And why the hell not.
Usually used as a cautionary moral, don’t judge a book by its cover, has always rankled a little. For many years I harboured a secret guilt that I did just that, judging by veneer, only looking skin deep, ya-da ya-da blah. Then I saw a friend put an inordinate effort into choosing a frame for a painting. When questioned her response was, ‘It has to fit’. I don’t see why the same shouldn’t apply to books.
There’s a striking irony that exists in cover art (though this might say more about me than my argument…): the USA, a place known more for being a giant mall, where neither style nor substance win over marketing, produce the best book designs – not just the covers, but book production. Yet the UK, which has that air of Continental Artistry and intellectual depth, where substance travels hand in hand with design, produces more lacklustre tomes.
That’s painting with pretty broad brushstrokes and, of course, there are many exceptions, but I’ve found it generally holds true. If one takes the same book from each market, and holds them side-by-side, it’s pretty easy to pick the US edition. Unfortunately the commonwealth market follows the UK trend.
As a youth I was a SF geek of the first order. Book covers were an integral part in my selection process, revealing the genre of the book, its subtext and tendency. Many were awful, tacky images involving spaceships and weird aliens, often embossed on a slightly metallic looking cover. But I was often after exactly that sort of book. Hard or literary SF usually had more complex covers, maintaining the futuristic signifiers while conveying an added literary dimension.
I think one can and should be able to judge a book by its cover. Book design should reflect its content; be it crime, literary fiction or non-fiction (many new books are deliberately designed to closely resemble successful books of the same theme for exactly that reason – the Da Vinci Code and its clones being an obvious example – possibly lazy, but definitely effective, if only for booksellers like myself).
Our brains are wired to make judgements, so the information our eyes feed it should assist that process. A well designed book is a beautiful thing, not to mention an excellent way to catch the public’s eye. You can follow cover designs like bread-crumbs, leading the shelf-perusing reader along paths of visual cues and treats, out of the forest of overwhelming choice to the meadows of historical fiction, through the sleek hallways of SF, and into the dark alleyways of crime noir.
Here are some wonderfully designed books, exemplars of being able to judge a book by its cover, designs that capture something essential of the book while also being beautiful to look at:
So I say judge a book by its cover! You’ll miss out occasionally, sure, and you may also get fooled once in a while, but a book that is sufficiently loved by author and publisher is treated lovingly in design. If you’re American. If you’re from the UK or the Commonwealth it can a bit of a lottery.