Jan 21 2013

Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover

Melissa Crytzer Fry

The desert has taught me that scary things often come in pretty packages, and pretty things often come in disguised packages:

When I first saw one of these fuzzy ants in the desert, my instinct was to touch it. Aww. Pretty. NOT. This velvet ant (Dasymutilla magnifica) packs one heck of a sting if disturbed. Photo by Stephen Minter, Desert Museum Digital Library. Click to enlarge.

Meet the desert’s Sacred Datura. My Audubon book says, “Caution: Entire plant is toxic.” Hard to believe something with such a gorgeous flower can be fatal if ingested by humans or other animals! Click to enlarge.

Just some desert rocks, you say? Not so fast…

Geodes are known for their illusive nature – containing beautiful display-worthy crystals inside, while their outsides are quite deceiving. These rocks I found during various hikes aren’t geodes, but their insides did reveal pretty crystal formations and marbled color striation. Click to enlarge.

The obvious message? Don’t judge a book by its cover. But we do it all the time, don’t we? We make assumptions about people based on their mannerisms, their looks, their speech, their likes and dislikes (even if we try to be unbiased). And, yes, we even do it with our reading purchases. (At least I do … though maybe this is part of my background, having designed alumni magazines in a previous life?).

I will admit to my bias, sharing three specific examples of books I shied away from based on cover instinct only.

I was personally unimpressed by the type-only treatment of this title, which seemed a little elementary and made me wonder about the book’s content (Would I like it? Was it a good fit for my reading preferences?). However, I couldn’t have been more wrong. The book is SO smart and the cover actually reveals quite a bit about the story. (The writing in this book is gorgeous, too). I’m glad I ignored my cover-instinct and moved forward. A fabulous read.
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This is another book I shied away from based solely on the cover. I really, really disliked the font; it reminded me of a ‘70s throwback and was too fru-fru for my liking. I expected a soggy, mushy romance (See how much I assumed from a cover alone?) But then rave reviews from trusted friends and authors came in. So I’m reading it now. Guess what? I love it. It, too, is smart and beautifully written.
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Same story here. The cartoonish feel of the cover caused me to overlook it week after week, even though my Goodreads friends were reading it and reviews are positive. I will read it, despite my initial reaction.
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For Readers & Writers So… Am I just a bad judge of book-cover character? Maybe. Do I put too much stock into cover art? Maybe. Or is it just human nature to (literally) judge a book by its cover? Artwork – colors, photos, drawings, font size, graphic treatment – creates mood, doesn’t it? A cover tells its own story, right? It’s a huge marketing tool for the sale of books…

And, in an age of inch-sized images (Amazon, Goodreads), where so many of us make our purchase decisions, isn’t it imperative that the tiny packet of pixels represents the right message? Shouldn’t covers all look professional? And shouldn’t they all tell a compelling visual story? But then again, what I find appealing you may not. What I find compelling you may not … It’s a personal thing in the end, isn’t it?

Do you ever pass up a book because of its cover? Do you even care about covers? Do you think today, more than ever, readers pay more attention to covers and are more discriminating (due, in part, to the sheer volume of work being published, especially in e-book format)?

I made assumptions (incorrect) about the above books, based on covers alone. Maybe I should look to the velvet ant, the Sacred Datura, and the geode … and stop judging books by their covers. The real question is: Can I?


42 Responses to “Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover”

  • avatar Julia Munroe Martin Says:

    This post couldn’t have come at a better time for me! (As you know) I’m getting ready to self publish for the first time, and I have been thinking about covers non-stop. It’s very helpful to see an analysis like this. Yes, I do judge a book by its cover, too… not sure I’ve ever not read one based on it, but I do have certain biases. That said, I’m particularly worried and concerned that my own looks professional. But also that it fits with the genre (mystery). So, as a reader I’d like to judge less by the cover, but as a writer, I think I need to judge more and analyze, analyze, analyze, and this post gives me some excellent insight! Great post, Melissa, thank you.

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    Melissa Reply:

    I am so guilty of completely shunning books based on covers (obviously).It’s often the first step in my process of elimination, esp. when I’m reading Goodreads reviews — I scan the book cover images first. If I don’t like, I move on. It makes me wonder how many other “mes” are out there. I think you’re taking the right approach to your cover – analyzing and studying the market to create the best possible cover for your work (that fits within genre)! I agree – various genres have various feels. Rightly or wrongly.

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  • avatar Erika Marks Says:

    I’m with Julia–I love hearing your thoughts on covers because they do matter to all of us, whether we want to admit it or not. I have been smitten by covers enough to pick up a book but I agree with you that a cover can also have the opposite effect. Having been through the process of watching a cover built and changed and considered, I continue to be impressed at how much goes into the design and all the things that are taken into consideration.

    (And that ant!!?? Whoa!!!)

