Every time I go to a bookshop, most likely my local Waterstones, I have a little ritual. As a designer and a fan of judging people instantly, I like to admire books by their covers. I usually take photos of my favourites, sometimes finding out who made the covers I like the most so I can follow their work. These can be from a range of genres, my favourite being science fiction. But there’s one genre which I have a love-hate relationship with when it comes to covers: crime fiction.
If you were to picture the latest crime novel, what would it look like? For me, a clear image materializes instantly. A silhouette of a man or woman faces away from us, staring or running towards the bleak backdrop of a gritty dark city landscape. There’s usually a bridge, too. Large sans-serif letters read something like ‘SILENT DEATH’ or ‘ WHERE SHE SLEEPS’ with grey and red colours, bleeding into my eyes while I yawn unconsciously. I can’t say these books are bad, and if I picked one up it’s possible I’d have a good time reading them. But as someone who has dreamed of having their own book with their own cover, it bewilders me why an author would spend months or years on a novel only to hand it off to a marketing company for the same formulaic covers that blend in with the rest. Is this the only way to sell a mid-tier crime book in 2019? Do people actually like these covers? Do the authors simply not care about the stamp on the front and are trusting the educated general public to withhold their judgments and read it? Let’s find someone with some answers.
“I think following the formulas of other successful covers can be limiting, but it’s also often necessary."
“A book’s cover is probably one of the most important tools for overall sales. A cover is the first thing a potential reader will likely see and can effect whether they look any further at the book.” says Rebecca Berus, founder of 2Market Books. Rebecca is responsible for getting books off the shelves, and money out your wallet. Just to be sure I wasn’t just going crazy, I asked if there were any regular tropes of a crime cover. “Dark, gritty imagery often with a sense of action.” replied Berus. “ The specific imagery can vary by sub-genre of crime fiction. Be it psychological thriller with a woman on the cover in a subliminally threatening, nondescript background or a legal thriller which will often have a suited man running up courtroom steps or some sort of courtroom imagery.”
So there are tried and tested formulas. But if Rebecca just sold all her clients the same JPEG of a guy running up some courtroom steps, how would any of them stand out against the rest? According to Berus, it’s about balance. “Follow the rules enough to give readers an idea of what to expect, but create a standout image that invites curiosity and a desire for the reader to know more.” But how does one create that balance, and not fall to one of the doomed sides? How can you establish your tropes and genre and still be creative, and new? I asked Rebecca the ultimate question in this case: do following these formulas remove the opportunity to be unique and creative with a cover?
“I think following the formulas of other successful covers can be limiting, but it’s also often necessary. Following these formulas allow you to meet readers expectations with the cover and visually indicate genre, but in order not to remove all creativity you need to be able to slightly break some of these formulas to stand out. However, this only works if either you (the author) or your cover designer truly understands the genre and design enough to know where you can break the formula. If you are a novice to your genre and/or to design, you likely need a designer with lots of experience in your genre to try to break these formulas in a constructive manner.”
So with some experience, you can still make a great cover out of tested formulas, as these recipes exist for a reason. Perhaps I should stop sneering at them, and maybe bloody read one.