Sunday, July 29, 2012

Admit It . . . You've Judged a Cover

We've heard many times throughout our lives to never judge a book by its cover. Usually, we are referring to other people and what they look like on the outside as opposed to what they might be like on the inside. But the truth of the matter is that idiom really does pertain to what it's saying. We probably shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but the fact of the matter is that we all do. I know I do, and if you're an honest individual, then I think you'll agree that you do too.

But why? What compels us to pick up a book at a bookstore or click on an enhanced image on Amazon and say "no" even before we've read a snippet on what that book is about? Whether we want to admit it or not, we are very visual creatures. We enjoy the beauty of art that's had time put into it and is well done and tasteful. We want to put our money into something that can get us with just an image, and that is why a book cover can either make or break your novel in such a competitive market.

We've all seen the obscure, complicated, ridiculous, or just downright strange covers that some authors choose. When I see one that particularly looks bad, I shake my head and wonder what the author was even thinking in choosing an image like that on the cover. The sad part is that many self-published novels tend to have less than stellar artwork on the front. Just go over to Smashwords and do a cursory search and you'll see that almost every genre listed has a few hard-to-understand covers. (Personally, I have a hard time with the Fantasy category, but that just might be me.)

As readers, we look for certain things on our covers that will reflect the author's seriousness when it comes to his/her writing.


Many of us look for highly polished prose that doesn't drag on and on forever. Some prefer a quick-paced novel, but still, the quality of writing has to be good. The author needs to make his/her point and then move on. Does the cover need to convey the same feeling of quality? Yes. If you're writing a thriller, you want to make sure that the excitement your readers will feel when reading your story is felt the moment someone picks your book off the shelf. Michael Connelly's novel The Reversal was shortlisted for the 2011 ITW Thriller Award for the best hard cover novel. You tell me. Does the cover convey the quality of the writing one would find within?

Michael Connelly's
The Reversal
Personally, I think it's a nice, crisp, simple cover that conveys the genre Michael Connelly writes. It's not overdone with different images fighting for attention. The colors are basic and makes one think of a cold courtroom where justice will be dealt out. Since Connelly is a big name in the thriller genre, his name is more dominant than the title, but even so, it's clear what the title is and not shoved into a tiny size. A clean font that blends in with the cover is also a must. 

Here's another novel shortlisted in the 2011 ITW Thriller Awards. 

Brian Freeman's
The Burying Place
Not having read the blurb, I'm expecting a chilling discovery of dead bodies in a remote house along a river. It kind of scares the crap out of me just looking at it! But at least it's doing what it's supposed to do and that is to get the wheels in my head turning about what I might find under that cover.


A good cover will catch our attention because we simply enjoy that genre or those kinds of stories. As readers, we are drawn to universal themes, like with the two novels mentioned above, which deal with solving a crime and catching the bad guy. The same goes for war novels, romances, YA novels, and fantasy or sci-fi. Let's take the romance category for a moment. I can't think of one genre romance novel cover that doesn't look like the next. They are all very similar, but that's exactly what attracts the readers. How many do we come across that could be identical stories?

Jaci Burton's
Taking a Shot
Erin McCarthy's
Jacked Up
Other than the fact that these two men obviously enjoy different sports, it looks like both authors used the same model for the covers. And one would expect similar story lines, but as you can see, that's what the romance genre is all about. The covers need to bring in the readers with unspoken words. Both of these covers scream hot love, hot men . . . oh, and hot sports, whether it's on the ice or off. What do you think?


When a potential reader pulls a novel from the shelf they are already thinking and feeling what might happen in that story? What will pull them into this story? Will it be worth his/her while? Does it excite them? The cover needs to say a resounding "Yes!" Thrillers and romances have the market cornered when it comes to getting the buyers through the door. But what about other genres? One I repeatedly struggle with is the fantasy genre. Rarely do I see one that catches my eye. (I'll be honest and say that as soon as I read the back cover and see that it's fantasy, it usually goes right back on the shelf.) But there is so much going on in the fantasy world and it's such a mixed genre that a reader needs to know if vampires suck blood or dwarves walk around Middle-earth.

Do these covers convey what the author is offering the reader?

George R. R. Martin's
A Game of Thrones
(original cover)
J.R.R. Tolkien's
The Hobbit
(original cover)
Perhaps you're thinking I'm not being fair by using an older cover of The Hobbit, but think about it. If you had picked up this first edition from 1937, would it hold your interest enough to read it? This brings up another point -- sometimes novel covers just need a face lift as time passes.

Would either of these covers interest you more?