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    Melissa Reply:

    True. Sometimes a cover will wow me, only for me to find the words beneath do not. It works both ways, absolutely! I’d love to hear more about your books’ cover-building. From watching Amy Sue Nathan’s recent cover tweaks, I also am amazed at how much thought goes into the tiniest of details. But sometimes, I just feel they get it all wrong… But again: what’s bad for me might be great for someone else! With book covers, the “Can’t please everyone” mantra is in full effect.

    Yes – aren’t those ants cool? They really do look so soft and cuddly. But they run so quickly, I’ve never been able to adequately capture one on film!

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  • avatar Laurie Buchanan Says:

    I am oh-so-guilty as charged.

    I am a true Cover Girl (cracking myself up! Not, of course, in the truest sense of the word, but in the book sense of the word).

    Whether I’m at the library, the book store, or buying books online, the cover art is first and foremost, the blurb on the back is second, and the first two pages is third. Shamefully, that is my “read or not to read” criteria.

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    Melissa Reply:

    You have described me EXACTLY (my response to Julia, above, is similar). Same, exact process in my book selecting! I should do a poll on how many Lauries and Melissas are out there… I would bet that many folks share the same methodology as us…

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  • avatar Amy Sue Nathan Says:

    Ok, I’ll chime in about my cover here…a lot does go into cover design and the author doesn’t always have the final say. Oh, I mean, the author rarely has the final say. LOL. The lucked out with the cover for The Glass Wives, and even when someone said, “Hey, those cups should totally NOT match,” after my initial inner freak out, I understood that while I saw the cups quite literally as COFFEE CUPS used by the characters, those not as literal as I saw them as representations of the two main characters in the book who are different, yet similar. I tend to be quite literal until I step back. I don’t like being misled by a cover, that was the only thing I said when asked what I wanted for mine (and I always pictured a window, but never mentioned that!). We do judge books by their covers. If I see a cover I don’t like for whatever reason, I’m less likely to pick up the book to even give it a try. That being said, when I love a cover, I always try it on and see if the book is a fit.

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    Melissa Reply:

    You make such a good point about people who see things literally and more figuratively/with an artist’s eye. I think I’m a hybrid of the two, honestly. And, as I mentioned on your blog, I totally “got” why they wanted to change your cover (albeit slightly, though enough to have you freak out. I get it.). Your cover is beautiful — and I couldn’t agree more: I don’t want a cover to mislead me. And these days, with so many type-treatment-only covers, I don’t want it to BORE me either…
    I also think indie authors need to be so aware of their artwork design… Many skimp on it, and I really believe it must hurt sales…

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  • avatar Tessa @ thesimplecountrylife.com Says:

    I do judge a book by it’s cover, & I probably would have passed the ones up you mentioned based off of the appearance. But if someone’s opinion I respect (like yours) recommends a book, I can overlook the cover and give it a whirl. I’m generous that way, haha.

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    Melissa Reply:

    I obviously operate in the same generous fashion (ha ha)… But I can’t seem to make that leap on my own if a cover doesn’t immediately grab me. Glad to know I’m not alone!

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  • avatar Shary Says:

    I usually choose books based on recommendations and rarely look at the cover until after I’ve decided to buy. When I do browse the shelves, I’m sure the covers do influence me, but I’ve never noticed myself selecting or rejecting a novel based on the cover art. It’s all subconscious, just the way the marketers want it, I guess.

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    Melissa Reply:

    I want to be more like you, because I’m afraid my personal biases may mean I’m missing out on some really good books! Though, as I’ve illustrated, I will allow recommendations to override my initial reactions.

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  • avatar Lori P Says:

    I love this post, Melissa, and was happy to see your thoughts on “Shine, shine, shine,” as the cover wasn’t a favorite of mine. Heck yes, I go by the cover even when I know I shouldn’t. I’m particularly bothered when I buy an ebook and the cover is NOT included or it’s just a blank page with the title typed on it. When we pay about the same as for a paperback, how can the jpeg not be included?? Sorry for the rant – it’s a pet peeve of mine.

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    Melissa Reply:

    Fortunately I’ve never encountered a coverless e-book. I agree… WTF? Did you read Shine Shine Shine?

    I’ve noticed so, so many type-only treatments of novels these days (in fact, there was a great NY Times article about it that I tweeted months ago and I can’t find it! I wanted to include it in this post). Type-only treatments, to me, seem a disservice to the author and her story… But, what do I know?

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    Lori P Reply:

    You know PLENTY. It’s your passion and therefore you’ve studied it and hobbies it in your spare time. I completely agree that a novel deserves thoughtful treatment. And doesn’t that also provide work for artists and photographers. Where’s my soapbox?!

    Many of my ebooks have only come w a thumbnail of the cover. So disappointing when the artwork makes me anticipate what’s coming.

