Judging a book by its cover

Penguin's new edition of Orwell's '1984'

Penguin’s new edition of Orwell’s ‘1984’

If there’s one cliché that I hate it’s ‘don’t judge a book by it’s cover’.  I applaud the sentiment, but the metaphor just doesn’t work.  There are so many wonderful books out there and one of the few means readers have to decide which to read next is by being superficial.  On reflection, I’d say that my criteria for choosing which book to read, buy or borrow are:
1. Author (only relevant for authors I’ve loved in the past)
2. Cover
3. Recommendation (from any source, though tried and trusted are of course better)
4. Title
5. Blurb (unlikely to read this unless one of the first four criteria have been met)
6. First paragraph (just to check if I’m not convinced by 2-5; it’s important though, I need a strong incentive to read anything in the present tense)

The reason I’ve been thinking about this is because, after being wowed by ‘The Night Circus’, I found myself unable to resist Kirsty Logan’s debut novel, ‘The Gracekeepers’.

imgresI think the cover is lovely (it’s been pointed out to me that I’m a sucker for illustrations of characters with curly hair).  It’s mystical and stylish and, following ‘The Night Circus’, I felt completely up for the fantasy animal element.  The sparkling stars suggest hope, but the night sky implies a good Gothic tone.  The girl’s dress is red, so things should be exciting and sensual, and the ridiculously small boat makes me think of nursery rhymes, another big plus.  I also love the way the sea is drawn, it has a surface shine, but also transparent depths, hinting at intriguing layers and concealment.

In the end, I found the book more of a ‘Dr Norris and Mr Strange’ than Erin Morgenstern’s novel.  This is a polite way of saying that I didn’t love it, but that doesn’t mean it won’t work for others; I’ll leave it to them to write the reviews.  I still love the cover though, and it’s thanks to this book that I discovered virginbooksdesign blog. This contains, among other things, a wonderful post showing the sketches behind the final cover image.  It also means that, in the future, I can hopefully get my fix of great book designs without having to do the reading unless other, less superficial, criteria for book choices are met!

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14 Responses to Judging a book by its cover

  1. I think it’s impossible NOT to be influence by cover – after all, the designs are meant to appeal to the target audience, to get them to pick up the book (especially if they don’t know the author) A lot of books don’t quite get the covers they deserve. I have to admit I have completely by-passed books because the cover suggests to me that the book won’t be well written! There are definitely covers which suggest (in my mind) that the writing will be more nuanced and ‘literary’ So those are the ones I will look inside to examine the writing style (whether ‘in real’ or in virtual look inside) – but the cover which suggests the book is going to be twee marshmallow, or just about gross action – bam, bam, hack, hack, BOO is one I won’t even bother to look inside. I have missed many a good book that way, and only found it when someone recommends it to me who knows what I go for, or a blog or Amazon review talks about it in a way which sounds as if I will like it.

    I agree about The Gracekeepers, – though I also loved Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell as WELL as The Night Circus.

    I’m also starting to look at random paragraphs inside a book, as i have also been suckered by books where the opening paragraphs must obviously have been sweated over as it looks as if the author can write well, and then a chapter or so down the line you find they can’t, and maybe managed an arresting opening to a pile of old socks!

    • The random paragraph thing is a good one. I can be far too much of a sucker for a great first line only to find that the rest of the book can’t sustain this beyond a few clauses. As you say, a great opening does not a good book make and can simply make you feel like a fool for falling for it. Again. And again.

      I also love your point about book cover being genre indicators so non-literary fiction will have a certain easthetic that you may want to avoid…on the other hand, this can also be hugely misleading. I’m thinking back to my teenage years here, where I read loads of Terry Pratchet fantasy novels despite the terrible, terrible covers. These were very ugly and always included at least one scantily-clad, big-busted stereotype, despite his actual fiction being all about subverting such images. I was actually really pleased once I’d read them often enough for the paperback covers to start falling off!

  2. Stefanie says:

    Very clever Penguin cover! And yeah, I totally judge books by their cover. If the author is unknown to me and the cover is poorly done, I won’t even give it a chance.

    • I know, and there are some books I hated but am still kind of pleased I’ve read because the covers are so stylish that I knew it was inevitable and at least the painful part is now over!

  3. FictionFan says:

    A good cover won’t make me read a book on its own, but it’s definitely one of the things that attracts me to investigate further. And a bad cover can put me off totally. Which is quite odd really, since I do about 90% of my reading on Kindle these days.

    • The kindle thing is odd, because I also do a lot of Kindle reading, then, halfway through the book, I’ll really want to see the cover or read the blurb and have to go online…it’s frightening how reliant I still am on all my old paper-modes of reading.

  4. Lucy says:

    I too think it’s impossible not to judge in some way, which can be a real shame! The Wordsworth Classics are great value but so tacky. I was reading War and Peace at work and a colleague looked up and said ‘I didn’t take you for a Barbara Cartland fan.’ And poor Georgette Heyer, the 1960s and 70s were not kind to her cover-wise. They are fun and kitch now, but still look like trash.

    • So true. I can’t bring myself to buy Wordworth classics because they look so terrible. The Barbara Cartland ‘War and Peace’ is a great story though – part of me really wants that edition!

  5. Sarah says:

    I love the design aspect to books and am a sucker for buying a book on the strength of the cover alone. Book covers are so carefully geared towards depicting genre that they do guide you in the right direction, although I take your point about Terry Pratchett novels. I’ve avoided them like the plague as being most definitely not my thing, and now you come to mention it, I wonder whether that repulsion is solely down to the covers which are a total cat’s breakfast!

    • Whenever the designers get it right I’m so happy, but there are some publishers who seem to think that literary fiction is a bit boring and so go for the pastel, dull covers for books that are seething with emotion and depth. It can be very frustrating.
      Pratchett may not be for everyone, but the book are just so much better than the covers suggest!

  6. Geoff W says:

    I love that 1984 cover. It’s iconic enough they can do it and a lot of people would recognize it no problem.

  7. Ste J says:

    I do notice a worrying trend of publishers using a similar style of cover to market lesser books hoping people will pick them up based on the similarity…having said that it did help me avoid wasting my time picking up those da Vinci Code type books so it does have its benefits…I tend to rely on my fellow bloggers for all my recommendations now unless I find books mentioned in books, I do love that,

    • The trend thing makes marketing sense, but you’re right, it can be very frustrating (and dull) for us readers! There’s something so immediate about images though – after reading blog posts about lots of books, I’ll always then go and buy the best-looking one (even if it’s an e-book puchase!)

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