Thursday, July 9, 2009

Judging a Book By Its Cover

Before I started working in sales, I did a brief stint in library and academic marketing. Anyone who's ever spent much time around librarians—especially school librarians—is familiar with the old adage, "don't judge a book by its cover."

Alas, this is what consumers (including you and I) do every day.

Book covers do a number of things for us, but in my opinion, the three most important are (in no particular order):

1. Tell us what the book is called and who wrote it;
2. Give us an idea of the book's genre (thereby already telling us whether we're likely to enjoy it);
3. Provide an iconic, interesting image, so as to—as Seth Godin puts it—"tee up the reader so the book has maximum impact" (see below).

Human beings are visual creatures. This means that any factor that interferes with the above three points can literally tank a book's sales.

A couple of examples.


The above image violates the first "rule" I outlined, namely that the book's cover should communicate the book's title and author. In this case, does that matter? I don't think so—it's clear (at least, to me) that the book is fiction, probably literary fiction, and so I'm likely to pick it up. (This may be an artifact of my having worked in the industry, though, so I won't assume everyone makes my intuitive leap.)

The more important point is that the cover is striking, iconic, simple, and somewhat mysterious. This is the key to driving sales, as noted by the inimitable Book Ninja (who is, in turn, quoting this original post by Seth Godin). Both Seth and the Book Ninja correctly point out that the book's cover is designed to drive readers to the story—front cover to back cover to flap/jacket copy to book—and a stumble in this first step (i.e. a bad cover) can translate to very poor sales.

What about this cover?

Your Heart Belongs to Me

In my opinion, this one doesn't follow the second "rule"—communicating genre to the consumer—and may have cost the publisher sales as a result. If you didn't see "DEAN KOONTZ" emblazoned in forty-eight point font across the cover, would you identify this book as horror/thriller? I doubt it. I, for one, would immediately mentally classify it as contemporary romance and never give it a second look, since that's not a genre that interests me. I mean, even if you do read Dean's name on the cover, you may assume he's jumped ship and written some kind of romance novel—quite an assumption, I think, but I couldn't blame you for making it.

The cover is fairly striking, but you can tell that's not enough; it's also got to appeal to its target audience. I'm sure you've all seen the cover trope commonly called "the clinch," the hallmark of a romance novel, and this post over at Jezebel explains the intimate relationship between cover and genre. Consumers interested in romance buy romance and pick up anything that looks like romance; the same goes for consumers of children's books, literary fiction, business books, and so on. You can't swap Harry Potter's cover art with that of Freakonomics—even if you properly label each with the correct author and title—and expect sales not to be impacted.

While we shouldn't judge the content of a book by its cover, the fact is, we can and we do, and publishers are betting on the fact that we do. So, once you've sold your book to said publisher, how can you make sure your book isn't tanked by an inappropriate or boring cover?

Well, to a certain extent, you can't. While there are certainly authors (mostly hot shots and celebrities) who have significant say in terms of their cover art, the vast majority of book covers are engineered in the publisher's art department with little or no input from the author. (You may begin to suspect as I explain the industry more and more that, once you've sent your MS off to the agent, fewer and fewer things are in your control. If so, you are correct.) It's also worth pointing out that Koontz is one of said hot shots and still is not immune to the occasional bad cover.

However, he has dozens of books to his name, and this could be your first one.

The good news is, I've very rarely heard of an author who absolutely loathed his or her cover and whose book went to print regardless. While no one from Big Name Publisher is going to come to your house with color palettes to have you pick out the color scheme for your next book's cover, they will run the cover by editorial, sales, marketing, publicity, your agent, and you, and they will most likely be willing to hear you out if you have a major grievance.

In a nutshell, then:

• People pick up, judge, and occasionally buy books based on their covers.
• Publishers assume this.
• Good covers communicate data to the consumer—author, title, genre—as well as excitement/intrigue via the use of iconic, generic (generic meaning expected/familiar, not boring), and interesting images. This is one of the major factors that translates to good sales.
• You want good sales. Therefore, you want a good cover.

If your publisher is showing you cover proofs for the first time, look for these signs. If you would pick it up off the shelf based on the cover alone, that bodes well for you and your book.

I leave you, then, with these: the best book covers of 2008, as judged by the New York Times Book Design Review.


  1. Eric, I'm so glad you decided to start a blog! And, I'm very very happy to hear that if one thinks the cover is truly heinous, there might be a small chance they can do something about it!

    I am one of those people who definitely judges a book by its cover (I am a visual learner, so I can't help it!). I find that, especially with genre books like fantasy and sci-fi, the cover can tell you immediately what sort of story you're going to get, particularly whether the story is more male or female oriented.

