Monday, December 07, 2009

Don't judge a book by its cover - but do you?

by Jane

Many years ago when Mary Doria Russell’s first book, The Sparrow, was being published, the publisher sent Mary and me a suggested cover. I remember it well--in fact, when I looked at it, I thought that it was a joke. There, on the jacket of this beautiful first novel was a picture of a dead bird lying on its back with its feet up in the air.

I immediately contacted the publisher and clearly expressed our adamant objections--and several weeks later an eye-catching and much more appropriate cover resulted. The book has gone on to sell hundreds of thousands of copies.

Would that first cover have prevented The Sparrow from selling? That is Joe Queenan’s theory in his amusing essay in yesterday’s New York Times Book Review. In fact, there are many wonderful books that I suspect aren’t read because their covers are so uninviting.

I asked my colleagues at DGLM for some examples of terrible jackets and here are just a few they came up with:

Rivka Galchen's Atmospheric Disturbances
Ken Kalfus's The Commissariat of Enlightenment
Dana Spiotta's Eat the Document
Alicia Erian's Towelhead, in both hardcover and paperback

I wonder whether if I really want to read a book, it’s cover would affect me. And so I decided to look at the cover of the book I am currently reading and absolutely loving: Kathryn Stockett's The Help. I was shocked--the cover is incredibly uninviting and, in my opinion, totally misleading. Thank goodness I downloaded the book into my e-reader rather than seeing it at a bookstore. Had I done the latter, I doubt I would have bought this book--and then, because of a really unfortunate cover, I would have missed a wonderful read.

Can you think of any book jackets or covers that affected you negatively--enough not to pick up that book?


  1. No, not if I want to read the book anyway. You really can't judge a . . . well, you know. IMO: Michael Perry's "Coop," David Carr's "The Night of the Gun," and "Shop Class as Soulcraft" by Matthew B. Crawford: all good reads/horrid covers. Content leads, cover art follows; again, IMO :)

  2. When I am browsing at a bookstore - all the time! You have to judge a book by its cover sometimes, there are too many books to ever read them all! I can't tell you how many times I walked right by The Help because of the cover, luckily it has gotten recommended by so many people so I will go get it, but the cover kept me from ever looking at it.

    I agree with not judging people by their looks, but with books...well i think you should judge away. How else will you decide what to get? The look of a cover should be able to tell you a lot. You should tell the genre, the target audience, and sometimes the feel of a book.

  3. I don't think I'm necessarily negatively impacted by a cover, but I'll certainly pick up a book first if it has an inviting cover.

  4. Author and bookseller Michelle Sagara talked about a different sort of "judging by the cover" here:

  5. Excellent post! I definitely think that EVERYONE judges books by their covers initially... but mostly if they don't know anything about the book in advance or if they haven't heard any reviews. Certain covers appeal to certain people -- personally, I like my covers simple but pretty. SHIVER is a great example. Though the covers of the HUNGER GAMES series are completely appropriate, they turned me off for some reason (probably because the colors aren't pretty!). I finally read the books because of so many gushing reviews, and now I'm obsessed.

  6. Covers matter. They are the packaging of the book and every detail about the cover should be designed to appeal to the aesthetic tastes of the target audience.

    For example, for the past decade Japanese manga has been the most popular form of artwork among children, teens and young adults in the world; yet I hardly see any YA novel covers that are reminiscent of this style.

    I think if more covers were an illustration of a scene from the story (versus some random artwork meant to be "symbolic"), books would sell better.

  7. How true, how true... covers do influence us - whether we like (to admit) it or not.

    I guess your post speaks to both a positive and a negative re: digital/e-books. The book cover isn't there to influence you (in either direction).

    My first book (called Blood and Groom) has just been published. I had no say in the cover and being a newbie, had little idea of what I would have (should have) wanted for a cover.

    I think the one the publisher came up with is cool and suits the plot. However, with the current popularity of vampire books, some people may think this too is about vampires and it's not. On the other hand, if people pick up my book because of the current vampire trend, well, that may benefit me!

    Cheers, Jill

  8. Not a book cover per se, but the images included within a novel. I'm thinking of Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. I am appalled that Foer chose to include pictures of a falling body out of the World Trade Center. This image exploits the victims of 9/11 as well as their dignity. For this image, I most definitely would not buy his book.

  9. I do know that covers influence me to pick up a book. I'm drawn to certain colors, images. So I'd imagine that the opposite holds true as well. If I'm not familiar with a title, I might pass by a book if the cover doesn't hook me. In that sense, the cover is almost as important as the first lines of a book.

  10. I have a friend in publishing so I get about 35 YA ARCs four times a year. I have to pick and choose which ones to read because I can't read them all, and yes, the cover plays a part in that. Recently, I read a YA that is getting a fair amount of buzz. I won't name it because I'd hate for the author to see this and possibly feel badly about it, but it is a HORRIBLE cover. The worst thing about it is the book is SUPER. I mean, really, really good. AND it's a book boys would read...except the cover looks exactly like a romance. I'm betting no guy would pick it up for anything. I hope the buzz and probable good reviews can counteract it, but who knows?

  11. I'm pretty sure I don't judge books by their covers. I don't know why that is -- I was an art major at university -- but I tend to pick books up, flick through the first few pages, and make my decisions on how well I like the premise and what I can see of the writing.

  12. Weighing in late on this issue.

    I TOTALLY judge books by their covers -- initially. A great cover makes me pick it up and look at it. Dreary covers make me think the content will be dreary, too. If I've heard good things about a book, I will often buy despite a cover I don't like.

    However, the greatest cover ever won't keep me from hating the book if it turns out I don't like the writing and/or the story. You could argue that by then it's too late, but I won't be telling other people to rush out and buy the book.

  13. I don't think covers matter as much as Queenan would have us believe. At least not for well established authors and famous classics. I've read the most unsightly books without even noticing the covers because I knew and loved the writers. And no matter how tempting a cover of say a Twilight book might be, I can't get past the first few pages because the writing is dreadful.

    That said covers are definitely very, very important for newly published writers who have yet to make a name for themselves.

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