Why does genre matter in book cover design?


There is so much written and spoken about genre in the publishing world. But what is genre and why is it so important.?

The Oxford English Dictionary describes genre as:


“Genre from French genre, “kind” or “sort”, from Latin genus (stem gener-), Greek γένος, génos) is any category of literature, music or other forms of art or entertainment, whether written or spoken, audio or visual, based on some set of stylistic criteria. Genres are formed by conventions that change over time as new genres are invented and the use of old ones are discontinued. Often, works fit into multiple genres by way of borrowing and recombining these conventions.” Basically genre means the type – and with regards to a book, genre is a way of showing potential readers what the book is about.

Where does the word originate?


The word ‘genre’ has its roots in ancient Greek. The famous Greek philosophers, Aristotle and Plato devised a system for classifying literature. It was their feelings that as more and more literature was being produced it was important to divide it into ‘genres’ in order to categorise them.

Originally there were three genres: poetry, drama and prose. As more and more literature was produced more genres were introduced to encompass the different styles and themes. A single word of the genre will usually be enough to indicate to the reader what the book will contain.

There are two main genres, fiction and non-fiction. Within those terms are a multitude of sub-categories, with more being developed as the content of books changes.

As an independent author it is important to have an understanding of genres.


As an independent author you are responsible for all of the marketing and design which will sell your book. It is important not to waste any of this opportunity by not selling well enough and failing to attract readers. You may have wonderful ideas about the design of your cover, but if it does not scream ‘buy me’ to prospective readers it is a waste of time.

This book is going to go into how to make the most of your cover, but the first thing that will catch a reader’s attention is the cover image. It is vital that the cover corresponds to the correct genre as readers are looking for books in a genre they like. You have, seconds to grab their attention, don’t waste it.

Readers have a genre they like to read and each of the books in that genre will be of a type, there may be subtle differences, but if you study them they will all contain similar elements. On a very basic level a horror story will not have a pink cover and a romance will not consist of dark images with dripping blood. Genre will also influence the all important keywords the finished book is loaded onto the sales site, whether that is Amazon, or any of the others.



The reader needs to know what the book will contain, having a cover accurate to the specific genre will reassure readers the author is professional and competent. There is a lot available about how to write to a specific genre and how to work out what genre your book is and equally about what genres sell the best and since this book is about the external appearance of the book this isn’t the place to go into the dynamics of genre. The long and short of the genre of a book is determined by six factors, style, time, structure, internal content, external content and reality.  Style, time and structure are fairly simple to determine, the reality, internal and external content create more of a problem for the author when genre is being determined.

Internal and external content refer to the actions of the character, whether, or not they change during the course of the plot. Internal content refers to books where the book is character driven, external to plot driven ones. Some books do not have both – action for instance will rarely have internal conflicts.


Prospective readers have to know in an instant that your book is the genre they want. You need to be very sure about the genre it is for when you are giving instructions to your cover designer.

The genre of a book will also determine the ideal word count, or the preferred range, tropes – in fiction and certain rules and reader expectation for the genre. For example readers interested in romance will expect the main characters to get together at the end of the book, they will be disappointed if the main character suddenly gets eaten by a zombie. You might have written a wonderful story, but you won’t impress readers. Don’t try to re-invent the wheel, you are trying to get an audience and gain a loyal fanbase of regular readers. By trying to redefine the reader expectations you are giving yourself far more of a hill to climb. What is the point of that – stick with what is tried and trusted and make an income, rather than trying to be unique.


There are upwards of 40 genres, but if you count mixed and sub genres there are so many more.


Fiction Genres

Romance — the main story line involves a romantic relationship. There are many subgenres of romance.


Fantasy —This involves world-building with characters who are magical, supernatural or mythological, or a combination of these.

Science Fiction — Similar to fantasy, this involves action set in the future, and can concern scientific questions.

Dystopian — This is usually set in a bleak, post apocalyptic future and often explore social or cultural issues.

Detective & Mystery — A mystery solved by either a professional or amateur detective.

Crime – A crime solved by a professional or amateur detective.

Thriller —The aim is to keep readers in a state of suspense until the plot is resolved.