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    Melissa Reply:

    Know what? You’re right. Come to think of it – I don’t know if ANY of my ebooks have covers with them. Just a title page, like you said! (And if it’s any consolation, I’m on the soapbox with you).

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  • avatar Natalia Sylvester Says:

    What a great post, Melissa! I loved seeing the juxtaposition of covers you didn’t like for books you loved. It makes me very thankful for book reviewers and bloggers–imagine all the books we may never have read if it hadn’t been for a trusted recommendation. I was just thinking how different my book-buying experience has become from just 5 years ago. Back then, I’d go into a bookstore, browse, and make a purchase, but I remember going through dry spells when I didn’t fall in love with book after book that I chose. That RARELY happens now. It’s like we’ve all come to know each other’s tastes, and now which books we’re most likely to enjoy if so-and-so loved it.

    But back to book covers: you know, I think I’m more likely to judge a book by its title than the cover. Just a few carefully selected words can draw a picture in my mind and capture my imagination (I’m sure it helps when the cover matches up with the picture in my mind, though). I’m actually getting butterflies in my stomach thinking about all this…I have never really been able to imagine what my own cover would look like, and I’m more than happy to leave it to the pros and (hopefully) be blown away by whatever they come up with.

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    Melissa Reply:

    I couldn’t agree with you more about the value of recommended books for reading. My habits have changed in the exact same way yours have: from browsing in a book store (a hit-or-miss proposition) to relying on recommendations. I get ALL of my book recs from Twitter and Goodreads. And, like you, I haven’t been disappointed.

    I wish I could judge books by titles, but I tend to be SO visual, I just can’t help myself! I can’t WAIT to see your book cover and wish I had the faith you do in the book’s design. Ha ha. I already have the EXACT idea of just what my book cover should be, and I know, I know … per Amy Sue … that insight won’t mean diddly since I’ll likely have zero say. But for now, I can at least pretend what my book will look like and have some fun.

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  • avatar Cynthia Robertson Says:

    First off: great topic. It’s so important for us as humans beings to be aware that not everything and everyone is as their outside appearance would seem to represent. Our society is probably one of the worst, for promoting the worship of appearances, and that kind of shallow judgement is so limiting.
    But, it’s true, we all do it.
    I’ve never seen one of those furry ants, Melissa, but I’m glad you’ve warned me here, because I too would be tempted to touch if I came across one in the desert!
    The book covers you used for your examples don’t thrill me either – and for pretty much the same reasons you mention. Funny, huh? Certain books covers put me off. I can’t stand the beautiful damsel in a beautiful dress kind of historical cover (especially if said damsel has no head), and will usually pass on one of those, unless someone I trust tells me it’s worth the read. I see a lot of really terrible self-published covers – it seems that is something better left to a cover designer, and not done by the author. If an author does it themselves, it’s probably best to stick with a simple design in bold colors (from what I’ve observed). And, as Amy Sue points out, the cover shouldn’t be misleading.
    Haven’t read Shine yet. It’s gotten mixed reviews, but if you liked it, I’ll give it a try. Ditto for Beautiful Ruins.

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    Melissa Reply:

    Yep – those ants are all over out here (so don’t pet them the way I wanted to… ha ha). I don’t like the “damsel in beautiful dress” covers either. They’re all so SIMILAR…

    Have to agree on the terrible self-published covers as well. Unfortunately, it’s enough to make me not take a second look. I’ll let you know my final verdict on Beautiful Ruins! 😉

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  • avatar Annie Neugebauer Says:

    I am *so* guilty of this. The only positive to it is that sometimes I’ve picked up a book solely (or mostly) for the cover, and found it pleasantly backed up by beautiful prose. But the flip side to that is that I worry about my own future book cover(s), the fact that writers have little control over them, and how a weak one could impact the sales of a book. I do think that it’s human nature to be attracted to visually pleasing things, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to get past it as readers who know better.

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    Melissa Reply:

    It’s hard NOT to worry about future book covers, I agree (especially for control freaks like me, who have specific ideas in mind of what I want). And the tie to sales IS, indeed, scary!!!

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  • avatar Linda Anselmi Says:

    My e-reader is a few years old. It doesn’t show the covers, so I am relying more on book summaries. I have to say more authors need to give attention to that aspect. If it reads choppy and vague and is lacking in punch the reader is going to assume that is what the book is like.

    I actually thought the last book was kind of fun looking. I had the same take away on the first one, now you definitely have me intrigued. All I need is more books to read — Not!

    Love your nature pics!

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    Melissa Reply:

    What a great point you make, Linda – about the importance of moving, well-written summaries!

    I share the same “too many books to read” dilemma as you, Linda.

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  • avatar Nina Says:

    I agree with every one of your cover assessments here, Melissa!

