The rules: crime novel covers

When you’re bouncing a baby around your mind tends to wander, and today was no exception: I found myself staring at the bookcase, which contains far too many crime novels, decoding the visual grammar of the cover designs. I don’t know if there are similar rules to other genres, but there’s definitely a set of rules that apply to crime novels.

Here’s how they work.

The colour scheme

The background must be black or white, and feature a photograph of something normal – some trees, a tenement window, a back street. The photograph should then be treated to make the normal look spooky, so for example if it’s a picture of Glasgow’s Clyde Auditorium (the Armadillo) then it should be enhanced so the sky is in shades of blood-red with the venue in silhouette; if it’s a picture of some trees it should be shot on a really misty morning and desaturated to make it look spooky; if it’s a city street it should be taken with a ridiculously long exposure so car brake lights become a river of red neon; and so on. If you’re a crime novelist and your cover features a bloody knife, bullet holes or the chalk outline of a corpse then your publisher doesn’t see you as a class-A writer; if the cover is largely neon, your publisher sees you as a writer of crime capers rather than serious crime fiction.

alex gray

The author’s name and title

There’s a simple equation here: if the title is bigger than the writer’s name, you’re a newbie. The more successful you get, the bigger your name becomes and the smaller the title gets. The goal for crime writers is for your name to take up 7/8ths of the cover and for the title to be so small it’s only visible through an electron scanning microscope.

Ian Rankin

The author’s name

This is another gauge of success. The more you sell, the bigger and bolder your surname becomes. So if you’re just starting out, your name will be printed (in teeny-weeny text) like this:

Gary Marshall

As you sell more books, the surname gets promoted and the text size gets bigger:


And when you’re doing brilliantly, the surname gets promoted further still while the first name gets demoted:


Ideally the font will be Helvetica or something similar, with your first name using the lightest possible variant and the surname in the heaviest possible variant. If you have that and your surname is printed in a font size ten times bigger than your first name, the next royalty cheque should be a good ‘un.

James Lee Burke

Special text effects

If your name is printed in shiny foil or with a clear gloss laminate, or you get a gritty typeface, your publisher hopes you’ll be the next Ian Rankin but the sales figures aren’t vaguely close.

“A Chief Inspector Spanky novel”

Your publisher reckons that nobody who reads your stuff can remember who you are, and he or she hopes that putting the main character’s name on the cover will persuade the Tesco shoppers to buy your latest book. This is rarely a sign of confidence.

Are there any rules I’ve missed?





0 responses to “The rules: crime novel covers”

  1. It looks like trying to
    figure out a math equation.
    thanks for sharing

  2. Sans-serif for bloke novels, always.

    You’d never see “Ian Rankin” in a spidery, wedding-invite script – same as you’d never see “Maeve Binchy” in 72pt Impact.

  3. The proviso on all of those “if you are male”

  4. Gary

    Oh, indeed. Doesn’t seem to apply to Denise Mina, Val McDermid or Patricia Cornwell.

  5. Apparently (and I can’t remember where I read this), it’s well known in publishing that the ideal name for a writer is a simple short surname with a first name that’s just two or three letters longer than the surname, purely for the layout reasons you mention: you put one above the other and make them the same width. Stephen King. Douglas Adams. See how James Lee Burke achieves this by including his middle name. And see how the name on the Ian Rankin cover looks a bit dodgy: if the only consideration were pretty layout, they’d really need to make the first name bigger, but that’s the last thing they want to do. Notice how Michael Marshall Smith has become a lot more successful since he changed to Michael Marshall.

    If I ever write a book, my two first names would be a good nom de plum: William Joseph.

    > “A Chief Inspector Spanky novel”
    > Your publisher reckons that nobody who reads your stuff can remember who you are, and he or she hopes that putting the main character’s name on the cover will persuade the Tesco shoppers to buy your latest book.

    Oh, I don’t know. I think that Mark Billingham’s stuff says “A DI Thorne” novel on the front, and he seems to have a proper bestseller’s fanbase.

  6. Kevin M. Weeks, Author of The Street Life Series

    Thanks for the insight. This is a great article.

  7. Not sure how to post an image, but here’s my attempt following your rules to the letter.

  8. Gary

    heh heh heh. I feel a challenge coming on…

  9. OK, going to try and post an image. If it goes wrong I’ll just post the link….

    Or if the image doesn’t work.

    I should have a job making these book covers.

  10. Gary

    I’m scared to imagine how you’d approach the “true life misery” genre that infests supermarket shelves…

  11. I was thinking about doing one of those….I took a picture of the shelf in Smiths last week as I was so shocked that it was now a genre…

    I’ll get back to you with one later maybe….

  12. Gary

    Funny, I thought exactly the same thing in Smiths the other week.

    Try not to be too offensive if you do have a go :)

  13. Gary

    Haha, you’ve nailed it.

  14. jane

    fabulous. a question for you: say you were asked to design a cover for a crime novel by a yet-fledgling crime novelist; would you follow the rules of the big guns anyway in terms of size of the author’s name?

  15. Gary

    That’s a really good question. I’ve seen quite a few new writers dolled up in successful writers’ cover designs – you end up doing a double-take because you think “have I read his stuff? Isn’t that…?” Which is quite clever :)

  16. Just found this article, pretty decent work, son.

    FYI, Alex Gray is actually Alexandria, not Alexander. Therefore, that’s probably another rule. If you’re a woman, masculinise your name:
    Alex Gray
    PD James
    even Val McDermid

  17. Gary

    Yes – the reverse Mills & Boon :)

    Did I mention desaturation? That’s an increasing trend in cover images.

  18. Gary

    The rules are changing again: everybody appears to be using more rounded fonts this year.

  19. Holly.K

    This is great! Really interesting observations, I’ve been researching this stuff as I’m re-designing a book cover for ‘You Belong To Me’ by Ann Rule (uni project)… she writes true crime, but the same aspects are there in terms of the huge name and tiny titles! I’m trying to steer away from the gloomy/spooky landscapes, otherwise it won’t be much different from what the cover looks like now! Have you seen any other ‘trends’ for crime novels this year?