An Analysis of Young Adult Book Covers Zenyse Miller

What is Young Adult Literature?

Although young adult novels are clearly their own type of literature, there’s a wide variety of work that falls into this category. The general consensus is that YA novels are written for an audience of 12 to 18-year-olds. Usually the characters of YA novels also fall into this age range, although that’s not a requirement. Additionally, the characters usually experience emotional challenges or development that is typical of young adults during this stage of their life. Obviously, this ambiguity in genre leads to a wide range of novels in this category and it is difficult to make statements that apply to such a variety of works. However, my core argument can be applied to the category as a whole as it applies to something every YA novel has: a cover.

We all Judge Books by Their Covers

Although the popular maxim would convince us otherwise, it’s an accepted fact that we all judge books by their covers. In fact, over 75% of young adults say that a book’s cover influences their decision of whether or not to read it. Young adults ranked the cover as more important than even the title and summary of the book. This was true across all demographics measured in the test; gender, grade, reading level, and enthusiasm for reading all had no impact on the importance of the cover (Jones 2007).

Because of this, book covers are extremely important to the success of a novel. A good cover can make or break its success. Up to 75% of novel covers are rebranded in an effort to keep the book current (Jones 2009). In an industry that’s hugely growing, books need to be eye-catching to avoid being lost in the crowd. Just how big is the YA book industry?

Answer: The Industry is Huge

The young adult book industry is extremely large (and growing). In the United States, the total book industry sales in 2014 net in at $27.98 billion, an almost 5% increase since 2013. Of that nearly $28 billion, over 15% of that is young adult novels, topping in at $4.4 billion in sales during 2014 (“The U.S. Book Market”). Because of its size, the book industry obviously has a large audience. In terms of readers, the numbers are just as impressive as the industry itself.

The Average Reader

In general, Americans are avid readers. Over three-quarters of American adults read at least one book a year, with the average American reading five books a year. This information is true across all demographics, regardless of age, ethnicity, education, and income (Zickuhr and Rainie). The same love of reading travels down to the younger generation. Of 6-17 year-olds, 76% read for fun, with 32% of of those people reading for fun 5-7 days of the week. Almost 60% of this age range also said that they like reading a lot. In general, girls enjoy reading more than boys, and Hispanic children are more likely to read for fun than non-Hispanic children. Nonetheless, it is clear that reading is viewed as important for the majority of all Americans (Teresa).

When looking at the demographics above, it would seem that the typical young adult reader would be a young, Hispanic girl. However, recent studies have shown a surprising twist.

Adults Don’t Act (or Read) Their Age

A recent study shows that 55% of YA buyers are actually 18 years old or older. The largest demographic of this is the 30-44-year-olds, who account for 28% of YA sales. Although it can be tempting to assume that these adults are simply buying books for their children, this is not the case. Over three-quarters of the adults said that they were buying the books for themselves, not their children (“New Study”). So what does this mean for young adult literature?

Age groups of YA readers

Covers Need to Reflect Their Actual Audience

To recap: the traditional outlook in the YA community has been that 12 to 18-year-olds are the primary audience, with a more specific emphasis on females. However, over half of YA readers are actually adults, with a large portion of them being in their 30s and 40s. It has already been established that covers are extremely important in readers’ decisions, and, in such a large industry, books need to do whatever they can to be successfully marketed. This raises the question: are current covers actually reaching their buying audience?

The Ideal Cover

An effective book cover must accomplish two goals. First, it must accurately convey the content of the book. Second, it must entice the audience to read the book. It is this second goal that I will focus on.

The remainder of this work will focus on outlining a successful, marketable YA cover. I will begin by looking at an existing typology for measuring the success of an advertisement. I then propose a modified version of the typology that is more accurate for the case at hand. Finally, I will test this typology against currently successful YA novels to determine if the typology is an accurate representation of the current market.

My Methodology

Phillips and McQuarrie argue that an effective advertising technique is both complex and rich, while appropriately balancing the two. Their research focuses on advertising, of which book covers are a subsect. I have already mentioned that book covers are the number one way that readers chose their next read, marking the book cover as the most significant marketing factor of a novel. According to the pair’s typology, complexity measures the amount of effort the viewer has to put into understanding the image. Richness evaluates the number of ways that the image can be interpreted (Phillips and McQuarrie).

