Tuesday, October 13, 2009


By Writer X

I can still picture my fifth-grade teacher. Her name was Miss Fox. She had super-thick glasses, hair pulled back into a black cinnabon, and I’m pretty sure she was about 150 years old. Whenever she’d lead us to the school library (single-file, boy-girl-boy-girl, no talking), she’d say, “Remember: Never judge a book by its cover.” Of course, at age ten, I took her literally. Still, I never imagined Miss Fox was wrong about anything until I entered the world of publishing.

When it comes to selling books, Mrs. Fox got the axiom backwards. What she should have said was “A picture is worth 1000 words.” That’s because people buy books based on book covers all the time. Publishers, in fact, bank on it. They don’t invest in artists, publicists, sales and marketing people for pleasure or change the cool original title of your book about twelve different times before it gets printed just for the fun of it.

Unless you’re a well-known author with a ridiculously huge audience, the book cover (also called cover art) is important. If you’re a debut author, it’s absolutely critical. Your publisher knows this. And you will come to understand the power of the book cover, especially when your publisher is in the business to make as much money on your book as humanly possible, even though the odds of that happening often don’t work in your favor.

Don’t believe me? Go to your favorite bookstore as I recently did. Buy yourself an iced coffee and a snickerdoodle (warmed, if possible) and find yourself a comfy chair pointed toward front of the store. Stack a couple of well-placed books in your lap so you’re not mistaken for a stalker and asked to leave. Then leisurely observe the people who peruse the front displays. Unless a customer is entering the store for a specific book (most do not), here is what you’ll see:

Customer A walks through the door. Not sure yet if she’s looking for a spicy romance, a sci-fi or something more literary. Like most customers, she stops at the front display, the one where publishing companies actually pay the bookstores (It’s called “book real estate.” Really. I’m not kidding.) to position their books as close to the entrance as possible, preferably on shelves that are eye level to most customers (unless you’re a midget). Customer A glances across the display and does the scrunchy face because there are so many books competing for her attention. Visual overload. After a few seconds, she’ll pick up the following: Books with covers that reach out and grab her by the collar. Figuratively. If she picks one up, chances are she’ll open to the inside jacket or read the “hook” on the back of the book that provides a clever hint of what waits inside. With any luck, she’ll open to the first page. If the first line of the book is killer, as I’ve discussed in previous Commentarama posts, chances improve that she’ll take the book with her to the coffee bar at the side of the store and skim the first few pages and hopefully make the decision that she cannot leave the store without buying it. And somewhere in the Universe a writer is very, very happy, a publisher breathes easier, and an angel gets his wings…

So, how does a book cover reach out and grab a reader? I have a few ideas about what works and what doesn’t work. Book covers, like the books themselves, are very subjective. As I’ve said before, what one person likes, another may hate. It’s frustratingly like art: You may love Picasso but hate Rockwell. Or vice versa.

That said, I firmly believe that less is more when it comes to book covers. In other words, book covers that are too busy (e.g. too many graphics, too many colors, too many everything) usually do not generate that emotional response that you need to attract someone to your book. If a potential customer has to think too much about the cover to even care what’s happening between the pages, he’ll pass over it for something else that looks more intriguing.

The less is more philosophy works better for book titles too. I’m kind of partial to one-word titles, and they happen to be very trendy at the moment, particularly with genre fiction. Example: SWIMSUIT by James Patterson was a bestseller this summer. Now, the author also happens to be James Patterson. He could simply put his name on a book cover (and usually does in 30-point fonts) with blank pages and still sell books by the truckload. But, I really do love the title. It spoke to me. It was simple, edgy, summery, and mysterious all wrapped up into one. I definitely picked up SWIMSUIT at the bookstore and read the jacket. Side note: I ended up reading the whole thing in the bookstore on one very hot Phoenix August day. It was a quick, yet fun, read. Definitely beach-worthy.

Long book titles, on the other hand, can be dangerous, unless they are insanely clever. There’s a better chance of finding long titles on non-fiction books than fiction books. Example: STUFF WHITE PEOPLE LIKE sold well. Personally, I thought the book was hilarious and the title did not disappoint. However, I did see a long title for a young adult book recently. It was called THE MYSTERIOUS BENEDICT SOCIETY AND THE PRISONER’S DILEMMA. Not a particularly clever title, in my opinion, but the author, Trenton Lee Stewart, is a bestseller. His fans will most likely recognize it as part of a series and buy it.

