Judging a Book by Its Cover

As children, we were taught to not judge a book by its cover. But, it’s a lesson that didn’t stick. Every day we judge something or someone by its outward appearance: that buff guy at the gym must be a narcissist; that woman in a conservative suit and ballerina-tight bun must be dull; and that plain-jane cover must render that book boring.

It’s human nature to make quick judgments – if it wasn’t, we wouldn’t have phrases like, “you never get a second chance to make a first impression,” or receptionists wouldn’t have titles like, Director of First Impressions.

Since I’ve decided to Indie publish Phoenix, I’ve started a rapidly-growing to-do list in anticipation of my October 1, 2012 publish date. Copyrights, ISBNs, distribution channels, all are part of what I need to check off. But, the one that is most daunting is selecting a book cover.

Luckily, I have friends who have read Phoenix and can be coaxed with alcohol to brainstorm cover ideas. Being the responsible marketer that I am, I’m doing my own research in how I select books from new authors, especially in a digital world with bookstores going the way of dinosaurs.

First, let’s dive into a few of my favorite books and how the cover lured me in (these are all books I picked up off the shelf, not knowing anything about the author):

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

The various cloud formations and ways of depicting clouds – from photographs to meteorological maps had a calming effect but at the same time, made me think this was a sweeping novel that would cover an entire world. The payoff? Yes, it is a sweeping, epic novel that covers centuries and many stories. Some are old stories, some modern, but they are all tied together by one thread.

She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb

I still remember when I bought this book. It was the 90s, I was in college, working at a bookstore and was drawn to the lonely young woman, depicted simply by her face, hovering over what I imagined to be the deep end. And yes, that is exactly what the book is about.

The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern

I would have been drawn to this story by simply reading the book blurb, but if you haven’t seen it in person, it’s a beautiful, debossed cover that the publisher spent a lot of money on. I grabbed it because it was black and white and red with the circus itself being held in the hand of a god-like being.

These are books that I rated with 5 stars on Goodreads, but what about some I didn’t like as much? Well, I realized that has nothing to do with the cover art. The book I rated the lowest has a bright green cover with a hot pink bear – cool and hipster-y, but I weep for the trees that lost their lives for that turd (book club book, and our pickers were hammered when they chose it … friends don’t let friends drink and pick books). Some of my 2 star ratings had good enough covers, but the writing or story was lackluster. So what does that tell me? Well, you can have a good cover but if the writing or story sucks, then it doesn’t matter if you commissioned Picasso himself for it.

The bigger question now is what does a book’s cover mean in the e-reader age? I have an old-school Kindle, so I’m not buying books for its cover on this black and white beast. But the new Kindle Fire and iPad all have better graphics, so does this mean can spend more on a bang-up digital graphic, or less? Would Erin Morgenstern’s cool cover be as “ooh-ooh shiny” if I didn’t see the debossing and quality of paper?

I have ideas for Phoenix’s cover floating through my mind. A deserted highway with the sun setting on the horizon (cliche much?). Models/illustrations depicting the main characters? Is it simply a cool typeface and color block treatment? Or, does it even matter?

What about you? Do you judge a book by its cover? And, for my Indie published peers, how did you decide on cover art?

About Kimberly Packard

Kimberly Packard is an award-winning author of women’s fiction. She began visiting her spot on the shelves at libraries and bookstores at a young age, gazing between the Os and the Qs. Kimberly received a degree in journalism from the University of North Texas, and has worked in public relations and communications for nearly 20 years. When she isn’t writing, she can be found rollerblading, doing a poor imitation of yoga or curled up with a book. She resides in North Texas with her husband Colby, Oliver the cat and a 75-pound lap dog named Charlie. Her debut novel, Phoenix, was awarded as Best General Fiction of 2013 by the Texas Association of Authors.
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6 Responses to Judging a Book by Its Cover

  1. Sara Flower says:

    I absolutely love the cover for The Night Circus. So striking. I do judge books by their covers most of the time. I like Goodreads because you can read reviews of books by your friends so you can make better choices – as tempting as it is to choose a book for its epic cover.

    I am actually a little stressed these days, because the cover for my first book of By the Sword hasn’t had the hottest ratings. So, as soon as I can, I am going to design something simpler – something I had in mind from the start but my cover designer didn’t quite grasp it.

  2. Zen says:

    I don’t judge a book by its cover… not exactly. I mean, the cover is what first attracts me to the book and causes me to pick it off the shelf, but I quickly turn it over to read the blurb. I agree with the “don’t judge a book by its cover” mindset, but one can’t deny that it plays a huge part in drawing potential readers.

    When working on my cover, I found the images I wanted and asked my cover designer to see what she can make with it. I’m quite pleased with the result!

    • Thank you, Zen! Great to know about your cover design experience. That does make me wonder … would a lackluster cover mean you wouldn’t have read the book blurb? I know it may for me, so I wonder how many good books I missed because of that.

  3. Kana Tyler says:

    It matters! Even in this age of digital books, we still have our virtual “bookshelves” with their cover art on display–and when I’m browsing in the brick-and-mortar bookstore, it’s *absolutely* the cover that leads me to pick up (or pass by) a book…

    There’s another “layer” of impression when it comes to Indie publishing–a poorly-made cover gives the impression of amateurism that leads a potential reader to jump to conclusions about the CONTENT… For better or worse, we DO judge books by how they dress–so I’m glad to think you’re taking the time and effort to “dress” yours for success! 😉

    • Thanks, Kana! That’s so true. Sometimes, it’s a matter of economics – does an Indie author have the money to pay for an outstanding cover. But it does matter and yes, we should make that investment in ourselves and our work. Plus, there are lots of art students who would jump at the chance to add something to their portfolio. Happy Memorial Day!

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