What “verb” is your cover?

So I’ve been having conversations with a variety of folks recently about covers and cover art. Part of the Milestone Indie Publishing Newsletter going out in a couple of weeks contains some of these thoughts, but that one is largely focused on the art itself, so I wanted to address writers now instead.

My recent complaint has been about covers where the image is a person just standing there. Might be utterly gorgeous art, but it has no verb. Just a collection of nouns.

[What the hell is he babbling about now?]

Six people standing around. Period costume indicating a specific genre. I’m not going to pick on anyone, because I’ve seen it in Alternative History, Steampunk, Fantasy, and 20th Century.

Six people. Standing around. Or three. Whatever. The key is standing around. Not doing anything.

No verb.

Another example I see frequently is something like a woman’s portrait. Gorgeous face in a reasonable close-up. Amazing detail in the hair and skin. Wearing some sort of top that’s either black or dark blue. Gold necklace hanging from a chain. Visible from about the sternum north. Sedate background with no details.

What genre is that? I can never tell. And I look for those sorts of things, with some level of experience picking out the little details like font and color that should tell me.

[Yeah? And?]

So you have to hook a new reader in about a half a second. That’s it. What does your cover convey in that flash of recognition? Six people standing around does not suggest to me an action-packed, car-chase kind of adventure. More like a Tolstoy novel about multi-generational, dystopian families that goes on forever without really accomplishing much except curing insomnia.

Most of your readers do not suffer from insomnia. They want the car chases.

Normally, I’d be fine with the rest of you putting out boring covers, because that increases my odds of selling instead, but too much of a bad thing recently has given me indigestion. They won’t want to buy a book with a boring cover and will gravitate towards one with actions.

With verbs.

What verb is your cover? Nouns are lovely. MFA programs teach you to use them like scalpels, spending years seeking just the perfect word to convey the exact level of navel-gazing ennui involved in the story.

I want car chases. Firefights. X-wings strafing the surface of the Death Star. Tommy guns blazing in a gangster shootout. Cowboys at high noon.

I want a book that grabs me by the lapels and drags me to the bottom of the lake and holds me there until I realize that it’s Two in the morning and I should have probably gone to bed three hours ago.

Your cover is the thing that does that. Or should. Nobody will read the words inside until the cover gets their attention and causes them to look closer. To open a new window (or maybe pull a book down from the shelf) and read the title and then the blurb.

They see the cover out of the corner of their eye somewhere. Maybe scrolling through social media. Or on an also-bought carousel. Or a “you might like” list.

Nobody reads those. They skim them looking for something to jump out at their unconscious mind and snap its fingers.

Covers with verbs. Standing around is technically a verb, but not one you’re going to make much money from. How much excitement does your cover promise?

I don’t care how pretty it is.  Seriously. I know fantastic artists.

Go think about that book that MADE you open up a new window so you could look closer. I’m not talking about the latest media craze that TrabPub has decided you have to read. I mean one you stumbled over accidentally. A new author you’d never read before. (Or the first of my covers that got you to read something I wrote.)

Actiony. Colorful, too, in an era when a lot of SF has gone “sepia realism” in bad ways.


You writers can learn how to have good covers, but you need to stop and take off your artist hat. Lots of nouns on your cover won’t sell books. Verbs do.

What verb is your cover?

What are you selling me? Excitement so intense I need a cigarette afterwards, or period-accurate boredom? That’s your choice, but the difference will sell a lot of books.