    I do tend to judge even though I’m often proven incorrect. Sometimes I assume the best and am wrong. Sometimes I assume the worst and I’m wrong. Most recent example was A Walk Across the Sun, which I thought I’d hate from both the cover and the jacket copy. I LOVED it!

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    Melissa Reply:

    Oooh… I’ve seen A Walk Across the Sun on Goodreads… You loved it? Guess whose list it’s going on (as if I need to add more)???

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  • avatar Amber Says:

    A cover definitely catches my eye, and in some cases can turn me off to a book. I have two authors who I bounce everything off of and we all went different routes with our covers (different designers and feels) but we were sure to give each other a lot of feedback to get the best out of them.

    The cover is usually what catches someone’s eye enough for them to stop and find out what the book is about (and read the reviews).

    I was broker than broke when my book was ready for publishing and designed my own. I got a lot of great feedback, but I’m already thinking of ways the next cover could be better.

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    Melissa Reply:

    What a good point about bouncing ideas off multiple folks to get perspective (for indie authors who DO have a say in their cover art … that part must be terribly fun, but also nerve-wracking)!

    Can’t wait to see your next cover, Amber! Thanks for stopping by.

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  • avatar Orly Konig-Lopez Says:

    Great post! I’m right there with you on being a cover girl. If the cover pings my curiosity, I’ll open the book or click to read more. Titles are huge for me too. If the title intrigues me, I’ll take a closer look even if the cover doesn’t grab me.

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    Melissa Reply:

    I need to become more “title sensitive” because you’re right: intriguing titles can say a lot about what’s under the cover.

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  • avatar Lara Schiffbauer Says:

    I’m with you on judging a book by it’s cover. If it looks awful, I fear for the content. I suppose it’s not very fair. 🙂

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  • avatar Jackie Cangro Says:

    I’m with you Melissa. The cover is supposed to evoke the emotions of the book. If I’m not drawn in by the cover, I’m less likely to want to read it. Sad, but true.

    Have you ever seen the TED clip of famed book jacket designer Chip Kidd? It gives an interesting glimpse into the process of making a cover.
    http://www.ted.com/talks/chip_kidd_designing_books_is_no_laughing_matter_ok_it_is.html

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    Melissa Reply:

    Jackie – that video is SO wonderful (and entertaining). Thank you so much for sharing.

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  • avatar Jolina Petersheim Says:

    I am ALL about covers, Melissa. It’s always a nice surprise to not like a cover but then like the novel’s content. I have heard so many positive things about Lydie Netzer’s Shine, Shine, Shine. I met her in person at the Southern Festival of Books, and she was very sweet and…well, down to earth. Ha!

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  • avatar Hallie Sawyer (@Hallie_Sawyer) Says:

    What a topic! I think picking a book by its cover is a lot shopping for a new home. Rarely, and I mean, rarely would you ever step foot in a home that has a hideous paint color and rotten landscaping. A book cover is MEANT to entice you to open it. To give it a chance. I think it is important for a cover to reflect the words inside but it has to be pleasing to the eye.

    It takes a special recommendation (just like a very persuasive realtor) to get me to crack a book with a less than enticing cover.

    Your points are very valid, Melissa. Don’t be too hard on yourself on this. I’ve misjudged some books in the past as well and am very grateful for recommendations by friends to give some books a chance.

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  • avatar Lisa Ahn Says:

    I’m guilty of the same! I think you’re right that the cover sets the mood, the expectations.

    I also love the geode photo. My youngest daughter loves, loves rocks. For Christmas, she got a rock excavation kit, one of those clay blocks where you have to dig out the gems and rocks. It had a little geode and she was so entranced and delighted when we broke it open and it was filled with crystals. Priceless! (and a good reminder).

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    Melissa Reply:

    I want a clay block so I can dig out the gems and rocks! Seriously :-).

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  • avatar Mahesh Raj Mohan Says:

    Y’know, this doesn’t happen to me often because I’ll usually go by the author, and while I’ll sometimes think, “man, what an ugly cover!” I’ll still get it. But covers definitely matter, for all the reasons you mentioned. If it doesn’t fit our expectations, it’s easy to overlook, and publishers or indie authors should definitely take all of that into consideration.

    Love how you tied in the nature pics!

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    Melissa Reply:

    Thanks, Mahesh. Hope things are going well with the little one, work, life!

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  • avatar Kellie Larsen Murphy Says:

    Great comments about the covers. I don’t know that I’ve passed over a book so much as picked up a book based on the cover. Maybe that’s the same thing? Either way, I will have to check out the books you mentioned.

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    Melissa Reply:

    Yes, jacket art has been the reason I’ve picked up books in the past. One in particular, Beth Gutcheon’s MORE THAN YOU KNOW, comes to mind. It had a partial, mysterious/spooky, house on the front, and I just had to know what it meant! And I LOVED the book.

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