We can’t help but judge a book by its cover

The old saying says we shouldn’t but we do it all the time. Judge a book by its cover, that is. Publishers and marketing departments rely on it. That first impression that piques your interest or puts you off completely. The distinctive hallmarks of different genres. A certain style that brackets a debut novel with the latest bestseller. I’m talking fiction (and creative non-fiction) here although no doubt there are similar criteria that dictate the covers of non-fiction and academic books even if the specifics are different.

Picture the scene. You’re browsing in a bookshop, pennies burning a hole in your pocket, on the look out for something murderous or challenging, or perhaps you’re in the mood for a few laughs, or maybe you want a fast and furious thrill, or to chill with a light, easy read, and there’s a table of new fiction laid out before you. What do you do? Pick up the one that catches your eye, of course. The one with the cover that appeals to you (for whatever reason). It’s critical, this picking-up. Only once the book is in your hand do you have the chance to read the blurb on the back, check out the first few pages (and the last if you are that way inclined) and decide whether or not to part with your cash.

On-line, the rules are probably slightly different. It’s much harder to browse for a start and you can’t always check out what’s inside a book. You could argue that makes the cover even more important as an indication of what might be in store for the reader.

Back to you in the bookshop. Why did you pick up that book? Why did that particular cover appeal? Perhaps you went straight for a recognisable genre, or maybe the book looked similar to a novel that you’ve recently enjoyed, or perhaps it was because the cover design was distinctive or unique and it piqued your interest.

I’m no marketing expert. Far from it. I’ve no idea how publishers go about getting the right balance between preventing identikit covers for books of a particular genre while at the same time keeping the identifying characteristics of the cover to ensure the audience know what sort of thing they are likely to get. Or how they get the balance between the ‘if-you-like-x-you’ll-probably-like-y’ approach and the risk that cover trends make the second wave of books look like second-rate follow-ups. (I’d argue they don’t always. Get the balance right, that is). Or produce a cover that is unusual enough to pique the readers interest without being so different to everything else that it becomes impossible to guess the style of the writing.

Personally, it is the unusual ones that I go for every time. I’m a bit too ready to dismiss the covers that try to emulate bestsellers or prize winners as rip-offs and I don’t read a huge amount of genre fiction. But how brilliant is it, on the rare occasion, when you stumble across a stand-out cover of a book you know nothing about and the contents live up to the promise?

Every now and then such an extraordinary book comes along with an equally extraordinary cover. Covers which spark a trend and a thousand imitators. A few years ago, it was Jonathan Saffron Foer’s Everything is Illuminated. Most recently there is Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent. The novel has sold more than half a million copies world wide. At the recent Brontë Festival of Women’s Writing, Sarah joked about the cover being responsible for the novel’s phenomenal success. Obviously a book doesn’t become such a massive success solely on the basis of its cover but the exquisite design definitely wouldn’t have hindered it. I remember picking the novel up at the airport before I’d read anything about it simply because it was so eye-catching.


The covers of Everything is Illuminated and The Essex Serpent.


Covers are on my mind because I’ve seen the first mock-up for the cover of my novel The Backstreets of Purgatory. Almost without exception, the covers of Unbound titles to date have really impressed me. There are a mixture of styles to suit the different types of book, beautiful designs and a huge dose of originality. I was sincerely hoping that I’d be equally as enamoured with my own. And I wasn’t disappointed. In fact, I was utterly delighted. I’m not going to give anything away because there are still some tweaks to be done but I couldn’t have asked for a better showpiece for my novel. I can’t wait to show it to you.


What do you think makes a good cover? What are your favourite covers of recent books? Would you immediately dismiss a book if the cover didn’t appeal to you?




Author: Helen M Taylor

Author of The Backstreets of Purgatory

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