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You CAN judge a book by its cover

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Old 02-20-2006, 05:35 PM
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You CAN judge a book by its cover


Or so at least Jessa Crispin maintains. Since I found her comment amusing and her judgement amazingly accurate, I decided to share that particular column (the original can be found here).

Naturally, depending on their own taste in books, people may disagree on what constitutes a good, in the sense of helpful as an indicator of content, book cover for them, but I think she really makes some good points.

And I completely agree on her take on the author's name larger than the book title part.

But enough of my comments, here is the article. And I'd be interested in others opinion about it.


How to Choose a Book by Its Cover

I rarely go into bookstores knowing what I'm looking for. I browse a lot of book covers, looking for certain things, and then walk out with a stack of books I have never heard of before. Strangely, I rarely pick books that I end up disliking.

I decided to try to write down what it is that I find in these books that makes me have to buy them. I went to Borders (I picked it because it's three minutes from my apartment) and randomly selected ten books off of the shelves. I would judge the books on their covers and compare them to books I have read. Out of the ten, I ended up buying two. We'll see if my good luck streak continues.

1. Cover Artwork
The cover artwork of a book can tell you a lot about the contents. It can also tell you what section of the bookstore you're in. Cheesy floral design, or perhaps a shirtless Fabio character? Get your ass out of the Romance section.

There are several images that graphic designers like to use over and over again. A smoking gun: a murder mystery, naturally. An empty bed with rumpled sheets: romance novels are rarely this obvious, so it's probably a literary novel with lots of sex. (Literally means no "quivering bossom.") The naked woman (from the back or perhaps just a section of her) can either mean sexist crap or completely harmless. They throw naked women on every book these days. If there's an impressionist or earlier era painting on the cover, it's either a "classic" or a historic novel. If the date of the publication and a year on the back description are more than 100 years apart, put it down. Historical novels are tricky things and done so poorly most of the time. You'll have to find a good author to get to a good one.

Some images to avoid are laughing children (demented looking children are okay), birds, pictures of ranch land, and angels. You should be okay with most other animals (especially fish for some reason) except for horses. If there are high heels on the cover, it's chick lit. And almost all chick lit books have high heels on them. Or clothing racks. Inventive, aren't they? A good image is shadowy male figures out of focus. Don't ask me why.

2. Cover Font
Another important aspect of the cover is the font used for the title and author. Flowery, script font means either historical fiction or a romance. A clean sans serif font with minimalist cover art equals "hipster", trendy fiction. If the author is much larger than the title of the book, it's probably written by someone who writes the same book over and over again, such as John Grisham, Tom Clancy or Stephen King. The publisher has decided all you need to know is the author's name because you sure as hell are not getting anything new from the book itself.

3. Back Blurbs
It's not as much what the blurbs say as who wrote them. Publisher's Weekly blurbs every goddamn book, so disregard them. Authors of stature you can usually trust. One the two books that I bought, Jean-Paul Sartre blurbed one (you don't see that too much, do you?) and Neil Gaiman blurbed the other. Other authors I have trusted have been Thomas Pynchon, Salman Rushdie, and Jeanette Winterson. What I would not trust, however, is a blurb by a completely unrelated writer, like Leonard Cohen blurbing an SF book. I received a review book, a memoir about growing up black in a white family. On the flap was a blurb by Mark Kurlansky who writes books about the history of salt and the history of codfish. God only knows who thought of him. Todd Oldham, a fashion designer, also blurbed a chick lit book in my stack. I'm pretty sure I would not trust his taste in books.

The blurbs should not take up more space than the description. The blurbs should definitely not take the place of the description. I don't trust books that have no synopsis on the back.

4. Description
Book descriptions read a lot like ad copy. So here is a little glossary of commonly used words:

"twenty-something" - boring character who frets about dates and clothing
"frothy" - insubstantial
"a homecoming" - melodrama
"saga" or "epic" - not edited properly
"hilarious" - will make you smirk once or twice
"dazzling" - it's hard to tell. It's in every book's description

I'm a sucker, though, for words like "eerie," "delicious," "sexy," and "devious." All of these words, of course, appeared on the backs of the two I bought.