    Perhaps I shouldn't go a-book-buying that way, but with so many on the shelf I have to do something to help me make a decision!

  2. Awesome post. Especially awesome blog name.

  3. Sadly, I do have a friend whose book went to print with a cover that he loathed. The background image was awesome, but the character depicted on the cover made it look like a cheesy romance, when it was in fact urban fantasy.

    Fortunately, the publisher eventually agreed that the cover was attracting the wrong market, and the cover was changed for the paperback edition.

  4. It's true!!!! I laughed when I saw the Dean Koontz cover featured here because I specifically remember how awful that thing was. I have no real feelings one way or the other about Koontz, but I specifically remember making a point of showing my wife how bad that cover was when we were at the bookstore. It seriously looks like a self-published romance novel. I couldn't believe, and still can't, that somebody let that thing fly.

  5. I have had multiple covers I loathed. Each was changed for paperback. I loathed them because they were misleading. Turns out readers loathed them too. In my experience publishers rarely listen to authors about covers. They listen to the big accounts who are frequently wrong.

  6. Great first post! I totally judge books by their covers. I've even bought editions for books I already owned just because I liked the cover better.

  7. Thanks for the good, bad and ugly. The visual examples helped me understand the content.

    ps. Definitely would have picked Romance for Koontz.

    Mary E. Ulrich

  8. Checked out the NYT "Favorite Book Covers of 2008" and loved that there was a poll asking for reader's feedback. Thought that might be something you want to use sometime in judging covers. Was surprised some of the covers didn't meet the criteria you outlined, ie. genre, name of author....
    Mary E. Ulrich

  9. Awesome blog, Eric.
    I have two more thoughts to add about book covers:

    1. Can eReaders please start incoporating these (in color please) into the digital book files? Because I want to be dazzled by the cover both in full and by colorful icon. Everytime.

    2. Does making a book cover pastel with drawn characters automatically designate the book as chick lit, and if so, how dismissive of the novel is that, even if the novel IS chick lit?

  10. Hi Mary—

    I would certainly like to see more reader feedback in cover choice. And you're right, several of those covers don't communicate all of the points I listed, but it tends to be that the more iconic the image, the less work the cover has to do in other respects.

    Hi Sierra—

    1. I'd love this, but alas, it's out of our hands. This is up to Amazon, Sony, Plastic Logic, &c.

    2. I wouldn't say it's necessarily dismissive, but that style is associated with chick lit and is often used by publishers to signal genre to consumers (just like "the clinch" signals that a title is a romance novel). To be honest, chick lit sells, and sells well. It's hard to be dismissive of the sales numbers.

  11. I didn't think "romance" seeing that Koontz cover. I saw "creepy stalker novel" instead. I like it a little, though not in a "ZOMG! That's the best title EVAR!!" way.

    And I hate that first cover.

  12. Great blog post. Great information!
    Thanks for creating this blog too!

  13. This is great: interesting and informative. I just wanted to add my voice to those people glad that you have started a blog. :)

  14. Very interesting post. I agree with the school librarians, I never judge a book by its cover. Good grief! Are people really so gullible?

    If the title's interesting, I look for a good synopsis. If this is missing I give the book a miss. I totally ignore the artwork on the cover and anyone else's opinion about the book.

  15. I just wrote a post on what I judge to be the spate of white books on pop nonfiction books. Do you have any idea why this is? Tyler Cowen says white looks better online, but I have no experience by which to judge.

  16. i'm here via moonie and this is a wonderful blog. THANK YOU! and that first cover made me laugh out loud. haha!! and you calling it literary. hahaa!

  17. Looks like you're off to a good start. As someone who has yet to break into print and is slightly overwhelmed but insatiably curious about the publishing world, this blog is going to be a great help to me.
    Thank you.

    Here's hoping I get far enough with my work to encounter some of these problems.

    I think whoever said "Don't judge a book by its cover" used the wrong metaphor because we totally judge books by their covers all the time. The metaphor applies to many other situations, but not to books. That's kind of like how duct tape is used every where and for everything except ducts because the heat melts the tape and renders it useless.

  18. Thanks for this. It's one of the more disturbing aspects of the publishing industry. What? I have no control over my cover? What if my artist likes scrawny tattooed sluts? What if he has no sense of anatomy? Or art for that matter? It's reassuring to know that I can raise a fuss and just say NO effin way.

  19. This website acts as a literary guide, guiding readers through a huge selection of genres and authors with an elegant and user-friendly layout. Reviews and suggestions are not the only things that reaperscans. provides.