Don’t Judge A Book By Its Cover? Oh Come ON, Of Course We Do!

Book covers and their contents are inextricably tied up with each other for me – I can’t separate them, for better or worse.

Jul 24, 2013 at 10:00am | Leave a comment

When choosing your next read, are you swayed at all by the cover – how pretty it is? Whether it’ll fit into the colour scheme on your bookshelves (ahem), if you’ll feel sheepish reading it on the tube? I know I consider all these factors when I’m browsing in a bookshop (a rare pleasure – must stop ordering online and actually go into bookshops more often.)

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Good Mitford cover (by Cecil Beaton I think) and BAD Mitford cover

Book covers and their contents are inextricably tied up with each other for me – I can’t separate them, for better or worse. Some make me cringe, others make me smile fondly. And I'm not alone - Sharon is just as judgy as me! “Book covers matter to me. I dislike overtly girly looking book covers with pastel shades and cartoon women, cats and cupcakes etc. I know we've moved on from the 'is chick-lit real writing?' debate but the covers need to move on too. Even Jackie Collins' books have quite chic covers considering."

"Those covers (chick-lit-y ones) signify 'light reading material inside' to me, when actually the book may be an intricate exploration of an abusive relationship - not light reading material at all. I like the sound of Jennifer Close's new book, but I'm honestly put off by the cover because it's straying into chick-lit territory. Same with Where’d You Go Bernadette?  Ian McEwan's new book cover for Sweet Tooth is disappointing for the standard of writer he is: it looks like something you'd pick up last-minute in an airport or train station."

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Anna-Marie and Niamh love the cover of Maria Semple's Where'd You Go, Bernadette?, but Sharon found it off-putting.

"I tend to favour quite simple or vintage looking covers, although I do like the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency covers. Others I've liked recently include Tigers In Red Weather and Zadie Smith's NW - quality, artistic book covers that reflect the writing inside. I think not only are book covers a reflection of the writing, but they're also a reflection of the reader. I want to be thought of as an intelligent thoughtful reader - even if I'm actually reading about a clumsy single girl's search for love!”

Author Maureen Johnson challenged her followers on Twitter to flip the genders of famous novels and come up with new cover designs - the results were fascinating (and off an impressively high standard.)

It’s complicated – we definitely do make judgements about the books we choose to buy and read based on their covers and these judgements are not always fair. Authors can feel like they struggle to avoid being pigeonholed by their publisher’s marketing departments and the choice of cover is part of that process.

This tension is particularly acute when related to gender – if Sharon's put off by overly 'girlie' covers, can we assume that male readers are even more so? The same goes for the name of the author – JK Rowling liberated herself from any perceived judgements about her gender once with Harry Potter and just outed herself as ‘Robert Galbraith’ – the author of crime novel The Cuckoo's Calling.

In doing so she freed herself from gender restrictions once again, but also from any pressures that critics and her vast Potter fanbase might have placed upon her as she tried a new genre. "I had hoped to keep this secret a little longer because being Robert Galbraith has been such a liberating experience. It has been wonderful to publish without hype or expectation, and pure pleasure to get feedback under a different name."

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Some more of my favourite book covers - Nabokov's Pnin and The Good Soldier Schweik

One author, Deborah Copaken Kogan, wrote a passionate article describing how the title of her first book had been changed from her preferred Newswhore to Shutterbabe in order to make it more marketable and how she had a struggle to get the cover she wanted: “The cover that the publisher designs has a naked cartoon torso against a pink background with a camera covering the genitalia. I tell them it’s usually my eye behind the camera, not my vagina. I fight - hard - to change the cover. Thankfully, I win this one, agreeing to shoot the cover photo myself, gratis.”

When classics are updated with new covers it can send their fans into a frenzy of rage. I despise the clichéd cartoony-pastel covers of the most recent editions of Nancy Mitford’s novels, and the 2013 cover for Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar elicited a similar response.

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A couple of Niamh's recent favourite covers - Simon Rich's The Last Girlfriend on Earth and Petite Mort by Beatrice Hitchman

I asked Niamh at Serpent’s Tail for an insight into how these decisions come to be made. “Editors work with authors to develop a cover brief which is passed to the art department. We then choose a suitable designer or illustrator or take on the work in-house and do picture research. Some weeks pass. We present rough visuals at a covers meeting to a department of senior staff across sales and marketing, including the book's editor. A consensus is reached on the best fit for the market. We show the author and hopefully they like. We show key accounts (Waterstones etc) and hopefully they like. If no to the latter two points, we often start again.”

“Genre matters very much and gives a steer, as does ideal audience description and comparative titles. Authors get to see what the publishing house can get behind – not all the rough visuals. We don't force authors to have covers they hate but if we have a strong case for a certain style of design, we do make our point. I tend to like strong graphic covers - not too much clutter/type that integrates and is positioned well within the images. And air – covers need air.”

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I often like books which use a painting from the period on the cover

Anna-Marie at Profile Books says, “Online is affecting covers in two major ways: you have to take into consideration how it will look as a small image on a screen (some publishers are now making two covers - one simplified for online and one for print), and publishers are looking at ways to make print books even more desirable, e.g. through special cover effects, limited edition hardbacks, artist collaborations, accentuating and exploiting the potential of print."

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Yayoi Kusama's illustrated Alice in Wonderland show why despite the rise of ereaders there will always be a desire for books as phsyical objects

So 'fess up, are you as judgemental as Sharon and I when it comes to selecting your reading material? Do you have any literary favourites which have truly hideous covers that make you cringe?  What's your all-time favourite cover?