I’m jumping from SF/F to cozies, just to give you the range of covers, because I can’t imagine a more different style than those two.
Before we go any further, let me explain cozies, because I found out when I asked for recommendations some time ago that in these days when we don’t have to bother submitting to gatekeepers, people have either never heard of (only they have to, because there’s searches for it on amazon) or completely forgotten what cozies are.
Cozies are also called “Malice Domestic” and someone proposed the definition “mysteries like Agatha Christie wrote.” It’s not precisely wrong, as a definition, but it’s outdated. So permit me a short digression on how cozies began and what they’ve become. (Well, shortish. I’m working on my first cup of coffee which means I have issues keeping things short.)
Back in the dark ages, this was the definition for Malice Domestic, aka cozies, for the St. Martin contest, which WEIRDLY is still going on. Why weirdly? Well… note no winner for 2017. Cozies make money hand over fist in indie. They make almost as much money as romance, with less competition. Almost all the millionaires I know that you never heard of in indie (because distributed readership) write cozies and write them very fast (yes, I hear you. This is year from hell for travel, but I HEAR you and there will be more.) I presume only the clueless still submit to a trad CONTEST. But anyway, here is the definition:
Murder or another serious crime or crimes is at the heart of the story. Whatever violence is necessarily involved should be neither excessive nor gratuitously detailed, nor is there to be explicit sex. The suspects and the victims should know each other. There are a limited number of suspects, each of whom has a credible motive and reasonable opportunity to have committed the crime. The person who solves the crime is the central character. The “detective” is an amateur, or, if a professional (private investigator, police officer) is not hardboiled and is as fully developed as the other characters. The detective may find him or herself in serious peril, but he or she does not get beaten up to any serious extent. All of the cast represent themselves as individuals, rather than large impersonal institutions like a national government, the mafia, the CIA, etc.
How it’s evolved from Agatha Christie’s time: for a while Christie’s phenomenal success resulted in a lot of spinster (with or without cat) books. I read a lot of these, as well as all other kinds of mysteries as my “popcorn” books. I.e. the books you read six of a day while doing everything else. In fact, I bought them used, because they were going to end splattered from being read while cooking or cleaning.
One of my favorite series in the early nineties was Dorothy Cannel’s The Thin Woman. I can’t find a link to it, but boy the covers have changed. There are links to the rest of the series above. Imagine Agatha Christie went in for humor. There were also a ton of non-humorous ones. Older son loved The Cat Who between the ages of 6 and 10, and we bought them for him by the bucket full.
The conceit was and is a mystery you read to hang out with the characters. I mean, there is a puzzle to propel the story forward, but as I’ve found reading new writers who are indie, you even forgive a weak plot and meandering connections, providing the characters/setting are interesting enough and you wish them well. Again, most of these people are people you’d want to hang out with in real life, go out to tea with, and possibly invite to your baby shower.
This changed a little (but not horribly) once the mainstream mystery presses decided that they HAD to kill the cozy, because it wasn’t “realistic.” Rolls eyes. Apparently they’re unclear on the concept of fiction.
I could say all sorts of things about their pronouncements on how only the police solve murders, or professionals are needed for these things, or… The paranoid libertarian in me wants to think the point was to make us think that you needed a license to do anything, but the saner person knows that’s not true.
What they disliked about the cozies, mostly, is that cozies tend — by nature — to be popcorn books. You fall into a series and wallow in it and read everything in it, and want more, but none of it is going to change your view of the world, or give you some profound insight into the human condition. (Except that humans like to be entertained.)
This was the early to mid nineties when genre became invaded by graduates of the best schools, many of them with degrees in oppression studies or of course English and good manners. They wanted to be RELEVANT and publish relevant books. I mean, who wants to tell mom and dad they paid over 100k for you to get a degree in prestigious university and now you’re under secretary to the second editor from the right, publishing “those cute books about the spinster and the cat who solve murders?” No, they wanted to make a difference, be relevant and publish IMPORTANT books. The clue was the ascendancy not of police procedurals (which I read, but which like Hard SF have a limited audience, because most people aren’t interested in the “real” details.) but of what I call “atmosphere and meaning” books. What was pushed over the next decade were these deeply “meaningful” books which were sort of mysteries, insofar as a crime happened, but other than that had none of the expected genre books. I don’t remember any of the names because I read two, then decided to weed them out when shopping. But they were more mainstream “literary” than anything else, and what you were left with was this feeling the world was all bad and society is the real criminal, and other sophmoric conclusions. The cover I’m recalling, which I don’t know if it ever existed is an abandoned bicycle in front of a beach with a stormy sea, all looking very serious. Which, btw, is not and has never been the purpose of cozies. The Dorothy Cannel of that period was “Down the Garden Path”. If you look at the cover on that link, you’ll see what they were trying to do. How to Murder the Man of Your Dreams was trying to look like Romance. I got nothing.
