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February 5, 2013

Do You Judge Books by Their Covers?

Bookshelf of old books with text: Do You Judge Books by Their Covers

I’ll admit it. I do judge books by their covers, especially in this age of self-publishing.

If authors don’t care about the quality of their book cover, it’s easy to assume they also didn’t care about the quality of their writing. Besides, we all have too many reading choices now, and just like agents and editors, we’re often looking for a reason to say “no.” Every “no” judgment we make means one less book added to our towering to-be-read pile.

Does a good cover guarantee good writing? Absolutely not. But we won’t pick up a book from a shelf or click to read more—allowing us to discover the writing quality one way or another—unless the cover entices us.

What Does a Bad Book Cover Say about the Author?

If we compare picking a book to buying a house (yes, completely different price ranges, but go with me here), we first narrow down by city, or in the case of books, genre. A neighborhood is like the subgenre, deciding between a historical romance or a paranormal romance, this neighborhood’s schools or that neighborhood’s shopping. Continuing the analogy, a book cover is the “curb appeal” that makes people willing to look inside rather than deciding to drive past the For Sale sign.

Yes, that thinking can be shallow or lead to missing out on a great undiscovered gem. But just as home owners know they’ll be judged on their curb appeal, authors know they’ll be judged by their cover.

So those who choose to put something unattractive up for sale are saying something about their judgment and priorities. And just as we might assume a house without curb appeal might not be well maintained on the inside, we are often justified in making similar assumptions about books.

The Sad Fact: In Most Cases, It’s Fair to Make Assumptions

That said, most traditionally published authors don’t have any control over their book covers. However, they did have control over which publisher they chose for their story. I can think of one publisher I’d never sign with because all their covers are crap. Another small publisher is seeing huge success, partly because many of their covers are gorgeous.

Self-published authors have control over their covers, but might struggle with budgeting. We sympathize. However, if they didn’t save up for a nice cover, maybe that means they didn’t save up to pay for an editor either.

In either case, traditionally published or self-published, the cover does reflect something about the author. At the very least, we learn about their priorities.

How Can We Learn What Covers “Work”?

Because of this importance of book covers, I love the idea of the “Judge a Book by Its Cover” contest (known as the JABBIC contest) sponsored by the Houston Bay Area chapter of RWA. Published romance authors are judged solely by their book cover.

As readers and authors, we can learn a lot about ourselves and the market from this contest too. JABBIC has a Reader’s Choice opportunity for everyone to rate the entries.

I spent a few minutes this past weekend adding my ratings to the entries, and I noticed several things about what can make a cover look “good” or “bad” to me. (Full disclosure: I’m not a designer, but I still can have opinions. *smile*) I’d recommend checking out these covers to see what works or doesn’t work for you, especially if you write romance (note that the contest, and possibly this link, will close on February 10th).

What We Can Learn from Looking at Book Covers

While going through the entries, I stopped and asked myself why I assigned a certain score. Why did I like it? Or why didn’t I like it? Some of the things I noted include:

  • Genre: Some covers evoke the genre and some don’t. The new trend for romance covers to have a simple object on a single color background (blame Fifty Shades of Grey) might get old fast because it doesn’t succeed in this respect. However, if only erotic romance uses this technique (generally to enable purchasing for Costco or whatnot), this might become the new shorthand for the erotic romance genre.
  • Cluttered Text: Covers can have too much information: blurb, “Sale,” “New,” “Bestselling Author,” “Book Two in X Series,” publisher name, publisher imprint, etc. Balance is key.
  • Cluttered Images: Some covers have too many images mashed together. A busy background takes away from the power of the title. Images with no commonality can give the impression that the story will be similarly chaotic.
  • Confusing Images: Sometimes we can’t even tell what the images are supposed to be. Or the images can seem to have nothing to do with the story. Just like in our writing, enticing is good, confusion is bad.
  • Font: Some people have an unhealthy love affair with Comic Sans. Others use unreadable fonts. Readers shouldn’t have to struggle to read the title. I’m a visual person with a photographic memory. If I can’t easily read the title, I won’t remember it.
  • Tagline: On some of the entries, the tagline created interest from an otherwise bland cover. I’m filing this tidbit under “Ooo, I need to remember that technique.” *smile*
  • Self-Published “Look”: What makes a cover look cheap or self-published to you? Bad PhotoShop? Cheesy fonts? Odd colors? Stock photographs? All of the above?
  • Publisher: Pay attention to the publisher of the covers we like or don’t like. Start a “yes” and “no” list of publishers that impress us.

