Judging a Book By Its Cover

Even though I have a copy of many of the Penguin Classics that will be re-released this fall, the new embroidered covers by Jillian Tamaki are too amazingly beautiful to not have a prominant place on my shelf. This statement attests to the power that a book's cover has on the reading audience.

Having worked at a publishing house, I can tell you first hand that choosing the cover image for a book is an incredibly daunting task. Many parties have to approve a design, from the author to the editors to the sales reps, that the whole process becomes a game of persuasions and concessions. What authors think best visually represents their books and what a sales rep thinks they can pitch best to the big bookstore chains are more often than not extreme opposites.
Plus there is the added pressure that a bad book jacket cover can end up costing sales. A recent example of this effect is "The Madonnas of Echo Park" by Brando Skyhorse. Despite numerous favorible reviews and recently receiving the 2011 PEN/Hemingway award (placing him among previous winners Joshua Ferris and Jhumpa Lahiri) sales have been lackluster at best, according to an article in the WSJ, and the publisher is blaming the cover:

     "Various parties—including the author, the sales department and chain buyers—couldn't agree on an image. In an effort to please everybody, the jacket went through 41 versions. The final design was intended to appeal to the broadest possible readership, says publisher Martha Levin, whose imprint is a unit of CBS Corp.'s Simon & Schuster Inc. But as a result of all the compromising, she believes, "we may not have reached any constituency." "I saw this as a book directed at women," she says, but a respected colleague argued that "there would be a big male audience who would feel excluded by a jacket that was too female oriented."

I find the whole idea of marketing a book based on gender insulting. How about using material on the cover that actually represents the contents of the pages in between and let the reader make the decision? I found this to be the case with the recently released Madame Tussaud. While the US cover definitely borders on gawdy, the UK paperback cover (as seen here on Amazon.co.uk) completely misrepresents the novel with a tag line change and relies on female stereotypes usually reserved for cheap historical romances. I wouldn't think alienating would-be readers with such a cover would drive sales either, but what do I know?

Now, I will openly admit to being persuaded by a book's cover when I'm browsing shelf after shelf of potential buys. There are so many books and only so much time to peruse that an attractive cover will draw my attention. However, this does go both ways, and I am equally likely to be turned off by a bad or offensive cover.

Although, with the decline of brick and morter bookstores and libraries and the rise of e-readers is a cover even necessary? The NY Times did a story about a year ago called "In E-Book Era, You Can't Even Judge A Cover" addressing such an issue. One solution has been the upcycling of covers from older, bound for the trash books into e-reader cases. I've seen many on Etsy, including the awesome ones by Rookcase.

Even with such beautiful cases, the questions still remains: Can those wonderful, organic connections made through finding a like-minded bibliophile exist anymore with e-readers? Have you ever started a conversation with a stranger just by seeing the cover of the book in their hands?


  1. Jenna,

    Aren't the thread covers amazing? I love the cover for The Secret Garden. There were some more simplistic covers that I found a while back for a few classics, but now the designer has escaped me.
    In reference to the MT cover, I think I actually like the photo for the UK edition better, but without the tagline. I don't know but that bright yellow dress (and I love yellow) and the fact that her figure is like floating in space (clearly just bad photoshop performance) just turns me off. The tagline for the UK edition is pretty offensive, and bogus, considering the novel doesn't even focus on romantic relationships for an extended period. Severed heads would be a thousand times more suitable and slightly less offensive. Ha.
    I love that you mentioned actual books being an object that prompts coversation considering Mandy joined the book group based on the fact that I had a copy of The History of Love when I went in to order coffee. Personal experience leads me to believe that it's easier to spark conversation. Although, you could say that interest in the way an e-reader works might lead to similar discussion. I'm still a fan on the BOOK!
    Love that you're blogging!

  2. Beth -
    You're right about the bad US Photoshop job. Plus, her entire outfit would have been above her station anyway. I guess the publisher was just trying to capitalize on the Marie Antoinette craze. I just wish either cover would have portrayed her doing what she based her entire life on...wax sculpting. Besides, that's what the majority of the population associates her name with, so it would have been better from a marketing standpoint, in my opinion.
    As for e-readers, I'd be interested in knowing from owners how many conversations, started because of technology intrigue, actually evolved into a discussion of the book. The few I've witnessed seemed solely focused on the gadget itself. I wonder if more focus on the reading material will happen once the "newness" wears off?

  3. I don't like the idea of marketing based on gender but at the same time it seems to be working for them (coming from someone who does not work in publishing so take what I say with a grain of salt). On the one hand, it'd be nice if covers didn't play such a big part in book sales, but I've been persuaded to pick up a book based on a cover. Or turned off by another cover, such as the Tussaud cover you have up there.

    I can't say I've personally started a conversation with anyone after seeing what they're reading, but I've been stopped a couple times by people when they saw my book and it is a little sad to think that can't happen with an eReader.

  4. Thanks for your thoughts!

    Unfortunately, there really is no perfect solution to book covers as marketing tools. It's a necessary evil, I guess. I've always wondered how books were sold before graphic designing and "artistic" covers were around.


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