What You Can Tell About a Book by Its Cover

One of the first questions I was asked by the publishing staff about Chasing the American Dream was this: What do you want on the cover? I had a few thoughts. I wanted an older man walking down a 1950’s residential street behind another man. The “leader” should look martial, have a military cut to his coat and carefully styled short hair. His back is straight. The “follower” should be a bit shaggy, clothes not as well cut. If it can be seen, he has a large belly. Both wear Fedoras. A picture would be good, though a drawing was in the realm of possibilities, too. You can see below how it turned out:

chasing the american dream novel

Before these options were explored, another question came my way: Could you please send us 3-5 pictures of covers in the same genre as your book? I went to some of my favorite historical fiction writers and searched among their covers. Here’s what I sent the publisher:

Book covers

You may notice some similarities among these covers: a dark moodiness; if there is color, it’s blue or a muted shade; a sense of evening or night; spare placement of people; mostly people with their backs to the reader; something flying in the sky; a pointed object on the ground; block printed titles and author names; no fussiness. You might name some more of your own.

So, why is that? I suppose it’s obvious. Publishers want the cover to announce clearly to the reader the kind of story they’ll be reading and set the mood for the book. It also tells the bookseller which display table to put the book on. These are not (primarily) romances, certainly not children’s books, and something ominous is going to happen—likely a life-or-death matter. The covers of World War II books often picture men in uniform, have women’s hair in victory rolls or pulled back, a plane or two in the air, and ruins from a bombing.

Just for fun, below are 5 more book covers, all historical fiction but from different time periods. Can you identify the one from World War II and figure out the eras of the other four? Let me know your decisions!

choosing a book cover