Let’s make our shelves a bit weird with weird covers on your sci-fi and fantasy books. I promise it will be fun and exciting. If you find yourself judging a book by its cover, you may be drawn to tame covers that you can understand at a glance. If you ever look at a book and think, “huh, that’s bizarre,” then put it down — here is my plea. You can expand your options by opening yourself up to books with unusual covers.
While books with weird covers may look odd and may be a hard sell, the contents can often surprise you. If you want to support smaller authors or want to explore the backlist, weird book covers are your way in. Used bookstores will have loads of them for good prices. Indie authors will presently surprise you with their ebooks too. Listen, if you enjoy the feeling of opening up a mystery box, unwrapping a blind date with a book, or enjoying stories that surprise you, books with weird covers might just be for you.
Weird Covers in History
To understand the origin of weird covers, we must flip back to SFF magazines. I am going to look at Weird Tales Magazine’s Margaret Brundage covers. The Tales of Margaret Brundage episode of the Imaginary Worlds podcast thoroughly explores her role in the industry. Her painted covers were wildly popular in the 1930s and have been influential in and out of genre covers.
The cover for the July 1935 edition of Weird Tales, “Avenger from Atlantis,” shows a typically weird and alluring cover. A volcano is shooting fire and human forms into the sky. On the side, a hooded figure is whispering to a sultry woman. Below, waves are beginning to cover a city. It is bizarre, has too many plot points, and uses an attractive woman in a dress to appeal to a readership.
I want it in my hands immediately.
In my reading life, I have gotten to a point where I see a weird cover and think, “yes, give it to me. I need to have this now. I will love it forever.” Covers like Brundage’s influence SFF covers today for a reason. The conventions make for weirdly appealing books, for the right customer.
Great books with absolutely weird covers like Rocannon’s World by Ursula K. Le Guin, published in 1966. Come on. A winged beast, torch, and man in a flowing cape is selling a book that involves space travel, aliens, and legendary battles. What more can you ask for?
Getting Jiggy With Weird Covers
Today, past designs influence many weird covers. Some trends that come to mind include, but are not limited to, painted or photoshopped covers with too many plot points, the cover I’ve dubbed “tough woman in a corset,” and the book covers not indicative of the content I will refer to as “strong choices were made.” As a caveat, I will present the trends I have found in my own reading life. I am aware that other books and other weird cover trends are out there in SFF. These are just the weird ones that catch my eye the most often. Also the ones I tend to snatch from shelves, purchase, and care for.
Too Many Plot Points
These SFF book covers objectively contain too many plot points, in the tradition of Weird Tales and other pulp magazines. Although they may look weird or unapproachable to readers outside the genres, they are referencing a long tradition of the “everything but the kitchen sink” approach to SFF covers.
The traditionally published mass market paperback novels often seen in used bookstores tend to take this approach. Urban fantasy novels 2003’s Ill Wind by Rachel Cain, 2016’s Heroine Complex by Sarah Kuhn, or 2018’s The Bartered Bride by Mercedes Lackey all use characters in busy scenes to sell stories. Sci-fi books like 2015’s An Ancient Peace by Tanya Huff also takes the episodic cover approach.
High fantasy is not out of the game either, with covers like 2001’s Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Cary and 2013’s Mist Torn Witches by Barb Hendee. While the books differ wildly in content, I found them all to have at least three plot points painted or photoshopped onto covers. They are adorable.
Outside of mass markets, too many plot points can also reign supreme. Chilling Effect by Valerie Valdes was traditionally published in 2019 as a paperback. Masters of Deception by JC Kang was an independently published 2018 as an ebook. Even YA has had books like 2019’s The Light at the Bottom of the World by London Shah. The approachability of the covers may vary. The combination of colors may change. What is important is that there are too many plot points on all of them.
Tough Woman in a Corset
Now, we should move on to one of my favorite kinds of weird covers: the “tough woman in a corset,” undoubtedly influenced by the sexually powerful women Brundage was so fond of. The “tough woman in a corset” category is more of a vibe than a strict rule. Sure, some women do have weapons and/or corsets, but some just have an aggressive yet sexual energy and are wearing long sleeves, tank tops, etc. One of my favorite books of all time, 2001’s Bitten by Kelley Armstrong, really sells the urban fantasy werewolf book with a female protagonist.
Other fun Mass Market covers include 2009’s Death’s Daughter by Amber Benson and Blood on the Bayou by Stacy Jay, as well as 2012’s Discount Armageddon by Seanan McGuire, and In a Fix by Linda Grimes. Not to mention every book in Kalayna Price’s series ending with 2019’s Grave Destiny. On the covers, women are standing in casual power poses with a background painted or photoshopped in to evoke the setting. If they are having a good time in a fight and there is magic, aliens, or general SFF mayhem, you may find a book with “a tough woman in a corset” cover.
We even had some young adult paperbacks influenced by the “tough woman in a corset” covers, like Strange Angels by Lili St. Crow, Personal Demons by Lisa Desrochers, and Onyx by Jennifer L. Armentrout. Although some of these covers also contain male love interests, the main female protagonist makes eye contact with the reader. These books are weird. They kind of all look the same. I will also sell my soul for a used book or ebook with a cover that resembles any of them.
Strong Choices Were Made
My last weird category is simply “strong choices were made.” In these books, someone had a vision and it was executed in an almost aggressively weird way. In YA, the floating heads in 2007’s Vampire Academy by Richelle Mead along with a series of other SFF hits.
Another YA favorite was the bizarre trend to put girls in dresses on the cover for no apparent reason like 2011’s dystopian novel Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi as well as the urban fantasy novels 2012’s Sweet Evil by Wendy Higgins and 2014’s All that Glows by Ryan Graudin. I have to admit, it is satisfying to read about destruction and mayhem in a book with an innocuous cover. However, the long list of YA books with covers that have little to nothing to do with the contents of the text is almost impressive.
Then you have independently published books where a strong choice was executed in a way some might call oddly specific. Take the very big blue heart on 2015’s The Lightning Struck Heart by TJ Klune, the odd number and placement of clouds on 2017’s Human Enough by E.S. Yu, or the floating head-to-werewolf size ratio on 2019’s Coy Wolf by Stella Williams. I would die for any of these books and defend them to the death. SFF books with weird covers can be a bit unapproachable to people unused to genre conventions. They can also be wonderful if you give them a chance.
Weird Cover Wrap-Up
Readers can enjoy books with many weird covers from mass market paperbacks to old SFF books at used bookstores and independently published ebooks. Sure, aesthetically pleasing SFF covers are easy to sell and recommend but it is particularly fun to find a book with a weird, amazing cover.
SFF is unusual and some covers lean in (perhaps too hard). It goes back to the “don’t judge a book by its cover” argument. Sometimes book covers are weird and then you read them and they change your life. They may have a cover too many plot points, one with a tough woman in a corset, or a cover where strong choices were made. More likely, there is another weird cover convention out there waiting for you. So why not pick up a SFF book with a weird cover? What do you have to lose?