You Can’t Judge a Book by Looking at the Cover…*

Covers…Or can you? It’s a fact of life for the book-lover that there are far more good books to read than there is budget or time to read them. That means that most of us have to pick and choose among the many offerings. In some cases the choice is easy. We all have a list of authors whose work we look for and buy eagerly. And sometimes we get recommendations from people we trust. That makes it fairly easy to choose a book too. But what about the rest of the great books out there? What makes a reader pick up and flip through Book A as opposed to Book B? One answer is…the book’s cover. Covers aren’t the only basis of course on which we decide whether to read something or not, but they can really influence our decision.

For example, covers can give the reader a lot of information about the sub-genre of a crime fiction novel. Cosy mysteries tend to have covers that are quite different to the covers you see on other kinds of crime fiction. Just take a peek at these two examples. On the left is the cover of Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Quilt or Innocence, which features retired art expert Beatrice Coleman. Just a quick look will tell a reader that this is a cosy novel. There’s no violence depicted on the cover and it’s got a ‘folksy’ look to it. Now take a look at the cover to the right, of Vanda Symon’s The Faceless. Without knowing anything about the plot or characters you can tell right away that it’s a darker novel and most likely not a cosy.

quilt or innocThe-Faceless-13108015-5

You’ll notice something else too I’ll bet about the cover of The Faceless. It’s done in attention-getting shades of black and red. Of course the purpose is to set it off from other novels. That’s part of the reason for which the covers of my two novels (Check my sidebar to see what I mean) have so much red in them. Same point.

One of thegarnethill-cover_custom-747c30ad0b7854591d77bb8ca99505d5dd280edd-s6-c10 other things a useful book cover does is tell the reader something about the story. In fact I know several book lovers who get very cranky if the book cover doesn’t reflect the story. Here for example is the cover of Denise Mina’s Garnethill. The real action in that story begins when Glasgow ticket-taker Maureen ‘Mauri’ O’Donnell wakes up after a long night of drinking only to find the body of her former boyfriend Douglas Brady in her living room. Brady’s body is tied to a chair, and although the cover isn’t ‘busy’ you can tell something about the story just by looking at it.

You see the same thing on this cover of Robert Crais’ Lullaby Town. There’ve actually been several covers for that particular novel, but what works for this one (at least in my opiniolullaby-town-robert-crais-cd-cover-artn, so do feel free to differ with me if you do) is that it gives a powerful message of what the story is about. In Lullaby Town, private investigator Elvis Cole is hired by powerful Hollywood director Peter Alan Nelson. Nelson wants Crais to find his ex-wife Karen and their twelve-year-old son Toby, mostly because he wants to get to know Toby better and start really being a father to his son. Cole reluctantly agrees and he and his partner Joe Pike trace Karen and Toby to a small Connecticut town. What they don’t know at first is that finding Nelson’s ex-wife and son is going to lead them right into the path of the local Mob. If you take a look at this cover, you see the focus both on film and on the boy. It gives a strong clue about the story.

Some books, especially if they are part of a series, are ‘branded’ on the cover as being a part of that series. The books in the Lilian Jackson Braun’ Cat Who… series, for instance, have a very similar look and distinctive ‘paw marks’ on the cover to indicate that they’re part of this series. The-Cat-Who-Lived-High-9780613063784Here’s an example: it’s the cover of The Cat Who Lived High. In that novel, newspaper columnist James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran investigates the murder of art dealer Diane Bessinger. He gets involved in this case when he agrees to save the Casablanca apartment building from being demolished. While he’s working to save the building Qwill says in the apartment Bessinger used to have and thereby gets drawn into the investigation of her murder. You can see by this cover not just that it’s a Cat Who… mystery (check out the ‘paw prints’) but also something about the story.

Some book covers take advantage of television or film adaptations and tie in with them. That’s got the advantage of recognition for readers who perhaps have seen an adaptation and may be interested in trying the series. To show you what I mean, here’s one of the covers for Colin Dexter’s The Way Through the Woods. The cover features the incomparable John Thaw, who of course starred in the Inspector Morse series and who was Morse (at least in my opinion).The Way Through the Woods

All of those things (shades and choice of colour, ‘brand markings’ tie-ins with adaptations and things and what’s depicted on the cover) are often very carefully chosen to get you to take notice. There are other strategies too that are used to attract your attention. Cover art is a big concern to a lot of publishers.

