As a book cover designer and author, I spend a lot of time thinking about those pixels of real estate known as an “ebook cover”. One day while cruising the best-seller lists for inspiration, I realized that when it comes to knowing what makes a marketable ebook cover, I had been relying only on my observation and the wisdom of others. That’s good, but in the data-driven world of today, it’s not good enough.
So I went through the top 100 of Amazon’s best-selling ebooks by category with the mission of sussing out the truth of what best-selling ebook covers have in common. Because I write paranormal romance, I started there.
Before we plunge into what I found, a few notes. First, this data was taken on a single day. Second, this data set encompasses only 100 covers, not a large enough sample size to say anything with 100% certainty. And third, this data was taken from Amazon — so it may not be as applicable to other vendors. For those curious the full data set can be found here.
Alrighty, let’s get to the goodies!
I started my journey by investigating exactly who is featured on PNR romance book covers in the top 100.
To no one’s surprise, the most frequent subjects of paranormal romance book covers are hot dudes. However, testosterone doesn’t have sole dominion over romance book jackets. Over a quarter of book covers featured a couple and 12% a woman. Scenery and typography heavy design came in last place at only 5%.
As a designer, this means I’ll be encouraging my PNR clients to feature a man on their covers and steering them away from plain scenery without a human element. If you think about it, romance is a genre driven by relationships. It’s hard to have a compelling love affair with an inanimate object.
(The noted exception to this is of course erotica like Fifty Shades of Grey. For truly risqué books, often the covers will show little to nothing sexual so as to keep non-readers from guessing the true nature the reading material. However, in the world of e-readers, most people can’t tell what you’re reading. In this case, the only person the book cover needs to appeal to is the target reader and it can be as un-subtle as it likes. Thus, the man-boob was born!)
Next, I tackled everyone’s favorite question when it comes to romance novel covers (paranormal and otherwise): do you need to have a shirtless man on your cover?
On it’s face the answer seems to be yes. 68% of men on top 100 Amazon PNR covers were shirtless. But it’s important to remember that only 57% of covers had men on them at all, which brings the number of shirtless men on covers to only around 38.7%.
Is your head spinning yet with all these numbers? I know mine is. It can be easy to get lost in all the tiny details of book cover design and miss the bigger questions, like:
How sexual on average are best-selling paranormal romance covers?
I broke down the book covers into four categories. 0 being non-sexual (see Nora Roberts), 1 being romantic (see Bella Forrest’s A Shade of Vampire covers), 2 being sexy, i.e a shirtless man with his abs covered, or a clothed couple kissing, 3 was flamin’ hot, i.e a shirtless man with abs or underwear visible or a partially nude couple kissing. Out of all those covers the average worked out to about 2.4. Which means paranormal romance covers, on the whole, are pretty darn sexual. If you think about the way the e-reader market works (no one else needs to see the book cover but you) and the trends toward more and more steamy books, this makes sense.
You will notice that the bigger names like Nora Roberts or Bella Forrest tend have less sexual covers than the authors who have spent less time at the top of the lists. The more established your brand, the less sexual you have to be to grab readers.
Phew, okay. If you’re like me, by this point you’d be happy to never see another underwear model, and you’re probably wondering “What about the paranormal in the paranormal romance, Sylvia?” Good question. One of the hottest categories of paranormal romance right now are shifters. Werewolves, werebears, werecats, werehawks, you name it. Most shifter books feature the title animals on their covers, so I decided to break down which animals are the most popular. I discovered what we all knew, that bears are particularly beloved at the moment. But I was also surprised to note that wolves still held the top spot. Bears, bobcats and even gorillas may come and go, but the werewolf seems to be here to stay. Drilling down to look at some of the more exotic cover critters, I found the cat was for a cozy mystery series and the gorilla was due T.S Joyce giving in to a request from her readers.
Finally, the last variable I played with was one of my favorites as a designer: color. For me as a cover designer, this was probably the most useful piece of data I gathered. While I knew that the blue/orange combination is a favorite among graphic designers of all stripes, I had no idea how prevalent it was exactly. In fact, blue as the primary cover of PNR books is almost as common as shirtless men!