By PJ Parrish
Maybe it’s my art background — or more likely because I write books that I hope get noticed — but I really pay attention to book covers. I’ve been known to pass by a good book with a what-the-hell? cover (Chuck Palahniuk’s Haunted) or get seduced by a meh book with a sexy cover (Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight)
Cover design is also on my mind because I’m working on my Edgar banquet stuff this week. This is my 15th year as banquet chair, and one of my duties is to put together the PowerPoint presentation of all the nominees’ book covers. I’ve seen a lot of trends come and go over that time. Some have become classic. Others, well, they belong down there with Juicy tracksuits and Nik Nik shirts. (Score yourself 5 pts if you wore a Nik Nik, 10 if you went out in public.)
Most authors are at the not-so-tender mercies of their publishers when it comes to cover design. But a lot of us also do our own covers or hire someone. A bad cover can really torpedo a book. I’ve seen some butt-ugly covers among the Edgar nominees. This year there doesn’t seem to be a dog in the bunch. So, I figure this is a good time for a quick survey course of what’s hot. (I’m covering only fiction here).
I’m thinking that fiction cover trends have stabilized in the last couple years, maybe because the industry seems to have figured out what a marketable cover should look like. Why reinvent the wheel? But then again, that kind of thinking gave us years of black covers. (Après Amy Dunne, le déluge). Those of you who publish your own stuff know the drill: Make sure your cover looks professional, reflects your book’s tone and meets genre standards. Those of you traditionally published — pray.
For a couple years now, we’ve been seeing minimalism in crime fiction covers — nothing fussy, maybe a plot-symbolic graphic, and strong typefaces with author name and title. This is baked in now, but there are some interesting break-aways as well. Here’s my rundown featuring this year’s nominees from the Edgars and the specials (Mary Higgins Clark, Lilian Jackson Braun and Sue Grafton awards):
San Serif Type. This has become the default design. Note that this approach translates well when reduced to a thumbnail on Amazon. Although I’m not sure about the white type against that pale background.
Written Type Faces. This trend emerged a couple years ago, and is still with us.
Note: All three are from the young adult category. Looking pretty scary, there.
One Strong Graphic. Another evergreen trend that has become a hallmark of crime fiction. It is seen as being symbolic of the plot usually. Many strong examples in this year’s mix. (Click any image to see larger)
Sense of Place. Conveying the story’s geographic place also continues to be popular. Some authors revel in setting (William Kent Krueger brands all of his book covers in this way). We used to do this with our Louis Kincaid series, but it started to feel dated, so we repackaged around the symbolism idea. But setting remains a favorite this year.
A Building Block. A similar device — tried and true for decades now — is to use a house or cabin as the central graphic. I’m not really crazy about this, as it always feels sort of vague to me, like the designer couldn’t quite grasp what the writer was doing. Our worst cover had a house graphic so maybe I’m just prejudiced.
But what if your setting isn’t all dark and creepy? Well, beneath that Don Johnson pink Armani lies a black heart, wouldn’t you know. I love both these covers. I’d rent a VRBO in these towns, even if there was a serial killer a-lurk.
There are also some eye-popping pure graphic design going on this year:
And some successful attempts to capture a book’s tone. Notice the nice marriages of color, typeface and graphics that convey a mood. You know immediately what kind of books these are.
One of my favorite categories, as far as cover art goes, is juvenile. One trend that remains classic in this genre is use of protagonists’ images. Maybe because kids like to identify with them so closely? Hey, I was dark, chubby and had to babysit the Heller brats, but in my dreams I was that blonde in the blue roadster.
Which leaves us with some splendid covers that defy categorization. There’s a retro vibe this year, redolent of Gorky Park, shivering spies, dicks with gats and those fun-loving Corleone boys.
To see all the nominees on Mystery Writers of America’s website, click here. And that, crime dogs, is a wrap.