The saying “don’t judge a book by its cover” doesn’t typically refer to books at all. It is a reminder to avoid jumping to conclusions about what someone or something is like based solely on what you see on the exterior. While this is wise advice, today I want to talk about judging books by their cover in a more literal sense.
Does the design on the cover of a book influence what you choose to read? Whether you are consciously aware of it or not, I am willing to bet it does.
In some cases, the outside face of a book is irrelevant. If I choose a book based on previous reading experience with the author or a recommendation from a friend, or interest piqued by a review, the cover plays almost no factor in my choice. However, when browsing through a book store or a library, what is on the cover has a huge influence on whether I pick the book up or pass it by.
The cover design suggests genre. Romance covers show embracing couples, sultry heroines, or handsome men with brooding eyes. Mythical creatures suggest a fantasy novel. Blue-grey scenery partially obscured by fog or mist evokes a sense of the supernatural. Blood dripping from a knife suggests mystery or horror. We are likely to not take a second look at a book whose cover indicates a genre we aren’t interested in.
Beyond genre, good book cover design reflects the tone and content of the book itself. The colours used, the font, and the tone of the drawing, be it whimsical, eerie, or sombre, combine to give us a hint into the nature of the book as much as whatever object or person is portrayed on the cover. When we pick up a book, enticed by its cover, we have an expectation about the nature of the contents before turning a page. It feels deceptive when the cover design doesn’t match the story content and tone,
I wrote a few book reviews for The Winnipeg Review, which unfortunately ceased publication at the end of 2017. Prior to writing my first review, the editor sent me review guidelines. The cover was mentioned in those guidelines as something worthy of discussing although it was frequently overlooked in reviews. My review of Deborah-Anne Tunney’s collection of short stories The View from the Lane started with a discussion of the cover. The picture on that book is a winter scene showing tire-tracks in a snow-covered lane leading to an old, large house. It is nighttime. Street lights illuminate the entrance to the yard and the house looks warm and welcoming as if it must be full of life inside. It was an apt cover for a book welcoming you into a series of connected short stories about everyday life.
At book reading and author interviews, I’ve listened to authors talk about the meaning of their cover designs and how and why they was chosen. Sometimes, writers and publishers have not agreed on the design. (Publishers usually win in those cases.) There is usually more involved in creating and selecting the design than you might have imagined and more meaning in the artwork than you may initially have noticed. Clearly, the book’s cover does matter.
(An earlier version of this post was first published on Destinations Detours and Dreams.)