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  • [Reality Check] Book Covers: Art or Clip-Art Collage?
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[Reality Check] Book Covers: Art or Clip-Art Collage?
Written by
Zetta Brown
November 2012
Written by
Zetta Brown
November 2012

The saying “You can’t tell a book by its cover, but the cover helps to sell a lot of copies of the book” is true.

I am attracted to books by their covers. In fact, in addition to buying books I want to read, I collect print books by my favorite authors from a certain period and by certain publishers because I enjoy their artwork. It's just like people who collect pulp fiction books. Some collect them for the author, some for the cover art, some for both cover art and author. But on more than one occasion I have read excellent books and horrible books because I was drawn in by the cover art.

When it comes to cover art, and you think about the time, effort, and skill that went into making these mini masterpieces of yesteryear, and then compare it to some of what is done today, you can’t help but be impressed. I don’t mean to suggest that modern cover artists are lazy and untalented. Well...not all of them anyway.

Some people have an eye for design and can create amazing work fairly quickly. Others may take more time either by necessity or by choice. I’m not saying that an author has no business designing their own cover, because some authors can do it very well. But there are some who should “leave it to the professionals” before they do themselves an injury. Which camp do you fall in?

For a long time now I have been seeing more and more books using the same cover art. I’m talking about the exact same images: the same torsos, head shots, animal poses, houses—the list goes on. Self published authors and publishing houses do this.

I’m not going to call out any books that are guilty of this by title, but I challenge you to start noticing if you see what I see.

It’s one thing if an author or publisher wants to show continuity in a series of books that are linked by story or compose a particular line of books for a publisher. We have a few series that exemplify this. Kathleen Kaska’s Classic Triviography Series conveys the same style:

Whereas Peg Herring’s new Loser Series incorporates the same image but with different poses and colors.

When it comes to creating a recognizable brand, look at Barbara Cartland’s books from the 1970s. The men and women look the same, only their hair or eye color changes. And let’s not forget how Fabio was fab in the 1980s flashing his chest and long locks everywhere. At least with Babs and Fabs you knew their books were in the romance genre

If you collect books, depending on your criteria, things like the publisher is important because a publisher will try to give an author's books a certain "look", especially if they are doing a series. If the author and series moves to another publishing house, that publisher will create a different look for that author and their series.

Jo Public may not care who publishes her favorite author and will follow that author regardless of what publishing house produces the books, but the publisher will care, and years later, so will collectors. 

Book collecting aside, these days, it’s possible to find the exact same images being used on the cover of a horror novel and an inspirational romance. This helps no one. It doesn’t help the author distinguish him/herself, it doesn't help the genre the book represents, and it doesn’t help readers find the books they want.

Personally, I am sick and tired of seeing the same exact images on varying books in varying genres. And it doesn’t matter if it’s a print book an ebook, indie published or New York mega-published. I see too many look-alike books. It’s like a group of cover artists—or authors making their own covers—all have an account at iStockphoto and all have access to the same lightbox!

It’s not like I have anything against using stock art on book covers. Clip art and stock images are wonderful tools. The cover for my story “Devil Don’t Want Her” is a stock photo because I was actually able to find an image that summed up the story’s theme. It’s a simple cover and took all of five minutes to create. Considering that it’s the cover for a short story, I’m fine with the investment of time and money, but I wouldn’t feel this way if it was for my novel.

If you plan to/have to use stock images, here’s a tip: make sure that the image hasn’t been downloaded thousands of times already. While the number of downloads doesn’t mean it’s been used that many times, it does denote a popular image. There are millions of stock images available. It’s not impossible to find one that hasn’t been used ad nauseam. You just have to dig deeper.

Yet there’s no guarantee that your “undiscovered” image will stay undiscovered for long. You may see your stock image on another book/product, and it may have more exposure than yours. Mega publishing houses use stock images from Getty Images and iStockphoto too. What if you used an image on your cover first, and then here pops up a NYT best-seller with the same image? I see it as going to a party and finding someone wearing the same dress as you...and looking better in it. People may accuse you of copying the johnny-come-lately.

That’s gotta suck.

In my opinion, ebooks have been guilty of this kind of thing more than print books because, generally speaking, creating an ebook cover is easier, faster, and cheaper than doing a print cover, especially if you are doing it yourself. You may not have the budget to get exactly what you want, and you have to make do with what you can afford. Personally, I can’t stand computer generated images—especially if they look like CGI images. Even though we have had to rely on CGI in the past because commissioning custom, hand-drawn art was cost prohibitive, fortunately, there are better CGI programs these days, and a talented artist can produce better, more lifelike images.

However, there are cover artists who use stock photos as their medium and have mastered it in order to create fabulous covers fit for ebook and print production. And their prices are affordable! It takes more than finding an image and slapping the author’s name and title on it. You may luck out like I did, but don’t count on it happening all the time, and frankly, you wouldn’t want to if you are trying to brand yourself or your work. It can look unprofessional and cheap. Is that what you want your brand to represent?

