People do judge books by their covers: a guest post by Anna Legat

In our fast-paced world the conveyer belt of online bookshops zooms by at the speed of light. We writers and our books may only have one chance to catch a reader’s eye and make a good first impression. Browsing is not what it used to be. Readers don’t hang about in bookshops, sieving at their leisure through tomes of leather-bound sameness to discover the literary treasures that hide inside. They don’t pause by every volume, pull it out, blow off the cobwebs and read the first chapter to see if the story is to their liking. Those days are gone. Nowadays, our book’s debut on the literary catwalk may be no more than a flash of pixels, a click of a button, or a slip of a finger on the keyboard.

We have entered the era of fast food not only for our bodies but also for our minds. Book covers amount to the virtual sugar coating designed to whet readers’ appetites. The attraction to our book has to be generated before our potential reader contemplates reading the blurb on the back cover or on the Amazon web page. We have one shot at getting it right.

Our publishers and graphic designers rely on us to come up with ideas for the cover. We know our books intimately. If anyone can describe our books in one word – or in one image – it is us. When contriving a cover for our books we look for a symbolic expression that will best represent our book. We can’t go too far or too deep into the story. We don’t want to retell it on the cover, or even summarise it in wide strokes. A good book cover will only just hint at what is to come when the book is opened and read.

Below are three brilliant examples of conceptual book cover designs. The matchstick-house of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine hints at a burnout, at several false starts – prematurely extinguished, at an existence unfulfilled, at loneliness and emptiness. Slaughterhouse Five delivers an ingenious image of an alarm clock with missing hands and two unexploded bombs waiting to be struck – the time has come to an end and history has stopped in its tracks. The symbolism on the cover of Atwood’s The Testaments is effortless because we are already familiar with The Handmaid’s Tale, and what that lampshade-shaped wimple stands for. Colour is drained away from the woman’s face – she doesn’t need a face to express her feelings, she’s not allowed to feel.

Not all covers represent books using highly conceptualised symbolism. Different genres abide by different rules. Romance frequently features idyllic watercolours with flawless silhouettes of romantic heroines and heroes that melt your heart at first sight. Horror covers do the opposite – they make your blood run cold.

Below are examples of historical fiction covers. Again, apart from the obvious symbolism of 12 Years a Slave, they bear stylised references to the eras and locations the books are set in: The Interpretation of Murder in turn-of-the-century Manhattan, New York, and The Innocent in Cold-War Berlin. The reader is given a clear message: this is your destination if you choose to journey into this story.  

Crime fiction covers are the least predictable or standardised. There are only so many ways in which one can depict death. Crime fiction goes for diverse ways of intriguing the reader without betraying any of the plot. My new DI Marsh mystery, due to be published in October, features a grand old public-school edifice as its focal point. That’s because all the roads – or, as in this story, all the clues – lead to that school. Even the sky plays its part to perfection: the clouds are gathering and darkening the horizon. There lurks the present and imminent danger. The book cover is an invitation to come in and play with that danger.

When a body is found in the grounds of a prestigious Wiltshire private school, DI Gillian Marsh takes on the case. The young groundsman, Bradley Watson, has been shot dead, pierced through the heart with an arrow.

As the investigation gathers pace, DI Marsh is frustrated to find the Whalehurst staff and students united in silence. This scandal must not taint their reputation. But when Gillian discovers pictures of missing Whalehurst pupil, fifteen-year-old Rachel Snyder, on Bradley’s dead body – photos taken on the night she disappeared, and he was murdered – the link between the two is undeniable.

But what is Whalehurst refusing to reveal? And does Gillian have what it takes to bring about justice?

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Anna Legat

Anna Legat is a Wiltshire-based author, best known for her DI Gillian Marsh murder mystery series. A globe-trotter and Jack-of-all-trades, Anna has been an attorney, legal adviser, a silver-service waitress, a school teacher and a librarian. She read law at the University of South Africa and Warsaw University, then gained teaching qualifications in New Zealand. She has lived in far-flung places all over the world where she delighted in people-watching and collecting precious life experiences for her stories. Anna writes, reads, lives and breathes books and can no longer tell the difference between fact and fiction.

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