Judging a Book by its Cover

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.

On the right is an excellent example of an indulgent, genre-fied SF cover, which tells you pretty much exactly what you’re going to get (dinosaurs and laser cannons!).

On the left, is a counter example, a rich novel of depth and splendour, whose cover reflects its SF subject matter and literary aspirations.

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:

All the more meaningful the deeper into the (excellent) novel you get

A brilliant novel about the mental and emotional disintegration of a master chess player
Minimalist genius
The Rorschach image, combined with the flowers, capture the beauty of this heart breaking novel in a way almost all other cover versions have failed

An austere and menacing image ideal for the book
Ridiculous but somehow capturing a note of seriousness. It perfectly captures the tone of this wonderful novel
A superb pun played out in image
One of the simplest and most beautiful covers of all time. Perfect.

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.

Marcus Greville


3 thoughts on “Judging a Book by its Cover

  1. Fergus says:

    Good stuff. Fact is we do judge books by covers, so as a publisher you have to have to proceed accordingly. The three hard lessons you learn are: the first and critically important thing a cover has to do is make a book look like the book it is (but it is devilishly hard to get that right and you can think you have got it right up until the moment you first see a copy of the book in a bookshop display); a brilliant cover doesn’t do much more for sales than an adequate cover; a brilliant but wrong cover can actually impede sales.


  2. Gillian says:

    I found my absolutely favourite book of all time by it’s cover. Picked it out of a $2.00 bin—”A Gracious Plenty” by Sheri Reynolds. Which led me to her other books as well.

    Also picked out the worst book of all time by it’s cover. Fabulous cover of Victorian era woman with a mustache, book was about a boy brought up as a girl or something… the whole thing was horribly done and I cut the cover off and threw the book away. I’ve never done that before, books being sacred and all.

    It’s a lottery. : )


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