The Latest Trends In
Cover Design: Think Pink?

By PJ Parrish

Cover design is taking up space in my brain lately.  Partly because our upcoming Louis Kincaid thriller THE DAMAGE DONE (July this year) is in production right now.  But also because I am gearing up for my annual duty as Edgar banquet chair.

The Edgar gig involves me putting together a Powerpoint presentation that we run throughout the banquet, with the biggest part given over to displaying all the covers of the nominees as they are announced from the stage. I decided to introduce this to the Edgars in my first year because I remember, as a nominee, how thrilling it was to just BE there.  But there’s a real thrill to seeing your actual book  — oh, about three-feet high — flashed up on a Jumbotron screen in the grand ballroom of New York City’s Grand Hyatt, filled with agents, editors and fellow writers. Here’s two samples from my Powerpoint from last year’s banquet. (Click to enlarge):

Sitting in the back of the room at my laptop controls, I never fail to be amazed by the beauty of some of the nominee covers.  It’s fun to compare and contrast the styles. And I never fail to think about how a great cover — or a bad one — can affect a book’s chance to make a good first impression.

A while back, I did a long post about covers in which I cited a survey about what factors made a potential reader pick up a book.  Guess what was no. 1? You betcha — cover design.

So when my sister Kelly sent me an article the other day about newest trends in book cover designs, I knew I had to pass it along to you. The article talks about all kinds of books, but maybe there’s some take-aways for us crime dogs as we self-publish or dicker with our editors. But first, let’s take a trip in the Way Back Machine…

Remember when having huge raised foil letters was a must, a la any book by Patterson? Well, apparently that is yesterday’s news.

Remember when neon was the way to go, a la Harlan Coben’s breakout book Tell No One?  It’s not enough these days….

And remember when all the girls wore basic black? It’s been done so much that it’s no longer the way to separate yourself from the pack. But apparently, I didn’t get the message…more on that in a moment.

Here, according to Lindsey Vontz of 99Designs, is what’s hot.  (Click HERE for whole article.) And for fun, I took a look at this year’s Edgar nominees to see if I could find any parallels in our little genre.

Bold Typography

A hyper-trendoid thing is to have your cover dominated by the type, usually incorporating what Vontz calls “organic elements” like brush strokes rather than traditional clean fonts. This has been going on for years — Jonathan Safran Foer has made it a trademark — but it’s showing up everywhere now.

And voila! Here’s an Edgar nominee in this year’s Best First Novel category, Lola by Melissa Scrivner Love:

Keeping It Simple

Many cover designers now are going for a minimalist approach, using one graphic element with a lot of white space. In the example below, the absence of two letters draws in the reader’s curiosity, the designer says.

My sister Kelly, who still works parttime at Horizon Books in Traverse City, Michigan, says she remembers seeing this book come in and how it stuck in her mind and made her think how the missing letters telegraphed the book’s content.

Here’s The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, a nominee for Best Young  Adult Edgar. I love this cover, but then I was always a sucker for negative space in art class.

Hand-Drawn Covers

These have been popular for a couple years but the trend will continue, the article’s author says. Mostly, this has been the realm of more “feminine” books, the covers featuring a lot of florals and such. But there’s a trend toward more “masculine” design in hand-drawn covers, like the one below:

I’ve seen this style pop up in the Edgars in recent years but this year, alas, no examples. But here are a couple from past nominees that I remember, the first in Best True Crime, the second in Best Young Adult:

Throwback Styles

Just when you thought it was safe to stop being nostalgic for the Sixties or, God forbid, the Seventies, new trends in book covers are reminding us that our past is never far enough behind us. Funky ’70s typography and colors straight out of plastic flower decals are the hot new things. Check these new novels out. Sex and Rage is a reissue of a 1979 novel, but Goodbye Vitamin is a slacker family drama that got rave reviews. Somewhere, Jacqueline Susann is laughing her butt off.  And Philip Roth is thinking he retired just in time…

I couldn’t find any of this in the Edgar nominees.  But I have noticed that in the Young Adult and Best Juvenile categories in past years, bright citrus colors and a touch of whimsy seem to be popular.

