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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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  • Zetta Brown

    @Betsy - Thanks for the compliment! :D  

  • Zetta Brown

    A year or so ago we started using a Cover Art Form for our authors to put down notes and information about their book so we can give it to the cover artist. It asks questions about character and setting descriptions, genre, if it's part of a series, sample images from things they've seen, etc. But it also asks basic, but important, info like "Title" and "Author's Name as it will appear on the cover." You'll be amazed at how many times the author hasn't decided on a title, and if they're new to publishing, they may have not decided if they will use a pen name or not.

    But another important part of the cover art form we require authors to submit is their story synopsis and drafts of their back cover blurb--or promo blurb if it's an ebook. This gives the cover artist more in-depth info about what the author wants to convey in their story that goes beyond physical characteristics. 

    Cover Art Forms (CAF) was something we picked up from another publisher that I worked with and she gave us some suggestions. We also had input from one of our cover artists who provided a few questions.

    We require the form to be completed as soon as possible after we accept the book so work can begin immediately. The sooner we have a cover, the sooner we can get it out there and have it generate interest.

    Plus, the form has saved TONS of time and has prevented a lot of back-and-forth among author, publisher, and artist. If you're working with an artist directly, you may want to consider developing a form.

  • Cindy Brown

    I love great cover art and look very carefully at it, but I used to be a graphic artist, so I'm keen to those things. A great cover makes a book something I want to display, not just read. If a cover looks cheaply made, the book seems cheaply written. Of course, you can't judge a book by it's cover, but it does leave a first (and lasting) impression.

  • Vicki Penzell

    This my book cover which I think it is just what I want woman pick up. It's very eye catching and feminine.

    What do you think  the content of the book will without a preview or press release??

  • Vicki Penzell

  • Betsy Graziani Fasbinder

    By the way...your cover is an eye catcher!

  • Betsy Graziani Fasbinder

    Great questions, Zetta. I confess.  I am drawn to an intriguing, original cover, for sure.  And, I've discovered some pretty wonderful authors I'd otherwise never have found simply because of their cover design and placement near the counter in my favorite bookstore.  Cover junkie...call me guilty.  Also makes me wonder about the fabulous books I've overlooked because their covers didn't happen to catch my eye.  

    That's why even as I write, my book designer is working up round 4 of design options for my novel that will launch in a few months.  Fonts and colors and images, oh my!  Does it capture the mood of the story? Is it too literal?  Is it too simple or complex? Is it original?  Zoiks!  These questions keep my brain dreaming of fonts and colors all night.  I think a cover is super important and glad that my publisher is doing this back-and-forth dance with me.  I know in my heart it's worth it to spend more time and get it right.  

    My book Fire & Water comes out in Q1 2013.  Send me good vibes for an eye-catching final cover design!  

  • Pamela L. Laskin

    A cover does draw me in and I believe people can be very superficial, but what I always look for is art. Surely I can look beyond a non-artisitc cover, but a good face will always entice!


  • Meghan Ciana Doidge

    Timely article for me because I just launched the cover for my newest book, Time Walker, today (with gorgeous cover and giveaway). I love working with the artist that does my covers. It's a little like collaborating on a scene for a film, which is how I delivered my stories in the past.

    Though lately I've had a couple of reviewers pick up my books, because they loved the covers, and neglected to read the blurb. Good for the cover artist, not as good for the review (though they've admitted their error in the review itself). I think my covers are VERY genre specific, but perhaps some readers don't look closely enough??

  • Toi Thomas

    I'm am so tired of seeing books that look, to me, "generic". By generic, I mean that they look like a handful of other books, related or not, because they were pushed through the publishing process with stock and catalog images, fonts, and backgrounds and borders. I know the publishing and self-publishing world is getting smaller and moving fast, but I don't understand why unique covers are so hard to come by.

    The cover of my book has been love and hated by many, but it's never been overlooked because it resembled another book. I've read descriptions of books and have been excited about them, only to questioned my excitement upon seeing the cover and realizing that I have two other books in my current library with either the same model on the cover or the same basic cover template in an different color scheme.

    Most of the time I don't let the cover keep me from reading a book, but it usually takes a while for me to stop being annoyed about the cover before being able to really get into the story. The only time I actually prefer for books to have similar covers is when the books are part of the same series.

  • Marcia Kemp Sterling

    With my first  novel coming out in a few weeks, I can now look back and say that my obsession with the cover was worth the effort.  I had a piece of art in my family that I wanted on the cover (part of the story was written around the painting) and I was determined to find a matte cover with the feel I wanted.  This was not easy.  I can't tell you how many sample covers I looked at that were slick, glossy or waxy.  I took to wandering the aisles of bookstores with my eyes closed fondling book covers.  I finally got what I wanted thanks to "gritty matte UV coating."  Maybe the title of my next book will be Gritty Matt.

  • Dorothy Thompson Writing

    Omg I am the biggest book cover junkie.  I may be shallow but if the cover has a striking cover, it's sold!

  • Zetta Brown

    Wow! The comments are coming fast and furious! :) Apologies if I don't address them all individually.

    @Grace - Fonts are an important part of the overall design. I'm not sure if people know there are tons more apart from what's on their standard word processing program and that anyone can create/design a font. The possibilities are endless.

  • Grace Peterson

    To me, more important than the image are the fonts. I think, unless it's a romance novel with extra swirly script, the type should be of a straight up and down bold font. I think cursive looks cheap and amateurish.  I haven't noticed blatantly similar covers but then I haven't really looked. I definitely notice a cover and I'm drawn to certain colors. But unless it's in the genre I read, I'll just appreciate the cover for a second then move on.  Great post! 

  • Suzanne Williams

    I am lucky in that I'm married to a cgi artist who created a custom cover for my YA action/adventure. He would be pleased to discuss ideas with anyone who wants something individual. Just give me a shout.

  • Petrea Burchard

    I do judge books by their covers. I'm at the cover design stage myself, and am at a loss. I'm not interested in stock photography and would love to find an artist to make a cover for me. Easier said than done.

  • Janice Seagraves

    I agree, and my first book I found out was a stock photo. It did fit my story very well though, so it was a shock to see the same couple on a whole lotta books covers.

  • Ramey Channell Writing

    I definitely judge a book by its cover! That's a first impression that should speak well for the book! I love the green cover image on the first edition of my book, Sweet Music on Moonlight Ridge.

  • Zetta Brown

    Thanks, Daphne! Glad to hear it. A book's cover is more than its art and design; it's an important part of the book's marketing strategy. 

  • Daphne Q

    I'm working on this right now with my book, so this column is quite timely. Thanks for posting!