Fantasy, Magical Realism, Paranormal? Codes in Cover Art

Rachel Dacus in Venice, Italy, 1991.
Rachel in Venice, Italy, 1991.

Book Cover Art Is Really a Science

Fantasy, magical realism, or paranormal — the codes in cover art tell you what to expect within a book. But do you type these large categories into an Amazon search bar when you’re looking for your next novel? If I do, the way to find the books is judging them by their art. The cover tells all! And that’s no accident.

I thought in my early writer days that cover art was all about art and good design. I doted on gorgeous designs. How naive I was! I’m getting close to releasing a new book, so I’ve been thinking about genres and cover art in fiction. My next book will be fantasy + women’s fiction. A story of two half-sisters and their guardian ghost, set in Italy. All those elements can suggest images for a cover. My story is told as magical realism — the kind of fantasy where the supernatural elements just sort of waft in as if they’re normal. Sarah Addison Allen is a wonderful author of books with that kind of fantasy element, but set in a recognizable, realistic world.

In book marketing, the difference between fantasy and magical realism in fiction is blurred. Categories overlap so much that you can’t really search successfully for books under such broad terms, unless you want to page through a lot of Amazon screens. Speculative fiction flies under many names, depending on whether you’re approaching agents, small press publishers, Amazon, or readers. Everyone understands something different by the terms. So we as readers — whether we do it consciously or not — rely on book covers to stop our scrolling and tell us to “Look Inside” the book.

Typefaces Tell a Story

I can find the kind of book I like by the font, images, and colors that tell me the kind of fiction I like. Apparently, fonts have been used to encode fiction categories for a long time. Here’s an “epic” list of genre-related fonts, from Derek Murphy’s wonderful blog, Creative Indie.

For my romantic fantasy, The Renaissance Club, my designer and I went with a script with swashes, in all caps.

Similar swashy fonts cue the browsing reader that they can expect a paranormal romance. While I sometimes advertise under that category, my book overlaps two genres: fantasy romance and women’s fiction. So I did another code thing with the cover  image.

Cover Imagery

The codes in cover art are the images too. A woman turned away from the camera is an often-used figure for the cover of women’s fiction. The size of the figure can differ, but the female figure turned partly or completely away is a beloved trope in women’s fiction covers. I love both these, one for the colors, and one for the figure.

Color is another powerful code

I see a lot of blue and green in women’s fiction, warm colors in romance and all its sub-genres, and a lot of homey or cozy settings in women’s fiction. I’m especially drawn to the cool colors, though I picked a warm peach for my cover, denoting the romance aspect. Color is a terrific code on a book cover. It’s emotional and powerful. Here’s a good article on the subject, from Just Publishing Advice.

More soon on the codes in cover art, with a focus on fantasy and women’s fiction cover art. Write to me with your favorite examples!