Judging a book by its cover

Is there anybody out that truly believes they don’t judge books by their covers? In our visually dominated culture, it’s sort of impossible not to make some flash judgments. The use of images is the primary way to get a consumer’s attention and has been for a long time. We scan, we search, we browse, we flip through, we glance over and only pause when something catches our eye. Non-visual art forms such as literature and music are not immune to it. Everyone in the industry knows the cover can make or break a book.

As an author, this sometimes can be more than a little frustrating. Partially because you want your work to be discovered for its written worth and not some random image, but more so, it’s frustrating because you’re aware of the importance and weight that image holds. Though I don’t buy books because of their covers, it’s often the cover that causes me to pick up an unknown book and read the summary. And though, depending on the publisher, an author usually has some input on the cover image, it’s not necessarily a comfort because the input you’re giving is not on your field of expertise.

In my career, I’ve experienced both ends of the spectrum. I have had covers that I thought were brilliant and ones that I hated with every fiber of my being. There’s nothing worse than the feeling of having a book go out with a cover you don’t think does the story justice or misses the mark. If such a cover is caught in the early stages, the author usually has the leverage to change it. However, once the all-holy Marketing Departments put their stamp of approval on something, you can forget about changing anything. If they think they have something they can sell…they run with it, regardless if the image fails to properly represent the title.

On the flip side, there’s nothing quite seeing the cover for the first time and falling in love with it. I had that feeling with Zombie Blondes. We were lucky enough to get the extremely talented fine artist Sas Christian to allow us to use one of her paintings. It was a cover that I would pick up in a store and look at and most importantly, it makes sense. It captures the feeling of the book. And, it’s eye-catching. I think that should be every publisher’s goal. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.

An author’s relationship to a book after it’s published is a strange one. By the time it hits store shelves, your involvement in it is long gone. It’s out in the world on its own. A common metaphor for the experience is that of a parent sending their child out into the world. Taking that metaphor, the cover would be the child’s clothing. You want your child to look presentable and you want them express themselves. Too often books, like kids afraid of not fitting in, are simply dressed to look like everyone else even if that’s not who they are on the inside.

A good example to illustrate my point of view on the subject is the novel Fay by Larry Brown. It follows the character Fay from his previous novel Joe. I loved Joe and couldn’t wait to read Fay. But alas, when it came out in hardcover, I was a poor student and decided to wait for the paperback. When the paperback came out, I’ll admit that I refused to buy it because of the cover. The hardcover image is evocative while the paperback is cheese and the girl on the cover seemed so far from the Fay I remembered. I eventually bought the hardcover and my suspicions were right. The paperback image doesn’t feel like the book at all. Granted, this is an extreme case. It’s rare that a cover can prevent anyone from buying a book unless they’re snobbish about their collections such as I. But it can. That’s how powerful the sole image connected to a written project can be.

Because of my experiences, I softened my stance. Now when I go to a bookstore, I try to pick up and browse through a few books every time whose covers I despise. In the past year, I read Bloodrock by Richard Ferrie. Had I never gone through the process of getting a cover slapped on a book of my own that I didn’t like, I probably wouldn’t have read this title despite the positive things I’d heard. My flash judgment would have written it off as trash fiction. In reality, it was a publisher trying to cash in by getting their book on a trash fiction spin rack somewhere.

I think it’s important that readers, at least occasionally, pause to thinking about how the selling of covers affects them personally. Because it affects all of us and anyone who tells me it doesn’t, I will tend to disbelieve them. Of course, all of that could go away if people actually do start reading downloaded files…but the thought of that makes me shudder and grow cold, so very cold inside.


Brian James is the author of several notable books including Pure Sunshine and Dirty Liar. He lives in a small town in upstate New York that may or may not be overrun with zombies. His new book, Zombie Blondes, is now available from Square Fish.

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