Time To Totally Judge Some Books By Their Covers

Book covers, man.

Tricky business.

Subjective, for one. In theory, book covers are art (or are supposed to be) — and everybody responds to art in different ways. We like certain colors, dislike other colors. We respond to images a certain way — with love, with attraction, with revulsion, with curiosity.

Then you add in the complexity that different genres have different “cover tropes” present. Sometimes paranormal romance or urban fantasy has the leather-clad heroine or hero (sometimes turning so as to demonstrate a leather-clad asscheek because, I dunno why — do they fight vampires and werewolves with their asses?). Space-driven science-fiction often has to have a spaceship on the cover or, I dunno, people freak out and burn down the bookstore.

Plus, covers are changing function. Digital books still have covers but Amazon’s demonstration of them is often as a thumbnail (though that appears to be changing, as my Amazon for print books now shows a cover on display that’s much bigger). Further, it’s interesting that digital books still have to have cover-shaped covers given the fact they never actually have to be printed out, but I guess if they don’t fit the Kindle screen, the world will explode.

(Then you add in super-extra-crazy-complexity once you add in gendered cover concerns like what Maureen Johnson was highlighting with Coverflip.)

So, I come to you readers and writers and ask:

What works for you on a book cover?

Have you bought a book based on the cover alone?

What covers have worked?

Flipside:

What doesn’t work? What weirds you out on covers? Have you ever been put off by a cover?

LET’S TALK THIS THROUGH, PEOPLE.

75 comments

  • I will often judge a book by its cover — or buy a book based on its cover, which I guess means it’s doing its job. Most times, I won’t buy on the cover art alone, but the image will get me to pick it up and turn it over (and sometimes I’ll be hoping the blurb doesn’t actively prevent me from buying it because I *so* want to buy the pretty picture!) As for what makes a cover work? I wish I knew. Like Lindy above, I’ve made my own covers (without the benefit of an art school education, unfortunately, so I’m not guaranteeing that mine are any good!)

    I was actually thinking a lot about book covers the other day. I was looking for a cover image to tack onto a blog post — I always loved the ERB Martian series covers by Michael Whelan — when I found an older cover for “A Princess of Mars” which straight away filled me with the sense of being engulfed in “classic science fiction”. Y’know those covers for the old Dune paperbacks? For Asimov novels, for Bradbury, Aldiss, van Vogt, etc. All those old covers which told you you were entering the safe, comforting realm of SF. Turns out almost all of those covers were painted by Bruce Pennington! I dunno what works — but his stuff clearly works! :-)

  • What doesn’t work for me is that “ass shot” image you described in the post. If a leather-clad heroine looks more like she’s going to strip down than kick evil ass, I will move on.

    A book cover I came across recently and loved is ACID by Emma Pass. Yes, you’ve got a leather-clad heroine but she’s got a gun strapped to her side and looks seriously dangerous.

  • Once, when I was young, I was convinced that book covers reflect the direction or content of a book, like a piece of art that somehow summarizes the book or depicts its main aspect. I thought the people doing these covers have read the book (at least know what it is about to some extend).

    Then I got a girlfriend that worked in print design. For a series of child books she was supposed to design covers – knowing approx. 4-5 sentences about the book, basically nothing. They were tasked to make 15 covers with a team of 3 people, then the customer would chose 6.
    My dream shattered.

    I never chose a book because of its cover anymore. That’s the mantra based on the experience.
    But reality is cruel to me – I am still human and therefore easily attracted by visuals. I probably passed on several good books already because their cover prevented me from picking it up from the shelf – against better knowledge.

    At least a rough direction comes from the cover… but that doens’t help a person that read alot already, as there are too many fine differences beyond “rough directions”.

    On a sidenote: I wonder whether or not the covers for the re-release of Game of Thrones books (started with the first season) were consciously chosen to be quite “neutral”. It’s a certain family crest for each book (German version, IDK about US cover). Chosen not to drive away a certain customer segment? To attract neither female nor male audiences specifically? Did they expect the raging success of the series, reaching even people that are usually not into fantasy? *shrug*

    Bottomline: I wish my dream of artsy covers would be reality. But then again: would I like to pay more, because the cover artist want a bigger share?

  • Honestly, I think the cover of Mockingbirds is one of the coolest, if not the coolest book cover I’ve ever seen. I just can’t get over all the little things in her hair. It’s just such a perfect cover! I also really love both the German and American covers of Shadow and Bone. On the other hand, I really REALLY love Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, but damn, if they don’t have some of the ugliest covers in existence, then I must not know what ugly is. They either put one of the shitty illustrations on the cover or they just make it a mixture of disgusting colors and random objects from the book. They need to fire whoever made those covers.

  • As a designer, one of the things that peeves me about covers is their spines (not so much a problem with digital books). There are so many designers out there who just don’t understand their product will be shelved with hundreds of similar looking covers and just maybe using that really cool, stick-thin font on the cover for the spine (and ends up being set at 9pt because of the length of the title) just doesn’t work. Also, libraries will put stickers on the spines of books, typically at the very top and very bottom. Make sure the important information is NOT in those areas (hate looking for a book only to realize it was right in front of me, but I couldn’t read the title or author’s name because the library sticker covered up much of it).

