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A Book by Any Other Cover

July 13, 2009

“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
  • Clever
  • Funny
  • 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:

lolita 1955
And this, grave turning version in 1999:

lolita 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?

Jodi Cleghorn used this post as “research” for a project she is currently working on which requires a book cover. Having got it sooooo wrong on at least one occassion as a magazine editor she’s keen to hit the target this time. You can follow Jodi’s Tweets @jodicleghorn or her expanding blog Writing in Black and White.
  1. July 13, 2009 6:16 am

    I detest the cover of my own novel, Synergy, and am convinced it has affected sales. On the other hand, the covers for my series I think are very cool, but I don’t know if they have helped.

    I think that book covers are influential when it comes to new or little known authors. Once an author is established, readers may rue the cover but will pick up the book regardless.

    It’s very difficult to please every reader. Some like sparse, zen-like covers. Others like full, evocative ones. The covers I don’t particularly like are those that have nothing to do with the story. I feel I’ve been cheated, as if it was necessary to lure me because the story itself wasn’t worth it.

  2. July 13, 2009 6:52 am

    It will be interesting to see what effect e-publishing will have on covers. Since I bought my e-Reader and started downloading new books the cover has not really entered into the equation when selecting a new book. Great article. That cover of Lolita would never see print now, frankly I’m amazed it did in 1999.

  3. July 13, 2009 7:04 am

    DAN: They are saying that the cover images are still as important in e-publishing as they are in print publishing – as a means of advertising the book on a site. A grabbing visual is still necessary. I wonder though – if over time they will be come less important – a little like what happened with album cover art when they were downsized to CDs. I always thought that was a travesty and would have liked a full sized version of the DOOKIE album by Green Day – with much of the intricacies of the illustration lost on the tiny CD cover square.

    I think we got the cover of our eBook all wrong – but it is not the only reason it hasn’t sold. The market we targeted just isn’t ready for an eBook. I’m being more savvy this time around – well I hope.

    DOM: You make an important point about images – no one likes being duped – thinking they are buying one thing and getting another. Which book particularly annoyed you for this?

    And yes – you are right also about established writers needing the lure of the cover less. Some of my favourite books have very unremarkable covers – such as Cussler’s Sahra and Koontz’s Lightning.

    How much say does an author have in the final cover design?

  4. July 13, 2009 7:40 am

    I think the book cover is a large part of the advertising for a book and as such it has a huge influence on my buying or borrowing habits when I don’t know the author. On the other hand, if I know the author, I’ll buy the book no matter what is on the cover.

    I tend to not really pay attention to hype when it comes to specific authors and instead I go by my experience with them or by gut feeling on the book jacket as a whole. For example, I would always and still will pick up any book by Isaac Asimov or Dr. Seuss without hesitation because neither author has ever disappointed me. At the same time, the first Frank Herbert book I read, “The Green Brain,” was picked up after careful consideration of the front, back and inside covers (I had avoided the hype and excitement about “Dune” so I was completely new to Frank Herbert at the time). “The Green Brain” did not disappoint me and I subsequently read all of the “Dune” books and many other of Herbert’s novels.

    Some other covers, though, have failed to do the right things for me. “Genesis,” by Poul Anderson, has a cover and inner notes that I thought looked great — I’ve had the book for 8 or 9 years now and despite several attempts have not made it half-way through before giving up on it. Conversely, “Area 51,” by Rober Dougherty, has the kind of cheesy B-movie sci-fi cover art that I would typically run away from. I picked it up anyway, though, when I had a gift card that was going to expire and couldn’t decide on anything else. I started reading it and several hours later was finished after I couldn’t put it down.

    I guess my point is that cover art will go a long way to reeling me in for a new (to me) author but I always look at the whole jacket and not just the front cover.

    On the subject of covers that have nothing apparent to do with the book itself, I’ve seen that a lot of times and it irritates me because I see it as false advertising. If the book was enjoyable, though, I will usually forgive the issue. However, if the book was terrible, it will take a lot to get me to visit that author again. This is how I am with anything that is marketed to me — a product will often get one shot to impress me and the more glossy the advertising is, the more skeptical I am.

    I have no idea if I am atypical, though. I’m curious to read other people’s thoughts.

  5. July 13, 2009 11:44 am

    It’s interesting you wrote this today because this morning I heard an interview on the BBC where an author was complaining about the cover given to her book. It was done to make the book sell, yet the author found it totally inappropriate.

  6. July 13, 2009 6:53 pm

    This is a really interesting subject. I think there is an argument for both the publisher and the author when it comes to the cover design of a book. The publisher will obviously see the jacket design purely as a marketing opportunity where as the author would be happier to see the jacket reflect the true nature of the novel/book. I guess the publishers have a purely commercial interest and they do need to recoup advances, cost etc. The author, on the other hand, should have complete artistic control and should this therfore mean jacket and synopsis?

  7. July 14, 2009 6:53 am

    I totally judge a book by its cover. Well, not completely but if you look at how high my ‘to read’ pile is, you need to hook me well and good if I’m going to read the blurb.

    My favourite cover by far is to ‘The Pilo Family Circus’ – I just loved the looks people gave me when I read that one on the train. Clearly, they thought I was deranged.

    I’m quite fond of Murakami’s Minimalist covers that are on the white Vintage editions.

  8. Felicia Fredlund permalink
    July 19, 2009 6:42 pm

    There is only one time a cover caught my eye and was part of the decision to buy the book. It was Dean Koontz book; The Good Guy (black background with a red/orange post-it note on saying “KILL ME INSTEAD”). I haven’t actually gotten around to reading the book yet, but I’ve understood Dean Koontz is supposed to be a very good author, so when I get around it I’m hoping I’ll devour it.
    Otherwise covers have drawn my eye, but it has always been the blurb that decided if I bought it or not, but with The Good Guy the cover was a big part in my decision.
    I don’t think any cover have ever repelled me but one of my favorite authors’ (Patricia Briggs) cover art for her Mercedes Thompson serie was awesome until she changed publishing house or cover artist; the serie is still great but the covers are lacking. And coming to think of it I picked up my first book of her due to the cover of the first book in that serie. So I guess I’ve picked up a book due to cover twice. :o)

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