The Way of the Word

17. January 2010

Judging a Book By Its Cover

Filed under: books,Commentary,review — jensaltmann @ 14:09
Tags: , , ,

Note to copyright owners: I believe, since this is something of a review, that my use of the following book covers is covered by the Fair Use agreement. If not, you might want to consider it free advertising for your work. If you still have a problem with having your covers presented in this blog post, leave me a note in the comments section and I’ll remove your cover from this post.

People say that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Really? In that case, we’re all guilty of this crime. After all, it’s the point of a cover illustration to give the reader an idea of what’s inside.

Take this, for example: the cover to Paul Malmont’s The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril. (A novel I urge you all to read — it’s great fun.)

It’s garish. It’s loud. It’s violent (look at the gun in the man’s fist). It’s… well, depending on your attitude, manly or misogynistic. It depends on how you see the clinging, helpless-looking damsel-in-distress in the hero’s right arm.

It also shows exactly what the novel wants to evoke: the slightly trashy and adventurous feel of the old pulp actioners. This is supplemented by the worn-looking print, which evokes the sense of a well-read old magazine.

Future publishers take note: this is very close to what I would like the covers to my Shaw novels to be.

In contrast, look at this:

This is what a lot of modern thrillers look like these days. A rather blank cover with the writer’s name and the book title on it. Wow. How inspiring.  How creative. That really makes me excited to pick the book up. Clearly, this book cover was designed by someone of the school of “Thou shalt not judge a book by its cover.”

It’s similar to this one:

The title translates as “Deep in the Forest and Under the Ground.” By that thought, the picture of a grey forest and the blood-red stain underneath do represent the title. This cover tells you that this is a thriller. You know, because of the blood. It does have that advantage over the Amok cover. But like the Amok cover, it doesn’t really stand out among all the other modern thriller covers. It doesn’t jump out at me and claw at my eyes, screaming for my attention. Maybe, if I’m bored enough, I might be inlcined to pick it up and read the jacket copy. But if I did, it wouldn’t be because the cover makes the book look interesting to me.

How about these?

I’m actually currently reading this one.

I look at that cover and wonder why I’m not reading this one.

The above two covers are somewhat lurid. They look a bit trashy and very very pulpy. They are full of motion and energy. (Not to mention sex appeal.) They stand out. There is nothing artsy about them. They cry, “I’m fun. Buy me. You won’t regret spending your money and time on me.”

The problem with the “you don’t judge a book by its cover, therefore it’s all right if the cover is boring” approach is that in the end, all covers look alike. They all look minimalist, or artsy. In a word, boring. They forget or ignore the fact that the reader does judge a book by its cover — especially if the book is by a writer they have never read before. The cover is the first thing the potential reader notices. If they don’t notice the cover, they stop being potential readers.

Now that I think about it, I wonder if perhaps this is a side-effect of online bookselling. Back in the day of brick-and-mortar bookstores, people browsed the shelves and the books had to stand out. I notice that when I look for something on an online bookseller’s page, I look for specific stuff. I don’t browse, because you simply don’t browse for books or stuff on Amazon*. You check for stuff you’ve heard of, you might check out Amazon’s recommendations, but you don’t really browse. The pleasure of browsing has become something of a lost art. I think that this might be at least one of the reasons why current book covers have become so boring. They no longer need to attract the buyer’s attention. So why spend time and money on an interesting cover design that might grab a potential buyer’s attention?

A note to the artists who did the covers for Chinatown Death Cloud Peril and Money Shot: I enjoy your work, and I do occasionally look at well-designed and attention-grabbing covers of books on my shelf. And a note to the artist of the novel Passport to Peril: It’s your cover art that made me put this book on my to-read list.

You can be sure that if I get any say in the cover design of any of my novels that get published, they will have this kind of attention-grabbing covers. The kind that claws at your eyeballs and screams, “You will regret it if you pass me by.”

*I picked Amazon, because they’re the biggest online bookseller in the world. The same holds true for Barnes & or, to name just two others.



  1. I totally agree with you..Was completely fascinated by the cover of Gift by Nabokov (Vintage), very artistic and appropriate, however, the book didn’t quite live up to my expectations..

    Comment by randommuzings — 17. January 2010 @ 15:42

  2. That is the risk when you choose an appropriate and engaging cover design: that it raises expectations the story can’t meet. Which may be another reason for the bland author name & title cover design that’s so prevalent in today’s market. That simply doesn’t raise many expectations.

    Comment by jensaltmann — 17. January 2010 @ 15:58

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