All Things Pink

Remember the musical number in Funny Face  “Think Pink?” Apparently, it’s showing up on book cover design. Ah, but not any old bubblegum pink. It has to be — wait for this! — Millennial Pink. This means it has to be muted and dusty, which, come to think of it, is sort of how I see my millennial nephew. Here’s some examples:

Lo and behold, look what I found in the Edgar’s Best First Novel category this year:

Collage It Up

This dredged up another memory for me from my college art classes.  I was terrible at anything three-dimensional but I do remember getting kudos for a collage I did. Maybe I’m just good at throwing stuff together and seeing what sticks. As for covers, I’ve always kind of like collages, but like juggling with chain-saws, this is not for amateurs designing their own covers.

The closest I came to this among the Edgar nominees was this striking cover which superimposes what appears to be elevator down buttons over a man’s face. This is Jason Reynold’s Young Adult nominee Long Way Down.

Photo-Heavy Covers

Photo images have been a mainstay of mystery and thriller covers for as long as I can remember. Self-published authors know all the ins and outs of finding stock images. And you can find just about anything you need to express your story in Getty Images. (Just type “Lonely woman on beach” in their search bar and for $395 you’ve got your cover.) But the trend now is to go beyond the literal stock image (silhouetted man running in dark alley = international thriller) and to find one really compelling, more artistic, image that might convey the tone or theme of the book instead. Here’s an example for a book of poetry:

And here’s a striking cover from one of this year’s Edgar nominees in Best Paperback Original, Penance by Kanae Minato:

Now, for an object lesson. I’d like to show you what my sister Kelly and I have been up to.  In recent years, we’ve been getting the rights back to our backlist titles in our Louis Kincaid series and have self-published several of them.  And since you can’t legally use the original covers, we’ve had to come up with our own.  We knew we had to have a consistent look for all the books — same type fonts, same general look. But we struggled to find a singular style that we thought captured the series’s tone (hard-boiled police procedural/private eye).  Plus, we aren’t rich. We didn’t have a lot of money to blow on designers or artwork. This is what we came up with (except for PAINT IT BLACK, which was done by Kensington Books and was always one of our favorites). You can click on the line-up to enlarge.

But we were never really happy with what we came to call our “dead tree” books. A moody landscape just didn’t convey our books’s tone. And they look a little dated now. I lobbied for something darker, and I really wanted to go with strong photos with humans in them to convey a sense of the books’s dark tones. And I wanted more negative space in the design to give the type and images room to breath. We also wanted it to match the upcoming cover design for our July 2018 release THE DAMAGE DONE. After weeks of searching for the right photos and playing with fonts, this is what we came up with. (Click to enlarge):

Yeah, yeah…I know. They’re black. So’s my wardrobe and my writer’s heart. As Jessica Rabbit says, I can’t help it, I’m just drawn that way.

So what say you? Do any of these trends float your boat? Can you see your new serial killer book wearing pink? Hey, it worked for John D. MacDonald and Erle Stanley Gardner.  Share your trials and triumphs about cover.

Postscript: James’s comment below about Harlan Coben’s Tell No One got me curious so I Googled the cover to see if other designs came up.  Publishers usually repackage for paperback and foreign publishers put their own spin on things. Here’s a couple more versions of Tell No One, including a “dead tree” version!

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About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at PJParrish.com

20 thoughts on “The Latest Trends In
Cover Design: Think Pink?

  1. I’m drawn more to your book covers (both old and new) as well as most of those from your PowerPoint presentation. The James Patterson and Gillian Flynn covers are intriguing. The bold typography covers are a big turn off for me (makes me dizzy just to look!) And pink… no way! I know we’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but if a cover doesn’t appeal to me, I’m not likely to take a second look.

    • You and a million other readers, Joan. (re if a cover isn’t attractive). I have forced myself to give certain books a chance after seeing their ugly covers. Partly this is because I know that 99% of traditionally published authors have no control over their covers. You’re lucky if you get “cover consultation” in your contact. And every fellow writer I know has a cover horror story. I do have to add, though, that my publishers in the past have been pretty cool about taking our input. Twice, they changed the cover because we suggested it didn’t reflect the book’s true essence. I wonder how rare that is.