5. Author Photo
There are some great author photos. My current favorite is Salman Rushdie with his heavy eyes, looking at something just to the side of the camera like he wants to devour whatever woman, food or book is in his line of vision. Neil Gaiman's current photo suits him well, also. Jacket collar turned up, smoky background, another intense gaze.

There are, however, unfortunate author photos. A book that I am currently reading, and loving, by the way, has one of them. The guy looks like Tiny Tim. There is no way around it. He writes beautifully, so this is a hole in my criteria. I would say that the author photo is the least important of all of these elements, but if I turn the book over and see a middle-aged woman standing in front of a flowering shrub of some kind, I rarely buy it.

6. The Spine
The only interesting information on the spine is the publisher. If it's Random House, Vintage, HarperCollins, Doubleday, Scriber, Simon & Schuster, or Little, Brown, this information will tell you nothing. They're too big and they publish too much for any theme or level of quality to be implied. Small, thoughtful publishers are what you want to look for. If you like literary fiction, try New York Review Books or Farrar, Straus & Girroux. If you're looking for something edgy, you can go with anything published by Soft Skull or Grove Press. Feminist? Seal Press and Milkweed. The huge conglomerates may have destroyed any allegiance readers had with them, but good publishers that seem to actually like what they produce are still out there. They deserve your devotion as much as a good writer does.

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Last edited by Panthere Noir; 02-20-2006 at 05:40 PM..
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Old 02-20-2006, 05:58 PM
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It would appear that she and I have a talent in common. I can take a glance at a book cover and tell you if its a good read or not. Sometimes the title will tell me, sometimes its the author, but mostly its the picture. It'll usually give me the general mood of the book and if its what I'm looking for then I'll just pick it out.
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Old 02-20-2006, 07:48 PM
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Originally Posted by Panthere Noir
If the author is much larger than the title of the book, it's probably written by someone who writes the same book over and over again, such as John Grisham, Tom Clancy or Stephen King. The publisher has decided all you need to know is the author's name because you sure as hell are not getting anything new from the book itself.
This is very true, I've noticed this before and hardly ever read books with that "look" to them (books like that often have similar color styles, too).

As for the cover thing, though, sure you can use it to tell you what genre of book it is, but not necesarily the quality. This goes especially for fantasy books: it could be the Lord of the Rings or it could be a "the goblin takes his double-axe magician purple plow machine out from the Cave of Doom" kind of book. But she did give some insight into cover art, like the example of a naked woman on the cover.
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Old 02-20-2006, 09:15 PM
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Originally Posted by FlaretoBe☺
This is very true, I've noticed this before and hardly ever read books with that "look" to them (books like that often have similar color styles, too).
I am sure the respective publishers would call it "consistency." And it certainly makes it easier for the benumbed fan* to find the books.

Originally Posted by FlaretoBe☺
As for the cover thing, though, sure you can use it to tell you what genre of book it is, but not necesarily the quality. This goes especially for fantasy books: it could be the Lord of the Rings or it could be a "the goblin takes his double-axe magician purple plow machine out from the Cave of Doom" kind of book. But she did give some insight into cover art, like the example of a naked woman on the cover.
And I agree that you can't judge a book solely by it's cover, but even with fantasy, I've often found it a good indicator. For example, a cover prevented me from buying a Feist book and that's certainly something I'll never regret.

In another take on the cover art consistency thought, I actually like it when it is for books of a series, like WoT or Jack Chalker's Diamond Worlds or Rings of the Master series. (Nuts, I just found out through a search he died last year. ) Which is why I like to buy books in a series from the same publisher, usually dependent on country, that I bought the first one from, as otherwise I usually find myself somewhat irritated by different cover art approaches.

*Sorry if this sounds elitist, but personally I think only a permanent numbness of the brain can explain why people would come back time and again to repetitive writers like that.
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Last edited by Panthere Noir; 02-20-2006 at 09:18 PM..
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Old 02-20-2006, 09:49 PM
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This thread makes me desperately wish I were in Houston, where I could wander into Half Price Books and sit, half-dazed by delight, in a musty-smelling corner, surrounded by novels.

