You’re not supposed to do it, but judging a book by its cover is a skill we all employ from time to time; whether we’re standing in a busy Barnes & Noble or squinting at a screen full of thumbnails, a book’s cover is often all you have time to peruse. Sure, in a perfect world you’d linger over every book, smelling the paper and reading copious swaths of the text in order to figure out if it was written just for you. But in reality, we often don’t have the time. Therefore, being able to parse a cover to deduce the kind of book you’re dealing with—and judge whether it’s what you need in your life—is a vital skill.
Here are our helpful guidelines for judging books by their covers.
Cover Design Element: All Text—whether it’s just the title and author’s name or a few sentences of type, the cover is 95percent words.
What It Means: Whatever the genre, the publisher considers this book to be a prestigious work. This cover design can cross genres—it’s sometimes used in non-fiction, often in literary fiction, and can even be found now and then in other genres. No matter what the subject matter of the book, a cover of all-text means you’re supposed to be prepared for some life-changing stuff.
Cover Design Element: Silhouette of Man with Gun—there might be other elements on the cover, but the primary focus is a faceless man holding a gun.
What It Means: It’s a thriller, it’s action packed, and the characters may not be the most unique or interesting because their main function will be to kick a lot of butt while saving the world. Something about the “silhouette man with gun” just screams determination and heroism to graphic designers for some reason.
Example: Manhunt, by James Patterson and James O. Born.
Cover Design Element: Man in Hooded Cloak with Staff—standing either in the midst of an ancient forest, a huge hall in a castle, or possible floating in the air.
What It Means: This is an epic fantasy, and there is an ancient wizard involved. This is a little different from the next item on this list, in that the focus on the wizard instead of a warrior means this is probably more of an old-school fantasy with a focus on ancient magic and lore rather than a grimdark focus on “gritty” fantasy realism.
Example: Wishsong of Shannara, by Terry Brooks.
Cover Design Element: Swords—pile of Corpses Optional.
What It Means: This isn’t your grandfather’s fantasy; this is a brutal slaughter-fest in which the forces of darkness are really dark. There might be magic and elves, but there will also be blood, buckets of it, as well as lingering descriptions of realistic details of war. You can practically hear the Black Metal soundtrack this book rocks to.
Example: Prince of Thorns, by Mark Lawrence.
Cover Design Element: Lady in a Dress.
What It Means: Depends a bit on the dress, and if the lady is alone. If there’s a buff-looking gentleman with her, it’s probably considered a romance. If it’s an old-fashioned dress that nevertheless anachronistically shows a lot of cleavage, it’s also probably a romance. On the other hand, if the lady is facing away from the camera and is dressed in a very demure manner or is wearing a simple white cult-like dress, it’s probably a work of straight ahead fiction with a female-centric vibe and a soapy thriller or mystery aspect. Or possibly a romance.
Example: The Duchess, by Daneille Steel.
Cover Design Element: Shirtless Dude.
What It Means: Romance. A steamy slab of beefcake-lovin’ romance. There’s a 10 percent chance it’s an urban fantasy about werewolves; see color codes below.
Example: Heart Sight, by Robin Owens.
Cover Design Element: Vintage Photo.
What It Means: Likely a memoir or biography of someone who lived long ago. 10 percent chance it’s a work of historical fiction. If it’s a photo of a child, the story will be heartbreakingly sad. If it’s a celebrity, they’re more than likely dead.
Example: Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt.
Cover Design Element: Photo of a Child, with a Childlike Font.
What It Means: This book was written from the get-go to be the saddest damn thing ever. The kid on the cover has a 50 percent chance of dying at the climax.
Example: Literally anything by Cathy Glass.
Cover Design Element: Spaceships, Monsters, Aliens, People with Glowing Stuff Around Them.
What It Means: We don’t need to explain sci-fi and fantasy to you, do we? Here’s your quick-reference decoder ring:
SPACESHIP—Probably military sci-fi. ASTRONOMY IMAGE—Hard sci-fi. ALIEN CREATURE—Big-idea sci-fi. WOMAN IN LEATHER PANTS WITH SWORD—Urban fantasy.
Cover Design Element: Color Coding.
What It Means: If you’re really in a rush, you can often tell what kind of book you’re dealing with simply by the overall color palette of the cover (there are always exceptions; these rules are more like guidelines). Here’s your decoder ring: BLACK/RED—Urban fantasy. BLUE/ORANGE—Mainstream fiction. YELLOW—Historical fiction. PINK/PURPLE—Women-oriented fiction. BLACK/WHITE: Serious literchure. BLACK/WHITE/RED—Serious sci-fi, fantasy, or horror.
These aren’t hard and fast rules If you grab a blue book from the shelf and it turns out to be a space opera, well, don’t say we didn’t warn you. But if you’re in too much of a hurry to read back cover copy, you’ll do pretty well judging books by these cover guidelines.