Supposedly, you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. But honestly, what else are covers for but to help us judge? If you’ve never read an author before, your best friend didn’t recommend their book, and you haven’t read about their new title somewhere or seen it on the Today show, how do you know if it’s worth your time? Or whether to even pick it up? With all the books out there, you need some way to narrow down what’s worth a further look—after all, you can’t read the first few pages of every book out there before you make a choice. So you end up judging books by their covers. Everyone does. Especially with all the money publishers spend on co-op (special placement on tables, end caps, and face-out shelves), we’re all paying at least some attention to what’s on the surface.
Designing the right cover can be one of the most difficult parts of the publishing process. Virtually no authors have as much control over the cover as they want or as we’d want for them. We go out of our way to get cover consultation for our clients whenever possible, but even then, publishers are clear about the fact that a right of consultation and a right of approval are not the same thing. We advocate strongly for our clients when they hate their covers or take serious issue with an aspect of them, and we truly believe that publishers need to take authors’ ideas and thoughts into account and should work to find a cover that both sides can get behind.
The good news is that they usually do. No, you’re not necessarily going to have the cover of your dreams, but publishers want authors to be happy, so that if Oprah and the New York Times bestseller list come a-knockin’ the author doesn’t run to the competition. Cover design is subjective. However much an author might loathe a cover, the publisher never intentionally designs a bad one. Their objective is always to create a cover that will sell books.
The authors’ and publishers’ objectives are not at odds (everyone wants more readers and more money!), but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the cover the sales team thinks will sell the book is going to gel with the author’s vision of what their baby will look like once it’s on the shelf. As with everything else in publishing, an author who brings a few ideas, a ton of patience, and a lot of flexibility to the table is the most likely to have a good experience.
Besides, cover design is so subjective that it’s pretty easy to disagree. I love healthy debate (as long as we all agree in the end that I'm right) and love even more a good thoroughly unscientific poll, so for fun, here are some book covers, and below, here’s what we thought of them (we meaning me, plus Jim McCarthy, Michael Bourret, and our intern Anni, who were kind of enough to participate in my IM poll). Take a look at the covers, rate them as L-O-V-E; like; meh; dislike; or, as Michael so elegantly put it for one, U-G-L-Y, you ain’t got no alibi. Then scroll down to what we thought, and tell us if we’re crazy or right on the money. And tell us what we left out—which covers do you love so much you wish your words were bound in them or hate so much you wish your poor retinas had never been subjected to them?
Of course, except where otherwise noted, we really are trying to judge the covers here and not the content--I've definitely loved books with covers I've hated and vice versa. And we know people worked hard on these and thought even the ones that we loathe were really working, so we're certainly aware of the fact that it's just a matter of opinion. We're nothing if not an opinionated bunch. It's a lot like when we argue over which actors are hot (like Jake Gyllenhaal) and which look like basset hounds (not Jake Gyllenhaal, no matter how many times Miriam says it).
- Joshua Ferris’s THEN WE CAME TO THE END in hardcover -- 2 loves and 2 likes on this one. Definitely one of my favorite covers of last year and probably my favorite book in the last year as well.
- Joshua Ferris’s THEN WE CAME TO THE END in paperback -- We all liked it, but not as much as the original. For me at least, it was disappointing to see it changed.
- Tom McCarthy’s REMAINDER -- We're split on this one. I'd read this one first and had no thoughts on the cover (beyond that it's a pretty blue color), and Anni was similarly non-plussed, but Jim and Michael were all over the hate for it. And I know Adina, who read it for book club and didn't like it nearly as much as I did, was similarly annoyed by it. I'll grant you that the cover doesn't necessarily make sense--is it a reflection in water, and if so, why are the words not reversed?--but I still don't understand the hatred.
- Junot Diaz’s THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO -- Covering the spectrum on this one, Jim's indifferent, Michael likes it, Anni dislikes it, and I really can't stand it. The whole time I was reading it, the cover irked me, though I'm not sure there's any good reason why.
- Jonathan Safran Foer’s EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED -- I can actually remember hating this cover the first time I saw it, when I was working at Barnes & Noble in college. Nothing about it works for me, and I find it aesthetically unpleasant, but not enough to be interesting. Michael and Jim eventually settled at "meh" when they tried to take their feelings about the book itself out of the equation, though Jim admitted that maybe he'd be able to like the cover if he didn't so hate the contents. Anni likes it and was surprised that I felt so strongly.
- Dana Spiotta’s EAT THE DOCUMENT in hardcover -- Someone must have liked this cover, but it wasn't any of us. It gives a sense of the content, so it's got that going for it, but it's extremely awkward to look at. Was there really nothing other than this woman's braless chest and high-waisted jeans that would let readers know what to expect?
- Dana Spiotta’s EAT THE DOCUMENT in paperback -- Apparently there was, because the paperback cover is very different. I think it loses the sense of time that the original conveys, but is vastly superior--yet we're all pretty indifferent to the cover itself. As Jim said, "At least the paperback doesn't make me want to avert my eyes."
- Don DeLillo’s FALLING MAN -- 3 loves and a dislike on this one. Anni thinks it's too boring and the words get lost in the image. The rest of us are big fans.
- Philip Roth’s EXIT GHOST -- This one's interesting: Jim and I dislike, Michael hates it, and Anni likes it. The three of us who came down negative all had the same objection--it's the cover to the wrong book as far as we're concerned and a pretty boring effort.
- Denis Johnson’s TREE OF SMOKE -- Jim and Anni like it, Michael loves it, and I...really don't. Denis Johnson is among my favorite authors, and though I haven't tackled this one yet, I'm sad to admit I just don't like the way it looks. It doesn't make me want to buy it. I think I'm definitely in the minority on that one, though. (And I didn't actually need the cover to sell me on the fact that I want to read this one.)
- Michael Chabon’s THE YIDDISH POLICEMAN’S
UNION -- Jim dislikes it, Michael likes it, Anni immediately hated it but then decided it's so unattractive she likes it, and I think this cover made me not want to read the book. I love Kavalier and Clay, so I was pretty excited for this book to come out, but the cover turned me off in a big way.
- Amy Bloom’s AWAY -- Wow do Jim and Michael hate this cover. In fact, when I suggested that I needed to find at least one more that I disliked to poll them on, Jim shot me the link to this. I've seen it before and been totally ambivalent, but apparently it got a pretty big reaction from them. Anni's on board with that, but not as ferociously.
I have to say, I liked this cover when I first saw it, or at least found it interesting, but it's actually grown less attractive to me over time to the point that I now vehemently dislike it. Jim's no fan either. (I seem to have forgotten to poll Anni on this one, but I think Michael's hate was strong enough to cover two.)
So what do you think of these? And which amazing and horrendous covers did we leave out?