I can't bring myself to purchase new books. Perhaps I am missing out on something. The smell of a book sometimes will be all that determines whether I buy it. There is a well-loved smell to a good book. I like to read pages that have been fingered by someone who was gripped by the story such that dog-ears on the bottom have been made for particularly striking passages.

I feel dreamy. I'd like to bury myself in years-old paper.
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Old 02-21-2006, 01:33 AM
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Originally Posted by solecistic
I feel dreamy. I'd like to bury myself in years-old paper.
It feels fulfilling to me as well, when a book smells good or has a good presentation that others have enjoyed it. Adds to the experience, I think.
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Old 02-21-2006, 01:40 PM
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Yea, I find myself, almost 90% of the time, choosing novels because of their title or cover art
It makes me feel kind of bad
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Old 02-22-2006, 02:33 AM
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Originally Posted by Caste
Yea, I find myself, almost 90% of the time, choosing novels because of their title or cover art
It makes me feel kind of bad
Interesting. Why does it make you feel bad?
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Old 02-22-2006, 12:40 PM
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Haha. I love this thread, Panthere Noir! I just love it.

It reminds me of myself in a way. I always look for these things that you've listed in a book. If I don't like something about one of these things, then I normally won't read it. (And there are other things that I'm too lazy to write.)
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Old 02-22-2006, 12:41 PM
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I don't normally choose a book for its cover art, but if I don't like the cover art or the color of the book or whatever, I won't read it more than ninety-nine percent of the time.
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Old 02-22-2006, 04:43 PM
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Originally Posted by Panthere Noir
Interesting. Why does it make you feel bad?
Because I know there are other stories out there, probably even better stories, that I'm skipping over because of some lame art or title.
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Old 02-22-2006, 06:34 PM
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Originally Posted by Christianne_015
Haha. I love this thread, Panthere Noir! I just love it.

It reminds me of myself in a way. I always look for these things that you've listed in a book. If I don't like something about one of these things, then I normally won't read it. (And there are other things that I'm too lazy to write.)
Thank you, Christianne.

Really I reposted the article here because I found myself nodding in agreement most of the time when I originally read it.


Originally Posted by Caste
Because I know there are other stories out there, probably even better stories, that I'm skipping over because of some lame art or title.
Hm, yes, but how would you know which one is better?
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Old 03-10-2006, 03:22 AM
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Maybe it's just me, but I notice that no one here seems to choose a book by it's subject! Or am I just trying to blow smoke rings around peoples feelings??
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Old 03-10-2006, 04:58 AM
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Oh, I usually choose a book by it's subject. Ialways know what I want to buy before I go to a bookstore, but then after I get the books I want into my shopping basket, I also like to browse the shelves, in the - admittedly often unfullfilled - hope that I might come across something really exciting or unique or remarkable or whatever that might attract my attention . . .

That is where for me covers come in. They can, really, tell a lot about a book, or if not really about the book, about the publisher's intended audience. Also, when she said "judging by the cover" I really think the writress was not just talking about the most garish examples, but in general terms. Just my take on it.
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Old 03-10-2006, 08:13 AM
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Book covers as fashion items? No thanks.
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Old 03-13-2006, 05:16 AM
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Mm, I do that. If I don't like the cover I won't get it... instead I'll look for the same book with a better cover. or decorate the cover of it instead. Lol it works!
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Old 03-16-2006, 05:05 PM
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Something I came across news browsing and thought a little funny, given the title of this thread:

http://books.guardian.co.uk/gallery/0,,1732141,00.html
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Old 10-05-2006, 09:26 PM
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I rarely look at cover art when I'm looking for something to read. When I was in grade school the head of the media center gave us a tour and then showed us (what he thought) was the best way to pick out a book to read.

It boiled down to: pull something off the shelf, open it somewhere in the middle and read a few pages. He said you'd know then if you'd be interested in reading it. He was right and this method has worked for me for a long time (it also gives me an excuse to leave the kids at home when I'm going to buy books)
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