Also, I am happy to say that in the last two or three years I have seen a vast improvement when it comes to the quality of ebook cover art. If you want to see what I mean, I suggest that you visit the website for EPIC – The Electronic Publishing Industry Coalition and look at the gallery for the finalists of their 2013 ARIANA Cover Art Awards.


Producers of ebooks are taking more care with their cover art. I think part of that has to do with the popularity of ebooks as well as technology allowing these complex images to be reproduced on ebook readers. Compared to the ebook covers from three or more years ago, we could be entering a Golden Age of ebook covers.

Here are some questions for you:

  • Are you ever compelled to look at a book just because of its cover?
  • Have you noticed similarities in covers?
  • What are some of the things you like/don't like to see on a cover?


©2012. Zetta Brown. If you like this post, then stop by Zetta’s Desk or her other blog: Random Thoughts.

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  • Fiona McGier

    And hey right back atcha, Zetta.  Thanks for the blurb about this blog, because it led to me joining She-writes.  I'm really enjoying the interaction that is already being sent to me, as I see what other writers are doing.  Working 2 jobs leaves me little time to write back, but I try to keep up.  And stay up late enough to do some writing, occasionally.

  • Zetta Brown

    Hey, Fiona! Thanks for visiting my wee blog :) I know what you mean about "SIMS" characters (aka CGI). Sometimes CGI can look very, VERY realistic, but a person really needs to know what they're doing and have some artistic talent by being able to draw without a computer.I wish I developed my artistic abilities as much as I developed my writing skills. Sigh...

  • Fiona McGier

    I think that the cover can make or break sales, which is kind of unfortunate.  I'm not an artist by any stretch of the imagination!  I put my creativity to better use in the words that I write, in the characters that I create and the stories they inhabit.  E-publishers do give you some input into what your covers look like as opposed to the big 6 who have done some famous bloopers, like putting a blonde, white woman on the cover of a book with a black heroine.  Or the famous cover with the man who appears to have 3 arms while he hugs the heroine...that one was a regency, so no aliens involved! 

    But that being said, some of my books have covers done with what my daughter called "SIMS" characters.  I did have some input, but that was how that house's artists made covers.  I'm proud of those books, but wish the covers could have been more realistic.

    And as for covers that are repetitive, I know that there are some guys who are like Fabio used to be: on every cover around!  Yeah, he may be a good-looking man, but not all of us find him the sine qua non of sexy!  I refuse to join with everyone else to use the same guy whose face/body has been on everyone else's cover!

  • Toi Thomas

    Thank you Pam for your honest opinion. What do you think the cover is lacking?

    Thank you Vivienne for your honest oponion. That's what I was going for with the gray.

    I like my cover the way it is, but I was never in love with it. I'm open to the idea of tweaking it, but I would only want to do so after careful thought and consideration.

  • Vivienne Diane Neal

    Toi, I like the cover because to me, the image with its gray background symbolizes Mira's sadness and Giovanni's skin condition, which makes him sensitive to light. Personally, I would keep the cover. Best wishes to you.

  • Pamela L. Laskin

    I do not love the cover of the paranormal book.


  • Toi Thomas

    Since we're on the subject and just for curiosity...What do you think of my cover?

    It's an Urban Fantasy with many paranormal and spiritual elememts, and has an ultimate message of hope.

    Should I keep this or consider a redesign?...I honestly want to know.

    I tried several times just to include an unlinked image, but it won't download. So, here's the link; sorry. http://www.amazon.com/Eternal-Curse-Giovannis-Angel-ebook/dp/B009TQQAFK/ref=pd_rhf_ee_p_t_1

  • Lizzie Eldridge

    Thank you again, Celine, and to say you've made my evening is an understatement! Keep in touch and take care :)

  • Celine Keating

    I of course read the description - looks fascinating!

  • Lizzie Eldridge

    Wow Celine! I'm really pleased you liked the cover enough to buy the book. Thank you! I hope you like the content equally as much and do let me know what you think when you finish reading it. Thanks again and take care!

    Lizzie :)

  • Celine Keating


    I not only found your book cover appealing, but I just ordered it from Amazon. See, proof positive that a well-conceived cover, if married to content that also appeals, can lead to sales!


  • Kathleen Kaska

    Hi Zetta, It's nice to see my beautiful book covers here. I appreciate the opportunity to give my feedback, but I also realize that I don't have the technical artistic eye for details needed to design a great cover. LL has been wonderful in adding just the right images. I learned a lot about book cover design and the use of stock photos from your blog.BTW, Peg Herring's covers are striking! 

  • Claire McAlpine

    It's an interesting topic and for sure there will be market research out there that suggests many of the answers, which leads certain publishers into doing what it is they do. But as individuals, we all have our own take on it and for me, a cover can definitely make me want to read a book and equally can be a turn off.

    I'm intrigued by how similar genre-literature covers look, but I guess if you read a certain genre, it becomes easy to spot something in your category.

