stockade.” It’s in the hands of CreateSpace, and if everything goes well, we’ll have copies available at “Art on Chocolate” in Hershey on Saturday, May 13. Yay! Instead, I’ll put out there some thoughts I’ve been chewing over recently about genre specific covers.

As you know, a good book cover is a strong tool in the author toolbox. It conveys at a glance what the potential buyer can expect. A well-made cover creates a glow of competency and style that transfers to the author. If the cover looks terrible, the book buyer thinks, what does that say about the author’s capabilities?

But the cover also signals to the reader what the story is about. There’s even a phrase for it that seems to be appearing more frequently in recent years: genre expectations.

The reason this subject resurfaced was the appearance of a particular book cover. Teresa and I have talked about it several times. I’ve written about covers for the Career Indie Author book, and she is writing a series of books set on a terraformed Mars. The first book, “The Bride from Deripaska,” is in the hands of beta readers, and I’m working with her on the initial cover design.

So with the two of us especially attuned to looking at covers lately, seeing this cover led to several long discussions about it. It’s … unique.

See for yourself. I’ll crop out the title and blackout the subtitle. Put on your Sherlock hat and deduce: What’s the story? Think about it for a moment, then we’ll chat.

genre specific cover

Soooo many questions. If I saw this as a piece in a gallery show, I would have assumed it was a commentary on women’s role in the home. I mean, why else would a beautiful girl in a prom dress be running a belt sander over a table in the presence of tuxedoed mice? It’s contemporary Cinderella finishing a table before Ubering to the ball to meet hipster Prince Charming (or Princess, you know, NTTAWWT).

Now, let’s add the title to it.

That’s better. Now we know it’s a murder mystery, from the clever double-meaning in the title, the blood-red coloring, and the “Dyce Dare Mystery” subhead.

It doesn’t answer the question as to why she’s sanding a table without a dust mask. Those things kick up a lot of dust. And the white gown? It’ll be brown by the time she’s finished. And where’s her ear protection? And what’s with the damn mice? Why aren’t they scattering? Belt sanders put out a huge amount of noise.

I grant that this cover is unique. In fact, it bugs the hell out of me.

But that’s just me.

Perhaps the book description will provide some insight:

When Dyce Dare buys a table to refinish, the last thing she expects is to find a human blood stain under the amateurish finish. Whose blood is it? What happened to the person who bled on the table?

Helped and hindered by her fiance, Cas Wolfe, her friend Ben, her son E and an imaginary llama named Ccelly, Dyce must find the killer and the victim, before the killer finds her.

A Dyce Dare Mystery.

Originally Published by Prime Crime

You know, I think it just made it weirder. Does E have a full name? How does an imaginary llama have a name? How do you pronounce “Ccelly” – sibilant like a snake or no? And where do those frickin’ mice come into this?

(I’ll pass over my annoyance with “blood stain” since it can be one word or two. I’m just so used to seeing it as one that my hand twitches for the blue pencil.)

Then there’s the art itself, which seems to fall into the “uncanny valley” effect. It’s a photograph that the artist colorized through Photoshop. It’s a mix of realistic elements and drawn, modified and thrown together, and the result – to my eyes – is disquieting and unreal. One gets the impression her teeth will follow you around the room.

But the real crime is the typographical design, which follows the maxim that “less is a bore, so more, more, more!”

First, the title and the author name are nearly equal in size, creating competition for the reader’s eye. What to look at first? Is “Elise Hyatt” a known name? If she’s not, why is it so big?

The two colors also add to the visual noise. Then they’re shaded and surrounded by two borders, white and black.

The result, to my eyes, is a colorful mess.

Now, you can say that I’m no authority on such matters, and you’re right. I’ve been a copy editor for more than two decades. I’ve been a typesetter longer than that. I’ve read and reviewed books and have published a dozen of them. Even so, I don’t claim any authority, and nor should you adopt anyone’s opinion who claims to be one. Google “argument from authority” and you’ll see why.

But I still think this cover does not help this book.

This book cover fails to meet genre expectations. The next time you’re in a bookstore or library or even your home library, look at books like “A Fatal Stain,” which I assume is a light-hearted murder mystery. Look at their covers.

Any of them look like this? Speaking as someone who has been reading mysteries since I discovered Rex Stout and Ellery Queen in the Charlotte Public Library, I’ve never seen one like this.

Those covers convey through typography, words, and images, that they’re crime novels and murder mysteries.

This one does in its words (“stain” and “mystery”), but nothing else.

Now, what’s wrong with that? Why not be innovative and do something unexpected?

The answer is “nothing, so long as you’re willing to discourage potential readers who are looking for books in your genre.”

This is the joy and the responsibility of being your own boss. You can make any decision you want, so long as you recognize that the marketplace (i.e., paying readers) may not react the way that you want.

If you can accept that, then you can put pink elephants and unicorns on your gritty crime novel.

Learning what makes a good book cover takes some practice. You try something, you throw it out, you see the reaction, and you try again. Sometimes it works, as in my cover for “The Complete, Annotated Secret Adversary.”

And sometimes not, such as when I used the painting of Marat dying in his bath for “The Complete, Annotated Whose Body?” While it captures the subject perfectly, I’m sure there are plenty of potential buyers who were turned off by use of a French revolutionary to describe an English mystery.

At some point, I’ll replace the cover with something more appropriate. It was the best I could do at the time.

In the end, it comes down to opinions. For “A Fatal Stain,” there are two that count: the publisher / author, and the reader who lays down their money for it.

That’s why I’m not going to stand here and cry out you must do this or else you will fail! That’s silly.

But that’s still one weird cover.