I don’t know if their bottom line plunged — I also never heard of that forcing a course correction on publishing houses, to be fair — or if someone just pointed out they were bleeding readers. What I know is that within five years of the great Purging of the Cozies (I mean guidelines said no amateur detectives for most houses) we got craft mysteries.
The first craft mysteries I came across were almost borderline subnormal. I remember one (knitting?) where I figured out the murderer on page three. It was so clear they were bought by editors who bought them in contempt that they were painful. So I stuck to reading old ones, until I was told to do a craft mystery to finish out the contract for the historical that the house had killed.
This resulted in panic, because craft mysteries are centered on crafts and shows and stuff. While I crochet and sew, I don’t do them as SOCIAL activities. First because introvert. Second becaus who the heck has time for that kind of thing when you’re a writer?
What ended up happening was the furniture refinishing mysteries/aka Dyce Dare series. (More about that later.) Which I had a heck of a time getting back, because despite the statements being unreliable (they’re all unreliable, particularly for electronic. It’s not even malice, since the entire publishing business is drawers at accounting. I figure that it only always favors them because they have some sense of self preservation. Or sufficiently advanced stupidity is indistinguishable from malice. Whatever.) they seemed to sell and sell and sell, and I had a heck of a time getting the rights back. And yes, it WILL be continued and relatively soon.
But it wasn’t till KULL that I started chain reading cozies again. There is a high ratio of duds to decent, but duds are easy to identify, and cozies run to dozens of books per series, so once I find one I’m set for a month or so.
Cozies now are still more or less things that Agatha Christie would recognize, except they’re series not just with the same detective but same setting and group of people, straining all credulity that this many murders could happen in a tiny town. (Never mind, it’s fiction!)
Murder has got softer and more air-brushed though and even if your character finds a week-old corpse, they have no reaction to, oh, color and smell (no idea why. I refuse to air brush to that extent.) Focus is MORE THAN EVER on relationships and people and how the murder affects them. Craft mysteries, or culinary mysteries will also have a chunk on that.
There is now also a stronger component of romance.
In fact, if you think of Agatha Christie as appealing to both men and women (perhaps more men, as mystery was considered a male interest, because of the puzzle) think of it as cozies going intensely feminine. In fact, you probably could sell mysteries that follow the trend of the latest romance bestsellers. Someone said you could sell millions of a book called the Cowboy’s Bride’s Baby. Add The Murdered Cowboy’s Bride’s Baby and it probably would also.
If I sound contemptuous, I’m not. Remember I fatten the bank accounts of a lot of cozy writers with my voracious reading of these. Also I don’t think being feminine is a bad thing. I also don’t think it’s a good thing. It is merely a thing. If I’m in the mood for a relatively relaxing read filled with pleasant people, I read cozies. If I want crunchy, gritty mystery with lots of rules and procedures, I read police procedurals. I see no reason to limit myself.
If you look at the covers, it often looks like someone went nuts with clip art. I know that’s how I felt when I got my covers. But it seems to be (more or less) the style.
So, first rule of cozy covers: drawn, not photo-realistic. Second rule, if the book is funny, the cover should be cartoonish. (Though trad pub fails to get this — and so much more — cover also should be wink and nod humorous if you can manage it. Of course, most indies can’t, so they just fell into the “clipart covers” trend.
These are the original covers of my Dyce books:
They’re a little better than collections of gifs, that was apparently just my recolection of it 😛 and I’ve seen a lot of cozies like that.
Here are the covers of books I’ve been reading (I don’t remember most of them, because it’s KULL so they don’t keep a record. Sigh.)
I haven’t read this one yet, but I’ve read most of the series. The cover is rather spectacular of its kind, though:
And here is my new release of the refinishing mysteries, with covers by the very talented Jack Wylder:
However, look not upon this and despair. There’s still ways to do it with minimal investment and free or cheap no-royalty art. These look simpler, though they might have had custom art for all I know (I haven’t read these, but doubtless I’ll get to them eventually):
And in case you hard core sf/f people wonder what this has to do with you… well, the line between cozy and Urban Fantasy just keeps thinning out. Now most of them have at least SOME element of supernatural, even if it’s just:
Or full on:
Frankly, you could do worse than checking out the genre, at least as an indie writer.
Meanwhile, as you see, the first rule of covers is “know your genre and subgenre.”
Next week we’ll assemble a cover or two from found objects, and I’ll do one sort of custom too.
Till then, go cuddle your kitten or your witch or SOMETHING.