After reviewing more than 130 recent book covers from adult historical fiction works set in medieval times, I was able to come up with a list of common characteristics of the best book covers. Here is the list, shown as a set of seven recommendations:
(1) Make the image large enough that it is clear at the small size potential readers will see when browsing at online bookstores.
Images with small figures and lots of detail may work well for print books. Some readers will enjoy examining the fine details on a print copy, but electronic books are usually viewed first as small images at online bookstores such as Amazon or Barnes and Noble. Readers might not want to click to see if an image is interesting.
(2) Keep in mind that some visual motifs are very frequently used.
When I see a book cover with a picture of the Sutton Hoo helmet, I can rest assured that it is most likely set in Anglo-Saxon times and will include scenes with shield walls in action. While it is useful to clearly mark what kind of book it is, using very common motifs may make it difficult for the reader to distinguish one book from another. My review suggests that images of helmets, swords, axes, longships, silhouetted horsemen, and hooded or cloaked figures are common enough to merit a close look before using them in a cover. If you do choose to use such images, try to present them in a fresh way that will stand out from the rest of the books using similar artwork.
(3) Depict the time period accurately.
Anachronism is anathema to writers of historical fiction. Many writers work very hard to keep anachronisms out of the text, only to present a cover with something that does not fit the time of the novel. This can be a particular problem when stock images are used. Flagrant violations would be the use of modern clothing styles, hair styles, or make-up on models. Less obvious violations include the use of images that are old, but not from the correct time period. The Middle Ages span many centuries and fashions did not remain the same throughout that whole time. A knight from the 1300s would look out of place in sixth-century Kent.
(4) Choose an art style that provides an accurate clue to the genre and target audience.
Some artwork has a distinct look associated with a particular genre. If you use the “wrong” style of art, your traditional historical fiction may be confused with historical romance or fantasy and may thereby miss a segment of the audience that is looking for historical fiction. Also, fantasy fans may be disappointed if they buy a book expecting sword and sorcery and instead find a traditional historical fiction novel.
(5) Place the cover text on its own plain background or on a non-central portion of the image.
Many book covers place the front cover text within designated spaces with a plain background. Some amount of writing on less critical portions of the cover artwork is acceptable, but readers may be annoyed if the artwork is so covered with words that they cannot see the details of the image.
(6) Choose attractive and legible fonts and nicely balanced color schemes.
The fonts that look the best tend to be something different from what we ordinarily see on business documents, yet still clear and legible. The font should also be reasonable for the place and time period. You would not want to use a font resembling runes on a novel set in the19th-century American west, and it would also be best to avoid an Art Deco style font on a novel set in ancient Rome. Color schemes should be visually pleasing. Sometimes it may be necessary to use colors that are not traditionally beautiful, but there should always be good contract between font colors and their background so that the text is easy to read.
(7) Learn the proper ways to edit and manipulate images and combine them with text, or engage a skilled graphic artist to do it.
Covers might still work well with violations of one of the recommendations in #1-6 above, but there is really no way to recover from poor image editing and manipulation.
More of the best covers
My previous posting (Covers, part 2) presented some of the best recent book covers in historical fiction for adults. Those book covers generally comply very well with the recommendations above; any violations are so small as to be barely noticeable. In this post, I will not present the worst offenders. Bad covers are easy enough to find. Instead, I will show covers that disregard one or more of the "rules" and yet are still excellent covers. Thus, these seven recommendations should be regarded as general guidelines for which there may be some flexibility.
Of the ten books with great covers listed in this post, I have only read Hild as of right now. My review for Hild is on this blog.
Some covers have relatively small figures in the images yet nonetheless tantalize you to click and see what is there. The two covers below are examples for which I was eager to click to a larger image to see what was happening in the scene:
Sinful Folk by Ned Hayes (2014)
Grundesburh by C.P Burrage (2014)
Longships and silhouetted horses are examples of images very common on historical fiction set in the Middle Ages. The following books have covers on which these well-used motifs remain fresh:
Offa: Rise of the Englisc Warrior by S. A. Swaffington (2013)
The Last Runemaster by Maurice Price (2013)
Woad is capable of producing a variety of shades of blue, but the woman on the cover of The Song of Heledd has a bright blue dress in a shade that I do not believe would have been achievable at the time of the novel. The novel also has about the upper limit of an acceptable amount of writing on the figure. The cover remains good because the overall look is believable as a seventh-century scene.
The Song of Heledd by Judith Arnopp (2012)
The US edition of Hild has a strikingly beautiful image of the main character on the cover, but she is clothed in chainmail that would not have been known in seventh-century Northumbria:
Hild by Nicola Griffith (2013)
Despite the anachronism, the cover remains appealing due to the high quality of the portrait created by Anna and Elena Balbusso. For some reason, the publishers decided to print the UK cover with a similar background but without the image of Hild. I’m not sure why they thought that UK readers would prefer the background without the human figure – does anyone have any insight into that?
Hild by Nicola Griffith (2014) – UK edition
With such a young protagonist, the cover of Hild sometimes leads a potential reader into thinking that the book is for young adults, but it is actually written for adults. This may not have been much of an issue since the book appears to have been reviewed many times, so potential readers may generally be aware of its target audience.
Many historical works in other genres have amazing covers. For example, see the covers of the young adult work Mark of The Mercians and the graphic novel Vinland Saga 1:
Mark Of The Mercians by Andy Winfield (2012)
Vinland Saga 1 by Makoto Yukimura (2013)
It is possible to borrow a style of another genre and still create an impressive cover for adult historical fiction. The cover of The Norseman has a fantasy vibe, but the beautiful art by Michael Calandra nonetheless feels at home on this work of historical fiction.
The Norseman by Jason Born (2012)
I am not sure at this point how far you can go with using artwork that appears to be targeted for a different audience. The manga style drawing shown above on Vinland Saga 1 looks great, but could you get away with using something like that for traditional historical fiction for adults?
The yellow font on light green background does not provide the best contrast on the cover of The Field of Crows, but the attractive artwork makes up for the deficiency and it is still a good cover.
The Field of Crows by Robert Garrod (2013)
This post has shown several covers that don’t play by all the rules, but that are still great covers to my eyes. In the final installment of my book covers series of postings, I will ask your help in identifying the best artwork for my novel cover. Do I need to follow all the rules, or is there room for some creative license?