  • The idea of choosing (or having someone else choose) a cover for something I’ve written is a very long way off for me, but it’s daunting even from here. There seems to be a complex language of covers–a choice of font, type of image, complexity of image, presence of image at all, level of contrast, starkness, color choice… The earlier commenters who like stark black-white-and-orange are probably looking for a very different kind of book than the commenters who like complex fantasy-scapes. How do you navigate the choice of these things (if you have a choice) for the cover of your own book? No idea.

    I ran across a mystery series once (haven’t read them, and linking just to criticize the design seems gauche) where some books in the series had big, stark san-serif titles that clearly said THRILLER, another had wide-open serifed words over a misty, dewy landscape that clearly said COMPLEX LITERARY COMING OF AGE STORY, another was all sepia-toned and read HISTORY BOOK, and yet another had these super-narrow squashed, serifed words that said HORROR. It’s not that any of the covers was terrible on its own, but having a cover designer who didn’t know that books in a series should resemble each other and either didn’t know what that series was like or couldn’t convey it (they were murder mysteries) was off-putting and made me fear greatly for the quality of the work inside.

    • @Noel
      I make a briefing of what I have in mind, text and if available pictures that at least show off part of my idea, or scetches (mine are quite ugly) and then I hand it over to a designer friend. I tried this with the logo of my blog and crests for a game – the outcome was never exactly how I imagined (naturally), but I was always happy with the result. You need to leave the artist room for his creativity (I believe), I would even say sometimes it is good to give him just a vage direction. Thats about the picture only, I leave decisions about fonts and font sizes to the designer, probably she suggests me some – or choses herself.

      There is nothing to be afraid of – if you have no design background at all, let the artist help you, no need to learn everything yourself .-)

      I never (self-)published any of my writing, but soon I will have a cover for one of my short stories – work in progress – and am already excited to see the result my friend creates. I gave her 3 pictures as a direction for the art style and a couple of sentences to explain what I feel the cover should express. So easy, so exciting .-)

  • I always know what books and authors I’m going to check out and read ahead of time, so covers never really affect my decisions. I may choose the edition of a certain title based on the cover, but never the story itself.

    Of course, that doesn’t mean I don’t love it when a book I’ve been planning to buy turns out to look lovely on my bookshelf.

  • Covers are indicative of genre and target audience. Publishers have trained us to think that certain types of covers represent certain types of books, not just by genre but style, especially how literary the book perceived to be. That’s where the coverflip idea really comes into play: there seems to be a double standard in terms of how literary of a cover a book might get depending on the genre of the author, as opposed to the contents of the book. Very genre-specific covers will lead to immediate dismissal by commercial fic readers or other targeted populations (aka this is a “girl book”) and can therefore limit the book’s audience. Anyone can claim they don’t judge a book by the cover, but in reality it makes a huge difference.

  • I am an absolute, undeniable, proud of it, cover whore! I love art, and illustrations especially. I do frequently buy books solely based on their cover, but if the blurb doesn’t sound like something for me, then it won’t get purchased. But if it’s in one of my preferred genres then the cover will tip the scales. Due to this, I have of course been disappointed but usually I’m spot on. I have seen beautiful covers and the book blurb just doesn’t appeal to me at all for some reason even with the fancy cover. That’s usually because it might sound like too many other books in the genre. My favorite cover this year is Love Minus Eighty by Will McIntosh. I would consider it sci fi / futuristic and it doesn’t have a space ship on the front luckily. I do hate the design pit that each genre falls into. What the he’ll is up with one’s with nothing but women in prom dresses on the front? WTF! I love science fiction covers, space, fantasy land scapes, I love them… always seem to have someone small and a big view of the land and usually a city. I don’t mind that those are the frequent designs. What I hate with a passion is big bars across the cover in any way where the text of the title or anything is inside. It looks so unprofessional. I also hate hard to read font, or font that swerves.

    I think perhaps a big part of the reason I still prefer print books is because of covers and the smell of books and having them physically in my hands. I can easier see my shelves and what I want to read. I don’t like reading on an ereader type tablet that isn’t eink because it strains my eyes after awhile since I read for long hours at a time. I get that same feeling picking up a book again in my own personal library add I did the first time picking up the book, just oogling the cover. And yes Blackbirds is one of the coolest fucking covers ever. You scored big with your cover artist!

  • Dear Chuck,

    the human being is a visual beast, especially nowadays when the western world has constantly its gaze riveted on a screen. Studies and education show that an average person barely reads half of a paragraph or article that he/she voluntarily and willingly wanted to read. Imagine what that average person reads out of a book description or reviews.
    To these data, add the fact that older and younger generation are now addicted to immediate reward in pretty much all aspects of their life. Reading a book’s description is not immediate reward. Capturing in a glimpse the cover of a book that indicates right away what genre it belongs to and emulates your senses is immediate reward

    Hence the need, the absolute necessity even, of a book cover. If a writer wishes to sell more than he already does, maybe the need for a great book cover.

    My observations are that if the cover is not good, most likely the reader won’t even look at the content. Marketing 101.

    as you mentioned, it is totally time to judge a book by its cover!
    Cheers.
    Dr.O

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