Judging A Book By Its Cover

by limebirdvanessa

We’re all familiar with the mantra about not judging a book by its cover. However, in its most literal sense, most of us do in part judge actual books by their covers, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I feel it is a duty of whoever publishes a book to ensure that the cover is one on which the book can be partly judged. When we are selecting a book to read, whether it’s a hard copy printed book, or an e-book, part of our assessment process involves looking at the cover. For me, what I hope to get from the cover is an idea of the mood of the book, not necessarily a pictoral representation of part of the story. I want to get a sense of whether it is going to be dark and chilling, light and funny, complex and thought provoking; the description of the book can tell us those things too, but I believe it more if I’ve felt it through looking at the cover.

Publishers do of course recognise the importance of the cover image, and they invest a lot of time and resources into that. Of course they don’t always get it right, but they do at least understand what needs to be done. However, having read several self-published books, I wonder sometimes whether enough time and effort has been spent on the cover by those who self-publish. I don’t mean that to sound critical, but on more than one occasion, I have enjoyed reading a self-published book much more than I thought I would; and part of my expectations for the book were based on my impressions from the cover. I feel it’s a real shame if those who self-publish go to all the trouble of making sure their book is as good as it can be – weeks, months, maybe years writing it, followed perhaps by editors, and proof readers, and beta readers, and then they potentially let the whole book down by having a cover that either doesn’t look professional, or doesn’t properly reflect the story.

“But wait!” I hear you cry, big publishing houses generally have much more money to spend on getting the cover images done than self-publishers do. Of course I understand that, but even within the parameters of operating on a shoestring, I do think there is more that some self-publishers could do; I don’t say ‘all’ because many do find a way to get it right. For instance, if their book has been edited/proof checked/beta read, then I feel it’s essential that those who read it are asked for an opinion on whether the cover does proper justice to the story. Maybe many do that already, I don’t know. Another idea is to contact a local art college, and see if they could put you in touch with any recent graduates who may be looking for work for their portfolio; you may be able to come up with an arrangement whereby the graduate designs your cover, is credited within the book, and then gets a percentage of the profits if there are any.

I haven’t been through the self-publishing process myself, so I’m perhaps being unfair on judging those who have, but I’m expressing what I’ve found as a reader.

As a reader, have you noticed a mis-match between the cover and the book itself with self-published books more than with traditionally published books? If you have self-published a book yourself, I’d be interested to hear what process you went through with the cover design?

47 Responses to “Judging A Book By Its Cover”

  1. One of my pet peeves — poorly done covers.

    • It’s a shame isn’t it. Sometimes the covers can be done well, but just aren’t relevant to the story!

      • And I think too many Indies don’t give them enough weight. That little thumbnail — indie or traditional — has to catch someone’s eye or they’ll never look further. At least for me, that’s what does it. And yes, I agree, sometimes the cover is awesome but I can’t figure out how it pertains to the story inside.

  2. I am near to self-publishing my first novel and don’t have a massive budget so after research decided to spend the money on the cover design as I totally agree with what you have said here. I am really pleased with what they have done and I have asked a few people who don’t know what the book is about, what the cover says to them, and they’ve all pretty much hit the nail on the head. This meant that I couldn’t afford other bits but I decided to get a freelance proofreader/editor who went through my book for a fraction of the cost of a professional, plus a credit in the book. I am hoping that taking this approach will be enough to give my book the best chance. Great post – thank you.

    • Thank you. That’s a really good way of doing it, ask people who haven’t read the book what impression they get from the cover. I think some people might take the approach of “Do you like this cover?” or “The story is about X, do you think this cover conveys that” but far better to let them say what impression they get from the cover. Good luck with your book!

  3. I think this is one of the most important aspects of self publishing a book. I’ve consider the self-pub route, and thought I might be able to come up with a cover, but I don’t have the skills, and I know how often I judge a book by its cover. I think this is a critical part of the process. I noticed on Freelancer.com you can also submit a graphic design contest (probably for a book cover too) and you spend about $250 and choose the one you like after you give parameters. It might be a good happy medium to get something a little more professional, while trying to keep your expenses low. Thanks for bringing this up! I always feel guilty when I tell people that I judge a book first on its cover. If the cover doesn’t grab me, it could mean that the writing was difficult to “pin down”, sort of directionless. So far this method had rarely let me down as far as stories are concerned (with the exception of really old books that had only the embossed title). Awesome post!

