Young adult publishers certainly do like to put disembodied body parts on their covers, don’t they? They also like that hazy Instagram look and showing the protagonist with his or her back to the reader. And they really like a hand-drawn font. It’s getting to the point where it’s almost as hard to find a contemporary YA title that doesn’t feature one (or more) of these clichés as it is to find a potboiler romance without the obligatory cover clinch (be it your Fabio classic or an acceptably muscled substitute).
Articles cataloging the current book cover design trends (usually YA covers, but every genre has its own set of clichés) have been having a bit of a moment lately. One can hardly throw a metaphorical stone on the internet without coming across some kind of exhaustively thorough compilation of overused designs. It’s always fun try to figure out what set off the worst offenders in a particular craze (for example: gee, I wonder if the spike in black, white, and red color schemes with pictures of hands cradling significant objects could have been in response to anything in particular), but the truth is, while fads may get out of hand, this kind of standard imagery can also serve as a shortcut to let the reader know exactly what to expect.
Some of the repetitive covers we see are attempts to cash in on an already popular property, but there are also many that primarily function as a little clue for potential readers. It took until around the turn of the last century for publishers to figure out that covers could function as advertisements for their books’ contents, but since transitioning away from solid-colored cloth we’ve spent the intervening hundred or so years building up a visual vocabulary that can be just as effective as written copy in telling a reader what to expect. The shadowy figures and bold sans serifs of thrillers, the black-and-white close-ups of troubled YA faces, even good old Fabio—all of these are little nudges to help the reader quite literally judge a book by its cover.
All of this is especially relevant to Ooligan right now as we begin the process of designing a cover for Siblings and Other Disappointments, Kait Heacock’s upcoming collection of short stories. One of Heacock’s biggest literary influences is Raymond Carver, so it makes sense to look at the covers of some of his work for inspiration. But at the same time, Heacock’s book is her own, and it requires a solution unique from that of Carver (or of other short story collections, for that matter). The perfect cover will need to incorporate conventions of the genre without resorting to cliché. It can be a tricky balance—so keep an eye out for the new Siblings cover to see if we get it right.