Judging Books by their Covers

Some of my favorites.

I grew up in the 1970s.

When we came home from the first day of school, we did not hand our parents contracts to sign, one for each class, that explained each teacher’s expectations of each student and the requisite punishments to be meted out if the rules, clearly defined in those binding documents, were not followed.

No. Everybody knew, kids and parents, that if we misbehaved or didn’t do our assigned work, we would get in trouble. Nobody had to clarify what was meant by doing our work or behaving or punishment; it was obvious and didn’t need to be drafted to be understood.

Instead, we spent our time, that first evening of the school year, making covers to protect our textbooks. We didn’t buy these covers; we gathered our crayons, markers, a pair of scissors and a couple of brown paper grocery bags and went to work. First we cut a bag to size, and then trimmed and folded it so it would cover the book and stay put when you opened and closed the book. We weren’t allowed to use glue or tape or any adhesive to secure the cover (because it might damage the book), so we learned how to fold the paper just so and insert the hard covers into the flaps we painstakingly made.

Once the cover was made to fit, we removed it from the book and personalized it with drawings and lettering in a multitude of colors and styles. After much time and attention, we completed our masterpiece, covered our book with it and went on to do the next one. Every person I mentioned this to recently remembers this task fondly. You might not be able to control the material inside the book, but gosh dang it, you could control the way it looked every time you picked it up.

This got me thinking about how writers introduce their books to prospective readers and whether the cover design plays a significant role in attracting readers. Clearly, I am thinking about this because I will have a published novel sometime in the near future and I don’t want somebody to dismiss it simply because the cover turned them off.

Lately, several writers I know have displayed online the cover design for their soon-to-be-published novels, asking their friends for commentary. For the most part, I’ve remained silent because most of these books are genre fiction (fantasy, mystery, romance, etc.) and as a general rule, I am not attracted to reading these types of books. I’ve read a few novels from most categories but the bulk of my fiction reading is of books that would be categorized as upmarket fiction. These books are a melding of literary and mainstream fiction, usually character driven stories, which are accessible to most readers but often leave the reader reflective about the themes and the plot and the characters. Oprah books. Book club books. My book.

So I decided to take a look at some of the books I love and consider the impact that their covers had (or have) on me both before and after I’ve read the books. I grabbed four favorites (old and new) from my bookshelf and examined them.

1. The Lover by Marguerite Duras. A book that I could (and have) read over many times. It recreates the non-traditional love affair between a teenaged girl and her wealthy Chinese lover, in pre-war Indochina. The cover is of the teenager’s face faded into a beige background. The lettering used for the title and author name is thin but bold, hot pink with a grey smudged shadow against the narrow letter lines.

2. The History of Love by Nicole Krauss. If you haven’t read this book, you have missed out. It is O.M.G. wonderful. No description could do this book justice. It is about a teenaged girl, a lonely mother, and an old man whose intersection reveals the power of love over time. The cover background is gradations of muddled sea blues, from light to dark, and the title and author name lettering is a simple, old-fashioned serif font, bold but with faded color inside each letter.

3. Little Bee by Chris Cleave. A memorable, horrifying story of the choices one makes in dangerous situations. The book is bright orange with a black profile silhouette whose eye is an off-white profile silhouette. The title is in fanciful cursive, in orange across the dark face. The author’s name is separate, in black, in caps, in a more formal serif print, in an off-white box at the bottom of the page.

4. A Yellow Raft In Blue Water by Michael Dorris. A heartbreaking saga of three generations of Indian (Native American) women bound by kinship and torn apart by secrets. This book was one of the original inspirations for the novel I’ve written even though this story and mine are very different. The cover is black with an impressionistic painting of a yellow raft on blue water set in the top half. The title lettering is traditional serif font, all caps, off-white on black at the top of the painting and the author lettering is same typeface but smaller with caps and lowercase letters.

Truthfully, none of the covers made me swoon. Not much stood out for me when I looked closely at them. But I picked up all of these books, read and reread them, and loved them. So does the cover art really matter?

I think it does. When I saw some of the covers of friends’ books on my computer screen, I immediately knew I wasn’t drawn to their books. I’m sure they are great stories, well written, etc, but something about the look didn’t interest me. While I never thought about it before, I see now that each genre has style cues that suggest that the book comes from that genre, that reminds you of other books in that genre.

