Tue
Jun 30 2009 2:58pm

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.

36 comments
Ken Neth
1. neth
While I think that cover art can be a powerful influence, I think it's also a declining influence. In a world where people are increasingly buying books on-line, I think the influence of cover art is waning. I find the driver for the on-line arena is first a recommendation from friend/associate/trusted reviewer, then book title, followed by synopsis that will lead to a purchase. I've usually decided if I want to purchase the book or not before I'm aware what the cover in looks like. After the decision has been made, the cover art no longer matters.
Christopher Key
2. Artanian
I didn't buy the Charles Stross book Saturn's Children in dead tree hardback because of the cover. It was downright awful, so combining that with the fact that I had a pretty big backlog of reading material I decided to wait and see if the paperback got a different one. Then after getting the kindle, I didn't buy it because of the insane ebook pricing, of about a dollar less than the hardback price on amazon.

It looks like it's out in paperback today, at least per amazon, with the same awful cover. And the kindle edition is still $15, so almost twice the paperback cost, so sorry Charles, I won't be buying it still.
Irene Gallo
3. Irene
@2: Rip the cover off! Seriously. It hurts the first time, after that it's kinda fun. I will occasionally pick up old paperbacks and rip the covers off to keep the artwork.
Jason Henninger
4. jasonhenninger
@3

Wow, Irene! You're pretty punk rock. That's very surprising advice, considering what you do for a living. I'd have thought you'd find an act like that offensive.
Diatryma
5. Diatryma
I am trying to get a copy of The Demon's Lexicon UK edition because I bought the US one and am growing to dislike the cover more each day. It's not Baen bad, but it's not right either.

There's a book by Katherine Kerr (I think) that has a Mercedes Lackey cover. It confuses me every time I see it. If you've gone to the trouble of branding an author, stay branded!
Christine Evelyn Squires
6. ces
For me, as I've stated many times before, the cover art is what attracts me to a book, not the author's name, especially if it's an author I don't know. There are, of course, a couple of exceptions - McCaffery's dragon series & Lackey's valdemar series - the covers for those are atrocious, but I'm hooked on the series. I, too, like Brian James, am particular. I purposely ordered Gaiman's "The Graveyard Book", Mieville's "Perdido Street Station" & "The Scar" & "King Rat", & M. John Harrison's "Light" from Amazon's United Kingdom online store because I hated the U.S. covers & wanted the British covers. And, on occasion when I've bought a hardback even though I hated the cover, I've been known to accidentally lose or throw away the cover. I've also been known to keep the cover & give away the hardback.

THE COVER ART IS VERY IMPORTANT, and for me there is definitely a correlation between the quality of the cover art & the quality of the book.
larry shirk
7. lorenzo
Irene:once upon a time (40 years ago +) there was this book store with hundreds of books with no covers, at a price a student could afford (way cheap)... Now that I know what was happening there I wouldn't buy from them again, but I still have some of those books with no covers, so I'm not exactly shocked.
ces: These days though, I think that the cover art IS very important - I'm PAYING for it, I'll see it many times, and if it sucks (establishes a negative pressure differential), I might well just not buy it.
Diatryma
8. vpitiger
@2:
Pick up the Saturn's Children Science Fiction Book Club edition. Much better cover, though not exceptional, but something I wasn't embarassed to be seen reading. The story is too good to miss out on completely.
Irene Gallo
9. Irene
@4
Jason,

Not at all. Covers are advertising first and foremost. When they are great, then they can stand as artwork on their own. But some bad covers do their job well. And sometimes, despite hard work, it just doesn't come together the way we hoped.

As for books as fetish objects, I love to look at _other_ peoples beutiful books. Maybe it's because I'm such a damn slow reader but I love to _live_ with the books I'm reading. Scrunch them into pockets, drop them in the tub, I once bore a two inch hole through The Sportswriter while riding my bike into Paris, (Not the mention putting a nail through The Watchmen just to rag on Pablo .)

The thing is, just because I don't shelter books, doesn't mean that I don't want them to lovely in every aspect. A great cover on a great book is all the more comfort when getting caught outside in the rain.
Jason Henninger
10. jasonhenninger
"some bad covers do their job well."

That alone would make an interesting topic for a post!
Irene Gallo
11. Irene
yeah, but then I'd have to name names. ;-)
randy gallegos
12. gallegosart
Back in high school, I'd cut school sometimes and hang out at used book shops (a better education, in some respects). I read a lot of 60s and 70s sci-fi/fantasy in those days, so a lot of that cover art was far before my time and had since been repackaged, if reprinted at all. A lot was horrid, but there were interesting things here and there.

