Judging Books by Their Covers

Posted: April 27, 2016 by Jaden C. Kilmer in Article
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Great prose may win awards. But great covers sell books.

There’s a reason why authors often spend months looking at options, revising and helping artists redraft concept art until reaching the final product. Hell, even the cover to my low key, self published e-book went through three iterations.

People DO judge books by their covers. Because even in a theoretical bibliophile’s paradise where there is infinite time and infinite books at one’s disposal, you still have to decide which ones to read first. Maybe you read your favorites again, then check off your to read list. But what about after? Eventually you would fall back into a tried and true heuristic- cover judging.

So let’s take a look at three covers. Let’s say these are the books at your local friendly book store’s discount pile, 90% off, but you can only get one. Which one do you pick out?

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I’m going to guess most of you just picked up Kate Mosse’s The Taxidermist’s Daughter. And if you didn’t, I’m going to guess you are either an avid romance reader or a pop fiction fan.

Moment of Weakness is about as cliche as a romance book cover gets. Two attractive, (almost always white) people leaned in close but not quite kissing. Also known as the pose on every single romance movie poster. Ever. Does that make it a bad cover? Not necessarily. I’d actually argue it’s a good cover. It’s not targeting an audience outside of romance fans, and it’s an image that’s a cliche, but one that should appeal to them instantly.

Cross Justice meanwhile, “penned” by the inexplicably ubiquitous James Patterson, is a bad cover. What’s the pitch here? It’s just some dude holding a gun with JAMES PATTERSON CROSS JUSTICE splattered across it. As if a really forced pun (the main character is Alex Cross) was worthy of something to be so blaring and dominating. It gives you very little idea of what the book is about, and it gives you no reason to read it. The only thing about the cover that will draw an audience is the name of the author. And that name will draw so many readers I guess the publishers didn’t feel bothered to waste money on a legit cover design.

So how come most of you probably picked up The Taxidermist’s Daughter? Well, for one it’s definitely the most artistic cover. I feel like the best covers should be able to standalone as images. And the image of a stuffed chickadee in a tiny glass containment provokes something. There’s an emotional reaction in both the image and the title. Moment of Weakness? K. Cross Justice? Ugh. The Taxidermist’s Daughter? Now there’s something interesting. The words kind of roll off the tongue, the word “taxidermist” carries with it a certain sadness. The word “Daughter” contrasts, a word connected to life after a word connected to death. There’s a weird beauty to it. And the publishers are well aware. The tagline “in death there can be beauty” scrawled on the left side only provokes more interest. It’s vague, but clearly ties in to the title. There’s a dichotomy going on here between death and life, all subtlety expressed in the art, the title, and the tagline. All these things combine to make you at least pick up the thing, maybe thumb through some pages or read the inside of the cover jacket for more.

Perhaps a word has just come to you, one you remember hearing your english teacher say in high school. Pathos. Indeed, the tenets of debate hold true here. A good cover is going to have at least one and probably two of Pathos (emotion) Logos (logic) and Ethos (personal credibility.) An easy way to build Ethos in a cover is to slap praises and achievements on the cover. “#1 Bestseller!” “From the author of…” etc. Similar thing for Logos. Snippets of quotes talking about the quality of the book, either on the front or back, like “terrific! Gripping!” and “A must read for any fan of this genre” are appealing to logic and reason.

Even an author’s name matters. Who’s going to buy a children’s book by a guy named Theodor Geisel? Now Dr. Seuss sounds like a guy who would think of some whacky stories for your toddler. Want something a little whimsical and weird, and maybe a little dark? Are you gonna trust Daniel Hadler or Lemony Snickett?

You get the idea. But pen names are not the only way names sell books. If you’re a pop fiction fan, looking for a quick spy caper or revenge tale, maybe you picked up Cross Justice. James Patterson is certainly the most famous “author” of that kind, and if you’re a fan of that genre, you’re probably gonna go with what you know rather than take a chance on someone you’ve never heard of.

That’s about seven hundred words too many for applying a silly cliche to the real world. But there’s a lesson in all of it to you aspiring writers. COVERS MATTER! I’ll leave you with three more covers, all of them are on my to read list. And the only reason why I picked them up to start with? The covers and/or titles. See if you can see what interested me, or perhaps, if you would’ve passed by it without a second glance, figure out why. Then when the time comes to designing your own cover, you have a better idea of what works and what doesn’t. Remember, you only get one chance with most people in a bookstore. Either they pick it up or they go on by, and the cover is your one chance to catch their attention.

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Comments
  1. mandibelle16 says:

    Great article thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jenn says:

    Orphan Train was so good and I love Kate Atkinson. I have feeling you’re going to enjoy those books.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. […] week I wrote about the importance of a good cover. So let’s continue walking through someone’s experience in picking out your book. […]

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  4. […] Well, I’ve been in both a reading and writing slump lately. And I decided it’s a lot easier to break the reading slump than writing slump. So I picked up The Taxidermist’s Daughter, which I previously mentioned as a book on my to-read list simply because I like the cover. […]

    Like

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