But does it work? What do you think? Do you choose to read or not read a book based on the cover? At the very least do you pay attention to what’s on the cover? If it matters to you, what do you look for? What puts you off? Fellow writers, what are your thoughts about the covers of your books and stories?

Want to read more? Check out this excellent post on covers from mystery novelist and superb blogger Elizabeth Spann Craig.


ps I know there are several aspects of this topic that I haven’t mentioned here (e.g. how covers have changed over time and the e-reader’s effect on covers). But there’s only room for so much in any one post…


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Willie Dixon’s You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover, made popular by Bo Diddley.


Filed under Colin Dexter, Denise Mina, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Lilian Jackson Braun, Robert Crais, Vanda Symon

25 responses to “You Can’t Judge a Book by Looking at the Cover…*

  1. Absolutely agree Margot that it is very relevant for print – indeed, for me it’s a huge issue – and not just the cover but the feel and weight of the paper too! I have a batch of Charles Bukowski books on the shelves partly because I just like to hold them! Of the ones you have put in the post, to be honest, the Mina is maybe the only one that might tempt me …

    • Sergio – I know exactly how you feel about the way a book feels. That really does contribute to the reading experience for paper books. The weight of the paper, the kind of cover and even the quality of the typesetting/printing can make a difference. And as for what tempts you, well, everyone’s different.

  2. Patti Abbott

    So much fun to look at covers over time for the same book. The sixties really have a specific look, don’t they?

  3. I don’t think I would decide to read a book based on the cover, but have bought books because I liked the cover, especially vintage paperbacks. I have some books with skulls or skeletons on the cover that I may never read.

    I agree about the feel of a paper book as you read it. I just finished The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag (Alan Bradley), in its hardcover version with the purple cover with the skeleton illustration. I loved opening that book and looking at the cover as I read it.

    A cover would influence me in a negative way. If a cover looks too cozy, I would tend to pass it by, when it might be a great book with a great story and writing. I ignored the Jane Haddam books about Gregor Demarkian for years because they were marketed as having a holiday theme. Which they did, but they really were not cozies at all. At least not in my opinion.

    Needless to say, I enjoyed the topic of this post.

    • Tracy – Thanks – I’m glad you enjoyed what you read. I know exactly what you mean about that special feel of a hardcover book with the right kind of paper. I felt that way about Adrian Hyland’s Gunshot Road. A different feel to The Weed…, but still a very special rush.
      And about vintage covers? I have a 1942 paperback of Ellery Queen’s The French Powder Mystery. That cover is a big part of why I love that book.
      You make a well-taken point too about a cover giving the wrong impression of the kind of book one’s getting. I’ve had that happen a couple of times. And the shame of it is that one could be passing up an absolutely great book without even knowing it. That’s one reason I think covers can matter.

  4. kathy d.

    I don’t buy books based on the covers. The inside blurbs somewhat sway me to buy or not buy a book, but price also affects whether or not I purchase a book. Additionally, if friends and bloggers have praised a book that is a factor, also if it’s by a favorite author.
    I don’t buy many books, but if I do, it’s usually because I already know and like the author and I can’t wait for his/her new book or if I’ve read such stunning reviews that I’m hooked.
    I appreciate artistic covers, both classics and current.

    • Kathy – I think you have lots and lots of company. These days books aren’t cheap. So people are less likely to buy a book on a whim. And I think a lot of people start with recommendations from people they trust.
      And I know exactly what you mean about well-done artistic covers. When they’re something really remarkable about the composition, the shading, etc., in a book, I look twice.

  5. Margot: Some of the most effective covers I know come from the small town Saskatchewan series of mysteries by Nelson Brunanski. I wish I could figure out a way to put an example in this comment.

    Each of the covers features a traditional wooden grain elevator, an iconic Saskatchewan image, in eye catching red and yellow. The vivid colours come through best on the image I was able to download for the third in the series, Burnt Out.