    • Yes, the cover makes such a difference. If the cover looks terrible then it makes me think the writing might be terrible – I know that’s not a fair judgment, but it happens! It would be interesting to see how that worked out on Freelancer, the only problem is, if none of the entries are quite right, you’re presumably still stuck with giving one of them $250!

  4. Yes, I’ve read several self-pub novels lately that don’t have the right covers. The cover is a marketing tool that needs to get the book to the right people.

    As authors, I think we develop a vision of what the book should look like, but the vision doesn’t necessarily match the audience we want to attract. My new series is Trad, and I had a very clear idea of what look I wanted, down to the artist I wanted to have–but the publisher had a different idea, and suggested an artist with a very different style. I was angry about it, and trolled the best-seller lists to see if I could find an alternative artist to propose. What I found was that the style of book covers in my genre, the books I wanted mine to be compared with, and the books which clearly appealed to the majority of readers, resembled the artist my editor had selected.

    Epiphany: My opinion on the cover design is totally irrelevant. The question is, what will sell this book to the right readership? It doesn’t matter if you have a big budget or a little one, the author needs to step out of the way and consider the reader. What image or design approach will get the right reader to choose this book? It is all, all, all about the reader, and not remotely about what the author wants to see.

    Ask your first readers, and more important, do your market research. What kinds of cover are used on top-selling similar works?

    • That’s a really good example you’ve given there. If you had been self-publishing, you’d have likely gone with the artist you wanted without doing a whole lot of research. As with the writing itself, it’s always a balance between pleasing yourself and doing what is likely to generate more sales – if you’re publishing, then presumably you want sales and so sometimes you have to compromise on what you originally envisaged. (Obviously when I’m saying ‘you’ I don’t mean ‘YOU’!).

  5. People who have become familiar with my books know that I draw my own covers. I don’t care for covers that don’t reflect the story, so mine are illustrations that I’ve done for the books simply because I enjoy doing them. The Termite Queen, v.1, portrays the Highest-Mother-Who-Has-No-Name out among the stars, with a vignette of her minuscule creation in the lower left corner. I put a version of the Eagle Nebula in the upper left because it’s a star nursery and the Termite Goddess lays the stars, you know. I recently had a review where the reviewer said she kept looking at the cover and being intrigued by that “giant bug.” She said that helped to get her to read the book, so I guess the cover was successful in that regard.
    I can’t imagine allowing anybody else to draw my termites but me. I’m afraid others would show them as some kind of fearsome, hideous monster, or else anthropomorphize them too much. People have told me they like my amateur drawings – I’ve never had anybody say they hated them, but maybe people are just being nice. However that is, I think I’m going to keep on doing my own covers, particularly on the termite books. (There will be some books with other themes, you might be happy to learn.)

    • I like your termite covers Lorinda. They remind me of comic books, I don’t mean funny ones, I mean the proper collectors sci-fi ones. With Monster, for me, the cover doesn’t work as well (I hope you don’t mind me saying that!) – you know how much I enjoyed reading Monster, I found it exciting and disturbing, but the cover didn’t convey that feeling to me; your drawing is good, I can see what you were doing with the cover, it’s clever, but I don’t feel it reflects the mood of the book. That’s just my opinion of course, but based on the cover, I wouldn’t have chosen to read that book, which is a shame because I’d have missed out big time!

      • Let me tell you the story behind that cover. The book was my first self-publication, so I was experimenting. I didn’t know how to make a JPEG at that time (I soon learned how to do it with GIMP) and I was in a hurry to get the thing out there, so I went with one of CreateSpace’s generic covers – a drab black-and-white job that wouldn’t attract anybody. By the time I published the Kindle and Smashwords, I could use my own cover. Later, I republished the paperback with my own cover and finally got Amazon to combine the Kindle with the paperback. I don’t think the cover shows up well in electronic media, but you should see the paperback! I was surprised at how striking it was! If you really like the book, you should invest the $5.49 (oops – I don’t know how much that is in pounds, but amazon.co.uk will tell you) for the paperback – it looks great! You could put it on your coffee table and I’ll bet people would say, hey, what’s this book about?
        I can’t really discuss the theme of the cover here because it could be a spoiler – that’s one book where knowing what you’re going to encounter will ruin the effect. But to me it reflects the the Kal because they are a very rational and classical sort of people. And you get the long corridor with the mysterious door at the end.

