By Desiree Villena
We’ve all heard this refrain before: don’t judge a book by its cover. And we all know, while a nice idea in theory, that’s impossible to do in practice.
To put it frankly, every reader will get their first impression of a book from its cover. That’s why the #1 advice for self-publishers is to get their book covers right. Without a cover that grabs a reader’s attention and urges them to snatch it up from the bookshelves, a book may well never get the attention it deserves.
This holds particularly true for mysteries — a genre that’s supposed to spark curiosity in and of itself. So what should you know about book covers if you’re looking to self-publish a mystery book in the near future? Without further ado, here are 5 important elements that you should consider for your mystery book cover.
1. Create a sense of intrigue
So much of what makes or breaks a mystery book is whether it manages to conjure intrigue. Does it make the reader want to race to the end for the reveal? Does it get them actively searching for clues? Does it make them desperate to get to the bottom of all of the twists and turns? Does the book description entice the reader with more questions than answers?
Well, that’s exactly what you want to aim to recreate with your book cover.
The best mystery book covers re-capture that pull of curiosity that draws a reader deeper into a story. Some covers achieve this by establishing a compelling sense of place. Others do it by playing around with imagery — both abstract and realistic, as you can see from the examples below.
2. Take advantage of color on your book cover
One time-tested way to speak to a reader is through your book cover’s color palette, which reveals more about the story within than you might think. You’ll often find glowing blue and purple tones on the covers for urban fantasy books, for instance, indicative of the magic running throughout the story. Then you’ve got post-apocalyptic books, which will feature red, brown, and orange — signs of fire and ruin.
In the mystery genre, dark palettes are much more common. Lots of black, grey, and dark blue tones will create a moody and dramatic atmosphere. And if a mystery book cover doesn’t rely on darker hues, chances are that it will sport contrasting colors (often playing the title of the book against the background of the book cover itself). This is another technique that’s designed to draw the eye, and it’s proved very successful in the industry.
3. Put some thought into your font
Don’t forget your font! Just as colors subconsciously reach out to readers, your font will also say something about your story. Serif fonts tend to be more classic and straitlaced. On the other end of the spectrum, sans-serif fonts bring a more modern feel — which, incidentally, is what the majority of mystery book covers use, as you can see in most of the examples above (and below).
That said, recently we’ve seen some interesting cases of popular mystery and thriller books using serif fonts on their covers. The cozy mystery genre in particular is a great example of designers experimenting with quirky serifs to capture the warm sensibility of the subgenre itself. All of this to say: you should definitely play around with your own font, so you can make sure that it’s communicating the feel that you want.
4. To use characters or not to use characters
This is a pretty popular question in the self-publishing industry: should you be so bold as to depict your characters directly on your book cover? The answer is: it depends. In the romance genre, for instance, you’ll find lots of people on book covers. What better to convey a relationship than two people, after all?
As you can probably imagine, it’s a bit trickier for mystery books. Building an ominous atmosphere of intrigue sometimes means not revealing a character’s face or showing your cards too early. With that in mind, you’ll discover that many mystery book covers will fall back on one simple concept: the mysterious dark silhouette. This strikes a nice compromise: no faces are shown, and it still carries a subtle sense of mystery.
Again, this all depends on the book. It’s much more common, for instance, to see characters’ faces on the book covers of YA mystery books, or children’s mystery books! This makes total sense: young readers want characters to connect to — and visualization is essential for that. Every genre (and subgenre) bears different expectations, which brings me to my fifth and final point.
5. Match with the subgenre
Remember that the mystery genre is a wide catch-all for a lot of sprawling subgenres — each with their own genre (or, more accurately, subgenre) expectations. The book covers of psychological thrillers, for example, tend to be much more abstract. Meanwhile, mystery adventure books might be a lot more realistic in depicting the quest right before your eyes.
When in doubt about your book cover, just go to Amazon and explore popular books in your specific subgenre! That should give you a good idea of what readers might expect. Take note of what you like, and the day will come when your book, too, will join them on the shelves, with a beautiful book cover of its own.
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I’m a writer with Reedsy, a service for authors. In the past, I have written posts about writing and publishing for Write To Done, The Write Life, Electric Literature, and many more sites in the publishing industry. I have a fantastic range of resources at my disposal and would be happy to share some of that knowledge with your readers in a guest post!