Chick-lit Cover Design Demystified
Women’s fiction covers are made up of certain common elements. These elements are not random. When used in particular combinations, they actually make very specific promises about the book and its story.
Whether these expectations are met is another question. And, whether it matters in the end, is yet another question. In many cases, I would argue that as long as the story is captivating, the cover design doesn’t need to perfectly match the story. To avoid confusion, I would just make sure it roughly conveys the right genre. A beautiful crime book cover can’t sell even the most engaging love story.
However, the promises you make on your book cover have a huge impact on how people react and whether they feel like clicking, picking up and reading your book. When it comes to women’s fiction, here are a few commonly used devices that communicate a lot more than what they seem.
The title is usually the most prominent element on the book cover. This is why the font plays a huge part in communicating the right feel. Some women’s fiction novels go for a simple serif, but often pair it up with a handwritten or script font. Sticking to a serif gives the book a sense of gravitas, i.e. “This is a women’s fiction novel you should take seriously”. It can work beautifully–especially if you’re a well-known writer with rave reviews. If you’re not, it can easily say “This book is full of beautiful description and nothing happens.” Even in the script font category, each font carries its own specific nuance. Here are some of my impressions…
Fun, determined, light-hearted
Silly fun, girly, fast-paced
Fun, quirky, romantic
Girly, young, easy read
2. Dreamy landscape
Stories set in picturesque little towns, well-known cities and other note-worthy locations usually depict the location on the book cover. Rolling hills and city skylines create expectations of the location featuring prominently in the story. Using white or another solid background implies that the location is not that important–or that maybe there are several of them.
3. The fringe/border
What I call the ‘fringe’ is a feature unique to women’s fiction. I don’t actually think it serves a higher purpose, other than reinforcing the genre and using every bit of the available real estate to add (hopefully) story-related props or foliage. It is a handy feature when you want to illustrate the location and add some detail to your dreamy landscape. The beach scene can be completed with palm leaves, a vineyard with some overhanging grapes.
Photo vs. Illustration
It’s worth noting the difference between a photographic and illustration based cover designs. Both styles are used in women’s fiction but result in very different outcomes. There are some beautiful covers that use photographs (Amy Sue Nathan’s being among my favourites!) but unless executed by a skilled designer, the photo-based ones will scream ‘self-published’ like nothing else. Custom illustration is time-consuming and more expensive, so naturally, it communicates a higher design budget and is easily seen as a sign of traditional publishing.
This can be anything: snowflakes, clouds, stars, hearts, birds or actual confetti. If a chick-lit cover design is a cupcake, these are the sprinkles on top. I would argue that the amount of sprinkles communicates the level of magic in the story. This can relate to supernatural things (body swaps, angels, messages from beyond), too-good-to-be-true story twists or simply a shimmery, magical time such as Christmas. Obviously, snowflakes are the go-to Christmas confetti.
Many women’s fiction covers don’t actually feature any characters. Most publishers and writers believe that readers want to imagine the characters and illustrating a character–especially if you’re showing their face–is counter-intuitive. This is probably wise unless the book is incredibly successful and is made into a movie. That’s when the publishers deem is safe to release a new edition with the actors’ faces adorning the book cover. But that’s really the only situation where it seems to work.
When featuring characters, chick-lit covers opt for showing the ladies from behind, as silhouettes or cutting off their upper body or head. The last one seems like a dramatic choice, but it does draw attention to fashion accessories, shoes, and handbags–a way of preparing the reader for shameless product placement.
The choice of whether or not to use a character on the cover is a tricky one. Humans are drawn to other humans, so having a human shape of any kind can definitely pay off. Maybe because illustrated characters are a must in children’s books, characters can make the book feel ‘younger’ and appeal to a younger audience. The smaller and more void-of-detail the characters, the less childish the overall look. Going completely without characters can give the impression of a less character-driven story, possibly with a large ensemble cast or a shifting point-of-view. Whether this appeals to the potential readers–well, you might just have to test it.
If you decide to not use a character, consider props. Is there a key prop in your story that could be used instead of a person? It could be a car, suitcase, rings, teacups… Or, if you’re going with a prominent dreamy landscape, it can be the house featuring as the main location. The goal here is to create a scene the reader can imagine entering as they open your book. You’re inviting them on a journey. Maybe that’s why many chick-lit book covers resemble old-fashioned postcards. They are messages from other worlds and other lives we are invited to enter. Imagine receiving a postcard so enticing that you want to immediately pack your bags and buy a ticket to that place. That’s what a truly beautiful book cover should do.
Hi! I'm Enni.
I've worked in the creative industry for nearly two decades. I was born in Finland, but currently, live and work in New Zealand.
As a designer, I love beautiful book covers. As a reader and writer, I love women's fiction. Call it 'chick-lit', call it whatever you want. It is an amazing, worthy genre and there is some serious talent out there!
This website is my way of connecting with fellow writers and offering what I can do – beautiful, yummy book covers.
We're stronger together, so let's connect!