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 — the serif type, the impressionistic images, the mix of bold and abstract elements — 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?
I'd love to hear what you think. Share in the comments section at the bottom of the page.
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