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Read to Me Thursday: Judging Books By Their Covers

March 11, 2010

The old axiom is:  don’t judge a book by its cover.  Who really does that?  No one.  Come on, you think when someone sees me they’re thinking, “Gee, he’s fat, bald, and wears glasses but I bet he’s got a lot of inner beauty.”  Hell no!

By the same token we do actually judge books by their covers.  Just looking at the cover you can often tell what genre the book is.  Check out that cover for Timothy Zahn’s Cobra Bargain.  Without looking at the back or reading a single page you know it’s a science fiction book because it’s got an alien and a dude with some kind of ray gun on it.

Or if there were a picture of a bare-chested man and a swooning woman you’d know it was a romance novel.  If it shows some dude with a sword or magic wand then you know it’s a fantasy book.  It’s common sense really.

What’s on the cover can tell you more than just the genre.  In romance books the classier ones don’t have bare-chested men or swooning women.  They feature something more low-key like flowers.  So you already know just by looking at the cover with Fabio on it that you’re getting something with a little more heat in it.  (Or if it doesn’t then demand your money back!)  The more skin being shown on the cover, the more sex there will be inside the book.

The same holds largely true in sci-fi as a cover like the one above means that it’s a space opera, Star War-type story rather than a more serious or “hard” sci-fi novel.  The more aliens and ray guns and spaceships on the cover the less “science” there will be in the book inside.

For “literary” novels the main trend is just to take some kind of photo that’s supposed to look symbolic and throw it up on the cover.  For whatever reason, pictures of shoes or feet are popular.  Don’t believe me?  Check out The Giant’s House by Elizabeth McCracken from 1996 and The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger from 2002.   They actually use the same device to convey the difference between the protagonists by footwear.  Or the book I’m reading now, In the Company of Angels by Thomas E. Kennedy, has part of a woman’s face with a hand covering her eye.  “Literary” covers don’t like to show an entire person, especially not the face.  It probably costs more money then.

Other literary covers will show a landscape or an object that is supposed to have some symbolic relevance to what you’ll read.  This doesn’t tell you nearly as much as other genres in terms of how serious or not serious or how much gratuitous sex you’ll find when you open up the book.  But I guess it’s supposed to make it seem classier than a drawing.  (Plus it’s cheaper to use a stock image or to shoot someone’s shoes than to pay an artist to draw something.)

Of course if you get super famous then they might say bag all of that and put YOU on the front cover!  Though you might already be dead, so it would be too late to celebrate that achievement.

The issue of covers was something that came up for me recently because I didn’t really like the cover of my book.  It was just a template with some MS Office clipart thrown in.  Not exactly what I ever had in mind.  So armed with PhotoShop elements, I tried to come up with something a bit more “literary” and wound up cruising some stock photo sites.

Behold my more literary cover!

That isn’t the best look at it, but it’s pretty much what you’ll see when you buy the new, improved 1.5 edition–available now!

Like those other “literary” covers there’s symbolism behind it.  First off, it’s a story about a guy looking for a home, so we have this shot of a room in a home looking out a window at the rest of the world to show what he’s searching for.  Secondly, early in the book he and his best friend Frankie would often sit at her window watching the sunsets, so we have a sunset here.  (Or presumably it’s a sunset.  It might be a sunrise too.)  It’s not just a random image put on there for no reason.

What does it say to you?  And have you ever bought a book because of its cover?


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  1. Deborah permalink

    I pretty much purchase ALL my books, because of the cover. Typically there is a MESSAGE on that cover that I wish to convey in my ‘decorating’ scheme at home. Anyone who comes to my home will find ‘subtle’ messages everywhere that give them a good chuckle or create thought-provoking conversations. Hence, I have accomplished my purpose!

    In sales we are taught that if a person reaches for something on the shelf, it is because there is “eye appeal” compelling them to do so. Once in that person’s hand for more than a minute, you can pretty much bet that product is going home with them.

    Being in the “packaging” business once myself….it’s ALL about the COVER! You are right, Sharon!

    I am enjoying your Blogs!
    Keep them coming!

    Have the HIGHEST day,

  2. Who’s Sharon?

  3. I’m less susceptible to books’ covers now than when I was younger, but I do know there’s a whole science to it insofar as what colors attract people more, and so forth.

    Also, I like the cover you put together better than then one on the book now — two rings, text-heavy. As an illustrator, I always think more art is better than less art.

    Yes, it does depend on the art….

  4. LisaP permalink

    Now that you’ve answered my burning question as to why you changed it,
    I have to say I like this new cover better. Good job!

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