The Crime Readers' Association

Judging a Book by Its Cover, by Pauline Rowson

18th February 2020

Pauline is author of the DI Andy Horton crime series (14); Art Marvik mystery thrillers (3) and the 1950 set mystery Death in the Cove, the first in the Inspector Ryga series.


Book covers are a mystery almost as deep as the crime novels they represent. What makes a striking cover is a question that perhaps even my detectives can’t solve. While I have clear ideas, others seem sometimes to differ. It’s a bit like your neighbour’s wallpaper; they think it delightful, you think you should wear sunglasses every time you enter their house.


The cover has a function, aside that is from protecting the book. It needs to convey the style of the book, even if it is non-fiction, or the genre of the book if fiction. With crime novels there are so many subgenres. If it is gritty gruesome then blood and gore must feature, or a dark brooding cover could be appropriate. If it is a cozy crime or humorous then light colours are used and the cover has a humorous touch even sometimes a cartoon style.


With my crime novels being set around the sea it is essential that the cover image be a seascape of some kind. Also the title needs to reflect that. Not an easy task but readers rarely, if ever, remember the titles of the novels unless they have read them several times and they are favourites. The same goes for book covers, no one usually recalls the image. The cover though needs to attract the reader whether it be printed book, ebook or audio book. Often the audio book cover will differ but the printed book and ebook cover will be the same so as not to confuse the reader, unless they are being published by different publishers, or an overseas publisher. The covers of my DI Andy Horton novels in China and in the USA are vastly different to the ones produced in the UK and that is to reflect the tastes of their audience. Typically the potential reader browses on line, in a bookshop or library, looks at the cover, reads the blurb and then the first few lines before making a decision to purchase or borrow.


So how does it work?


The designer in a publishing house is given the book blurb; a brief outline of the story; the genre and sub-genre and is sent off to come up with some riveting ideas.  He or she might study novels of a similar type, which is easy enough to do by scrolling through Amazon. Also they will examine what is flavour of the year for that style of novel. There was one period where every front cover for a thriller/crime novel had to have a man running on it, mine included, until the chairman decided he didn’t want that – the original cover image was scrapped and a new and to my mind much better one was substituted (Silent Running – an Art Marvik mystery/thriller).


The designer will search the photo libraries, such as Getty Images and Shutterstock, or his/her own library of pictures, and those available via the internet. There is a fee for using library images and sometimes restrictions for use. It is down to the designer, or publishing house/author, to check copyright and if a fee is required.


If you are a good photographer one of your own pictures could be used, with the aid of a skilful designer who can adapt it accordingly. For Death in the Cove one of my husband’s photographs was used, and the bay on the front was flipped round to face the other way and a shadowy detective from the 1950s inserted.


Unbeknown to me at the time of design three of my DI Andy Horton novels have pictures of Portsmouth, where the novels are set. One came from Shutterstock, the other two the designer’s own photographs.


The designer will also be following a house style when it comes to font style, positioning the title and the author’s name and perhaps a strap line, often a testimonial (shout line). The better known authors, or the amount of money a publisher has invested in a new author, also influences where the author’s name will appear and how large, often above the title and in large letters with the title often almost a throwaway point. As I said, readers don’t recall titles but they will recall the author’s name or look out for that author’s books if they are a fan.


Often an author has little or no influence on the covers unless they are self-publishing or working with an internet-only publisher. The publishing houses generally speaking have complete control over the covers, and that is usually specified in the contract. If you are shown the covers in advance it comes with a carefully worded email along the lines of “here is the cover for the new book, we hope you like it. We do!”


Read all about Pauline here:

Pauline Rowson’s website

Follow Pauline on Twitter @PaulineRowson and on Facebook



Photos Click thumbnails to enlarge

Go back to Blog

Join the CRA

Joining the CRA is FREE. There are no lengthy forms to fill out and we need nothing but your email. You will receive a regular newsletter but no spam.