We all know how the saying goes: never judge a book by its cover. As broad-stroke life advice, it works. But readers rarely follow it when deciding which books to buy.
If a book’s cover art involves human models, the author may be on especially slippery ground. The perfect-looking people speak to someone, but to whom? Common wisdom advises authors to broadcast genre and win new readers through halting visuals. Yet the fact that we are not all intrigued by the same kinds of people makes the use of humans on covers problematic. If cover models alienate me, I won’t buy the book.
I’m not kidding. I don’t care how many people are talking about a book. I don’t care about five-star reviews. I don’t care if I love the blurbs, or how badly I’m dying for a great romance read—I won’t buy it.
I swear, I’m not a narcissist. It’s not about needing to see some mirror image of me. It’s not about me being black and wanting to find more African-American fiction. I dislike full-face images of humans on covers, no matter their ethnicities, genders, or body types. Stories hold greater appeal if I’m given the leeway to interpret characters through my own imagination. Seeing cover images that are highly specific limit a story’s potential for me.
When seen through a marketing lens, leaving the door open to interpretation is a more inclusive practice. A 20-something romance reader may envision a strapping young man as the hero. A 50-something reader may view him as a silver fox. Allowing readers to imagine characters according to their own tastes engages them in a way that can’t be achieved via overly specific covers.
The deeper issue, of course, is connection: it’s the basest human desire. An increasing number of readers want assurances that a book will deliver a vicarious human experience through characters who feel real or relevant to them. Showing cover models who depict exclusive (and, frankly, debatable) standards of beauty undermines mass appeal.
This gets at other sensitivities: flawless-looking people on covers signal characters who will be light on flaws. Real people have dark circles under their eyes, scars, disabilities, tattoos they regret, and carry more than a few extra pounds. An idealized character depiction compromises readers’ ability to find something in common with the protagonist and dashes their hopes to live vicariously through him or her.
I’ll stop long enough to acknowledge that there’s a market for model-heavy covers, and for stories with correspondingly idealized worlds. Among a certain demographic, these books are popular. But how many more copies could be sold without fully visible cover models? How many readers care more about compelling characters who form in their minds than about defined, idealized character images?
If an author is willing to devote hundreds of hours to writing and perfecting novels, he or she must believe that stories are important. Why write unless one feels that one’s stories need to be read? Books can’t (and shouldn’t try to) be everything to everyone. But to maximize readership, authors must recognize where books have universal appeal and capitalize on that universality wherever they can.
This is easier than it seems. Even in my genre (romance), in which cover models are pervasive, some of the most iconic books avoid full faces, and people, altogether. Christina Lauren’s Beautiful Bastard, Alice Clayton’s Wallbanger, and even E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey signal genre without being overly specific.
Finding agnostic cover art isn’t easy, but there are a few tricks: if you’re designing a cover and you must use people, think twice about showing faces; maintain a sense of possibility by using ambiguous models; and avoid ethnic anchoring by converting images to grayscale, sepia, or alternative color scales. It could get the attention of a broader swath of readers.
Kilby Blades is the author of the erotic romance novel Snapdragon (Luxe, 2017).