Book Covers and Genre Expectations

My writing group touched upon the interesting topic of book covers and genre expectations this week. The general consensus was that fiction readers are pre-programmed to expect certain elements of design based on the genre of the book.

Imagine yourself in the bookstore. You immediately know what shelf contains romance because of all the half-naked men on the covers. You know which books are thrillers, which are sci-fi and which are literary, purely based on a glance at the cover. Even in an online bookstore, where your search is by keywords and you can’t really make a mistake and accidentally buy erotica when you were looking for detective mystery, readers are confronted with these clichéd images, all in the name of expectation.

So woe betide any author who dares to deviate from the norm.

I write urban fantasy. Here are the first book covers of the four most popular series in the genre (according to Goodreads):

You see the similarity?

I decided to go a different way when I designed the covers for my MYTHICAL MENAGERIE series. I don’t have either a kick-ass female or a brooding male on mine, but rather a true scene from the book that hints at something extraordinary happening in an ordinary place. In these stories, the locations are important, so the cover for the first book in the series, BEGINNER’S LUCK, shows a rainbow over London’s iconic Big Ben.

I’ve been told this is an awesome cover, but because it doesn’t conform to genre expectations, readers of urban fantasy just aren’t drawn to it. In fact, someone told me because it features a historical landmark so prominently, it looks more like it could be historical drama.

Oh dear.

We all judge a book by its cover, even though we’ve been told not to. I will freely admit that I’m a cover snob – I won’t even give a book with a bad cover a second glance, much less read the blurb or try out a sample.

So covers matter. They matter a lot. They are the first chance an author gets to draw a potential reader’s interest. The question is, though, should we stick to genre expectations or are we allowed to mix things up a bit? I don’t know for certain, but sales sure would seem to indicate that the tried and tested way is true…

What are your thoughts and expectations surrounding book covers? Do you prefer to stick to the norm? Do you think I should change my covers to conform to my genre’s expectations?

2 comments / Add your comment below

  1. I would be fascinated if you re-did the cover to fit more closely with genre expectations, then did a follow-up blog post on whether you saw a difference in terms of sales…

    1. I’m going to test it first with the next cover, which has the Notre Dame on it. If the trend stays the same, I’ll get the first two covers and the rest of the series in line with genre expectations. I think this is a fascinating topic, and I’ll definitely write a follow-up post once I have more data.

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