Long story short, Irene reminded me that with such a wealth of cover art that was no longer on the shelves, I started buying cheap used books and ripping their covers off without even reading them, often tracing the careers of some illustrators I admired and keeping them in envelopes. They're probably in storage now.

I guess, given the original post, I feel a little guilty about not reading those books, but I did read a lot of stuff that was out of print, that I never would have, on the strength of some cover art among those sweet-smelling piles. However, with used book stores disappearing left and right (at least where I lived), I'm sorta glad I did it--I'm guessing a lot of those piles and piles of old paperbacks ended up in a landfill/recycling bin anyway. :,-(
Brendon Roberts
13. saunterasmas
I am very design conscious so I definitely judge.


I have a rule not to buy anything with a dragon on the cover. This may have been broken for George RR Martin and "The Hobbit", but that is all.

The unicorn on the cover rule is more rigid.

I will buy a book just for it's cover and for consistency also. I have purchased books in the Gollancz Future Classics series and Space Opera series because they have some of the best cover design that I have seen. I have drawn the line at purchasing titles in this series that I have already got in the Sci Fi Masterworks series. Yes, some of these authors are not may favourite, but I have purchased them anyway.

I do like Penguin Essentials also. No cover artwork. Title and author. All look the same.
Diatryma
14. Clovis
Is it too much to hope that eventually e-editions will have lovely cover art and maybe even a few concept illustrations for the price? I'd be more inclined to warm up to ebooks, if I knew they would have all of the visual character of a physical edition. Then I could buy my very special books in paper, but not feel like part of my paperback culture has been stripped away in the interest of streamlining and modern convenience. Then I could have an electronic art gallery to go with my electronic library, with a digital display frame that could be set to shuffle or whatever.

Seriously. Make this happen for me.
Christopher Key
15. Artanian
@14, most ebooks these days do have the cover art - of course you see it in B&W on the kindle, but I'd bet it's in color on the iphone kindle-format reader.
Dale Metzger
16. Metzg31
I agree completely that a cover is extremely influential in making me grab a book off the shelf and at least consider buying it.

I've found that in its literal translation the ''don't judge a book by a cover'' chestnut is advice that I've done well to ignore. I'm sure that there are several books I've missed out on, but the majority of my reading over the last four years all stemmed from the cover of Knife of Dreams by Robert Jordan.

Whenever I walked into the bookstore, I was perpetually drawn to the cover art for KoD. Up to that point, the furthest I had gotten into sci-fi/fantasy was Harry Potter and the first two books of The Inheritance Cycle (a blatant violation of saunter's no dragon rule). When I realized that KoD was book 11 in the series, I bought The Eye of the World. I'm currently on my third read through of the series.

Another book I picked up just because of the cover was Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. Loved that one. Recommended and loaned it to a co-worker, then she moved to another state and I never saw it again.

In comparison, I thought about getting into Terry Pratchett's Discworld series, but the paperback covers just turned me off for some reason. Combine that with my reluctance to get into a nearly 40 book series, led to me passing on the series as a whole. I'm sure there are plenty of other excellent books that I've missed because I haven't been drawn to their covers at the store.

Finally, a couple that prove the truth of the aforementioned words of wisdom. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. The simplicity of the cover drew me in. When I realized it was a classic, I bought it, and quickly lost interest about two chapters in. The other was Jonathon Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. Another simple cover design, another award-winner, another book that simply could not hold my interest.

Final finally, those of you that can't bring yourselves to rip the cover off a book, I recommend giving them the College textbook treatment. Create a cover sleeve from heavy paper (grocery sacks work great) and put your own artwork on it. This maintains the integriy of the book, gives you an artistic outlet, and spares you the agony of looking at a disastrous cover every time you grab an old favorite off the shelf.
Diatryma
17. Tina Sweep
Is there a commonality between the books that people refuse to purchase?

From my own view, I usually am not be able to justify the purchase of books that use stock photography for the covers. (Stock photography seems to diminish the importance given to the book when next week a different book can be published with the same photo cover.)

For the bestsellers, the names sell the books (Patterson, King, Koontz, Evanovich, Grisham, etc), but viewing their most recent covers, I would choose to never purchase their books, past or present. (The covers make my eyes bleed.)
Samantha Brandt
18. Talia
#5: you're right. The artist is Jody Lee, and she did the artwork for the most recent three books of Kerr's Deverry series, I believe. Doesn't really bother me personally, but I noticed it at once.

I also dont find her work atrocious.. her character depictions reasonably well reflect how they're drawn out in the books, I think.