Even though I didn’t love any of the covers of my favorite books, I knew at first glance, based on the style cues ā€”Ā  the serif type, the impressionistic images, the mix of bold and abstract elements ā€” that they were the types of book that I tend to like. And if a book cover has most of these elements and isn’t upmarket fiction, there is a good chance I am going to be disappointed when I read the book, even if I like it, to find out it is not what I expected.

I thought about making and posting here a mock-up book cover out of a brown paper bag and crayons for The Cry of Bella’s Violin, which is the name of my novel, but then I realized that while I have a general idea of the elements I want in the design, I am a writer not a designer. When the time comes, somebody else will need to take my ideas and draw from them to create my cover. I don’t want to mislead the reader simply because my drawing skills are only mediocre.

So tell me, do you judge a book by its cover? Are you usually right if you do?




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12 thoughts on “Judging Books by their Covers

  1. Okay, time to weigh in on this one. So often I want to comment, Sara, but I don’t want to take the time. (Sorry!)

    As a graphic designer, I do have an opinion. I hardly ever choose to read a book because of its cover; I choose a book because it has been recommended. But if it has a beautifully designed cover, all the better!! A well-designed cover can only help a book. It can also entice a reader. Of the four covers that you displayed, “Little Bee” is the one that catches my eye. So striking, and I love the typography.

    So many books have covers that are well designed, but they don’t do anything to attract a reader or make the reader want to pick up the book. A cover could be so poorly designed that it would make the reader actually less interested in picking up the book. Really bad cover design coming out of a publishing house is pretty rare. For all the money they invest in a book, the cover design is chump change.

    Probably the best way I can explain it is that a writer is in the business (or is passionate about) crafting his or her words in such a way that the piece is beautifully written. I would imagine that it drives you nuts when things are poorly written. A graphic designer is in the business of making things look good. Graphic design is different from advertising in the sense that advertisers truly have to sell things. Designers are more concerned with creating an image (in hopes of thereby selling something!) Average design doesn’t do anything for me either way, but poor design makes me crazy. Great design gives me the chills! I’ll bet great writing gives you the chills.

    Now, children’s books are another matter. When looking for books to read to my kids, unless I knew the author, the thing that drew me to a book was the cover (which was primarily the work of the illustrator). Of course, I was known to put back books in which I didn’t like the type (and that was quite a few of them).

    By the way – so true about covering the books with brown paper bags and then decorating them!! I remember the care I took to cover my books, not to mention the attention given to the elaborate doodles that graced the cover!

    1. I’m glad you took the time, Wendy. I do think that graphic designers and writers are similar in that they are sensitive to the way their medium (words, images, lettering) is used. You are right that a terrible (or even average) piece of writing disturbs me and a really great piece gives me a lot of joy.
      Re: publishing houses, they do pay for the design but often I do feel as though the cover does not do justice to the story inside, or does not fairly represent. But I am picking at details and most people aren’t terribly effected by mediocre writing or graphic design.
      Maybe it’s time for you to come back out of the woodwork and start doing some more design work. Freelance book cover design, perhaps? I’d trust you with mine. šŸ™‚
      I also took great care with making those book covers. I LOVED working on them.

  2. Even though the art is undependable, I think we should be able to judge a book by its cover — at least so much as know what genre it is. I’ve been disappointed by books whose covers misty artwork indicated mysterious or even ghostly elements, yet there was nothing on the inside to match. A book cover is like a movie trailer, a bit of imagery to relate to the reader what type of story will unfold between the pages. A book cover that does not achieve this is like the movie trailer that shows the one and only funny snippet of the film, and movie-goes flock to the theatre expecting a comedy.

    1. Like the analogy. I should know by now not to go to a movie based on a trailer and not to read a book based on the cover. There’s even the cliche about judging a book, but . . . laziness sometimes wins out and I’m usually disappointed. But when a book cover really nails it, I am so pleased, especially if the book inside is interesting and well-written.