Updated Cover

One of many updated covers.

My guess would be yes. Original cover art can change over the years if the novel is a bestseller. In both cases with A Game of Thrones and The Hobbit, these covers have had numerous makeovers to appeal to the changing audiences, particularly The Hobbit. It was published in 1937 and in just a few short months will have a big box office release. If the film's producers and marketing department were to go with a very bland poster like the book's original cover, then not many moviegoers would be interested in seeing the film. A book like this, that has been around for readers of many different generations, will continue to have work done on its cover. The idea is to entice those who will read it ten, twenty, even fifty years from now.


How many times have you gone to see a film based off of the book, simply because you read the book first and you just couldn't wait to see how it was developed into a film? I think a majority of anyone reading this has. I know I have, although I tend to do the reverse. I'll see the movie first and then read the novel, mainly because I know the novel will have so many more juicy tidbits to share than the movie could fit into those two hours. But what's one of the main things we seek out first before going to see that film? The movie poster! It is one of the most solid pieces of advertising that studios have at their disposal. And if the book was a big hit, then that poster better darn well say the film will be a big hit. Notice how film studios use the basic building blocks of the novel cover when it comes to selling the film adaptations.

The Help
(the film)

The Help
by Kathryn Stockett
(original cover)

Notice the similarities between Stockett's novel and the movie poster: bright yellow, the bench and the wire, the separation of the birds as well as the women, and the purple used in the lettering. A movie goer would be hard pressed not to know that these two stories are one and the same.

The film
The book
Here's a more recent example with The Hunger Games book cover and movie poster. What exactly draws you in and makes you want to either see the film or read the book? Do you notice the same theme running throughout each one?

The color scheme says two things to me. First, this story will be dark. Whatever I'm expecting to discover in the story, I should at least know that it will have dark overtones. Second, the color scheme for both and the fact that there are arrows on the fronts of each one, I should expect some kind of war or fighting. Perhaps for justice? Perhaps for survival? Perhaps for just fun and games? But that should be enough to entice me to want to read more. Unlike the bright colors of The Help, The Hunger Games does not feel like a lighthearted story, and if that's what I'm looking for, then this cover and poster have done their jobs.

Are there any book covers or movie posters that have caught your eye and ended up making you read the story or see the film, or vice versa? Can you think of any cover art on a bestseller that just doesn't work? Are you struggling to come up with your own artwork that will help sell your novel?


  1. Yes, I'll admit to have judged book covers. I really like your examples; I'd never really thought about the similarity between covers and movie posters, but it is true.

    1. I'd never really thought about the similarities either until recently. The reason I used The Help as an example is because when I first saw the movie poster, I couldn't help but think how much it resembled the book cover. If the book cover is done well then I really think it's in the film's favor if the marketing department gleans from what's portrayed.

  2. You bet I judge a book by its cover--which is why I'm scared to death to see what my pub comes up with for mine. If you don't have the right cover--eeps! You can send the wrong message with your book.

    1. Bethany, I completely agree that the wrong message can be sent if the book cover is all wrong. Perhaps that's why it's taken Martin's novels a while to gain popularity because the original cover is just plain boring.

  3. Thanks Sister Mary, Mary! Love the illustrations.
    As far as I recall, I only cared about covers when I was a child. . Nowadays, when I buy books (or read tem online when cover hardly matters) on Amazon, the blurb is much more important. But in my youth, when I had a vast choice of literary material at my public library, covers did play a part (combined with an appetizing blurb). However, I learned then that they could be deceptive. I despised Regency Romances and favored bodice-rippers, but the latter always had on the cover some sweaty Fabio-clone manhandling a half-naked heroine. Regencies, on the other hand, had delicate illustrations with a heroine wearing the latest Jane Austenesque fashion. I had a friend who collected them just because of those images.
    If I were to judge a book by its cover, I would advise action-filled designs (like The Hunger Games) or crowded with people (like The Help), and definitely if the book has a film version, the jacket should reflect it.
    By the way, both covers of the Martin Saga are dreadfully boring; I strongly agree they should make another edition with something from the series on the jacket.

    1. Sister Malena,

      I'd agree that yes, my obsession with book covers started when I was young as well. I'm a constant flipper to the front cover when I read books, even with my Kindle at times, although it's a little bit harder. If the cover makes no sense, then I'm going to have a hard time imagining what's going on in the story. I was never into the romance novels much, although I've read my fair share, and quite honestly, those covers annoyed me after a while. They're all the same and being not an avid romance fan, I get bored with looking at the same covers over and over. I really like ones that intrigue me and catch my eye from get go. Uniqueness is what I look for.

