Monday, January 18, 2016

YA Book Cover Trends


Cynthia Toney doesn't design book covers. She writes young adult novels.  But like any fiction reader, she's attracted to some book covers more than others.

After receiving positive feedback regarding the first two covers of her YA series, Bird Face (shown below), she began to pay close attention to the YA covers she liked, which led her to consider trends in YA covers.

She shares her observations with us:

In deciphering which features draw me to a book cover, I realized they’re the same features that designers of print advertising, known as display ads, employ in their designs. And I used to be one—a display ad designer, not an ad.

Everyone reading this knows that any two-dimensional design must stand on its own merit. It must please the eye regarding use of light, color, movement, balance, unity, and visual texture, to name a few elements of design.

An advertising designer also knows that the ad must somehow jump out at the reader from all the other ads on a newspaper or magazine spread or page. Readers of print periodicals make a decision in a split second whether or not to read an ad’s content. The same goes for a book cover, and thus for a book.

On a table or shelf, what can be done to make a book cover stand out among the rest? It has to do with knowing the trends and staying ahead of them if you can.

Going forward on memory alone—and it’s been eighteen years since I designed newspaper ads—here are some of the design trends I recognize from those days and see repeated in book covers today.


Big human eyes. Dog or puppy eyes. Snake eyes. Just about any eyes, with or without much of the face. The reader is captivated unless every book on the shelf uses eyes.

Off with their heads

—or one side or top or bottom half of the body. The brain fills in the missing pieces. This trend focuses the reader on what the body is doing or wearing and can give a strong hint about the story. Using only legs can work as well.


The back

--of a figure or of a head. Done right, it directs the reader into the figure’s point of view.

Human silhouette.

It evokes mystery. Unfortunately, newspaper advertisers often wanted to fill silhouettes with ad copy, to the dismay of the designer.

Limited Color.

At one time, all newspaper ads printed in black ink, and the product images attracted readers. Then spot color was introduced to draw the eye to an ad, but eventually most advertisers caught on and used it. When presses made full color printing available, a few big-budget advertisers were able to dominate the pages through size and color. Then the little guys followed suit, the pages filled with color and, once again, no one’s ad stood out. So, some clever advertisers went back to black to get their ads noticed on colorful pages.

Today, book covers appear to be moving away from full color and toward a limited color palette. What sometimes appears to be a single color is actually a duo-tone created with one color plus black. Sometimes the entire background is white.

Lens flare or spotlight treatment.

Brings light to an otherwise dark cover image, or calls attention to a particular area of it.

The cover for The Perfect Blindside is a great example of one that combines a limited color palette and a silhouette viewed from the back with a special lighting effect. Doesn’t this cover draw a reader right into the book? It feels almost three-dimensional to me, as if I could step with the boy down to where the light is coming from and investigate what he sees.

Large Title or Large Author Name.

This trend was addressed continuously in newspaper ads as “Large Header or Large Company Logo,” so it was more of an ongoing debate between designers and clients than a trend.  Sometimes the company logo was the header, just as the author name can appear large at the top of a book cover. Or the title might appear much larger than the author’s name and be located at the top or bottom.

Playing with the Title Presentation or Font.

Other trends include a title that fills the majority of a blurry background, such as the cover of We Were Liars. Sometimes extra kerning (space) is added between letters to spread them out. Another trend is to place the title text on slips of paper, such as on the cover for All the Bright Places. As in that case, a human image might not appear on the cover at all.

I first noticed all these trends in advertising almost two decades ago, but they work now as they worked then.

By paying attention to the cover trends in our genres, authors can plan for our next book cover. The question is whether to ride a successful current trend—or create our own.

What is a favorite recent book cover and why? Did the cover call to you from among many others surrounding it?


Author Bio:

Cynthia writes character-driven teen novels with twisty plots—because life is complicated.

The first edition of her debut novel, Bird Face, won a 2014 Moonbeam Children’s Book Award in the Pre-teen Fiction Mature Issues category. With a new publisher, Write Integrity Press, the original story is now book one of the Bird Face series and titled 8 Notes to a Nobody. Book two is 10 Steps to Girlfriend Status. Watch for future titles in the series, which will continue to combine mystery, real-life struggles, and innocent teen romance.


Best ways to reach Cynthia:

Twitter:  @CynthiaTToney

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  1. Thanks for this post! Very interesting.

    I really liked the cover for Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard. The simple yet deadly elegance of it really caught my eye. I really liked the use of the symbols.

    Do covers with people on them garner more attraction than symbols? It seems like either one, if they are done well, can be just as attractive as the other.

    Thanks again!

    1. K.M., instead of replying directly to your comment as intended, my reply is placed below. I appreciate your question.

  2. Thanks, Kayla. Use of a single object or symbol can be effective. I recall Flipped by Wendelin van Draanen and of course The Hunger Games series.

    1. Do you think it's used more in the YA genre than in others? Is there a reason for that?

    2. Perhaps so, judging from adult and YA books I've read and want to read. The reasons may be several. YA contemporary in particular tends to attempt to look more daring, even to the point of starkness. I'm no psychologist, but the emptiness may reflect the emptiness or harshness many teens feel in their lives. The "white" space, even if in color, can achieve this. A simple, high-contrast cover design resulting from an object placed on an open background also says to the reader, "What's inside is so valuable that the cover can be simple." Advertisers of newspaper and magazine ads used this technique for high-end products and emotion-manipulation advertising. Among books I've read, I noticed van Draanen's simple cover for The Running Dream. Then there's Jerry Spinelli's cover for Stargirl, which uses only two simple objects and no text title. I can't recall reading an adult novel with a cover so daring!

  3. So fun! Thanks Cynthia...let's see, oh I loved the cover for "Cinder" by Marissa Meyer that red heel and the girls foot, but with the cyborg ankle mechanics showing through. Thoroughly fascinating.

    1. Oh, yes! That's what attracted me to the book and caused me to place it on my to-read list, even though I tend to read more realism.

    2. It's a fabulous book. You should give it a try.

  4. Very informative! I have no eye for design so this opens my eyes to a lot of what's happening on book covers. Thanks, Cynthia!

    1. I'm glad to offer something authors haven't thought about before. Thanks for commenting, Mary.