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Confession: I judge books by their covers

Posted on 17th April 2015 by Isabel Popple
Despite trying not to, it can sometimes be tempting to judge a book by its cover. Hooded figure? Science fiction. Black background and grey font? Erotica. Silhouetted man? Thriller featuring a renegade who, damn it, doesn't play by the rules. Isabel Popple confesses to something that, let's face it, we all do.

I have a confession: I judge books by their covers. I know the old adage as well as the next person, but nonetheless I can’t seem to help it. Covers tap into my unconscious mind and whisper about the story wrapped up inside – a good cover pulls my eye and grabs my imagination while a poor or uninteresting one slides by, unnoticed.

As a bookseller I’m surrounded by books all day and I can’t help thinking about what all the different covers mean and what they’re trying to say to me. Cover design is like a secret form of body language subtly telling me what kind of story is inside, how well written it might be, whether or not it’ll be my cup of tea. I interpret and process its clues without thought: image, colour, style of font. And don’t even get me started on end-papers.

With so many books in the world waiting to be read, cover stereotypes help me narrow down my infinite reading list. Sepia tones with bold red highlights: war story. Washed out children and pink text: ‘misery’ memoir. I think literary fiction tends to be more understated, but we all know a science fiction cover when we see one.

But does this make it right to judge a book by its cover? The correlation between cover style and content means that because I think I know what kind of book I like to read and what kind of covers are generally used on those types of books, I know what sort of covers to look out for. But does this limit my reading choices? Does this mean that I only ever pick up the same sort of story, that I don’t stretch my choices to try different writing styles or different genres?

I recently read a book for a book prize that I never would have picked up otherwise because the cover said to me ‘gruesome crime fiction’ (not generally my thing!). What was inside? The most incredible and powerful dystopian story I’d read in a long time – absolutely not what was I was expecting. Is this an example of cover design gone wrong? Looking closer at it now I can see how it ties in with the story, but if a cover’s purpose is to sell the book before you know the story, not ‘getting’ it until afterwards probably means it’s not doing its job.

Choosing the right cover for a book must be a marketing nightmare for publishers. Do you pick something that will appeal to a whole range of readers or something more niche? What about selecting a cover that pushes the book’s boundaries? What happens if it goes wrong? Imagine picking up a book that looks like it’s a detective story only to open the pages and discover it’s a fantasy! Probably not a great move, ultimately – I’d never trust that author again...

In a more subtle form, though, manipulating ‘cover language’ could be used to nudge readers in new directions, or to open up a particular brand to new readers. Sometimes you even see ‘dual branding’ – the same book with two different covers, the designs of which are aimed at different readerships, like how you used to get a children’s Harry Potter and a grown-up’s Harry Potter.

I am seduced by beautiful covers, by intriguing covers, by covers that know what they’re doing and by covers that have a little mystery. Right or wrong, covers are usually what I see first – they are what prompt me to look inside and find out more. They are just a part of the story, but are they the start of the story or the end? I find cover design endlessly fascinating, but ultimately it’s up to me how I use the information covers provide, the clues they drop and the temptations they offer. Right or wrong, I’m going to assume a cover featuring a vampire is going to mean a story about vampires, but what do covers say to you?


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