Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Lauren Abramo judges books by their covers

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).

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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?
  7. 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."
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.)
  11. 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.
  12. 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.
And which book inspired Michael's most amusing ire? Keith Donohue's THE STOLEN CHILD.

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?


  1. I've been waiting for someone to ask me about covers! And before I answer your questions, I have one for you all. Do the art directors EVER go into a library? The reason I ask is because EVERY library in the US and Canada puts a barcode over the top right corner - usually directly over the title or the famous blurb that's supposed to get you to buy the book! And then they put one on the spine, directly over the author's name (or the title, depending on the design). I have ten library books here and half of them have the barcode over the title on the front. Only one has it over the author's name and one over the title on the spine, but that's really common regardless of my unscientific study!

    Okay, on to your actual questions. I liked the post-it note one and Falling Man, although I hated the Eat The Document hardback, Away, Everything is Illuminating and the Michael Chabon one. The rest I was indifferent to.

    I just read Sarah Dessen's THE TRUTH ABOUT FOREVER and I really loved that cover. It's girly, which you know is her audience, but it's also striking. I have a lot of covers on my Need To Read page on my website and of the ones up there now, my favorites are RULES, B FOR BUSTER, and TYRELL. One thing to consider with a cover is how often people see the cover very tiny, like on Amazon or on people's blogs. I loved THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE STORY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN, but when the cover is shrunk down, you can't see it at all. It just looks like a black blob.

  2. First things first: Jake Gyllenhall DOES look like a basset hound (good call and right on). Now my ratings:
    And Then We... (like)
    Falling... (meh)
    Oscar Wao... (like)
    Eat... hard & paper(meh)
    Exit... (big meh--though the fact I can't stand Roth may very well influence my reaction)
    Illuminated... (ok... sixties psychedlic retro)
    Yiddish... (like--cover sets the Alaskan setting--though might have mistaken it for a Hillerman book)
    Tree... (like)
    Away... (interesting to ?)
    Stolen... (like--strikes the right foreboding mood)

  3. 1. (Ferris) L-O-V-E
    2. (Ferris) dislike
    3. (McCarthy) L-O-V-E
    4. (Diaz) meh
    5. (Safron) like
    6. (Spiotta) dislike
    7. (Spiotta) like
    8. (DeLillo) L-O-V-E
    9. (Roth) like
    10. (Johnson) like
    11. (Chabon) dislike
    12. (Bloom) meh

    And I give Stolen the Nina Garcia "i confused."

  4. 1. Like
    2. Meh
    3. Like
    4. Dislike
    5. Hate (You really needed another category)
    6. Hate
    7. Meh
    8. Love
    9. Meh
    10. Dislike
    11. Dislike
    12. Love

    Madman by Tracy Groot had a powerful, evocative cover.

    The cutesy cartoony covers on chick lit turn me off, but then again, I don't read it.

  5. On another note, "nonplussed" means perplexed, not indifferent. This poor word has been so abused of late. Journalists in particular try to use it to mean unfazed, which is pretty much the reverse of what it does mean.

  6. Toby Barlow's Sharp Teeth has an intriguing and fitting design by Christine Van Bree, which actually drew my eye in the bookstore before I had heard great things about it from other readers and writers. I like the handmade feel of it, with the foil on paper. It's also one of my favorite books of last year.

    I really like the Yiddish Policemen's Union cover! And after seeing this other HarperCollins hardcover last year, I have to conclude that they really do care about novels more than non-fiction. This strays from the topic slightly, but check the link out. This cover is epically bad.


  7. 1. Joshua Ferris’s THEN WE CAME TO THE END in hardcover -- Like

    2. Joshua Ferris’s THEN WE CAME TO THE END in paperback -- Meh

    3. Tom McCarthy’s REMAINDER -- Like

    4. Junot Diaz’s THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO -- Dislike

    5. Jonathan Safran Foer’s EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED -- U-G-L-Y, you ain’t got no alibi.

    6. Dana Spiotta’s EAT THE DOCUMENT in hardcover -- Dislike (and her breasts are very uneven, btw)

    7. Dana Spiotta’s EAT THE DOCUMENT in paperback -- Meh

    8. Don DeLillo’s FALLING MAN -- Like (with a bullet)

    9. Philip Roth’s EXIT GHOST -- Dislike

    10. Denis Johnson’s TREE OF SMOKE -- Dislike

    11. Michael Chabon’s THE YIDDISH POLICEMAN’S UNION -- Meh (but I would pick it up for a more thorough investigation)

    12. Amy Bloom’s AWAY -- L-O-V-E it.

    Two of my favorite covers are on A Certain Slant of Light (both editions) by Laura Whitcomb. The one in the bathtub is similar to what I would choose for the novel I'm about to shop, if I had that choice.

