…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.
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 the 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 opinion, 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. Here’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).
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?
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.