As for others: Sarah Monette's series that starts with 'Melisune' have cover art reminiscient of trashy romance novels. Not to say its bad art; its not, its well done. They simply dont reflect the books well at all. Had I merely seen them in the store I would have, to my loss, passed them right by in scorn. Fortunately I read a review first that engaged me.

Once I know enough about a book to be interested, the cover ceases to matter to me. Allowing yourself to be held back for that reason alone is unfortunate.
Estara Swanberg
19. Estara
Diatryma: I think Jody Lee would be rather upset if they limited her covers to only one author.

Actually in the 80s I discovered Michelle West, Jo Clayton AND Mercedes Lackey (later on Fiona Patton) on the strength of her covers, which I love, so the more Jody Lee the better ^^

Quick Reference Painting section of her website

Oh, and Tanya Huff as well. DAW had her as a favoured cover artist for quite a while. In her way I think her work as strong as Michael Whelan and do not understand why she doesn't regularly get nominated for sf&f artist honors.
Estara Swanberg
20. Estara
@Clovis: You might want to use calibre for your ebooks. As long as you buy ebook editions of books that also come out in print (or buy books from Samhain, for example) you also have the ability to add the cover in colour to your browsing (and often it is implemented as the first page of the ebook even if you don't use calibre).

On the Sony Reader the pretty covers are black&white though.
Diatryma
21. Clovis
Thanks, guys. Estara, I'll look into calibre--maybe there's a way to move the cover art file onto another, so I can put together a digital album myself for a screen saver gallery or something. Or, rather, maybe someone with a technical green thumb can do it for me.
randy gallegos
22. gallegosart
With the diminishing importance of the illustrated cover over the coming decades due to ebooks, I'm hopeful that ebooks will resort to using more "interior" illustrations again as a way to add value to editions. Especially for stories that are public domain, why buy one company's ebook over another, besides price? But I can see this becoming a growing trend across fiction publishing. Say ebook A has 2 nice (eventually) color and 6 b/w illustrations. Ebook B by another author is just text. What extra dollar amount would make Book A still a more attractive buy than B? Or, how many more folks would buy A over B, if they were interested in both at the same price?
Diatryma
23. Clovis
gallegosart@22: Yes, that's what I was trying to get at in #14 with the mention of concept art. I'd love to see some...well, basically plates I guess...like you used to find in the center of some books. Or the rough sketches that you sometimes get as an extra in DVD anime collections. Then, instead of lamenting the coldness, the lack of tactile connection to the book, you'd have people excited for the promise of extras with their e-editions.

I'm perfectly serious about having a nice-sized digital display for the really amazing art, and something like that could only help with sales.
Josh Storey
24. Soless
Movie tie-in trade of The Prestige. All I'm going to say:
randy gallegos
25. gallegosart
@23. Clovis: Given that my own fiction reading has dropped off significantly in recent years (for shame!), and that I do art, I'd welcome such a change, as a reader. I wish more books these days had interior illos (and not just to increase the pool of available work)--they were a prime motivator for me to read the Dark Tower series, for instance.

With a smaller apt. than ever, I don't much like warehousing books like I used to, but I'm not at all interested in digital reading, either, which keeps a certain amount of reading down. Toss in a handful of great illos and I might find myself looking for a Kindle or similar. Actually, comics are starting to look like a good alternative again, especially after loving reading Watchmen last year.
Estara Swanberg
26. Estara
25.gallegosart: Well as long as the art is black and white you can already see it quite well on a Sony eRedader. The ability to read my manga on it (and I also read Three Shadows on it) clinched the deal. Jan at Dear Author.com had a screenshot from one of her manga - and with calibre you can easily convert them to .lrf files. The limit is the screen size, of course and the colour

Portrait of a Noob eReader
Diatryma
27. Susan James
I'm a very visual person. The cover definitely affects me. And if its really cheesy, I won't buy the book mainly because I'd be embarressed to be seen with it. I suppose that says more about me than the books but its the way it is.

That being said I generally prefer a sleek cover with a symbol ex. Jonathon Strange and Mr. Norrel- great cover. Or Martin's Fire and Ice paperback series.

The Stolen Child- that was good too.
Diatryma
28. L Palapala
If I hadn't been fascinated with the cover of the mmpb edition (U.S.) of Altered Carbon by Richard K Morgan, I would never have picked up the book. The colors immediately drew my attention. It helped that it was on a kiosk and I could see the whole cover. Richard K Morgan has since become my favorite author ever, and I have read all of his books multiple times. Thank goodness for that particular cover - otherwise I would never have discovered this great author.
Diatryma
29. Carolyn H.
When I don't already know the author, cover art is a big reason why I do or don't buy a book. If I think the cover art is completely cheesy, I figure the book can't be any better. And if the cover art is lovely, I have high hopes for the book.