After we put this knowledge together, we’ll have an idea of what we like and what we don’t. For those who self-publish, becoming aware of our tastes and “what not to do” can help us develop covers we’ll be proud of. For those who traditionally publish, we’ll be better able to evaluate publishers for their ability to deliver a great cover.

We can continue this evaluation by checking out our genre at Amazon. Maybe even gain insight by analyzing how covers correlate with sales figures. At least with a great cover, we know we won’t be turning potential readers off before they even get a chance to see our brilliant writing inside. *grin*

Do you think it’s fair to judge books by their covers? Do you judge books that way? What aspects make you like or dislike a cover? What makes a cover look self-published to you? Are there publishers you would or wouldn’t want to sign with because of their covers?

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What do you think?

51 Comments on "Do You Judge Books by Their Covers?"

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Roni Loren

I absolutely, without a doubt judge a book by its cover. If a book has a bad cover, I only buy it if I’ve had a recommendation from a source I trust. The only exception is that there’s one e-publisher that I’m usually not in love with the look of their covers but they’ve proven to put out consistently good stories, so I buy those.

As for my own covers, my publisher just recently re-branded my covers from the sexy couple in a clinch pose to something much more subtle (a la the trend 50 Shades has spurred.) I worked closely with my editor when I got the first versions of the news ones. I was not in love. And with big publishers, sometimes they take that into account and something they don’t, so I was happy that my editor worked with me. The background on one looked too generic and the font was self-published looking (kind of a scroll-y, calligraphy look) whereas my previous books had a more modern font. Font is hugely important in my opinion for setting tone. My books don’t fit with scroll-y script IMO. So they made the changes and I’m happy with what I have now. But believe me, I was in a panic for a few days there because I know covers can make or break a book. 🙂

Melinda S. Collins
Hi Jami, Oh, this is such an important topic! Do I judge books by their covers? Yup! Do I think it’s fair? No, but only to a certain extent. As you’ve pointed out, many self-published books with horrible covers say a lot about the author. If you’re going to venture into self-publishing, then you need to invest in it the way you would any other business. I wouldn’t open a store front with a crappy sign. That’s not going to entice my customers to walk in the door. So taking the time to design and build a store sign’s that enticing and welcoming is an absolute must! I think the reason why some of those books don’t have the greatest covers – and this is in traditional publishing as well – is because they’re in a rush to get the book out there on the shelves and in front of readers. In my opinion, nothing that’s ever been rushed has been as good as it could’ve been if you’d taken your time. *Patience, patience, patience!* Font that’s hard to read is a BIG turn-off for me when I’m looking for a book and perusing by the covers. That and covers that have too much going on, like too many images that don’t quite fit, too much wording with blurbs, bestseller mentions, and the like. I really, really like the covers the covers from Penguin authors – all of their lines. The Elder Races series by Thea Harrison, BDB series by… Read more »
Melinda S. Collins

I actually have some clarification to add – Larissa Ione’s publisher is actually Piatkus Books, not Penguin. Didn’t mean to make it sound as though she were with Penguin in any way. So on that note, I do love the covers with that publisher as well!

Constance Cedras

I absolutely judge a book by its cover and it’s one of the aspects of my current venture to self-publish/e-publish a series of novels that concerns me the most. Judging the covers in the same subgenre (romantic suspense) was very revealing because the direction I and my co-writers were heading got, at most, 3-4 from me. So, some re-thinking or re-calibrating is in order.

I’ve always been turned off by covers that have too many elements and those that mix photos with cheesy graphics that look cut and paste just SCREAM self-published. Simple and/or bold always catches my eye. That said, the current trend with erotica novels has gotten so boring and repetitious that I barely glance at them anymore…and at first they were the ones that always got my attention. The early adopters in that trend definitely were the luckiest.

This was an excellent exercise, Jami. Very revealing for me. Thank you!