While Phillips and McQuarrie’s typology has some valid points, it is also flawed. Although the duo mentions that the typology is easily tested, they never actually put it to the test. In a preliminary measurement, Professor John Logie’s WRIT 3671 course used a sample of advertisements and placed them along the typology, after ranking them for effectiveness. The typology summarily failed. On one hand, their theory on complexity and richness has been very thoroughly supported, by a variety of sources (Van Mulken, Le Pair, Forceville). On the other hand, the typology itself does not appear to be effective. I will thus propose my own typology (using Phillips and McQuarrie’s concepts of complexity and richness) to measure the effectiveness of different types of young adult novel covers.

The Perfect Balance

In terms of the perfect book cover, a good combination would be low complexity and average richness. Low complexity allows all levels of readers (from the actually young, young adult readers to the adult audience that purchases over half of YA books) to appreciate the cover. An average richness allows the viewer to interpret the cover (and thus their sense of the novel) in whatever way best suits their own interests, while still calling to mind the content of the novel. The low complexity is more important than the average richness, based on the wide variety of audience that was identified in the first part of this argument. This combination best supports a widely appealing cover, while still catching attention.

Categories of Cover

Based on this typology, YA covers can be separated into categories and then evaluated for an effective visual appeal. Kathleen O’Connell has conducted previous research on YA covers. She suggested that all covers could be broken down into categories, and thus individually analyzed for successful design at an impartial level. O’Connell chose to look at covers based on their style of art and the colors used (O’Connell). However, I’m going to focus on the subject matter of YA covers.

Following O’Connell’s research design, I began by identifying different types of YA covers that are frequently seen. I then looked into how they best fit Phillips and McQuarrie’s concepts of complexity and richness, without being encumbered by the untested typology. I found six different types of covers, with varying levels of complexity and richness.

Object

Covers with objects on them comprise the first category. Objects are any inanimate or nonhuman substance that is the primary focus on the cover. Objects are low in complexity, as they very clearly depict only one image. They are easily recognizable as exactly what they are, as there’s no debating a single subject. Objects are also low in richness, because it’s hard to extrapolate increased symbolism in a singular object. They very clearly tell the story of what they are, but it’s difficult to draw a more expanded narrative from a sole image.

Person (Fragmented)

Covers with people on them form the next two categories. Novels with this type of cover feature a person as the central image. The first section involves people who are “fragmented,” where fragmented means that it is difficult to see the expressions or characteristics of the person on the cover.

These covers are high in richness because the undefined image allows every reader to project their own expectations on the image. The lack of clues on the people allows for a wide variety of interpretation. The unspecified human is relatable enough that readers will feel connected to the person, but vague enough that every individual is going to apply their own biases to the image.

Person (Clear)

The second type of person cover shows clearly depicted humans. These are covers where the person’s characteristics and expressions are easily visible. Because we do it constantly, it is easy for people to read minute details in other humans, from their posture, expression, and even clothes. Thus, clear people are low in rich richness. A clearly visible demeanor and characteristics are a direct message on how to view the cover. It doesn’t take many hints for a person to know exactly what another human is trying to express.

Both types of people categories are average in complexity, as humans have a very clear understanding of other humans. Humans project a lot of information in very little space, but they are still simple to understand. Thus, the average complexity accounts for the amount of information that is gained from the image, but also the relative ease of its transmission.

Symbol

A symbol cover has a unique, iconic image that is explicitly linked with the novel. Symbols rarely have meaning before they become associated with the novel, but are instead specifically connected to the novel. Symbols are high in complexity because the reader does not have any previous associations with the image. Thus, the reader has to spend time decoding what is being pictured. This also leads to a high richness, as there are no clear pathways to understanding the symbol and so each reader will view it in whatever way they see fit.

Scene

Covers fall into the scene category whenever there is action or movement implicit in the cover. Any image that has multiple factors, where the focus isn’t clearly on one singular person or object, falls under the scene category. Scenes have average complexity because the viewer must take into account a variety of details, yet the picture is still clearly defined enough to send a focused message. They also have average richness, as the increase in detail allows for more ways that the viewer can perceive what is seen, while still remaining within the boundaries of a clearly recognizable image.

