Judging a Book by its Cover

They say not to do it, but admit it, you’ve done it before and will do it again.

The results of the 2011 Romance Book Consumer survey (commissioned by Romance Writers of America) report that most readers claim the major factors in deciding to buy or not to buy are:

  • The story
  • The author
  • It’s part of a series
  • Back cover copy

I agree with that, but… c’mon, people, you know at some point you’ve judged a book by its cover!

There have been plenty of books that have caught my eye and made me pick it up off the shelf and give it the first-10-pages-test.  There have also been plenty of books that I scanned over and passed up, based on nothing other than the shallow fact that I found the cover art unappealing.

Does that make me a bad person?

Nah.  I think it makes me practical.

The cover for “Warrior” (by Zoe Archer) caught my eye because A) it conveyed a sense of adventure and danger, B) the hero seemed like an interesting mix between Indiana Jones and James Bond, and C) he’s hot. 

I simply don’t have time to read the back-cover copy of every book on the shelf.  By scanning the cover art, I’m hoping to find a book that appears to fall into the right category and have the right tone I’m looking for.  A regency historical fiction should be easily distinguishable from a contemporary romantic suspense (otherwise the marketing and art department have failed miserably).

I love this cover of “Wicked Intentions”, which introduced me to Elizabeth Hoyt and her Maiden Lane Series, because it has a sense of suspense that is unusual for restoration-era historical romances.

With e-books and online shopping, the cover art is slightly less important since I can reduce my browsing time by choosing specific categories (Fiction > Romance > Fantasy and Paranormal > Time Travel) rather than browsing the shelves of the entirely-too-broad category of “Romance” to find the type of book I’m in the mood for.

But bad/good cover art can still make or break a sale for me.

If the cover art is cheap-looking (especially for self-pubbed novels), it’ll turn me off.  I start thinking that the quality of the writing must be equally half-assed.  The same goes for overly-cheesy covers, I don’t want to be embarrassed when seen reading it.  (On that note, has anyone else ever folded the front cover over on itself when reading a romance novel with one of those bodice-ripper covers?  Especially when you are reading said book at your desk at lunch at your work place? Yeah, OK, maybe it’s just me.)

Setting the right tone/mood is imperative.  If it’s steamy, I want to see a hint of that.  If it’s adventurous, give me some action or a sense of movement/suspense. With online sellers and e-books, sometimes simpler is better when it comes to cover art (since the size of the photo will most likely be significantly smaller than in real life).  No one wants to squint at a tiny, cluttered image trying to figure out what the hell is being portrayed.

I *love* it when a cover has clearly been created *just* for that book… when there are little details that are unique to the story, like a specific tattoo on a hero’s (or heroine’s) arm, or an actual scene from the story itself (with correct props and clothing and background), or seeing the heroine in a dress that perfectly matches the description the author provided in chapter three…  Sometimes details like that can add a whole new enjoyable element to my reading experience.

The cover for “Hounded” (a fantasy adventure novel by Kevin Hearne) has an intensity that grabs you right away. It is also clearly not a stock photo, as the hero matches the author’s description down to his distinctive facial hair, boyish good looks, Celtic arm tattoos, and one-of-a-kind sword.

However, sometimes specificity backfires.  I’ll admit that I’ve NOT bought a book because I found the male model on the cover unattractive.  (OK, alright, I’ve also BOUGHT a few books based solely on how hot I thought the male model was).  So sometimes I prefer silhouettes or below-the-neck-only renderings of the main characters, because those vague images allow me to fill in the blanks with my own imagination.  And of course my own imagination will always match my tastes.

So what kind of novel cover art makes you pass it up or snatch it up?

6 thoughts on “Judging a Book by its Cover

  1. Laura;

    Interesting topic. The cover and the title are the first things that catch my eye. I’ve picked up many books just because of their cover. However, that doesn’t mean I’ve always bought them. Lately, I’ve been ‘fooled’ because many paranormal-type stories don’t depict their genre with the cover. (Paranormal is not something I normally read.) That’s where the back blurb comes in handy.

    I remember being very annoyed one time when I was reading a series romance because the girl on the front of the book looked nothing like the heroine described in the story. Every time the author described the girl’s hair and eye colors I’d mentally scream, “She’s a red-head not a blonde and her eyes are green not blue!”

    As for what I’ll pick up almost without question…anything where it looks like police are going to solve a crime.

  2. I totally agree: inconsistent covers drive me mad! It is not only confusing for me as a reader (when I’ve been imagining things looking one way, based on the cover art, but then read a contradictory description in the text), but it also makes me feel like the editor/publishing house was lazy, which makes me mad. Sort of like when you see a movie based on a book and there are dumb/obvious “mistakes” that aren’t consistent with the book! Sure, movie directors are allowed some creative licensing, but some inconsistencies make you wonder if the director even bothered to READ the book first… which is not a good thing to be wondering!

    PS – Based on your described preferences, I think you might like my novel, “Dancing with Danger!” Hope to get it published and in your hands soon!

  3. Hi Laura –
    As a writer who has no say over her Mills & Boon covers, and who has been stuck with some really generic covers, I feel very vulnerable to the cover issue. I love a good book cover, and have definitely picked up a book because of the cover – HOWEVER – I immediately go to the back cover blurb, then thumb through the book to check out the writing. In other words, a great cover is an advantage, but it’s not necessarily a done deal based solely on the cover. So for me – pretty is appreciated, but content and author rules the day.

    With e-books it’s a whole different ballgame for self-pubs. I’d say a good cover is paramount to making more or less sales.

    Good topic!

    • So true, and I honestly make the effort not to rule out a book based only on its cover… but that’s just it: it’s an effort! I admit, there have been a few books that I have read and loved, despite their bad covers or bad titles. (Titles – now there’s a whole new topic for another blog!) And some books have great covers, but the text doesn’t deliver, so it’s always a gamble.

      A generic cover won’t turn me off, though, unless it’s a poorly done one, or unless it falls victim to what Kathy and I were venting about: gross inconsistencies with the image vs. the description of the characters. (even then, you’d probably already purchased and started to read the book by the time you realize the inconsistency). And of course, if the character on the front of the book is wearing a dress similar to the styles seen in 1863, whereas the book itself takes place in 1858, that wouldn’t be enough to bother me!

  4. I personally don’t like a cover showing a headless heroine. I found it interesting that you don’t mind that and can create your own visual. : 0
    One thing I must say is, when I love the book, and I mean really, really love it, I gaze on the cover and stroke it every time I pick it up. Color catches my eye, and so does a cover that tells me a story, or that makes me ask a question.
    Of course now that I read a lot of books on Kindle the cover has become less important. But I adore weeks like this one where I’m reading a print version. I get to stroke my cover. Ha ha.

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