Carradee
There are some aspects of cover design that are a matter of opinion, some that are a matter of genre, and some that are a matter of taste. Also, culture influences it. So while I can be quick to say “Ooo, I like that cover!”, I’m more reluctant to call a cover objectively bad. (Unless it’s badly Photoshopped or downright illegible, but even then, I try to bear in mind that a cover can look great at its proper resolution and terrible once the e-book vendors mangle it for display pages. For example, I still can’t figure out why my cover for this short story is so fuzzy.) Some of my “worst” covers, ones that do things that I’ve seen people hate on, have gotten “Ooo! I love that!” comments from my actual readers. Covers are intended to attract the intended readership. I’ve ended up reading books I very much enjoyed—books I never would’ve picked up, from the cover—but that’s because the cover was aimed at a different readership. For example, I recently read The Rook by Daniel O’Malley. Beyond the cover being the sort of thing that doesn’t catch my eye, the cover on B&N is crimson. I hate crimson. I got my hands on the book because I read the first 4 chapters on the author’s website and wanted to continue, after an author I follow recommended the title. If those sample chapters hadn’t been available, I would’ve eyed the cover and slunk away with a shrug. It… Read more »
Taurean Watkins
Jami, I’m of two minds on this issue. Do I think covers are the be all, end all? No. But have I gravitated to books based on the cover alone? Sadly, yes, but let’s be clear, I always read first pages before I buy ANYTHING. As someone who is known to be too knee-jerk about things, I try with all my heart to be open to possible new developments in this business, but it’s HARD to hear about all these interesting and semi-proven ways to expand one’s career that either requires connections I don’t have, trips I can’t go on, and cold hard cash I don’t have. It’s easy to say “Make the investment” as some above have commented until you start crunching numbers… I thought just affording freelance editors was the biggest barrier to entry in self-publishing (Which it frankly, in part, IS for me…), but rivaling that is cover design. Everything I find starts from either 500 or 1,000 USD (And UP, of course…), and while that’s “small change” to some, not in my world. As impatient as I am, I know how vital first impressions can be, and I don’t want to make one that gives the impression I’m cheap and full of myself. This is a BIG part of why I get frustrated when well-meaning beta-readers (Many of which are writers who have or are going to self-publish themselves) suggest I self-publish when they know of my “Trying to get traditionally published/get an agent” saga. I… Read more »
Stefanie Nicholas

I DEFINITELY judge books by their covers! My TBR list is endless, and I love to read free ebooks by authors. There are too many good books in the world to read ones I don’t like, and like you said, bad covers sometimes mean bad writing. I’ll only read a book with a bad cover if it has lots of exceptional reviews. Even then, I probably wouldn’t pay for it.

Amanda

The cover is what gets me to pick up the book in the first place! And then if the back cover is full of praise for the author’s work and doesn’t say a word about what the book is actually ABOUT, I put it right back down again.

I’ve seen some truly lovely covers on self-pubbed and small press books (anyone seen the cover for Kit Rocha’s BEYOND SHAME? Gorgeous!), and I’ve seen them on traditional pubbed books. Ultimately, if I’m in a bookstore or see just the picture online, the title and the cover are what gets me interested in reading the back cover. But when I read the blurb and it says “newly updated and cleaned up” (as one high-selling self-pubbed book recently boasted) I’m going to run far, far away.

Zack Kullis

Jami, great post.

Yes, I judge a book by its cover. Even if a book has good reviews, a bad cover will turn me off and I most likely won’t read the book. About the only time I pay no attention to the cover is if I have read killer reviews on the book, from sources I trust, and then I don’t pay attention.

Oddly enough, I’ve yet to pick up a book with great reviews that had a cover I didn’t like. I think the time/attention spent on a cover is indicative of what you find in the book.

Is it fair? Fair is a word that stopped being part of my vocabulary some time ago. This is simply the way things are. My second book is about to come back from a professional editor, and the cover art is nearly done. I didn’t take advantage of a professional editor in my first book, and I can see the difference.

In the mind of the reader/potential reader, perception is reality.

E.B.Pike

It may not be “fair” to do it, but I think it’s hard to help yourself. We’re visual creatures –something enticing on the page is going to make me want to pick it up.

If I ever get published, I sure hope I have some say in mine! 🙂

Serena
Serena
Haha yes I judge books by their cover too. But usually it’s the recommendations from friends, other authors, etc. that attract me to the book so no matter how mediocre the book looks, I would still read it, lol. As for self publishing cover designing…yeah hiring a professional designer is super expensive! It seems to be about $700 USD or something, eek. But one interesting thing I want to say is: my books tend to be very focused on the main character(s) (even the titles are more often than not simply the name of the protagonist(s), lol); and so I like to have them on the cover. However, I like to draw my characters myself, because no matter how amazing the hired artist is, they will NEVER be able to see how EXACTLY my characters look like in my imagination. Hehe maybe I’m just picky, but I want my characters on the cover to look 100% accurate. 🙂 As for the design outside of the character illustrations, I have a friend who’s very good at photoshop help me. Right now we’ve designed something that really looks like a sci fi cover and it really pleases me. What matters to me most is not the beauty of the cover, but if the ATMOSPHERE and STYLE of the cover is a perfect representation of my story inside. And I do have very specific ideas about how exactly the cover should be designed to convey that JUST RIGHT atmosphere. 🙂 So in sum,… Read more »
Taurean Watkins

From the opposite spectrum, I get so annoyed with titles that are describing things that aren’t in the book or movie at all.