  3. I would never choose a book solely by its cover. It might attract me to pick it up, but it’s the insides that will draw or repel me. I know too well that graphic artists don’t read the books they illustrate. They get a blurb so they are not able to fully encapsulate a book that deserves more (for the most part).

    When two of my author friends and I put our short stories of the San Joaquin Valley together into an anthology, I knew I wanted to capture the heat, the rural byways and the eucalyptus trees that were grown here early in the century to keep the wind from blowing the top soil away. I was able to take a picture that gave me that feeling and we used it on the cover. But who gets that kind of personal care with covers–not many.

    Loved this post–the brown paper book covers, nice memory.

    1. I guess I should have assumed it, but it makes me sad to think that many of the graphic designers don’t read the books before they design the covers. I love that you were able to give your cover the mood and visuals you wanted by creating it yourself. I’m not sure I’d be brave enough to put my own handmade cover out into the world. Then again, mine would probably look like the brown paper covers of my youth!

  4. First, I have to say I LOVED The History of Love. Absolutely loved it. Such a great book. I also loved Little Bee. It is one of those stories that still haunts me a little, espcially when I pay for gas and think of the atrocities being committed over oil.

    Second, I am embarrassed to admit but I do judge a book by its cover, though if it came recommended or appealed to me in some way I can overlook it. Shamefully, I have probably passed over some great books because the cover art turned me off in some way. I have to agree with Sherry as well about the cover acting as a preview to the content inside and like you, if the cover really encapsulates the story, I’ll love the book even more.

    1. The dilemma I have right now is that now that I’ve brought those four books out and I’ve looked at them, I want to read each of them again, immediately. Meanwhile, I have a TBR list that is so long it’s practically a novel. Is it better to read deeply from fewer books or more surfacely from more books. Aaargh!

      Covers do attract and tell us something about a book. Or at least they are supposed to. So what’s the embarrassment about? šŸ™‚

  5. I don’t “always” choose a book for it’s cover, but I’ve absolutely had plenty of those blind book buying moments when a cover has me hooked right up to the cash register. Certainly this leads to disappointment, but I remain undeterred. I simply can’t resist the promise of a beautiful, provocative, intriguing cover! Just as I am in equally disappointed that many of my favorite books have *blah* covers which feel less than appropriate for the genius of the pages they contain.

    I feel enormously blessed that for both of my books, the designer read my pages in order to best visualize what belonged on their covers. It makes a difference when a definite connection has been made between exterior and interior.

    1. I just saw the cover for your new novel and it is beautiful. I wish I could remember what your last cover looked like. Guess it doesn’t matter now, as I’ve read and thoroughly enjoyed the story. I think it makes a huge difference when the designer reads the book before designing the cover. How else can they get the real feel for what the story is about?

      When’s book #2 coming out?

  6. The History of Love is one of my top-ten favorite books!
    I do judge books by their covers–to a small extent. Like you, I recognize the general look of books that I end up liking (colors, fonts, etc.)…but this only dictates which book I happen to pick up when I’m overwhelmed in a big box bookstore. (In an indie store, I’m more likely to look at a lot of books, no matter what their covers look like.) Once I have a book in my hand, I do two things. First, I read the cover copy and about the author, then I flip through the book reading a passage here and there. My judgment is can also be swayed by the feel of a book–its size, paper quality, margins, spacing, typeface, etc., and who publishes it. I find that I have patterns of publishers I really like for certain types of books…Europa, Knopf, Candlewick Press, Beacon Press, etc.). Of course, very few of these actions apply when ordering a book online. I rarely take a chance on ordering a book unless I’ve read a review, heard a reliable recommendation, or looked at the actual book somewhere.

    1. So if I self-publish and my book doesn’t make it into the big boxstores or indies, will you still read it??

      It is such a different experience choosing books without book stores. I’m beginning to get the hang of it but I’ve been burned by taking the opinion of reviewers whom I assumed had similar taste to mine, but didn’t. I have a funny story that you’d appreciate about one book I read based on an online reviewer who seemed to have a large following. I’ll tell you about it, offline, if we can find some time for a cup of coffee soon.

      I guess part of having this blog is to have a place where people who don’t know me or my work can come and get a taste of the way I write and the themes that I am passionate about. I know I’ve begun to use author blogs as a resource.

So what do you think?