The nerds over at Orbit Books have examined every single fantasy book cover from the past year they could get their hands on, and tallied up the most popular visual elements. Shockingly, unicorns are extremely unpopular in fantasy cover art.
And not surprisingly, swords are pretty much required if you want to let people know that they're about to read a novel set in a fantasy world. Or the present day with fantasy elements. I like that "glowy magic" is a close second to swords - anyone who has ever browsed a fantasy book aisle at the bookstore knows what that is. A blop of photoshopped shininess, often streaming from a sword or from the hands of a nubile creature in flowing robes. Or perhaps enveloping a dragon?
What remains to be done is an economic analysis of these cover elements, charting which ones tend to sell better.
Tim Holman, publisher of Orbit Books, writes:
I wonder if [this chart] will prove that glowy magic, while prevalent, might not guarantee glowy sales? Or if unicorn-lovers represent a vast untapped market? It wouldn't surprise me. More research is clearly needed, but this is an important starting point and I'd be prepared to devote literally minutes to the task if that's what it takes.