A Book by Any Other Cover
“I see some of you plan to vote me off already. Do you also choose your books by their covers? I prefer to read before judging.” ~Tuck (Fourth Fiction contestant)
Like a few of the other writers here at Write Anything I have been following the twitter feed for Fourth Fiction, the first ever blog based reality show, which the above comment comes from. The retort elicited some interesting responses – most to do with the fact that yes books are judged by the cover.
The mistake Tuck has made is to confuse advertising (the cover) with product (the writing) and the fact they are two separate, yet interconnected entities, each with their own unique decision making processes attached to them
Let’s make no mistakes about it – book covers are all about advertising. The cover, like the best advertisement, exists to sell an idea, information, a story, a character, an expectation, a feeling, an opportunity to escape. The retailer, the reader and the reviewer are all the intended targets of the book cover woo, like a lover, the cover moves in with a psychological arsenal all intended to evoke an emotional response to get its wicked way with you.
The best covers make use of all available advertising space – the spine (to showcase a catchy title), the front cover (to enthrall with unforgettable images), the back cover (to covet you with a taster which leaves you wanting more) and then, if all those boxes have been ticked and you move onwards to home base, there is the inside cover with more information on the book and the author to seal the deal. It is all over in less than two minutes often-the most efficient of flirtations.
Author and marketing guru Seth Godin states in his article The Purpose of a Book Cover that rather than sell or accurately describe, the cover sets the book up to have maximum impact on the reader. He lists seven ways a cover may accomplish this, by being:
- Iconic – because iconic items tend to signal ‘important’
- Noticeable across the room – you see that lots of other people own it, thus making it likely that you’ll want to know why
- Sophisticated – because this helps reinforce that the ideas inside are worthy of your time
- Original – why bother reading a book you already know
- Generic – reminding you of a genre or another book you liked, not generic as in boring
I tend to believe these seven points also attract readers to the book and encourage them to buy it. I would argue also that iconic has much more to do with being ‘popular’ or ‘cool’.
Sophisticated is the category I would put my most persuasive book cover for 2009 into, though it probably also falls into noticeable and iconic now, but those were not the reason I was suckered.
When I finally took the plunge and bought Twilight earlier this year, having somehow missed all the hype surrounding it (yes I think I was living under a rock!), I bought it entirely on the strength of the beautiful, haunting cover. For months I had been admiring the evocative images and wondering what was behind it. I’ll be the first to admit I was successfully sold the concept that the ideas inside were worthy my time. Mission complete. Regular readers however know my own personal take on the Twilight saga and author Stephenie Meyer.
But sometimes the book cover has the potential to get it all wrong. Nabokov understood the persuasive potential of a cover when he insisted his publishers not put picture of a young girl on the front cover of Lolita. He didn’t want the “wrong kinds” of people drawn to it. The book looked like this when it was released in 1955:
And this, grave turning version in 1999:
This was the copy I read earlier this year and felt incredibly uncomfortable reading it in public – making sure the cover was hidden or face down when I wasn’t reading. I felt it a totally inappropriate choice by the publishers given the girl in the painting is about the same age as Lolita (much younger than her 14 years in the movie adaptation) and is cropped down version of a painting which originally included a cat. My partner picked it up at a book sale for me. I’m not sure, even though I desperately wanted to read it, would I have bought this edition.
Book covers and anything which personifies and attempts to sell a piece of writing runs the risk of failing when inappropriate for the market, pushing the reader away rather than drawing them in – regardless of how mindblowing, pertinent or entertaining the writing behind may be. Tuck might like to remember this as the twitterfest continues on!
Although we know the adage Don’t judge a book by its cover it seems to me to be a warping of the actual truth You can’t judge a book by its cover. And it is true – you can’t. Anymore than you can judge the experience of a new bar of soap or a tropical holiday in Fiji from an ad. Until you have read the book you are unable to make a conclusive decision about the contents – all you can be certain of, if the book is in your hand, is the advertising pitch wove its magic on you.
Do you believe a book cover is there to sell, to describe or as Godin suggests, to set the reader up? What are your favourite book covers? What drew you to them? What category would you put them in?