I was so disappointed when I learned “Dances with Wolves” was NOT about either-

Dancing Wolves (I was thinking of Disney’s Fantasia)
Wolves learning to dance
Wolves and dancing period.

At least with “Peter and the Wolf” there was a boy named PETER and there was an actual WOLF. Maybe that’s just the animal fantasy writer in me, and to be fair, I was 8 at the time.

Jordan McCollum
This all reminds me of a scene on Phineas & Ferb, where 15-year-old Candace is looking over her mom’s library books: Candace: Boring, dull, stupid, lame, heavy-handed and derivative. Linda (her mother): Oh, thank you for those insightful reviews of books you haven’t read. Candace: Mom, that’s why books have covers; to judge them. I mean, why did you choose these books from the library? Linda: They looked interesting. Candace: So… Linda: Point taken. Let’s be honest: book covers are MADE to judge books. The aphorism dates from an era when the cover choices were black, blue and red, with gold or silver lettering. I’m not a graphic designer, but I thought about studying graphic design in college, and I still dabble a little (very little). I design not-publishable-but-okay covers for my books to help with inspiration. Typography and the general image are the first things I look at. There are fonts that are overused in trade publishing (or all media), but they’re generally the “safe” ones, so it’s less of a big deal. However, for some reason, there are certain fonts (perhaps like the scrolly one Roni mentioned; I know I have a picture in my mind of a very specific scrolly font I associate with self-publishing) that say self publishing to me. Like I said, this happens in all media. Movie posters have used Trajan to death. Semi-cutesy company logos fall back on Black Jack. Papyrus, Comic Sans, and probably Times should pretty much never appear on a… Read more »
Jordan McCollum

(If the image itself is appropriate, then I start getting more technical, like looking at focal planes, shadows and edges in the image. Bad photoshop, bad or inappropriate cartoon figures, poor color depth–man, I’m picky.)

Julie Glover

Like you, I tend to conclude that a bad cover may indicate an author who didn’t take enough care with the content inside either. My peeves? Busy covers–too much going on; fonts that are difficult to read (make sure you look at them as a thumbnail, since that’s how potential readers now see them on an ereader); and cliche covers–which happens over time (e.g., how many YA covers with girls in super-fancy dresses can there be? Sometimes it makes sense, but…).

I hadn’t thought about considering publishers based on their cover art, but that’s certainly something to look at. I will often pick up a book based on its cover, then read the blurb. If both catch my eye, I may shell out the money to buy.

Charlene Newcomb

DBW had some excellent pointers on book cover design, http://digitalbookworld.com/2013/my-online-date-with-the-almighty-amazon-algorithm-part-3-of-3-beauty-is-only-thumbnail-deep/. It’s important to keep in mind the ‘selling ribbon’ where a book buyer might find your book because ‘others who bought X also bought…’ Our covers need to be eye catching from those little icons in the ribbon.

Great post, Jami. Do check out my book cover on my website. I’d love to get your impression! 🙂

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[…] we’re doing it for ourselves, things like editing and those nice covers we talked about last time don’t matter. Those who write for themselves can self-publish with zero expectations of […]

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Vanessa
Vanessa

Hi Jami,

I have judged books by the cover. Most YA paranormal romance have abstract covers to make it catch a person’s eye, then some will have a cover not relating to the book. If you think about Twilight, the cover of the book had an apple, but by looking at the cover, a person couldn’t tell the book was about vampires.

With self published, I tend to be more picky. On some self published books you can see very closely on some of the covers the outline cutting and just pasting it on a background and simply adding fonts and making it look unprofessional and amateurish.

Thanks for Letting me comment!

Laurie Evans

I don’t like covers that have lots of “clutter”, or bad fonts. Some fonts are just too hard to read. I’ll check out a sample if a book has good reviews.

I found a book that I loved, but it had an awful cover. When I recommend it to people, and they see the cover, they say “Ugh, really?” I tell them to just ignore the cover.

I’m not sure how I feel about the erotic romances that have just an object on them. I like the sexy covers, but I guess I can see why they do it.

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[…] posted before about how we do judge books by their covers, so I could have answered that question with a flippant “a lot,” included a link to […]

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