Horror —The aim of this genre is to scare readers, keep them on the edge of their seats until the hero deals with the problem.

Adventure —This is an adventure undertaken by the protagonist.

Historical  — This involves a plot set in a specific historical time period  with detail that is accurate to the period, its characters, society and speech.

Children’s Fiction — Aimed at children up to the age of 12. There are countless subgenres..

Young Adult (YA) (12-18 yrs) — This is fiction for readers aged 12 – 18 years.


Self-Help / Personal Development — One of the most popular, this genre aims to help readers achieve their full potential.

Motivational / Inspirational — A similar genre to self- help this aims to inspire readers or challenge their live perspective.

Health & Fitness — This encompasses, diet, weight loss and fitness.

Memoir/Autobiography —A true account of the author’s own life. Auto-fiction is a sub genre where the author puts their own interpretation on their life events.

Biography — Biographies are books written on someone by the author.

Cooking — A massive genre, cooking, from around the world, specific diets and helping with nutritional aims.

Families & Relationships —This involves family life, and how to make the best of it and relationships.

Humour – Anything intending to make the reader laugh.

Art & Photography — This includes books on art and photography, including how to, the history of  as well as showcasing artists.

History — This genre details a specific time period or an event during that.

Crafts & Hobbies—This includes homemaking as well as specific crafts and hobbies.

Business & Money — Creating or running a business as well as managing money.

Educational – Any book which explains different subjects, such as law, foreign languages etc.

Travel — This can includes travel guides or travel memoirs.

Politics & Social Sciences — This genre includes politics, sociology, psychology etc.

Spirituality — This deals with anything from traditional religion to spirituality.

True Crime — These are true stories that deal with real crimes.







Science fiction




Self help






Health & Fitness



When you are working with a cover designer you will need to provide a cover brief. They will, assuming they are a professional designer, be able to help you with this, but you are in the driving seat and should be able to direct the operation.

In order to reach your audience and to maximise sales you need to ensure your cover meets the genre expectations.  You have spent countless hours plotting and writing your book, make sure your investment pays off by maximising every opportunity for sales.


A good book cover needs to;-

Grab attention immediately

Be beautiful

Be striking

Look professional

Show the genre

A book cover may also show the geographic locations and give an idea of the main character’s age and sex.

In order to fit in with the required genre the book cover should use colours and fonts that fit in with the general standards of that genre. It will be similar to other, bestselling books, this way readers will be able to identify with books they liked. The sub-conscious message is telling them the book reminds them of something familiar they enjoyed, therefore it is worth trying. That is why cover designs from each genre are very similar. Thrillers set in Europe will show a city from the locality and usually an enigmatic figure, romances will be pastel colours and have a cutesy feel.

It may feel like a cliché to use similar fonts and colours and have a layout that looks rather like all of the other books, but they work.



You may have some wonderful ideas about your cover design, want to create something extraordinary. That’s great. Go ahead. Honestly it won’t work. You will sell nothing, apart from the odd copy to friends and family. You want to make a living as an independent author – stick to convention.

If your book fails to show the genre readers are looking for, they will ignore it.

.If your cover ends up looking like so many others that is fine. Have a quick peek at movie posters. Imagine the huge budgets the production companies have and yet they do the same old poster, over and over again. Because it works.

Unless you have a huge budget you will inevitably use stock photographs. The alternative is to invest a heap of money into having a special shoot done. Fine if you have the budget, but most authors do not. Your designer will usually be subscribed to one or more of the photography sites and will give you the pick of them. Quite probably you will end up using images someone else has. The chances are someone else will have spotted that stunning photograph and be using it too. That is not a problem. Everyone, even traditional, big publishers use stock photographs.

Some may say your cover is a cliché or that it is copied from someone else. Who cares, really? Get as many sales as you can in whatever way you can because that is all that matters. That is why you are reading this book.

Make sure the image you use is done in the best way, maximise the money you pay your designer. Then everyone else will assume the similar ones are copies of yours.

The best way to have an idea about what you need for your cover is to research, research and research some more. Look at book sales web sites and see how the covers of the best selling books are designed in terms of the colours, images ad design used. This way you have something to show your designer.

