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Cover talk

“It’s about baseball. A person who likes to play baseball but also takes care of a plane. ”

Obviously, we are talking about the classic novel Catch-22 here. Or, at least, that’s what could be inferred from the iconic cover. Through the eyes of a six-year-old who hasn’t yet gone through an English class or lit course, and so has no frame of reference for well-known works of fiction, the possible subjects and plotlines of various novels were discussed on this post from strollerderby the other day. The inferences the little girl makes based solely on the book covers may seem ridiculous at first, but after taking a step back and forgetting everything you know about the books already, could actually be feasible…for most of them. I’m not entirely sure about the “very hairy eagle who hangs out with fancy ladies” in Steppenwolf, but many of the others could certainly be argued for.

Once you’ve clicked through them all, and after the laughter has subsided (meaning, I’ll see you in a couple of hours), there’s really a lot to be said here for the importance of a book’s cover. While, of course, the actual text is what makes a book what it is, the cover is what draws the reader in. So much depends even upon the typeface, color, whether there’s a picture or not. Even if a cover is agreed upon as a “good cover,” in that it’s aesthetically pleasing, gives an idea of what the book might be about, etc., assumptions about the contents as well as the audience for the book will always be made. Genre-specific books tend to have a similar look about them, in order to get people who love romances, sci-fi, Westerns or thrillers to pick them up off the shelf, despite what the flap copy says. If a YA book and an adult book have basically the same storyline, just with the characters at different ages, it’s still almost immediately obvious which book is which, simply by looking at the cover.

Almost universally, unless the book is by an author I’m already familiar with, a book’s cover determines whether or not I even pick it up off the table or shelf. That’s not to say I haven’t read books with unappealing covers, but they always tend to color the way I approach an unfamiliar novel. For example, one of my favorite books, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, has, in my opinion, an absolutely terrible cover. I bought that book along with several others, and it remained at the bottom of the pile until I had no choice but to start in on it. I approached it reluctantly, not even sure why I had purchased it in the first place, and was only half-invested in the words on the page for the first couple chapters—until, of course, I realized how much I was actually enjoying the story and went back to read parts that I know I hadn’t given much attention to.

As much as we’re told not to judge a book by them, covers are important. There’s a reason publishers are constantly putting out their own, updated versions of the classics to appeal to the younger, contemporary market. The text inside is still the same—it’s still Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett, Jane and Mr. Rochester, Dr. Frankenstein and his monster—but each time, it looks like an entirely different book geared towards an entirely different market.

How much are you affected (honestly!) by book covers? Have you ever been tricked into thinking you’d like a book because the cover made it look just so darn good? How about the reverse?

7 Responses to Cover talk

  1. Joelle says:

    My husband and I have a funny story about book covers. When we were first dating, it was a long distance relationship, and books came up in a conversation. I couldn’t believe he’d never read (or heard of) Nevil Shute, one of my all time favourite authors and influences. I chose what I thought was his best book, Round the Bend, and sent it to my (to-be) husband. When he got it, he took one look at the cover and thought, “Is this woman nuts? Why would I want to read this?” The reason he thought this is because Nevil Shute is out of print and I’d picked up a used copy of the book, from the sixties with a total pulp fiction cover on it. It was of a Polynesian woman in a sarong with a strapping man standing behind her looking all smolderingly at her. I knew the book inside and out, so I hadn’t even noticed it! He read it anyway, and I like to think it’s one of the reasons he fell in love with me…my good taste in books (if not covers!).

  2. Tamara says:

    Great post, Rachel!! Love this.

  3. I think anyone who says they aren’t affected by covers is lying. They’re designed to appeal to our psychology and aesthetic tastes, to intrigue us and to help us categorize each one by some sort of genre, story type, intended audience, etc. Perhaps if books ever went truly digital and no covers were attached at all, then they wouldn’t be a big deal. But the fact that we still design covers for e-only releases speaks a lot about the fact that we use them to help us make decisions on a book.

    Heck, there have been instances where I paid a few bucks more for a trade paperback or hardcover simply because I liked the cover that much more than the mass market.

    • P.S. I laughed heartily at the six-year-old’s interpretations of Animal Farm with its frenemy farm animals, Fahrenheit 451 with its flaming robot, and Wuthering Heights with its sad tree. My biggest laugh, though, is reserved for Slaughterhouse-Five, both because it is my favorite book and because I had not seen that particular cover before.

    • Rachel says:

      I agree! Though I almost always like trade paperback covers more than even the hardcover ones, if they are, in fact, different–don’t know why, but it seems to be true.

  4. emily says:

    YES!! I have bought a book because of its cover. It is a current romance, from a very small publisher, with a beautiful cover. BUT the writing is sooooo bad. I threw it across the room and sold it to half-price books.

    • D. C. DaCosta says:

      Holy cow, Emily! Sounds like a classic case of putting lipstick on a pig.
      I wish I had that writer’s creative team working for me. Bad or not, that book SOLD.

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