  4. Sister Mary,

    From what I've heard, writers don't have much control over their book covers (or titles) unless they self-publish.

    As a graphic designer/illustrator I'm obsessive about book covers. (In fact, for years I couldn't decide if I wanted to be a writer or a book cover designer.) I admit I'm one of those people who picks a book based on the cover and/or title, but I won't buy it unless I'm interested in the story. What I find interesting is that in the case of "The Hunger Games" and "The Help," the posters show people, but the novels don't. I guess in film it's important to show the actors, but in novels they choose to leave the characters to the reader's imagination.

    I also favor covers that are more unique. I really love the simplicity of Emily Giffin's covers, for example. Overall, chick lit covers were very appealing to me. Not so much YA Paranormal with all that black and red. (It seems to me that most of them now mimic Twilight's covers.) My least favorite are covers that only have text, like the early editions of "Game of Thrones" or "The Hobbit."

    1. One thing I've learned from listening to various writers speak is that those who are agented and published can have control over the cover. Melody Groves once said at a writers meeting that she made sure the clause to have final say over the cover was added into her contract. She suggested all writers make sure this is in the contract because, as she said when I listened to her speak, a cover can make or break the sales of a book.

      I agree with you on YA paranormal. There's been a lot of copycat covers out there pretty similar to Twilight. When covers copy one another that's a big turn off for me. The writer/publisher is essentially saying I'll find a similar story inside, but I'm usually interested in one that's unique.

  5. Like Lorena said, I don't think the author has much control, if any, over the cover: I've talked to several authors who were unhappy at what the publisher chose for the cover. Especially if it makes the book look trashier or cheesier than it is.

    I am very author-oriented now, so that's what drives me to pick almost every novel I read now: positive interviews from people or reviewers I trust, and an author I know is reliable. That said, I feel about my covers the way I feel about my wine labels: the more colorful it is, the splashier the images, the less I'm going to like the contents ... though there are exceptions for both. I just pulled some random novels off my shelf and noticed they are, indeed, very muted and plain: I think that's a signal for "literary fiction," which is what I mostly enjoy.

    I do like some genre fiction, like George RR Martin, but I have to get past the dragons on the cover. I feel a little embarrassed about reading a book with a dragon on the cover. I love YA, but the covers often bug me: most of them feature a heart. A heart made of broken glass, a heart drawn with lipstick, a heart formed by two hands ... it gets as tiresome as the wax-chested boys on romance covers. But as you said, Sister Mary Mary, the covers are an immediate signal to the reader about what the genre is, so they have to be consistent.

    I really don't like covers that come from movie posters: I prefer the Hunger Games cover without Jennifer Lawrence, the Help cover without those film actresses. I feel like I'm at McDonald's buying a Happy Meal when I buy a novel with a movie tie-in cover. I can't quite say why this is. It feels canned and commercialized.

    I wonder, with the increasing popularity of e-books, if covers will matter less and less. My Kindle isn't color and doesn't take me to a cover image, anyway: when I open a new book, it starts at Chapter 1, Page 1: no images unless I deliberately back up and find it. When I browse, I see tiny black-and-white thumbnails of the cover: it's not a selling point. On Audible, I can't see the covers easily, either, which is a bit of a bummer. Covers aren't a focal for me, but I do like letting my eyes wander over them.

    1. Not being a big fan of fantasy, I'm right there with you when feeling a little ill at ease by reading a book with a dragon on the cover. The same goes for romance. I always make sure to roll the cover back so no one can see the "wax-chested boy" on the cover. I think, for me anyway, it's a little more embarrassing to read a romance novel than fantasy. I do wonder if the Kindle, or any e-book device, is a big selling point for books like the "Shades of Grey" series." Nobody can see you reading them. I don't mind some genre fiction from time to time, but usually it's with thrillers, espionage, or detective stories.

      Like you, I usually pass over the movie poster covers and go for something more original, more in tune with what the author has in mind. The movie poster covers feel a little cheesy and like there's a machine just printing mass amounts of books once the film hits theaters. Oh, I guess there probably is :).

      I do think novel covers are still important, but, like you said, that may fade as time passes. I guess we'll just have to wait and see.

  6. I'm into fantasy, but dragons have a bad efect on me too. Besides, the blessed saga is not about dragons. They should have put a direwolf on the cover. Much cuter and much to the point than dragons.

  7. Mary Mary, this just popped up in my NPR feed: how funny!

  8. Thanks for recommending it, Steph! I found it to be quite interesting.


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