I would advise when producing a cover, not to bother doing it yourself. Unless of course you are a designer. Really unless you are an expert your cover will look home made. Anyone can download an image and use software to add titles to it. That is fine, if that’s what you want, but you will probably find that the cover will look amateurish. That is one way to put off potential readers.

Another issue with a DIY cover is getting all the measurements right, the spine, the sizing for the front and back, the pixels for an e-book, the correct dimensions for an audio book. If you want to be a full time author – do that. Don’t waste your time being a cover designer – it is not a good use of your time, generally.

The cover image is going to be seen as a tiny image. That has to attract readers, tell them all about the book, in one glimpse. It is a lot to expect for something so tiny, so make sure it does the job. Make sure in the millisecond it takes to scroll past your book, it shows the genre, the age of the character and the location. Fashion will change for covers so do your research and ensure the cover you use is up to the minute. Remember you don’t have to stick with it forever.

The different genres will use different colours, thrillers for example use dark colours, moody images, whereas romance is obviously lighter, gentler on the eye.

There are sites where you can buy predesigned covers, or equally where you can buy templates and slot your own images in.



A romance cover has to suggest passion and love, the bond between two people. Have fun with showing different parts of the body, to give a feeling of secrecy, or, as with some popular books, an erotic slant.  Pinks, pastels, and whites are the most popular colours, combined with script or modern fonts.




Fantasy & Science fiction

These books all contain imaginary scenarios and characters, so your imagination can run wild in terms of images. Your image will depend on what the book is about, but designers will often use abstract illustrations. Most will use capitals with the aim of the title appearing mysterious, using a sans serif font. The cover needs to have the maximum impact, dark blues, yellows are often used.


Mystery and Thrillers.

Be cautious about giving too much away. Images should be enigmatic, deep and meaningful.  Using strong colours will create a powerful cover. Sans serif fonts work well.



Your cover needs to be even more powerful than that of a thriller. The focus here is on being creepy and scaring the reader. The whole book is about tension, its creation and release. This should show on the cover. Dark colours work well, with blood red, the symbol of danger. A gothic looking font is a must.



Slick and professional, with blocks of colour and simple typeography


Use a striking image of the person, or event.


Usually if you are writing cookery books you will have invested in top class photography to show off the dishes to the maximum. There will be one image that will undoubtedly stand out as ‘the one’ for the cover, something difficult and delicious.


Simple images and striking colours combined with simple fonts.

There are so many combinations of colours and images that can be used which will make your book fit into the correct genre, but equally there is always a way to use your creativity within that, while working with your designer.

It helps if you can sketch out your design, or paint what you have in mind so you can show your designer, either via email or via an online meeting. That way they have the best chance of interpreting your ideas into something professional and workable. It is important to have an idea as they will not be able, or prepared to give countless changes of a design because it isn’t what you had in mind. Have something in mind to give to the designer in the first place when you give them a brief. That way the cover can be designed with the maximum amount of stress on anyone.

You can still find time to give your imagination rein without leaving the guidelines of the genre and any designer worth their salt will relish the chance to come up with something for you.

If you are writing a series of books keep this in mind when designing the cover. Pick out images which will tie the books in together. Look at other series and see how this is done and above all tell your designer what you are trying to achieve so they have a guideline to work from.

When looking for a designer you will find that some specialise in particular types of covers. Don’t ask a gothic horror design specialist to come up with a cutesy children’s book cover. They probably will be able too but you want someone who will really enjoy being creative with the design brief you give them and not be struggling to create something appropriate.

There are so many genres it is impossible to come up with design briefs for them all in this book, but research is part of your job as an author. Use that time wisely to come up with ideas for your book cover. Be prepared  to let your designer give rein to their imagination, they will probably know better than you what will work or not, they are at the job all day every day.

While this chapter has been all about conforming to genre standards and not being different, there are covers that just occasionally make a splash and change the dynamics of the genre. If your cover image and design is good enough go ahead and do just that. Be prepared to stand out of the herd. But make sure, equally that there are subtle things that will make it the same as the rest of the genre. The last paragraph seems oddly contradictory, but once you start to look at book covers you will see and understand.