    Another is the cover on The Red Tent by Anita Diamant. It has eyecatching color, and "what you see is what you get."

  8. I'm glad I'm not a cover designer, and thank God there are people who do it, and love doing it.

    That said, I can't say that I don't have some idea of what I'd like my book to look like some day, I'd just probably end up making it look stupid, all the while thinking I was the next Picasso.

    I'll not rate each one, but I would say, that if I were buying a book, and these were all I had to choose from, I'd buy McCarthy's - something about the image looks mysterious, therefore intriguing.

  9. I divide my time between Missouri, London, and Madrid, and I have to say the European-style covers over the American ones. Covers from U.S. publishers tend to be more garish, with bright colors and flashy images that make bookstores look like they're selling candy.

    I especially dislike covers that are a single bright color with the title and author in big print of another bright color. Yuk!

  10. 1. (Ferris) I like this one.

    2. (Ferris) Blah.

    3. (McCarthy) This is okay.

    4. (Diaz) I like this, but I agree that there is something irritating here; I think the black font could be bolder so that the red doesn't end up distracting the reader from the title. As it is, I think the red dot pulls you in and intrigues, but it also confuses, since the font is somewhat overwhelmed.

    5. (Safron) I love this. In fact, of all of these, it is the most arresting. I like the calligraphic effect of the lines. I can't say that I'd buy the book, but I find this aesthetically pleasing. Takes all kinds.

    6. (Spiotta) Yuck.

    7. (Spiotta) Bleh.

    8. (DeLillo) Okay-ish, but I can't really see the title.

    9. (Roth) Just okay. I quite like the fuzzy quality to the red font.

    10. (Johnson) This is okay.

    11. (Chabon) Hate this.

    12. (Bloom) This reminds me of a fifties cookbook. Okay, but only on a fifties cookbook. Which I'm assuming this isn't.

  11. I once sought out a British edition of a Jonathan Carroll novel because the U.S. version was so ugly.

    But is there anything worse than a terrible movie tie-in cover on a great book? The book is then tainted. (Best/worst example: The movie tie-in edition, with Brooke Shields on the cover, of "Endless Love.")

  12. AND THEN WE... Yellow dragon scales with graffiti? Paperback... Let's HOLLER this time!

    REMAINDER...Mouthwash container - half used?

    WONDROUS LIFE... Blood stain on a bed sheet?

    ILLUMINATED... Looks like what that guy in the Edvard Munch painting, THE SCREAM, is SCREAMING!

    DOCUMENT... (1) Clothes on a Renaissance sculpture? (2)Pee spot in gritty snow?

    FALLING MAN... Off into The Wild Blue Yonder WTF?

    GHOST... At least the background is Ghost-tee white!

    TREE... athrosclerotic arteries coursing through adipose tissue?

    CHABON... Aztec throw rug?

    BLOOM... Bacchus picnic in the Grand Canyon sans wine?

    STOLEN CHILD... Straight up the middle - too static. Put just one element of the picture (even the Title) on the left side - would work better?

    Now you can criticize me... go to,


    Haste yee back ;-)

  13. The blog of cover design:


    I've been particularly interested in covers this year, since my first novel is coming out in the fall. Thankfully, I do like my cover.

    Winners of the year for me:

    1. Joe Dunthorne, _Submarine_
    2. Arnon Grunberg, _The Jewish Messiah_
    3. Charles Bock, _Beautiful Children_

  14. I didn't care for any of them. Some of them I disliked enough I wouldn't buy the book.

    I like the new Hillerman books. Diana Gabaldon's are always classy and rich. Nothing extravagant, just classy. George R.R. Martin's Fire and Ice books.

    A few years ago there was a mystery about a cutting horse trainer who was murdered. The cover featured the most gawd awful, garish yellow boots with brilliant inlay designs and his pants tucked in them. It was probably one of his clients who killed him for wearing those ugly boots, while showing one of their horses. I had to tear the cover off before I could read the book.

  15. Interesting discussion. I asked my blog visitors to comment on the cover design for my book (in which I had only a very cursory input). On the assumption that the publisher would know better than I what might sell, I was actually quite happy with the design they produced. Positive comments from the blog too. Please feel free to visit my blog and comment on the cover design if you read this.