When I hear fellow readers say whether they prefer fiction book covers with or without people pictured on them, the answers are pretty evenly split between both styles.
A key advantage for people-less book cover designs is that they leave a reader more room to envision the characters how they wish. Some readers find it easier that way to put themselves in a character’s place. Those designs also avoid the not-so-uncommon issue of people on covers that don’t match the authors’ character descriptions in the stories.
(Before you say it: Yes, I realize that from a marketing standpoint, matching all the character details in the story isn’t the main job or priority for a book cover. The marketing priority for cover design is to give the book an eye-catching look that will sell well to a target audience; the audience usually won’t know exactly how an author describes a character until after the book is sold. Still, that technical reason doesn’t mean that mismatches between the cover and the story aren’t, well, an annoyance to a lot of readers. Sometimes it’s more than a mere annoyance—but a little more on that in a minute.)
A key advantage of book cover designs with people pictured is the advantage of human connection. Something instinctive happens in a person’s brain when they see another human being, especially a human face. Just by being pictured there, a person on a book cover makes an instant call to a reader’s humanity.
On another note, forming mental images is harder for some people than for others. And for people with a condition called aphantasia, they don’t form mental images at all. So, when the cover of a book depicts a key person or two from the story, it can serve as a visual reference for readers who wouldn’t picture the character(s) otherwise or who wouldn’t do it easily.
As for my personal preferences, I don’t find one of the two styles better than the other. I’m drawn by great book covers of both peopled and people-less varieties. 😀
With that said, there are times when I feel an extra special appreciation for human faces on fiction book covers. Those times are when I see human faces representing people of color in fiction. Why? Because people of color haven’t always had (and sometimes still don’t have) the privilege of being seen in the book world. And more than that, being seen in empowered roles.
Now, this issue isn’t limited to one fiction genre or to one race/ethnicity of people. But understand that much of my experience and perspective is that of the Black American woman that I am. A Black American woman who’s read a whole lot of fiction from kindergarten to now, including a whole lot of Christian Fiction from her preteens to now.
I remember what it was like through my years of going out to one bookstore and the next. I loved shopping for fiction, especially ChristFic. Yet, I remember how, except in rare cases, the people pictured on fiction book covers in Christian bookstores tended to be all one color. A color that wasn’t mine. I’d sometimes check the photos of the authors, and they were also all one color the large majority of the time. It was easy for me, and likely many other ChristFic shoppers, to assume, “These must pretty much be the only people out there who write Christian novels.” So, I chose books from the ChristFic selection that was offered.
Granted, the kinds of ChristFic books that were available weren’t exactly the same at every Christian bookstore across the US. Still, I’d see fellow ChristFic readers online, asking for help to find Christian novels with Black characters, and other readers’ recommendations for American Civil War novels would come up quickly—stories featuring Black people enslaved or in other subservient positions.
No, I’m not saying that the Civil War era isn’t important to read and write about. I myself read fiction involving that era. But I’m saying that if stories depicting Black characters in enslaved roles, or only one or two embattled steps beyond enslavement—if those were perceived as the top reads that Christian Fiction had to offer in terms of Black characters, that was a problem. There’s definitely much more to who Black people have been, who we are, and who we are becoming.
I make it no secret that in the past, the lack of diversity on ChristFic bookshelves was one of the reasons I eventually stepped away from buying new ChristFic for several years. No, I don’t at all believe people are only supposed to read and enjoy books when they share the same ethnicity as the authors and lead characters. But as a reader, it can be hard to keep returning to bookshelves where, in terms of ethnic and cultural representation, you feel continually left out.
It was years before I found out there were more Black writers in the ChristFic genre than had first seemed to be the case. One day while browsing the general Fiction shelves in a secular bookstore, I stumbled on a contemporary Christian novel written by a Black author featuring Black lead characters. I later found other such novels mixed in with secular books, and I made a habit of checking the ChristFic section as well as the general Fiction shelves each time I visited the store. While in a broad sense, I have no problem with religious and inspirational fiction titles being shelved with secular fiction (it’s all still fiction), it struck me that all of the Christian novels with brown-skinned people on the covers, written by brown-skinned authors, were shelved across the store and away from the Christian Fiction section.
It wasn’t hard for me to imagine that those novels were likely to go unseen by many, maybe most, of the Christian shoppers who’d head straight for the designated Christian Fiction shelves in that store.
It’d be a few more years until I’d learn that racially segregated ChristFic shelving wasn’t a practice only local to me. Granted, at least at my favorite local bookstore, they did eventually begin shelving more African American ChristFic in the Christian Fiction section, but that change came rather late. Sales in the traditional Christian Fiction market had already begun seeing a downturn. Christian bookstores across the country started going out of business, and as the demand for Christian novels declined in secular bookstores, ChristFic in those stores started earning less shelf space. At the same time that the ChristFic sections started shrinking, they again became less diverse.
Again, as I refer to African American ChristFic, I in no way mean to imply that “Black books” are the only diverse books to consider, or that any other people of color or people as a whole aren’t important. I’m simply speaking from my experience and perspective as a Black American woman, the perspective I know best.
It wasn’t until I got into publishing for myself that I began to hear more about the extra roadblocks that Black authors had been facing for years in Christian publishing. Perhaps needless to say, those same difficulties were present in the broader publishing world. I wasn’t nearly the first or only reader of color who’d felt left out while browsing for fiction on bookstore shelves. Too many authors of color have faced literary agents and acquisitions editors reluctant or unwilling to take on their work, publishers fearing that “our readers won’t be able to relate to books…like yours.”
There have also been a lot of cases when publishers have released historical or biblical fiction novels featuring characters in their native lands in Middle Eastern/Asian and African areas of the globe, but the people pictured on the book covers often wouldn’t look like people of Middle Eastern/Asian or African origin.
That issue concerning people pictured on book covers hasn’t only been limited to diverse historical fiction. Even for some diverse fiction set in contemporary times, publishers have opted for cover designs where the people don’t look “too ethnic.” And for some books featuring Black characters, the publishers would blatantly use images of Caucasian people on the book covers.
Indeed, in cases like that, when brown-skinned characters are misrepresented with cover images of people who aren’t brown-skinned, the mismatch between the characters in the books and the designs on the covers are more than mere annoyances. It’s a problem that authors still deal with sometimes in publishing, right here in the 21st century.
Has publishing made any positive progress in terms of diversity? Yes! There’s significant room for improvement as well. Also, on account of what many readers have and have not been accustomed to seeing for years when they shop for fiction, it’ll take more intentional effort to shift a particular conscious and/or subconscious notion that still lingers in too much of the reading world. The notion that ethnically diverse fiction is basically secondary fiction, mostly suitable for different or “other” people but not too essential beyond that, while fiction from Caucasian authors is standard, universal fiction. That way of thinking goes along with viewing the matter of diversity in fiction as merely one of the current “trends” in publishing.
Human beings of color aren’t a trend but are a vital reality integral to the human story from its beginning. And we certainly shouldn’t only be represented in fiction while publishers see it as “trendy” to do so. It’s a layered issue, too much to unpack fully in one blog post, but I’ve said all of this to reiterate…
Although I love all kinds of great cover designs, I feel an extra special appreciation when I see human faces rightfully representing people of color on fiction book covers. I appreciate it when a diversity of people have those valid and necessary chances to be seen.