    I recently read a very interesting article in the Guardian which analyses book covers and suggests theories on how one should go about it, I wonder how this fits in with your perceptions. I think the text only covers are interesting and since reading this article I notice Colm Toibin's new book A Testament of Mary has come out with a text only cover, suggesting people will buy it based on his reputation, rather than content - it is certainly a departure from his other works.

  • Lizzie Eldridge

    The cover of a book's really important to me and, like Celine, I also see the cover and then have a quick read of the first few pages to see if the style appeals to me. I found Jon McGregor's beautiful book, If nobody speaks of remarkable things, this way and fell in love with this book in every sense. For my own first novel, an artist friend designed the cover for me and it's exactly as I imagined it :) If the cover draws you in then please feel free to have a further look and tell me what you think :) - available on Amazon - http://www.amazon.com/Duende-ebook/dp/B006OG03SS/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1352534308&sr=1-1&keywords=duende

    Product Details

  • Lissa Brown

    I like a cover to be visually pleasing and relevant to the content of the book. I've gone out of my way to hire an artist who could capture the essence of my books in a cover illustration. Often when I do book signings people comment on the covers of the books.

    I've come to recognize the types of covers used by publishers for YA novels and sci fi books and sometimes wonder if they've tried to capitalize on the short attention spans of young readers. Some make me wonder if they assume all young readers are dropping acid.

    People say ebook covers are lost in the thumbnail size representations, but I disagree. You can still have an impressive cover design that shows up on Amazon and other ebook sellers' sites.


  • Ramey Channell Writing

    I really like the covers of "Secret of Old Blood" and "One Summer in Arkansas." These make me want to read the books. Here's my cover from my "Sweet Music" novel, Southern literary fiction. I'm in love with it!

  • S. Ramos O\'Briant

    My novel is literary fiction, so I was surprised when the publisher presented me with this cover.  It seemed more fitting for the romance genre, but he pointed out that there were no gleaming male abs in the picture.  Now, I'm in love with it, and my readers seem happy, as well.  The story does revolve around sisters and their lives, and there is romance, and while the men are good, bad, and superb, it's the women who lead the action.

  • Vivienne Diane Neal

    I have a tendency to look at the title and blur more than the book cover.

  • Ashley Foster Frye

    I love a great cover. Unfortunately I have been burned by thinking that way. I wish the author would have put as much detail into the cover as they did in the book.

  • Petrea Burchard


  • Marcia Kemp Sterling


    Sorry this is so big.  I couldn't figure out how to reduce it.  Mine is definitely a more retro look....

  • Zetta Brown

    @Celine - no need to feel embarrassed! LOL There have been several polls done by publishers, authors, and others asking what draws a reader to a book. Is it cover art? The author? The genre? The back cover blurb? Advertising? Reviews? I think that it's safe to say that if we knew the definitive answer, we wouldn't have to ask and we'd all be best sellers.

    Getting rights to a photo can take time and be expensive, but if you've found that perfect image, you'll find a way. :) We had an anthology where the editor found the perfect image but getting the rights for it was too expensive. So we had our cover artist do a rendition based on the image and created an original piece.

  • Zetta Brown

    @Petrea Burchard - I missed seeing your comment until just now. You can try looking for an artist at Guru.com. You can post details about what you're looking for, say what your budget is, and then allow for artists to bid on the assignment. We've done this and found an excellent artist to do a few of our covers. The good thing is that you can set your budget and artists who feel like they can do the work for that amount will apply. It weeds out those who may think what you offer is too cheap and saves people from wasting time.

    You may also want to check out SheWrites member Kurt Krause.

    I also recommend Amanda Kelsey at Razzle Dazzle Design. She's done several of our covers.

  • Celine Keating

    Thanks for this, Zetta!  I now feel less embarrassed that often it's the cover that draws me to an author and book that's unknown to me (then I read the first page to see if the writing appeals). To me, as a writer of literary fiction, the most important message a cover should convey, besides the obvious (author/title/genre) is the mood and spirit of the novel. I took forever to find an image for the cover of my first novel, Layla, sifting through thousands of photographs, and when I found it, it was like finding true love - I HAD to have rights to that image (getting it was another story - the photographer was in Iran!). To me, even more important than the fact that it's beautiful and would make someone reach for the book is that I think it matches the tone of the book, in some indefinable way. 

  • Peg Herring

    I take no credit for the great covers you see for my books in Zetta's post, but I do love them. I don't have an "eye" for good cover art, so when a publisher sends me a proposed cover, I consult a web designer genius I know for advice. He cautions that modern readers are often looking at a book cover on a tiny, tiny screen, so it's important that it isn't blurry or too busy. He also reminds me to make sure my name is big enough to read easily in a one-inch square! I think LL-Pub's cover artist did a great job with the Loser Mysteries, and my web guy agrees. Matching genre, sub-genre, and mood are important, so readers know what they're getting. I once had a traditional mystery with a cover designed by an artist used to doing erotic romance--not a good result!