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June 1, 2018

Judging Books (by their Covers)

by C.M. North



I remember the days of record stores. I remember browsing through records and CDs, trying to find new music that would inspire and connect with me emotionally. It’s very difficult to do that in the age of Spotify and Pandora—after all, these apps promise algorithms that will expand our tastes, but if they’re based on what we already listen to, then how can it truly veer too far from the beaten path?

No—the exquisite experience of visiting a record store was that you would flip through the albums with nothing but the artwork, and maybe the lyric insert, to catch and engage you. There was something magical about taking home an album that could have been electronic trance or Norwegian black metal, and you didn’t know until you put it on and cranked up the speakers. I got some absolute stinkers this way—but I also discovered some beautiful gems, music I would never in a million years have considered listening to.

All because of the cover art.

Art in any form requires some type of judgment; whether it be cursory or in-depth, it invites a critique of its merit, worth and value. When discussing visual art (e.g. painting or photography), that judgment can be fairly instantaneous—it only takes a glance to know whether you like a painting or not. There can certainly be more in-depth analyses of this type of artwork, but for most people, their gut tells them what they need to know almost before their brain can process what they’re seeing.

For other forms of art, however, it becomes more difficult. Other art—film, literature, music—requires time and investment. You can’t really know if you like a book until you’ve read a few pages; a film until you’ve watched a few minutes; a song until you’ve heard it. And we typically approach this investment with caution: no one wants to invest their hard-earned and precious time in something that isn’t going to be worth it for them.

So for these lengthier forms, we typically rely on something to give us an insight into what it’s going to be like—a preview of sorts. And while that can be a blurb, discussion or review, it’s more often, ironically, a piece of art: an image of some kind that purports to describe the contents at a glance, something that implies exactly what you’re in for should you choose to invest in this particular piece of work.

For movies, this is often represented by the poster. For music, the album art. And for books, the cover art. This has even spawned internet memes, with similar themes calling for similar artwork (find me a contemporary romance novel that doesn’t have a half-naked man on the cover), and even similar color themes for similar genres (I’m serious: Google action movie posters followed by romance movie posters). But for all the humor and cynicism, there is something to be learned from this: the cover of a book tells you a lot about what its contents are (or at least, it ought to).

Sometimes, publishers will even commission different covers for the same book with the intention of selling it to different audiences; consider the infinite variations of something as classic as Pride and Prejudice (my favorite is the faux 50s cover from Pulp! The Classics—“Lock Up Your Daughters … Darcy’s in Town!”).

When I came to publish my own books, the cover concerned me. I had neither the artistic merit nor the money to commission an illustrated cover for either my fantasy work, The Redemption of ErĂ¢th, or my Young Adult book, 22 Scars. I would have liked it, truly, but I had to work with what was available to me. In the end, this turned out to be photography, which is something I can do. And in the end, I found that a single, unaltered photo can speak volumes about the content of the book within. The best part is that I can often make do with my own personal photos, or at worst a stock photo from an online library.

In a way, the thought given to the cover—its simplicity or complexity—can tell you as much about a book as the content of the cover itself. I’m personally a fan of simpler designs, tailored with care; after all, it says something about the author and their publisher (assuming they aren’t one and the same) that they can summarize the entire story in a single image. A complex piece of illustration, with multiple characters and backgrounds, sometimes feels to me overly busy—as though the publisher couldn’t quite decide what the book is about.

What do you think? Do you prefer simple covers, well-illustrated covers … or do you believe that the cover should be independent from the story? Should you be able to judge a book by its cover, or should books go coverless? Let me know in the comments!


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