      • Well maybe I will buy that in hard copy at some point! I do understand what you did with Monster, but I guess I would be looking for some extra element in there to convey the disturbing exciting side. Maybe there are situations where the e-book cover should be different than the hard copy cover because elements are more effective in different mediums.

      • I thought the long corridor with the half-open door at the end conveyed a sort of ominous quality, but I guess that was too subtle. I also picked that particular type face because of the distortions in the positioning and size. Try to convey that something was a little off.

  6. I have seen some really bad covers, so yes, I agree with you! I have terrible design skills, so if I were to take the self-publishing route, I would definitely spend money on a cover designer. A good cover will pay for itself down the road.

    For an additional take on book covers, check out 101Books post today. It will bring a smile or two or ten.

  7. I guess I haven’t noticed this as much, probably because most of the self-published books I’ve read are on my Kindle, and other than that first look when I open the book, I guess I don’t repeatedly see the cover like I do a paper version. Also, I usually know whether I’m going to read a self-published book or not, so I don’t let the cover persuade me like I might were I browsing for paperbacks in a bookstore.

    Interesting topic!

    • Yes, I think I’ve only read self-published books when they are by people I know, through blogging or whatever, so the cover probably isn’t going to influence whether or not I read it in those cases. My reflections have been subsequent, where I’ve enjoyed the book and realised that the cover would have put me off reading it, or given me a completely different impression of what the book was about, if I was just browsing for books.

  8. I’ve seen some poorly done covers on self-published books, but I’ve also seen covers from big presses that tell me nothing about the book, and I wonder what they’re trying to say with it. If I go the self-publishing route some day, I’ll look for someone with good graphics skills to do the cover and ask people I know what they think of it before making a final decision.

    • Yes, I liked jadereyner’s suggestion above about asking people who don’t know what the book is about to say what impression they get from the cover, then you know if you’re hitting the right spot with it! It’s not easy, like you say, even the big companies get it wrong sometimes, but maybe in those cases they are following a current cover trend which we just don’t get!

  9. I’ve self-published one book (http://ryansprague.com/grateful/ ) and my second is nearing completion, and I couldn’t agree more with this post. I knew from the word go I had no business designing my covers, so I started getting creative, aka begging. I found a friend who believed in my book and he had a friend who did graphic design and website design who he talked into doing my cover. My friend was helping me with social media and we worked a percentage of sales deal, then he worked something out with his friend where they bartered expertise. They thought of so many things I would have never considered, including getting a font that complimented the feel of the book. I think the cover’s beautiful, except that I misspelled “Foreword” with “Forward” and learned spell-check doesn’t apply to images. We actually had 5 different people proof the book and we all overlooked the cover. SMH.

    With number two, another graphic design friend is on board. We’re bartering services as well. He and I spent about 2 hours at one of the national book stores studying covers. It was a wonderful and productive creative process! He talked me through observing visual trends in genres and the about how we could stand out and not be cliche. He showed me the architecture of designs – how designers use sections or shapes to organize covers – to get a feel for how they thought. He helped me start to identify who the book was being marketed for by identifying trends in color and font, which ties into what you wrote about the audience’s opinion being as, if not more important than the author’s when it comes to cover. I strongly recommend you do this exercise. One of the unexpected benefits was the discovery of a new title for this book which was met with unanimous approval from my proofers!

    Great post; thanks for writing it.

    • That’s a good cover! The picture really draws you in. Thank you for talking through your process here, it’s interesting to hear how different people tackle it and it sounds like with both books you’ve gone to great lengths to get it right. It’s good to look at a self-published book online and not be able to right away tell that it’s self-published! As we’ve said, of course funding can be an issue, but people find ways around that as you have.

  10. So true…it matters more than anyone wants to admit…it is part of the complete “package” that creates interest.

  11. Here’s me. I always judge books by their covers. I always judge people on first impressions. Reason: life is too short to read every book, or get to know every person. The important thing is to make sure you don’t stick rigidly to these judgements. Judge at regular intervals. Re-assess. Review. Every moment is important; from seeing the cover through reading the back into the first chapter and beyond.

    I used to be prescious about finishing every book I started, too. But again, life’s too short. Review regularly. Why struggle on if you’re not enjoying it? STOP READING WUTHERING HEIGHTS!

    Case rested.