A couple of truly bad titles that I’ve seen recently include TRUE COMPASS (non-fiction) and HER FEARFUL SYMMETRY (literary fiction). First of all, why would Ted Kennedy or his publisher want the words “true” or “compass” anywhere near the book cover of someone best known for driving a woman off a bridge? And leaving her for dead? Now, his book will sell because he is a Kennedy but will it sell enough for the publisher to make a profit over and above his seven-figure advance? Time will tell.

With HER FEARFUL SYMMETRY, this tells me next to nothing and did not generate an emotional response from me at all. That said, the book was written by the bestselling author of THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE (a super-cool title), so I guess she can call her book anything she wants. Still, HER FEARFUL SYMMETRY wouldn’t have been my first choice. It sounds like a geometry problem, despite its interesting and simple cover art.

In short, a book cover and its title must convey emotion, a sense of the story, and a sense of the genre (if it is genre fiction) all wrapped up into one. That is no easy feat. And it’s why much time, money, and effort is spent to get it just right. For those of you who self-publish and who do not have a publisher’s marketing department at your disposal, give your title and book cover very serious thought before you print your first copy. It could mean the difference between selling a truckload and disaster.

What kinds of book covers and titles entice you to open a book and, ultimately, pull out your wallet? Have you ever judged a book by its cover? Unless you’re Miss Fox reading this post, I’ll expect a yes.


AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, Thanks for another great article. I think you're absolutely right about the importance of the covers and the titles. When staring at hundreds of books, that's really all you have to go by.

And you're right about the one word titles. They kind of shout at you -- they're very definitive compared longer more complicated titles.

When it comes to the image on the cover, do you tell them generally what you'd like or do they do start without you (so to speak)?

Writer X said...

Andrew, you're welcome!

My preference is the shorter, one word titles, but it's got to be the right word(s). The perfect word. Regarding the book covers, your publisher pretty much starts without you when it initially designs a few drafts of your cover. However, by that time, several people in the company have read the book and they have a good idea about what your book is about. You'll get a chance to critique the covers and offer suggestions but the final decision is usually out of your hands, especially if you're a new author. Granted, if you really detest a cover, they're gonna listen to you. Most times, they do a pretty good job.

AndrewPrice said...

I guess, on the one hand, it must be kind of frustrating to turn over something so important to the publisher, but, on the other, they should know what they're doing?

In terms of titles, I absolutely agree that the wrong title can kill a book. I think the same thing works with movies. I've seen a lot of movie titles that turned me off right away, even before I saw the trailer. And then when the title didn't make any sense with the trailer, you start to think -- "something's not right here."

Writer X said...

Andrew, the control factor is why some people turn to self-publishing. I don't have any experience in that area but I can understand its appeal. That said, I have found that most publishers do a pretty decent job on designing book covers.

You're right about movie titles. And a movie trailer is kind of like a book jacket. If an author/screenwriter/movie director doesn't deliver, you might have a tough time selling your next book/movie.

CrispyRice said...

Guilty as charged! I totally pick up books based on their covers all the time. I've probably missed some things I would really have enjoyed because they just didn't draw me in.

And on the flip side, once I know an author, I'll pick them. I'm reading Mary Roach's _Spook_ right now, which doesn't have an appealing cover at all, but I loved _Stiff_ so I'm looking for her other books.

The other funny thing I do - I'll find a book's cover appealing, pick it up and decide it's not for me. I will find myself picking that darn book up again and again and again and putting it down each time. Argh.

Writer X said...

CrispyRice, you're not alone. :-) Good thing for Roach her debut STIFF sold well. And the book cover for STIFF was so intriguing that anyone with a pulse had to pick it up!

StanH said...

Good read WriterX! The book placements in the front of stores is indeed expensive retail real estate. In Wal-Mart, Target, etc. this called a planogram, companies pay high dollar to be at the checkout counter at Wal-Mart, etc., I’m sure it works the same way in book stores. I’m a target shopper at the book store, I know what I want when I walk in the front door. My wife, and daughter on the other hand wander around and slowly see what’s on the shelves, and will purchase any number of genres.

Writer X said...

Stan, you're a smart shopper. Like your wife and daughter, I tend to be more of an impulse shopper when it comes to books and spend way more than I should. It's a sickness.

MegaTroll said...

