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Covers: Critiques, Tips and Why They Are Important

A successful manuscript is one that has a promising story. What turns that story’s promise into a tangible complete project is when the story, title and cover all align into something that connects with readers. When it comes to selecting a title, as mentioned before, you need one that is specific, but doesn’t give away everything. There isn’t a title template everyone has to follow, but for some genres, certain ones may work better than others. Titles can be straightforward or have less obvious elements like metaphors that may resonate with readers as they read or long after they’ve finished the story.

If we take a look into some classic novels, the book titles are rampant with metaphors. We’ve grown familiar with these titles because they have become iconic, but that doesn’t mean we can’t take a look at them with fresh eyes. Are the titles doing the novels justice or would something else work better? Let’s look at some examples below.

In the case of The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, the idea of the title is meant to be used as a metaphor to describe the dislocation of the character from society. However, upon a first read-through of the story, I found that the cover is more relevant than the title. The Bell Jar doesn’t adequately tell us anything about the characters or the struggles Esther faces as she is forced to undergo shock therapy and face her depression.

How to fix? Knowing Plath’s poetry, she was obviously going for something of a double meaning with the title. However, an added word might’ve made the title more clear. Something like The Crack in the Bell Jar or The Cracked Bell Jar. It still uses a great metaphor, but it also tells you a lot more about the story.

When thinking about your work in progress, if you are going with a metaphor for your title, make sure that it explores multiple aspects of your story and not just one. Titles with metaphors can add meaning on different levels and they can provide readers with some vital essence of the story.

These novels can also have metaphors that repeat throughout the story, but aren’t necessarily obvious. A great example includes Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, the story about a Black man who is killed for a crime he didn’t commit. The book outright says that killing a mockingbird is sin as they don’t do anything but sing. Readers can see bird imagery not only in the title, but also with the surname of the main character Atticus Finch and his family. There are several characters that end up being targeted unfairly, so it’s up to the readers to think about which characters could be considered mockingbirds.  Another example is Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. As the first autobiography of six written by Angelou, its title is a direct reference to a stanza in Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy.”  Angelou is lauded as a writer that elevated and expanded the literary work possible for Black women by talking about her own personal life experiences. While we remember her today for her brave writing and honestly, it’s also important to remember where Angelou has come from. The reader won’t forget that with this title. In both Lee and Angelou’s works, the references to birds add another layer of nuance for readers and readers it is clear in both the titles and the plots.

What about modern covers? How to modern bestsellers today compare? Well, let’s take a look at some early modern fantasy bestsellers:

House of Night, by P.C. Cast was a best selling YA fantasy in the early 2000’s. The cover does a great job displaying the dark nature of the book series. The setting takes place at a modern, gothic vampyre academy in the middle of Tulsa, Oklahoma.In the book, all of the adult vampyre’s have tattoos-which plays an overall part in the series. The main character is a young, Native American girl in high school. The cover essentially tells us everything we need to know with the black embossment of wild tattoos across the cover and the shadow of a young, dark haired girl on the cover. While the covers might not be sparkly and shiny, it is definitely something that captures attention on a book stand next to its counterparts. The title of the very first book in the series is ‘Marked’. This tells us a lot of what we need to know about the book-someone will be marked for something. But what? With a dark front cover, it’s hard to imagine anything pleasant will come from being Marked and the negative trigger instantly creates a sense of drama among the readers.

Now, while we all may have reservations about the veracity of Stephanie Myer’s writing in the book Twilight, I will tell you that I enjoyed the simplicity of the covers. Without even knowing Myer’s religious upbringing, the apple was a clear indication of something forbidden and things we aren’t supposed to have. With the ingrained history of Sunday school stories in America, it’s hard to look at the cover and think about anything other than the subtext that Adam and Eve provide for the story. The soft metaphor creates interest in the contrast against the dark blackness of the background, capturing the reader’s attention. Once again, it tells us what we want to know-someone wants something they can’t have. While the title itself doesn’t stand out, nor does it tell us anything about the book itself, the cover alone is captivating enough to hold our attention. Add to the fact that both main characters want something the can’t have, it makes sense that the arms are the only part of the person visible. This cover is both marketable and simple in nature.

When I first saw the cover for Hunger Games as a reader, I turned the book down. It was too simple and told me nothing about the book. When I first heard the title, I thought it was a horror story and that just isn’t my genre. It brought to mind titles of stories I’d read in high school English class where the humans were hunted by other monstrous humans like wild animals. The kind of stuff that gave you dark nightmares and the kind of stuff I usually tried to stay away from. Because of those associations, I still haven’t picked up the book to this day. While the book became popular due to the positive reviews of acclaimed authors and the cover was related to the book, it’s hard to consider this book cover marketable. Had it been self-published, I don’t think it would’ve gardenered the same success it saw with Scholastic backing it.

It’s hard to understand why books like Fifty Shades of Grey sell so well, other than to say the obvious: Sex sells. Obviously, if you’ve read one of my blog posts before, you know I’m not a major fan of erotica, but some people are and at least they are reading. The series was originally picked up by a small press out Australia. The series saw so much success that the books were being talked about by mothers at the school gates in New York, where a Random House editor was picking up her children. She then brought them to the attention of Random House, and the rights to the trilogy were picked up globally by them. Originally Twilight fanfiction, this book saw a unique rise to fame not because it was marketable, but because readers were already enjoying it so much so that they were telling their friends. Perhaps because of this, the publishing company didn’t need to make the book marketable. It was already selling.

The cover itself is questionable.It doesn’t really tell me anything about the book other than that the main character is a man.The tie only hits at the richness of the character(s) in the story and offer a bit of mystery. Without the title, the book cover wouldn’t even hint at erotica.The title included doesn’t actually hint at erotica either. There’s only small references to the main character’s wealth. Overall, I’d consider this cover and title pair fail as well. Published by itself, it may not have seen the massive rise  to fame it enjoyed.

So what are some things you can do to make sure your cover stands out to publishers and readers? When do you begin your marketing research?

Well, the answers are simple really:

  1. You begin your research at the earliest stage possible. The moment you have an idea. Often, narrowing down the title and the cover idea can help set the theme for the book and build even more plot into the story. It can help you thicken your subplot and fully embrace your characters. May they change over the course of writing the book? Totally, that’s okay, but at least have somewhere to begin and something to consider.
  2. To help your cover stand out, take time to determine your genre. Erotica? Fantasy? Crime? All of the above? Then decide your target market. Young adults? Adults? Male? Female? Once that’s decided, tak a browse through your local bookstore. Or visit somewhere like amazon.com or even publishers you may consider submitting to. What’s popular on their bookshelves right now? What colors do you see? Are the titles long or short? What themes are present throughout.
  3. Focus on the main theme of your story. What is it? What do you want your readers to take away? Try to make that the cover of your book.

These are just a few tips that will help you make your book a success, whether you are looking to self publish or publish traditionally. Think about your story right now. What would you choose for the cover of your book if you had to decide?

Share your cover or cover ideas in the comments and let us know!
And remember readers,

Say it with Words.

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Maggie Chapman View All →

Writer. Reader. College student.

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