It’s easy to laugh at book covers from decades back but it’s rooted in marketing, targeting demographics, technology available, all corporate synergy and other cross industry horseshit terms circa 1980s middle management finance seminars. But…
There is a logic to this stuff. Many first time authors think they’re going to get a kick ass cover, some do, like Erin Morgenstern’s gorgeous Night Circus cover. Most are going to get minimal input, the publisher’s marketing team will contract a freelancer, and you end up with a digital Fabio’s schlong pressed against some brooding heroine’s head.
And you go: This isn’t going to sell.
They go: Sshh, sweet summer child, we’ve been doing this for thirty years. We know our stuff.
Generally speaking, publishers know better than most authors. Unless you’re in marketing yourself or have an art background, you probably should trust the people who do this stuff for a living. But…
Have you ever gone into a bookstore, seen a book cover, and gone “Fuck me, this makes my eyes bleed?” I certainly have. I laugh at the bad composition, the gaudy colors, the cringy poses of the characters, the what the fuck were they thinking making this the cover? But then I’ll skim the blurb and start reading. I might go “Huh, this is actually really good.” It’s always a gamble with book covers. Fantasy and science-fiction covers often use traditional motifs: wizards, dragons, people posing with weapons, look menacing (but really look constipated), thong wearing katana wielding biker babe PIs, every genre has its visual cues and motifs. Some books have awesome covers (Amberlough is fucking amazing and is a great main character composition piece) and others have techno viking riding polar bears (which is awesome but I digress). There is an art to book cover creation. Sometimes you can have a gorgeous cover for a turd of a novel, while a great story can have big dude in plate armor #45 with blue and orange colors from marketing studies.
Unfortunately, there is no perfect formula for drawing a viewers eye. I like Impressionism, some people like Dadaism. There is a logic behind the many questionable covers you see. Next time, try to remember a marketing team really tried to match an author’s story to maximize sales/get you to pick it up.
Or hire someone on DeviantArt for 50 bucks and maybe you’ll impress your potential publisher with their work. Who knows.