It sounds kind of horrible that a book will depend on its cover to get picked up. But I don't know how else you would judge a book when you're staring at hundreds of them? I agree too that a bad title can kill a book.

I wonder what attracts people and what doesn't? I would assume bright colors, images of people, pictures of "sins" probably attract people.

Writer X said...

Mega, great question.

A good art department will know what does/does not attract buyers. A lot also depends on genre. For example, at the extreme, there's a reason why you see hunky guys and beautiful women on romance novels; today it's rare to see one without a tattoo. Sci-fi covers tend to favor dark and busy covers. A new trend with Young Adult books is to include photographs of actual teenagers who look like the characters described in the books. Women's commercial fiction tends to favor pastel colors, still. Literary fiction tends to favor very simple artwork. These are just examples, but if you go to your bookstore and look at the different sections, you'll notice some common traits among book covers. However, as a writer, you're always wanting something a little different, a little edgier, so that hopefully someone will pluck your book from the shelf.

LawHawkSF said...

WriterX: You confirmed my suspicions about titles and covers. I pretend to be above it all, but the simple fact is that if a book has an ugly cover or a doofus title, there's a substantial chance I'll gloss over it unless, as you say, I recognize the author.

Writer X said...

LawHawk, I wish it wasn't so superficial but, sadly, it is. People are attracted to interesting book covers. It's like e-Harmony.com for books!

AndrewPrice said...

e-Harmony for books, that's funny! But if you think about it, everything in our lives is like that -- everything comes packaged to grab our attention.

On your response to Mega, how do you mean edgy? For example, when I see Sci-Fi books, the covers all look a like to me. What kind of thing would you do to stand out?

Writer X said...

Andrew, I guess by edgy I mean something that is unique to the book, that is attention-grabbing, but not offensive. I hate to say it but I know it when I see it, just like I know the perfect title of a book when it knocks me over like a ton of bricks. You just know. It's a feeling. Not a great answer but, unfortunately, it's not an exact science because you're dealing with emotion.

You see a lot of sameness in romance and sci-fi book covers because they work, mostly. People who buy in those genres are voracious, loyal readers.

CrispyRice said...

You know what else I've realized? I will buy books from Amazon when I know exactly what I want. But when just want to find something, I have to go to a bookstore. I hate "browsing" at Amazon. I want to touch the books, see the covers, read the first couple pages. Just like you described. Interesting.

Also, I used to read plenty of sci-fi / fantasy, and there was a certain type of cover I expected and wanted.

Joel Farnham said...

Writer X,

In my case, I am not sure I pick up a book because of it's cover.

My habits were formed years ago by reading Library Books. Most of them didn't have fancy covers. I look for authors first then titles. The cover to me is of side importance.

For instance, "On Basilisk Station" reminded me of something of a naval book. It led me to two authors I will buy the books with out even seeing if I would be interested in the subject.

I do understand your point. Looking good and interesting is of prime importance.

Mike Kriskey said...

If you can't judge a book by its cover, what are you supposed to do? Read every book?

I was a bookstore manager for ten years and sometimes got frustrated when I'd try to recommend a book to someone when the cover was awful.

I'm thinking particularly of Dave Duncan's books. Fun, original fantasies. Covers looked like romance novels. Another example was the new "Oprah" edition of Follett's "Pillars of the Earth." It's an enormous book, and the new cover made it look like a work of "serious" historical fiction. It's extremely well written and researched, but it's a page-turner, a historical thriller. Men wouldn't buy it with the new cover, unless they'd already read some of Follet.

Neal Stephenson's books all had great covers. The original cover to "The World is Flat" was beautiful, but apparently violated someone's copyright. Tess Gerritson's got great cover art.

Jodi Picoult's covers stink. I'd grab a couple of her books for customers every day for ten years and still couldn't tell one from the other without reading the title.

Writer X said...

CrispyRice, I live half my life in bookstores. :-) I rarely buy from amazon. Have to see it, read it, touch it. Then, maybe, I'll buy it.

Writer X said...

Joel, you're a writer's dream! In order to attract new readers, though, a book needs a slick cover, among other things (marketing, promotion, blogging, conferences, etc. etc. etc.) Of course, what's inside the pages must be as equally intriguing.

Writer X said...

Mike, good point. You bring up an interesting aspect about Follett's book, PILLARS OF THE EARTH. It was rather plain, not very fancy, perhaps because it wanted to appeal to a cross-section of men and women. You don't see a lot of pastel pinks and blues on books like this.

