Judging a Book by Its Cover

Vintage Romance Novels

Image by Stewf via Flickr

I was working with my publisher the other day on my novel’s cover (yay! start shameless plug–>> The P.U.R.E., releasing on or around 4/16/2012 <<–end shameless plug) and I needed to search through stock photography websites for a full body photo of a nicely built male wearing a suit.

A few months ago, I didn’t know these stock photography sites existed.  I bought books but rarely did their covers influence my decision to buy or not buy.  I think because my reading time was so precious, I’d usually done my homework on the book’s interior before I bought it.

The more I perused the stock photos, the more I recognized models from books I’d read.  I also realized that many used the same models over and over again.  At my local bookstore, I recently saw the same female model on two different authors’ books positioned side by side.  I had at least two more books I already owned with the identical model.  She was undeniably lovely with her part Asian, part Caucasian features, but were there no other beautiful models available to do historical covers?

The covers that do catch my attention, however, are the awful ones.  No, I won’t single any out for the hall of shame; there are plenty of websites that already do a good job of that.  I’ve even seen a couple of prolific authors publicly poke fun at their own, older covers.

What made them so bad?  For starters, bad cut and paste jobs.  If I can see the edges of the cut and they don’t match the body lines–fail.  If I can tell a cowboy hat, medieval helmet or baseball cap has been digitally plopped atop the model’s head–fail.  If the cover is too literal, such as a pair of handcuffs and a whip superimposed for a BDSM tale (I don’t read ’em, just sayin’) or tries too hard to be symbolic (an African American hand offering a vanilla ice cream cone to a Caucasian hand offering a chocolate one)–I groan.

When music videos first came out, critics skewered those that pantomimed or acted out the lyrics word for word vs. capturing the tone and mood of the song.  Those critics were right and the same holds true for book covers.  Literal is not always best.

Does this mean my book (second shameless plug) will or won’t have a well-built male wearing a suit on its cover and in the story?  Maybe and yes.  I provided suggestions to the publisher who may or may not use them, hence the maybe part.  A well-built male is a key player in the story so no worries there.

Personally, I don’t always like to see covers that give away too many elements of the story.  Teasing is best, in my humble opinion.  The models don’t have to match exactly the physical descriptions within the pages.  I purposely use a light touch when describing faces and body shapes.  Readers have terrific imaginations and they are more than capable of conjuring images to match the actions and dialogue.

My opinions about settings and critters differ, however.  Unless it’s a real world contemporary setting, I do like visual hints.  Did that make sense?  If the book is in a fantasy setting, I want a glimpse.  If an animal or other-worldly creature plays a key role, I’d like a peek at it.  Some of my favorite book covers contained depictions of haunting landscapes and beings.  I’d refer to the cover throughout the reading experience. Those visuals plowed the field of my imagination, making it a fertile ground for the author’s seeds.  Isn’t that what all covers should do?

What do you think?  Should the characters and settings on the covers of books resemble the author’s descriptions?  If so, how closely?  Is the cover part of the reading experience or simply a marketing ploy?

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9 thoughts on “Judging a Book by Its Cover

  1. I think the cover is almost entirely marketing. Once I buy a book, I rarely, if ever, look at the cover again, only the spine to read the title on my bookshelf. As long as what’s on the cover is remotely related to what’s inside, I don’t think it matters how closely they resemble the characters/scenes inside – again, within reason. I’d be mighty upset to pick up a cover with a hot guy on a sandy beach and find a story about an overweight psychotic clown inside. 🙂

    • I think I’d be upset to read a story about an overweight psychotic clown no matter what the cover. LOL Totally agree, Jo. Some covers go through different iterations over its reprint life and / or have culturally driven differences. The latter is a fascinating topic all on its own.

  2. The cover doesn’t make or break my decision to buy/not buy. However, there are a LOT of READERS out there for who it does. I’m listened to them (read their posts) on places like Goodreads and they ALWAYS compare the differences in regional covers that seems to happen a lot with the larger publishing houses. When my novel has been reviewed on a book blog, the visitors who have commented have given their thoughts on my cover as though that’s as important as the story to them. So, although it isn’t what sells a book to me because I mostly go recommendation, book covers ARE important to a lot of others out there. 🙂

    • Yes. To many people covers do influence a buying decision. I know I read that since the advent of the e-reader, sales of erotica and romance have gone way up. Covers give away the nature of the content but not all of us want that content known.

  3. This may mark me out as a fair target for criticism, but I have always felt that photo covers are lazy and uninspiring – oh, hold on a sec before you shout at me, because I do have a good reason for this. A lot of my collection (maybe 80%) is made up of older books, and they almost always had a custom painted cover which captures the essence of the novel. From the glorious James Bond novels to PJ Farmer’s carefully cropped covers (the circles really draw the eye), I am drawn to the skill of painted covers before I even think about picking up photo covers.

    A close second would have to be graphic art – harsh black and white illustrations do a great job at making me stop and look at the book. There is a lot to be said for the books which draw the eye from across a bookshop, and I would be very worried if something I did went out with a generic photo cover – hell, I’d probably grin and make no mention whatsoever about the cover, whilst slyly putting up something on my blog which I would prefer (even I’m not dumb enough to mess with the powers that be).

    • No shouting from me.� I love covers that use original artwork.� I have several artist friends and colleagues who are wicked talented and have awesome samples of their work on Deviant.�

      I’m reading Annalise Ryan’s book Frozen Stiff now and all her covers in the series are artists’ drawings that capture her humorous style of writing.� Of course hers are published by large publishers with larger budgets than the smaller indie / e-book publishers.� I don’t want to devalue art in any form but at this stage in my writing, I’m want the $$ paid by my readers for the art component they get with one of my books to mostly go to me for my words. Totally, selfish, I know, and you may shout at me for saying this. If I wrote children’s books, where art is equally critical to the story, I know I wouldn’t feel this way.

  4. I want to imagine. If it ‘tells’ me everything on the cover that I will read inside, I’ve lost the interest in reading the inside. I want to be teased. I want to wonder. I want my curiosity to be tweaked.
    And yes, I admit it, I totally judge books by their covers. 🙂

    • Kind of sad that Kindles are programmed to bypass the cover. Being in black and white isn’t too fun but I still back up a few clicks to look at ’em (and read the acknowledgements / dedication.) I don’t like to leave the cover 100% to my imagination and don’t prefer the old-fashioned leather bound, gold embossed tomes.

  5. I’m usually disappointed by the covers which don’t match the author descriptions of their main character. If they are close, I’ll overlook it. But I like the cover art to visually supplement the writer’s description, which may sometimes be a bit vague. If it’s a series and the mc looks different on each book of that series, I think that’s even more unfortunate. I realize the cover artist has to respond to publisher’s demands and authors often have little say in cover art, but it would be nice if the depictions matched better.

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