Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Managing Reader Expectations through Cover Art by C.J. Brightley

It's day three of the Blogger Book Fair! Today I am proud to welcome C.J. Brightley, author of the Erdemen Honor series, including The King’s Sword and A Cold Wind.

Take it away, C.J.!


Does your book meet your reader’s expectations? It’s a more complicated question than it first appears. Many factors play into reader expectations, including genre, cover art, blurb, the author’s name and reputation, and the reader’s pre-conceived ideas.

Understanding reader expectations is critical to the success of your book. One of the fastest ways to disappoint a reader is to promise one thing and deliver another. The factors mentioned above, the author makes an implicit or explicit promise to the reader: “stick with me and you’ll find out what happens to Protagonist” or “stick with me, and you’ll find out why this happened,” etc.

Great writers can subvert those promises. There are ways to mitigate reader expectations without changing the story you want to tell. As an author, you need to be aware of what promises you are making to your reader, and either plan to fulfill them in some way, or understand how you’re going to either mitigate the expectations or deliberately subvert them for the sake of your story.

Cover art is one of the critical parts of establishing a book as a fantasy. Certain “looks” are common to fantasy covers, and cover art that conforms to those looks signals to a reader, or potential reader, that they’re looking at an epic fantasy, an urban fantasy, a thriller, a mystery, “women’s fiction” (whatever that means), or something else. However, a book cover needs to stand out too, or it doesn’t perform its primary function, that of catching a reader’s eye and enticing him or her to read the blurb and consider reading the book.

One of the interesting facts of being an indie author is that I choose my own cover art. That’s both exciting and stressful! I assume that publishing companies know more about what sells than I do, because they have access to a much greater data set. However, I know my book better than anyone else, and I knew that there were some reader expectations that I wanted to mitigate through the cover art.

When I chose the cover art for my books The King’s Sword and A Cold Wind in my Erdemen Honor series, I wanted to signal that the books were fantasy, but a little different than many other high fantasy books. The books are set in a fictional world, with cultures not directly drawn from Europe or any other real-world setting. I was inspired by real historical cultures, but the world is unique, not “England with magic.” The world does not include magic at all; there are no dragons or any other fantastic creatures. It’s almost like historical fiction for a world that isn’t ours.

The sword-bearing figure on the front signals “fantasy” without showing many of the trappings of a pseudo-European fantasy setting. The background is more stark and representative rather than a lush depiction of a particular setting or event in the books. Urban Fantasy covers, in contrast, often seem to have faces or figures posed in dramatic ways with suitably gritty urban backgrounds. I stayed away from faces partly because I didn’t think I could find a photo or image of anyone who looked like Kemen (the main character and narrator), and partly because I wanted to signal that the story was more toward high fantasy in a lower-tech world, rather than modern urban fantasy.

If anything, the cross-genre cover inspiration came from literary fiction. My series is definitely fantasy, but it’s character-driven and not epic in scale; each book has a relatively small cast of characters that a reader grows to know more deeply. Looking at literary fiction book covers, I noticed a trend toward a more graphic look. My books aren’t literary fiction, but they do prioritize character-growth over non-stop heart-pounding danger.

I love the cover art, and I feel they represent my books well.

Do the covers entice you? What do you expect to find between the covers of these books? If you’ve published a book, how do you feel about your cover art? Does it accomplish what you hoped it would?


About the author of this blog post: C. J. Brightley

I’m the author of the Erdemen Honor series, including The King’s Sword and A Cold Wind. I’m working on the third book in the series, to be released winter 2013, as well as a separate urban fantasy / supernatural thriller series scheduled for publication in winter 2013/2014. I’d love to connect with you on Facebook,Google+, or my website at You can find my books at Amazon, Smashwords, Barnes&Noble, Kobo, and the iBookstore.

I will be at Intervention (Internet+Convention) 2013 August 23-25 in Rockville, MD! I’ll be signing books, and you can get a free sneak peek into my works in progress. If you can’t make but you want to check out the books, please contact me directly and I’ll see what I can do.


  1. Awesome, and we learn even more. C J is on my blog today too.

    Love the BBF!

  2. You give some great cover art advice. Some say that authors should just leave it to the designers but I don't think that should be the only scenario.