Tess Gerritson's book covers are always very cool, very bold colors, very intriguing. They're unapologetic. I like that.

I'm with you on Jodi Piccoult's book covers, although I'm not a huge fan either. Her covers are always kind of bland but she does have a loyal following. She's at the point in her career where it might not matter what the cover looks like.

Mike Kriskey said...

As far as "Pillars" goes, I think they lost male readers anyway with that big "O" on the cover. Guys don't want to be seen reading an Oprah book.

I used to cover that "O" with my thumb when I handed it to men, and if they spotted it anyway, I'd say, "It's not what you think!"

Writer X said...

LOL! Mike, that's so true. Not a huge selling point, for some women, too!

Mike Kriskey said...

Oh, without a doubt we had a large number of women who refused to buy "Oprah Book Club" books. Of course, they were vastly outnumbered by women who'd come in asking for the latest Oprah book.

If I were an author (and if I had the choice) I'd want to be featured on the Oprah Winfrey show, but not selected for her book club. Best of both worlds, that way.

You want to know the one thing that Oprah's Book Club couldn't sell? She made a selection of a three book box set of William Faulkner. It doesn't matter who tells you to buy it, nobody---and I mean nobody---is going to spend $30 on a Faulkner box set. It was interesting learning the limits of Oprah's power. No one can make anyone else enjoy Southern gothic.

Somehow, that's comforting.

It's good talking to you, Writer X. I'm especially glad that you're not Jodi Picoult. That possibility occurred to me just after I trashed her book covers. I prefer to think of you as Jan Karon.

Writer X said...

Likewise, Mike. :-)

Not Jan Karon either, sorry to disappoint. I believe she wrote the Mitford series, but I don't think she's had a book out in a while. Talented writer, though.

Betty said...

Writer X...I have a Kindle but I still go to the bookstore to find a book for downloading.

I saw the new Niffenegger last night. She would normally be an auto buy but that title turned me off.

Wally Lamb has some great titles (She's Come Undone & I Know This Much is True come to mind)

Crispy Rice...Mary Roach redeemed herself with Bonk, which I originally read as Boink :-)

Mike...The "O" symbol means a book is dead to me but I love Tess Gerritsen's writing.

Writer X said...

Betty, I'm probably the last person among my friends not to be reading books on a Kindle or Sony. Just can't do it.

I read the first few chapters of HER FEARFUL SYMMETRY at the bookstore and ended up putting it back on the shelf. I didn't find the characters particularly compelling.

Tennessee Jed said...

Writer X - I had a connectivity internet problem and just now am bavk online and catching up. I am sure what you say is absolutely true although in my own case, I tend to buy based on author, recommendation, a review I've read, or subject matter I am interested in. I have a tendency to get immersed in a subject and read everything I can about it until I find myself "full." Sometimes this will cause me to get away from a genre or subject for a while although for those that really interest me, I almost always come back.

A great example of this is military history, and in particular, the Civil War. I may read everything I can about the Petersburg campaign (fiction or non-fiction) then leave it for four or five years, then come back to it. For a while, I had a thing for true crime books, but have not been back to that for a long time.

That said, occasionally I will find something while browsing that peaks my curiosity through the title or cover art. Certainly, all those romance novels with paintings based on Fabio must have held sway for followers of that particular genre.

Great post!

Writer X said...


I have similar reading habits, although mostly with fiction. I'll go through a sci-fi stage, then a true crimes stage, and then even some women's fiction. I do read non-fiction, especially if I find an interesting memoir (can't stand the celebrity ones or anything dealing with a failed relationship.) I started JULIE & JULIA in the bookstore on my last visit and may have to pick that one up next time I'm there. Pretty funny. I do love good literary fiction as well and finally picked up a paperback of the THE STORY OF EDWARD SAWTELLE. Looking forward to seeing if that's as good as the hype.

Speaking of hype, if you read reviews on Amazon, you didn't hear it from me, but many of the reviews for authors are from their friends, families, neighbors, hairdressers, mechanics, etc. Naturally, they'll only say glowing things so take amazon reviews with a healthy dose of salt.

And those Romance book covers... Fabio and Fabio look-a-likes still adorn most of the covers, although now you'll find them with an arm tattoo and/or a nose stud.

Thanks, Jed!

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