That said, I usually at least open up a book that looks even vaguely interesting and read a few paragraphs or page from somewhere in the middle of the book. If the writing isn't clunky and the back blurb is intrigueing, I may well buy it.
Diatryma
30. BobHarris
When looking for a book to read, if I do not know the author, I often use the cover to decide if I want look inside.

This applies even to eBooks (I'm a huge fan of eBooks). If anything, I think on-line eBook web sites should display a larger image of the cover and not just the tiny thumbnail image.
Diatryma
31. JimSwanson
My soon to be ex-wife would not read books with crappy cover art. I finally talked her into reading one if the books I really liked that had a crappy cover. She liked it. Go fig.

Also, has anyone noticed the change in the cover art for the Dresden Files series? They used to have interesting covers, now they all have the pictures of Harry in weird places. I actually preferred the old cover art.

Jim
Diatryma
32. ZhaneEndrick
I absolutely believe the cover can make or break a book. I only picked up Brandon Sanderson's 'Elantris' because I thought the cover was great. He's one of my favorite authors now. Since then, I've bought all his books the day they release. On the flip-side, it was only at a friend's insistence that I finally started reading the Wheel of Time series. For years, I refused to pick up that series because of the absolutely atrocious cover art. I figured if the publisher didn't care enough to give a book a pleasing cover, then it must not be worth reading. Even now, I do not display my Wheel of Time books as I do a lot of my others.
Diatryma
33. psikeyhackr
I am sure books have attracted my attention because of their cover and I may have ended up buying tthem because of the description of the story interested me sufficiently.

But I don't seem to be as good at selecting books as I once was. Maybe SF has changed and I am not keeping up or maybe it is heading in a direction I don't want to go. Too many sci-fi readers act like understanding science is not important.

But I would think that e-books would be the logical direction for people really interested in what I regard a sci-fi to go.

I am using my Archos PMA400 to go through the Gutenberg Project. There is lots of stuff I missed in the good olde days.

psik
Estara Swanberg
34. Estara
@ 30. BobHarris: I haven't bought from many different ebook shops but if you buy from BooksonBoard.com and go to the detail page of a book, you can click on the cover and get a fairly big image, if not as big as an Amazon.com browse-inside look at the cover.
Diatryma
35. Gerd D.
As a die hard dead-tree format reader (there's a pun in that somewhere, I just can feel it) I'm naturally swayed in favor or against a book by it's cover illustration.

If the cover suggest to me that the book is a drama about a mother that tries to raise three children while dealing with a horde of ninjas I probably won't ever go and read the back side description, left alone open the book to read the inside blurb or a random sampling of the first chapters.
Nah, actually I would probably.

There are some Sci-Fi authors I picked up later in my life than I naturally would have because the publisher insisted on using indecipherable pieces of modern art looking illustrations for the cover, the simple truth is a that I do tend to assume that a lazy cover holds a lazy novel until somebody I trust tells me different, and on the other hand I believe that a intricate cover, or one that makes me believe that the art team needed more than half a hour for it's conception or at least actually though something when doing the selection, holds a novel that was equally carefully selected.

Pure eBooks, apart from being something that I barely can get used to, almost always fall in the 'dreadful' category for cover art (if there is any to speak of) which makes me believe it to still be an inferior form of literary.
I'm afraid I'm as prejudiced a consumer as they come. *shrug*
Diatryma
36. vcmw
I still remember dreamily tracing the embossing on Anne McCaffrey paperback novels as a kid (especially the Rowan) and thinking "wow, why can't I have flowing white hair and psychic pets", so sometimes the perceived awfulness of a cover is just that it's awful at attracting you. There's someone else out there (a pre-teen me) who thinks that that cover is the best thing ever, and could only be improved by a fancier font for the shiny popped out letters.

I remember being 13 or 14 and being really happy that Tanya Huff's books were being packaged with Jody Lee covers because I figured it was a deliberate attempt to get her some of Mercedes Lackey's market.

The one time I can remember resisting a book because of its cover art and then later coming back to it was Barbara Hambly's The Silent Tower, which I believe had a Darrell K. Sweet cover in mmpb. I'd always believed that by and large Darrell K Sweet art was used to signify a type of epic fantasy that rarely clicked for me, so I passed it by. The 2nd book in the series had a Michael Whelan cover and I picked it up to look at and so bought both.

I think judging a book by its cover is very productive as long as you remember that what you're judging isn't the book but the marketing. IE - this book is being marketed to someone, on the basis of other books with similar covers. Based on that, does it fall into a marketing category that appeals to me?

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