  12. I try so hard not to judge a book by the cover…but I’m so bad for it! I do it all the time. My husband gave me a kindle fire for my birthday, and that meant me loading the thing down with more books than I’ll ever read in my lifetime. Most of them are free self published books and if the covers looked poorly made…I’d just skip on by them. I know it’s so bad to do but it just turns me off so much if there isn’t at least a little effort put into a cover. I, of course, have not gone through that process myself either and certainly couldn’t come up with anything better so like you maybe I shouldn’t be so unfair in judging either…but it’s just hard not to just skip past those bad covers.

    • Don’t feel bad about judging a book by its cover Laura! As I said, I think it’s a duty of those who publish to ensure that the cover is one that the book can be judged on. The covers are there for a reason, they have a job to do, and we have every right to use that as part of our judgment on the book as a whole.

  13. Great post. I’ve seen some awful covers and I skip to the next book in the list. When the time arrives, I know I won’t be designing my cover, I’m a writer not a graphic designer. There are some great sites out there who design them so why not use one of them? Some are very reasonable and look great. Step away from photoshop! Let the professionals do their job 🙂

    • Yep, I don’t think that limited budget is a reason for having a terrible cover – yes, you maybe have to work harder at coming up with a solution if you don’t have the funds, but there are solutions out there!

  14. Vanessa this is a great post, and the topic is one we’ve all seen a lot of! I hate ordering a book off of lulu.com or something and then when it comes in the cover is a bad reproduction of something or an out of focus or off-centered photograph. Makes me think if they are sloppy about the cover are they sloppy about plot too? About grammar? etc.

    If I ever do publish, I think I’ll go with a textured cover and just a banner with the title and a box on the back, at least that way there isn’t a picture to screw up.

  15. I have a real problem letting go of my babies… a story of mine was recently accepted for podcast and I hated it that my JFK and Marilyn Monroe impressions still had a bit of Brit in them and only reluctantly agreed to an American narrator!

    I feel the same about my covers. For my first collection I had an oil painting that fit so that was OK. For my second collection I did a collage of various Earths plus a nebula which came out well and fit the theme of the collection. It was more difficult with my first novel, I ended up doing a watercolour portrait of the protagonist. I was happy with the result but think that I have reached my limit.

    For my next novel I will be looking for something more professional. There was some fantastic artwork produced for a short story of mine and so I am going to contact the artist and see if he would be willing to produce something for me for credit and a percentage.

    My three covers to date can be seen at http://www.terrandreamarchive.com/#/book-store/4568755853

  16. Great post, Vanessa! You generated a lot of talk about this issue, so you know it’s an important one.

    Book covers. You need a whole different skill set to get it right than you do as a writer to get that part of the book right. You also need money or connections with people who are willing to help.

    I was fortunate (I think) to find an enchanting picture of myself as a little girl for the cover of my memoir. The picture is one that makes you wonder “Who is this little girl? What is her story?” Combined with the title, “How Was I Supposed to Know?” the picture really makes one wonder about the book. At least that was my hope.

    Could the cover have been made to look more professional? Yes, I think so. Is it horrible? No, I don’t think so.

    Title, cover image, book content–they all have to work together. So many decisions!

  17. Btw, I learned a few days ago that a very bood cover designer, Kit Foster, has pre-made covers for sale for 75 British pounds ($116.50 US). Some of those would be fine for books in very specific genres, like horror or detective novels or zombie tales. http://www.kitfosterdesign.com/PreDesignedCovers.aspx

  18. Good post, Vanessa!

    Growing up with comic books – those of all genres – ingrained in me the importance of a worthy cover image. Even now, I know when a cover does nothing for the book. For personal works, it’s more difficult. I’ve tried putting together logo ideas and sketching designs for draft. I like some of what I can do, and part of the allure of this exercise is being able to do the whole thing myself. But, I’m also aware how my style likely won’t translate to sales (should it ever come to that). Luckily, I’ve got several visual artist friends and published authors who are always happy to share their experiences and advice. 😉

    For those just venturing into the design arena, I’d suggest researching within your genre, but also take a look at film or television advertising and posters, specifically: What does or does not work about them? What grabs your eye? Pay attention to the use of light and shadow, and placement of character bodies/faces, if they’re there. Perhaps most importantly, let your title and name show through!

    • Thanks Mayumi.

      I agree it’s important to do a lot of research – even if you don’t have the design skills yourself, you may be calling on a friend who is artistic but doesn’t specifically understand book cover trends, so between you, you can hopefully make it work!


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