Text

The final category is text. Text is any cover where the main focus is simply the title of the novel, with minimal to no outside design. This is extremely low in complexity and richness. Although this does allow for some interpretation, the focus remains on the content of the message instead of in the free interpretation of what is being seen. Covers like this do not encourage a close look at the visual design. Aspects of visual design might be noted and will be taken as clues to interpreting the text, but the focus remains on the meaning of the words. They simply don’t have the visual depth that more fleshed-out covers have.

Ranking of Cover Types

An ideal YA cover would be low in complexity and average in richness, as this allows for a good blend of ambiguity with comprehension. The six categories of YA covers have the complexity and richness as follows:

Thus, the hierarchy of effective cover images falls as such, assuming low complexity is more important than average richness as argued previously:

  1. Scene
  2. Object and Text
  3. Person (Clear) and Person (Fragment)
  4. Symbol

This means that, hypothetically, covers near the top of the list should be more marketable for the YA audience than covers near the bottom.

Actual Covers

Once I had solidified my method of analyzing the covers, I looked at actual young adult covers that had been successful. I used NPR’s list of “100 Best-Ever Teen Novels” as my source. As I will explain further on, I used the most recent or most recognizable cover of each novel. I then split every cover into one of my six previously mentioned categories.

Theoretically, novels that sell well must be marketed well, and we’ve already seen that covers are the number one way that readers choose what books to read. Thus, the “100 Best-Ever Teen Novels” should have some of the best covers of all time. They should then break down into roughly the order of cover subject that I have outlined, as those covers best match the broad audience of YA readers.

Chosen Covers

The phenomena of adult YA readers is relatively recent; young adult as a genre is less so. Thus, some novels in the “100 Best” list were written and published before the recent trends in YA readership. To avoid this concern, all of the covers that I analysed were from recent editions of the novels. As I mentioned earlier, novels are frequently rebranded to stay current. Thus, while I look at the cover for Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, which was initially published in 1953, I examine the 2012 edition’s cover, which would have targeted today’s YA reader.

*Caveat

Before I go into the results, it should be noted that I both made the typology and coded the covers. While I tried to code as accurately as I could, this measurement would be more effective if neutral parties, who had not seen the typology, had coded the covers. This would have avoided any innate bias that I might have. Ideally, this work would be replicated with a team of properly trained coders to look through the covers for a more accurate reflection. Nevertheless, I have included my results below for a glimpse into what this process might produce.

The Results

Actual cover style popularity based on an analysis of NPR's "100 Best-Ever Teen Novels"

Almost Perfect Predictions

The actual covers align nearly perfectly with what successful covers should look like according to my scale. The “100 Best” novels use predominantly scenes and object covers, which best fit the ideal ratio of complexity and richness. Symbol covers are the most rare, which is fitting as symbols have an inappropriate ratio of complexity and richness. Although text is an outlier and is less popular than I would have thought, the scale is overall a success.

So What Does This Mean?

This means that certain types of covers clearly work better than others. Theoretically, some covers sell better than others. In practice, these covers appear frequently on best-selling novels. The message is clear.

Recommendations

Basically, publishers should keep on doing what they’re doing. They are already primarily using cover types that appeal to their primary audience. The industry seems to acknowledge that today’s reader is not as clear-cut as the stereotypical young, female that traditionally made up YA readership. Instead, it’s important to include the large sector of adult readers into the marketing techniques.

Thus, covers of low complexity and average richness are the best fit for modern YA novels. This style appeals to a wide range of readers, without becoming too bland. Categories that display scenes and objects remain popular, while covers that use symbols should be avoided.

To Conclude

YA book sales are booming and the reason why is clear: the industry knows its audience. Book covers are the number one way that readers choose their next book. Publishers acknowledge this fact, and have been designing covers that best appeal to their wide audience. Popular novels are successful because they’re marketed well, using types of covers that appeal to YA readers. Current covers are effective and should continue to be used, with special focus on covers that use symbols or objects.

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