You know the saying. Typically, it’s applied in a more metaphorical sense. Usually in regards to judging people.
Naturally, I’m going to take it completely literally and write a whole article about it.
The cover of a book is an often overlooked detail. People tend to ignore it and go straight to the book if its in a series they enjoy, or if they’re just that adamant to get to reading. That, or they look at it so often that the charm of it disappears. You might even forget about it altogether.
Me? I’ve always loved a good cover. Its always one of the things I enjoy the most. Granted, I’ve always been a sucker for good artwork and photography. But in this case, I look for more than just art that makes me go “Wow!” before I immediately hit like and retweet.
You can glean a lot of information about a book just by looking at the cover. Is there a magical beast or a knight on it? Probably a fantasy; that one is obvious. But then there are the more subtle details. A color pallet primarily made of grays and blacks could hint at the story being darker in tone. Or perhaps it depicts a certain scene in the story, enticing the would-be reader to find out what’s happening.
Or it could be an extreme close-up of a dude’s face. Or just a picture of some model with half a dozen Instagram filters put on top of it. Hey, whatever works.
Like, look at the cover of the first Harry Potter book! And for the sake of this exercise, I want you to do something hard: pretend you have no idea what’s going on. Act like you’ve never read it or that you’ve never seen the movie. Look at this cover as if you’ve never even heard of Harry Potter before.
You might think to yourself “What the hell is going on?! Is that kid falling? What’s that thing he’s reaching for? Is that a unicorn back there? And a three-headed dog beneath a castle?! Yo, that forest looks spooky as shit! What is this book?!”
Point number one in its favor: intrigue. If you took one look at this cover, you’d immediately wonder what this story about. It’s essentially whispering “Psst! Hey kid! Look at me!”
Now, while pretending you have no clue what this is, what do you glean from this? Well, for one, it’s safe to assume that the boy front-and-center is Harry Potter, our protagonist. It would be pretty weird for that not to be the case. But then you look at the golden ball with wings. Is that the sorcerer’s stone? Whatever it is, it looks like Harry wants to get his hands on it pretty bad. Or maybe he needs to get it? Oh, and he’s flying on a broom, which can only mean one thing: he’s a magic boy.
That or the illustration we get after this one gets really dark. But there is a unicorn and a three-headed dog in the background, so probably not.
Then there’s the illustration itself. First, the cartoonish style makes it clear that this is a kid’s book. But notice just how bright and colorful everything is! Not only does this establish a more light-hearted tone but it also emphasizes the few shadows there are! Look at the dog and the forest; notice how much darker they are than, say, the unicorn? That simple use of lighting communicates to us “Okay, the forest and the dog are scary and probably bad. So Harry what-his-face will be dealing with them. Cool!”
This is a perfect example of an interesting book cover. It subtly captures everything you can expect from the story within from a glance: it’s a light-hearted magical story with some darker elements.
Now, let’s look at a book cover I strongly dislike: A Game of Thrones.
Yes, I know this isn’t the only version of the cover for this particular book. But this is the most common variety from what I’ve seen; it’s the one I’ve got and the one I see most often during book store visits (please tell me I’m not the only one who still goes to those, pandemic aside).
What do you get from this cover? Well… uh… there’s a sword, so it’s probably a medieval story, maybe a fantasy. But which one gave you that impression: the sword itself or the title?
Utilitarian is the best way I can describe covers like these. They rely more on the title, the author’s name, or the description on the back to hook a reader in. Granted, that does make sense in this particular case. Given the tone, length, and… everything… of this story. But with some creative twists and a more mature art style, an illustration like the one we analyzed earlier wouldn’t have done any harm.
Now, question: if you were to look at these two books by the cover alone, which one would you read? Would you even bother looking or would you just let the book itself do the talking? There is no right or wrong answer here. It’s entirely down to personal preference.
Follow up question: should you judge a book by its cover? Is it fair to pass up on a book because you don’t care for the cover? Well, no. But also yes.
When it comes to selling a book to a reader, you need to get their attention immediately. For some people, they’ll let the opening pages make its case. But not everyone is willing to even open a book if they aren’t interested before doing so. You need to have something to make them look at those first few pages!
Something aside from that almost supernatural curiosity that drives people to them. I can’t be the only one who has that, right?
On the other hand, the cover alone doesn’t dictate the quality of the story. I hate the cover for A Game of Thrones but that’s one of my favorite fantasy books! If I had judged it entirely off of what I saw on the front, I’d have missed out on something great!
To me, judging a book by its cover is, just like the actual metaphor, like judging people. What you see on the surface or what you pick up from your first impression isn’t all there is too them. Sometimes, you need to just take a chance and give them some time. Maybe they’ll surprise you.
Although I do prefer books in that regard. If you don’t like those, you can just close it, put it back on the shelf, and leave the library. People? You’re stuck with those!