Wednesday, February 16, 2022

The Art of Book Cover Design for Historical Fiction

*This is an older post, but it remains so popular that I keep it pinned here on the main page.*

I had the pleasure of speaking on The Art of Book Cover Design panel at the Historical Novel Society conference last June with Emily Victorson from Allium PressSarah Johnson from Reading the PastAnna Michels from Sourcebooks, and Kris Waldherr from Art and Words. We each presented on different aspects of designing historical fiction covers, and my task was to discuss my approach and trends in the genre. In case you missed it, or if you attended and would like to have a copy of your own, here is my portion of the presentation!

L to R: Anna, Kris, myself, and Sarah
The first thing I do when working on a cover is determine the genre or subgenre and the target audience, and then I spend some time browsing through the bestsellers to see which covers are selling books and what they look like. It’s important that you pay attention to cover trends when creating yours. You may think your cover is going to stand out because it’s so different from others in the genre, but that approach can often backfire. Cover trends exist in the first place because they sell books. Readers of a genre are used to seeing a certain style of cover, and if your cover doesn’t even come close, they may very well skip over it, thinking it’s not the type of book they like to read. So the trick is crafting a cover that falls within the trends in the genre while standing out and catching the eye of your target reader. 

So with that being said, I want to briefly touch on some popular trends in today’s historical fiction covers. A significant portion of the historical fiction market is targeted toward women, so that’s where we’ll begin.

So let’s start with the trend readers either seem to love or hate: The Headless Woman. This trend is popular because the heroine in a reader’s imagination rarely matches a real-life depiction on the cover. So it gives us a chance to envision what her face looks like and also adds an air of mystery. (Check out Sarah's portion of the presentation for the original headless woman cover that started the trend!)

I try to avoid cutting off heads when I can, but some clients request it, and sometimes we find a model with the perfect dress and the perfect pose, but the face doesn't fit the character, and it's far easier to cut the head off than it is to convincingly place another head on the body. And it continues to be a popular trend that sells books. I’ve seen a couple of readers accuse this style of being degrading and misogynistic, (which, for the record, I do not buy into), but guess what . . .

. . . we do it for men too. Even Abraham Lincoln! We are equal opportunity head choppers!

With this style, we get the impression that the heroine is going to face some trials and tribulations, and we’re sort of standing behind her to bear witness to her story. Gives the impression that we’re going to be rooting for her to succeed.

A close-up of a woman’s face, sort of de-emphasizes fashion and material appearance. More often found on literary novels.

An alternative to women in pretty dresses yet still calls to our feminine side. Adds an air of mystery too as we try to determine the story behind the item on the cover.

Gives equal weight to the heroine and the setting, adding another layer of interest.

Many feature a warrior, a weapon, or armor--to put it bluntly, manly stuff. But this can appeal to women too, especially those of us who like alpha heroes. (Check out Sarah's presentation for another popular male trend!)

I just happened to notice this as I was browsing through my wishlist on Goodreads. These soon-to-be-published mysteries share very similar color themes and components. Sort of striking a balance between being feminine, alone, and determined.

Symbols offer viable alternatives to featuring characters on the cover. The key is to choose compelling images that draw the eye and to use them in conjunction with font and title placement.

The focus lends more weight to the meaning of the title with the underlying image more shadowy. This is found more often on literary novels as well.

Featuring your novel's setting can evoke curiosity and help the reader visualize themselves in the story. Again, the key is to choose compelling images that draw the eye and to use them in conjunction with font and title placement.

And finally, these covers manage to encompass several of the trends we’ve just seen on one cover, (headless women, split screens, settings, and big font). The trick is in not going overboard. While these covers require a little more creativity and design skill to execute, the results are pretty stunning and effective.

Some notes on font

I love fonts. I can browse through fonts for hours, downloading my favorites and imagining what I could use them for. There are many free fonts out there, but make sure you pay attention to what you’re downloading because many are free only for personal use, so you have to look for fonts specifically tagged as free for commercial use if you want to use them on a book cover.

There’s really no right or wrong style of font for historical fiction except for the ones that draw inspiration from today’s pop culture and obviously don't belong in a past time period. There are some really cool historical-looking fonts, but they can be hard to read sometimes, so you have to keep that in mind. I’m a big fan of the classic, clean-line fonts. As you can see here, they work well across all time periods.

Font is also a useful tool when thinking about your branding. Many historical fiction authors write about different time periods and subjects, so they’ll naturally have different covers. Font is my favorite tool for creating a signature look that ties all of an author’s books together. Choosing one font that works for all of your covers and keeping the title and byline positions uniform in size and place can add strong consistency and help with recognition even when the images behind them are different. Ornaments and borders work well too. Take a look at how Stephanie Thornton's novels from different time periods are tied together with this technique:

Some discussion of historical anachronisms in book covers, why they happen, and how authors can avoid them on the covers of their own books:

Designing historical fiction covers on a budget can be pretty tough. Most indie authors do not have thousands of dollars to spend on a custom shoot or on one of the images from high-end services, so we have to rely on stock art and public domain art, and depending on the time period, the pickings can be slim. That’s why you see models wearing clothing from the wrong time period on a cover, and that’s why you see models that are wearing the right clothing being used over and over again on covers. They may literally be the only options available for that specific time period at an affordable price. The good news is that photographers are catching on to the self-publishing trend and are putting out more images suitable for historical fiction covers, but the downside is that even if you manage to find an exciting new model and put her on your cover, others are going to find her too and start using her.

Another issue with stock historical art is that the photographers who set up these shoots and contribute to the sites tend to focus on the big, beautiful dresses of the nobility of the time period, so if you’re writing about everyday people, it can be difficult to find models wearing working-class clothing of the time period. However, paintings of the time period often do feature the working class, so that may be the better route to go. On WikiCommons, you can browse through paintings by the year in which they were created, and this can help you be sure you’re finding art that matches the time period, though painters did and still do paint things from the past, so you have to keep an eye out for that as well.

I understand blatant anachronisms on a cover can be off-putting, but it drives me a little crazy to see readers, and especially other authors, raking a cover over the coals publicly for a small anachronism. For example, no one wants to see a Georgian gown on a Victorian cover, or a zipper on a medieval cover, but I’m okay with a model’s hair being loose and free-flowing rather than tucked under a wimple. Or her revealing more skin than would have been the case. You have to allow some compromise between being strictly historically accurate and being eye-catching. (Much like you have to allow room for some compromise between strict historical accuracy and good story in historical fiction.) For me, as long as the clothing is right for the period, those other smaller details don’t matter as much to me.

You can help avoid anachronisms by choosing a designer with knowledge of the fashion of different time periods and with the ability to convincingly paste one model’s head on another’s body, which can often make a tidy compromise between the heroine’s appearance and historical accuracy. But if you’re doing it yourself, spend some time studying the fashion of the time period. If you’re having trouble finding stock models or paintings that accurately reflect your character and their style of dress, it may be time to consider making scenery or symbols the focus of your cover.

Click here to view Sarah's portion of the presentation, which preceded mine.

*Please note: None of the covers featured in this presentation are my designs.

Tomorrow I'm going to post the never-before-seen final section of my presentation that had to be cut due to time constraints: Rookie Mistakes. Stay tuned!

I also have the handout we circulated at the conference that features all of the panelists' favorite resources. If you'd like a copy, send me a quick email!