    • Thanks for the link, Eric! I checked the previous winners out, and the first one I saw was bright pink. But it was erotica, so I guess it’s okay. This site Eric mentions provides an interesting overview of what self-published authors are doing with their covers these days. Some are quite good. Some, well, not so good.

  2. I have that very edition of CANCEL ALL OUR VOWS, one of my all-time favorite novels. Kudos to you for putting it up there!

    I remember vividly going into Crown Books and walking past the new release table. One book jumped, screamed, set off the alarms, dominated the space. It was the hardcover TELL NO ONE which, you may remember, didn’t have Harlan’s name visible. No blurbs … nothing but that color and the title, which was small and off center.

    That took marketing guts, and boy did it pay off. And it certainly was a trend breaker.

    My advice is: collect examples of covers that don’t just float your boat, but knock it right out of the water. Then work with a good designer to realize your vision.

    Oh yeah, and make sure “Girl” is in the title.

    • Yeah, I remember the first time I saw Harlan’s cover, on a rack in Publix supermarket. It was like seeing a flashing neon sign amid dull blobs of color and type. It is a very good book but someone had some guts in its packaging and it made people take notice. It was Harlan’s first stand-alone after a string of Myron Bolitar sports-oriented books, each with a sort of cheesy use of various spherical sports paraphernalia. Harlan used to talk about the Bolitar covers as the “balls books.”

  3. Kris, thanks for a great overview of trends through the decades. Like fashion, everything old eventually becomes new again.

    My first book’s initial cover was bright, colorful, and eye-catching. It really stood out amid an array on a computer screen. But…the publisher wanted to change it. Wound up with the “dead tree” look in green and black. I like it but it no longer jumps out from the crowd.

    Now I’m pondering the second book’s cover. Continue the existing theme or go for big change? My “brand” is hardly established at this point. Any advice?

    • Hope others will weigh in, Debbie. My gut feeling is to change what you think is not working. Esp since, as you say, you haven’t yet established a concrete look. Personally, I really hate green covers. Dunno what it is about them, but they seem uninviting. Our third book had a green cover and it just laid there like a dead lizard. Unfortunately there are still some moldering in storehouses so we haven’t gotten the rights back on that one yet.

  4. Recently judged a contest and after a while, the covers started looking too much alike.Titles and author names in all caps, many in identical fonts. Images clearly were third fiddle, often not much more than dark, shadowy figures disappearing into the distance or just some sort of setting, again, hardly striking. But there were a lot of them, so I guess they’re selling.

    • Publishers are notorious for being lemmings. I agree, Terry, that there is a sameness, esp in mass market. Trade paperbacks seems to be where the creativity is. If you go back and look at the Edgar samples I posted here, I think the paperbacks have a sort of sameness to them. But this year’s paperback nominees are really unique.

  5. Publishers are notorious for being lemmings – interior decorators, fashion designers – one person calls something a trend and the rest of them run with it. Is something really a trend or are they so busy copying each other they have no idea what really interests the public?

    • I think you nailed it, Michelle. Publishing is such an uncertain realm. No one really knows what works, so they depend on a pack mentality. I don’t say this to be negative, just as a reality. Those rara avis books that break out of nowhere…they all seem to take chances of some kind.

  6. Wow, this is a short course on modern cover design, Kris. Thank you. My Dead-End Job mysteries are being reissued with new covers and cover copy, and the covers are pink! Delighted to know the designer is on trend.

  7. A huge NO on the pink covers for any of my books. I’m not a pink person anyway, so the covers make me cringe, especially for serial killer thrillers. Love your new covers and the mood they convey.

  8. Kris, I love your new covers. I would pick up those books on the covers alone 🙂
    I tend to like the simple ones – not too busy, stick to a couple of colours, easy to read fonts. White space can be used so effectively to ensure something stands out from the crowd.

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