    The covers also include images relating to the story. The first, Crooked Lake, has a golf green and a lake. The book involves a murder at a local golf course on a lake.

    The covers are eye catching and truthfully relate to the stories.

  6. Like Kathy, I don’t really buy books for the covers. However, when I am buying second hand books, if there are two editions of a book I want, I tend to go with the edition that I already have on my bookshelf so my shelves look more aesthetically pleasing. But generally I only notice a cover if it’s absolutely awful.

    • Sarah – Oh, terrible covers get my attention too – in the wrong way. I’ve got one – of Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town – that’s truly awful. It reflects nothing about the novel, really and, well, it’s terrible. But in general I don’t buy a book just because of the cover. Even my beloved Agatha Christie novels aren’t from the same edition. I think of it as…eclectic. 😉

  7. After reading the comments on your previous blog post, I was looking up a book by Ellery Queen called Fine and Private Place. It was only available 2nd-hand on Amazon, and there were 3x different covers. One of them was instantly off-putting to me, a strange picture of two attached fingers, I thought that I seriously couldn’t read a book with that cover! I shall choose a different edition. But thje image – an old Penugine crime cover – is not violent or gory or scarey: I just personally found it utterly repellant.

    • Moira – Interesting how that cover just put you off that way. Sometimes covers do. In fact when I was looking for the covers I wanted to use for this post I rejected several I found for just that kind of reason. And just out of curiosity, I looked up the cover you you mentioned; I couldn’t agree more. It’s really off-putting to me, too.

  8. Skywatcher

    The problem that I have with a lot of modern crime novel covers is that they are so boring (a tree, a road, a figure walking through fog). They look as though the publishers have left the cover until literally the last minute, and have told the person responsible to spare all expense and have the thing ready within an hour or so. A good cover really can help sell a book. A friend of mine who works in a bookshop told me that the beautiful ‘retro’ covers for the Fleming James Bond books from a few years ago caused them to fly out of the shop. In a number of cases the buyers already had editions of the same books, but wanted to own a set of these covers!
    To my mind, one would have to go a long way to improve on the Tom Adams covers for the paperbacks of Agatha Christie in the 70s. Scary and surreal, they embodied the feel of the stories without being direct representations of what was in the books. The TV tie-in editions of books are rather nostalgic, as they can take you back to the period when they were shown just as easily as watching the episodes. I still have mint copies of the Peter Davison/Brian Glover version of Margery Allingham’s CAMPION, and they are now as pleasingly old fashioned as the old Green Penguin editions.

    • Skywatcher – You’ve got a well-taken point about the Tom Adams covers to Christie’s novels. They are inventive and creepy but without being brutal and simply just ugly. And I hadn’t thought about the nostalgia effect of the TV tie-ins but you’re quite right of course. For folks who liked the Campsion series, those covers are probably especially welcome. And thanks for mentioning the Green Penguin editions of books. A true institution among crime fiction novels.

  9. I won’t judge a book by its cover, but certainly some covers have turn me off.

    • José Ignacio – I know exactly what you mean. Covers can draw the reader in and get the reader’s attention. But if they are done badly or are off-putting in some way readers also notice that immediately. At least I do.

  10. kathy d.

    One thing I don’t like is covers with drops of blood on them. I can’t imagine myself holding them in my hand. Also, I can live without those with gratuitous violence against women displayed. In fact, when I began reading crime fiction way back during the Renaissance, I was turned off by the Mike Hammer/Mickey Spillane books’ covers for that reason, and never read one since.

    • Kathy – I’m the same way about excessively violent and/or bloody covers. I don’t like them and that’s a good way to get me not to buy a book. Covers don’t need to be boring, but at the same time there’s no need for them to be violent.

  11. Margot, you might enjoy my partner Andrew Nette’s amazing collection of pulp fiction covers here.

  12. kathy d.

    The Ghost Money cover is quite good, gets the mood across without gratuitous violence.
    I just don’t want to have a book that results in me being too scared to take out the garbage at night — to the compactor in my hallway!

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