Ten: On Book Covers

There’s been a lot of talk this week about book covers, following Maureen Johnson’s Coverflip challenge, so I thought I’d talk a bit about those covers in this week’s Ten post. Despite its popularity, I’m pretty sure that the saying “Don’t judge a book by its cover” is generally more relevant to situations not involving books. Although the cover art can certainly be misleading, more often than not I’ve found that book covers more broadly — or information that would be on the cover, such as the title, author, or blurb — are a pretty reliable guide to what I’ll enjoy. Following are ten features of a book cover that may make the difference between a book staying on the shelf and joining homework and lunch leftovers in a reader’s backpack.

The Little Prince coverCover Art
Obviously this is a huge one, and there are lots of issues involved. Some are personal: I hate it when my favourite version of a book’s cover is abandoned for a new design to match a sequel. Others are broader, like the stereotypical gender-based marketing that Johnson criticised. There’s also the potential problem that cover art tends to date a book. While a fresh, modern cover is appealing now, if the book’s contents have staying power, the cover may eventually become a liability. The only book I can think of that seems to have escaped this problem is The Little Prince, whose cover image is so iconic that most editions simply reframe the original.

While book covers can be glorious, and are certainly influential, it is rare for more than a few books to display their covers in any physical collection. Book spines, then, can play a big part in drawing a reader’s attention, both through their content — title, author and publisher — and through their design. A spine that includes elements of the front cover image, a striking colour, or an photograph of the author can do a lot to slow a reader skimming the shelves (though I generally take the last as a sign to avoid a book, assuming it’s supposed value is based more on the popularity of its author than on the quality of its contents).

Timmy Failure coverTitle
The title of a book sends important signals about what an author means to accomplish, or challenges the reader to pick up the book in order to find out what the title means. Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Make sets readers up from the start to expect a particular sort of humour, for example, while Freak the Mighty depends more on catching the reader’s curiosity.

While the author’s name is generally not chosen for a particular book (though a change in genre sometimes means the introduction of a pen name), the presentation of the author’s name often indicates how important a selling point a book’s authorship is expected to be.

Author of… statements
Closely related to the last point, many book covers include a quick nod to another well-known book the author has published. If a potential reader is picking up the book because he or she likes the author, this is not so helpful. On the other hand, if something else about the book grabbed his or her attention, an Author of… statement that points to a book he or she liked (or disliked) a few years ago offers a major clue about whether this new book will be a winner.

Here I’m talking about the paragraph(s) on the back of the book, or the inside jacket flap, that describe the contents of a book. Blurbs do two important things to introduce a book. First, they (usually) give a good idea of what the book is about. If the mini story offered here interests the potential reader, there’s a good chance the book will, too. Second, the blurb provides a collection of keywords/key concepts that readers can link to things they’ve read in the past. If a reader has enjoyed other books involving time travel, or court intrigue, or werewolves, finding references to these things in the blurb is likely to increase his or her interest in the book.

This is other, well-known authors’/public figures’ positive comments about a book. (I’ve also seen these called blurbs, but if these are blurbs, what’s the bit on the back? Calling them endorsements seems less confusing to me) Ignoring those that are too full of unfortunately-placed ellipses to make anything they say convincing, these can actually be really helpful. If I’m in a position to take a risk on a book I’m not sure about (e.g. I’m getting it from the library, so returning it if I don’t like it is no big deal), knowing that someone else I respect, or whose writing style I trust, enjoyed the book is often enough to convince me to give it a try.

The One and Only Ivan coverAward seals
Like endorsements, award seals say that someone else thought the book was worth attention. Of course, they’re most useful if a reader has already enjoyed other books honoured by the same award, suggesting that the criteria for the award and his or her own taste have something in common.

Hard cover, soft cover, e-book or audiobook
Since most books are available in multiple formats, this is generally not a question of whether a book will be selected at all, but rather of how a particular reader chooses to take on a book. For reading, this may depend as much on the reader’s current circumstances as on his or her preferences: long commute? Go with the downloadable audiobook. Need something to take on holiday? Choose the cheaper paperback. When it comes to owning, though, preference probably plays a bigger role. Personally, I prefer paperbacks. They may be less sturdy, but you get the cover art without the annoying dust jacket, and they’re quicker to take on a lovely “read” look.

Maybe this is just me, but when I’m looking at physical books, I’m often drawn to the ones whose covers are made of that thicker, slightly rough-textured, matte paper. The shiny covers show fingerprints and feel sticky when it’s hot out; the thinner, coated matte covers show every scratch. These ones, to me, have a softer, more lasting, classic feel about them.

The Mysterious Benedict Society coverColour schemes and font choices
These are technically part of a book’s cover design, but I think that they have implications of their own in terms of what they tell a reader. Hot pink on the cover says one thing about the contents (whether or not this is merited — see the Coverflip project above), while muted, antique-y colours say something else. Except for a few remarkable examples, font choices probably don’t get as much conscious attention even as colour schemes. The choice is deliberate, though, and a poorly-chosen font definitely sends signals about the thought that went into other aspects of the book’s production.

These are the elements that I’ve noticed influencing my choices at the library and bookstore. What catches your attention in a book cover? Are there things that are especially likely to convince you to take the book home, or leave it on the shelf?


2 thoughts on “Ten: On Book Covers

  1. “I hate it when my favourite version of a book’s cover is abandoned for a new design” Oh My Goodness – Me Too! It is like someone I love got a face-lift that wasn’t quite right …I still love them but I also long for the “original” – is that weird? Even if it is – it’s the truth.

    • An interesting analogy — I’ll have to ponder that. My frustration is partly with the fact that it can make it really difficult to come up with a matched set for my collection. I don’t want to re-buy books 1 and 2 when book 3 comes out with a mismatched cover.

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