People tell us not to judge books by their covers. This is great advice on a philosophical level, but it’s not so useful when a patron puts a book down on the desk in front of you and says, “Gimme another one just like this!” I’m going to show you how to do just that for a few common genres of books just by looking at their covers.
Medical thrillers: These are page turners, books that keep you up all night. Their heroes are doctors, surgeons, and medical examiners, and they're in a race against time to save the patient and solve the crime.
Their covers feature caduceuses, stethoscopes, heart monitor printouts, or, in the case of Suzy's Case, a snake turning into a stethoscope--sort of a caduceus and a stethoscope wrapped into one.
Legal thrillers: Like their cousins the medical thrillers, theese are also gripping page turners, but they feature lawyers and courtroom drama while the lawyer hero races against time to prove the right person innocent or guilty.
Their covers feature pillars, stairs, gavels, or scales of justice. John Grisham's The Confession manages to have blind justice holding scales in front of pillars!
Romantic suspense: Suspense novels are psychological books of thrills and chills, the kind that keep you on the edge of your seat and raise the hair on the back of your neck. The romantic variety features a romance, of course, and often a woman in peril.
Their covers, thus, often have women's body parts, usually obscured by smoke, mist, fog, or spiderwebs. The classic romantic suspense novels, like Rebecca, featured women running away from houses. My favorite twist is the sinister man approaching a house.
Christian fiction is a genre that contains a lot of subgenres. There are gentle Christian reads and apocolyptic Christian thrillers, but all feature Christian salvation as a key to the plot. You can spot subgenres by their covers.
Historical, gentle Christian fiction often features a person on a road. There are a lot of Christmas novels that are Christian fiction--presents, doves, snow. The more thriller-like Christian fiction often features religious symbols (sometimes bleeding), crosses, or people posed like crosses.
Cozy mysteries: These mysteries feature amatuer sleuths, not PIs or detectives. Often they have a profession or hobby related to their sleuthing. They often feature small town settings, and the murder happens off stage--no blood and gore here.
Their covers feature food, cats, yard, or villages, or other things related to the amatuer sleuth's day job. Their covers are usually illustrations, not photographs.
Fantasy: Classic fantasy novels are stories of swords and sorcery, of magical creatures, goblins and elves, and the world of faerie. Readers are looking for intricate worlds where magic reigns.
Fantasy covers often have horses, sometimes with wings. Sometimes you'll see falcons, and often there are people in medieval clothing. You also see a lot of woods and woodland creatures. The covers are usually illustrations, and very intricate ones.
Science fiction is often conflated with fantasy, but though they both feature world-building, the emphasis is different. Classic science fiction deals with other world and alternate realities, with space exploration, and with extrapolating from current science what might be possible in the future.
Classic science fiction covers featured planets, spaceships, and alien landscapes. More modern takes sometimes have alien cityscapes--places that look like a slick, futuristic version of our own world.
Literary fiction isn't usually considered a genre, but it's often helpful to think of it as a genre when doing readers advisory. Literary fiction is more about character, mood, and theme than it is about plot. The settings are realistic. This is usually where you find the Pulitzer and National Book Award prize winners.
There isn't really one style of cover for literary fiction, but lately, I've seen a lot of handwritten covers. All these are from the past couple of years, except for Everything Is Illuminated. The cover of a literary fiction novel often doesn't tell you much about what the novel is about.
Mashups and Others: There are a lot of other genres I haven't covered--hardboiled mysteries, chick lit, police procedurals, steampunk--and lots of books cross genres. There are urban fantasies, paranormal romances, you name it.
Here, for example, we have a romantic suspense that's also a fantasy, a fantasy/noir mystery, a couple of chick lit books, which look like cozies but don't have "killer" or "murder" in the title, a couple of steampunk books, which feature inventions of the future made from materials of the past, a classic noir (also the most-challenged book in my library last year!), and a science fiction thriller.
Thanks for joining me on this whirlwind cover tour. Science fiction author Jim Hines and I would like to remind you that you can tell a lot from covers, but often they are also sort of ridiculous. To illustrate that, he's done this whole series where he imitates the cover poses from science fiction and fantasy novels that feature women in ridiculous poses. You can see more at his website.
Readers Advisory by the Cover
Readers Advisory By the Cover Laura Crossett ISLOC 2013
Thanks! Science fiction writer Jim Hines has many more cover pose spoofs on his blog at http://www.jimchines.com/blog/. He kindly gave permission to use this image.This presentation and more links live at http://newrambler.net/lisdom/isloc2013.