Ten Loves and Hates About Book Covers
In the pre-Internet era how did we decide which book to buy or to borrow?
Friends might make recommendations. A newspaper or magazine may have published some reviews. But without Goodreads, or Twitter or book blogs to give suggestions or guide us to particular authors, we were largely left to our own devices.
When I wanted a new book, I just went to the library or the book shop, browsed the shelves and picked whatever caught my eye.
The old idiom “Don’t judge a book by its cover” didn’t exactly apply in these situations. The cover was actually one of the few ways I could gauge whether a book would suit my tastes.
I still follow that approach today. Although I have a wishlist of books on my phone, I often prefer just to wander around the shop or library pulling out books at random. If the cover doesn’t instantly turn me off (some do), I’ll scan the blurb and read one or two pages before making a decision.
So even now in our wired world, I choose books depending on whether I find the cover appealing.
Since the Top Ten Tuesday topic this week is about book covers I thought I’d share the features that hold the most appeal for me, and those that I’d rather not see on a cover.
Features I Don’t Appreciate On Book Covers
1. Cluttered Layout
It’s understandable that publishers of novels look for every possible way to grab a potential reader’s attention. They’re in a crowded market and there’s only a very short window of opportunity before a browsing customer puts the book back down on the table and walks away. But sometimes it feels as if they are trying too hard.
We need the book title and the author’s name (obviously). But do we really need multiple testimonials and a “winner of XYZ award” and a sales splash all on the front cover? I much prefer simpler designs than the all-singing, all dancing variety where multiple elements compete for my attention. Crime fiction and thrillers are particularly guilty of this, probably because they’re the genres with the biggest competition.
2. Film/TV Related Photography
I have a strong dislike of book covers that are stills from a recent television or film adaptation. Taken out of context they tell me nothing about the book. But maybe that’s how some readers do choose a book. They recognise the actor that was in a TV series they enjoyed recently and they’ll go for that rather than a different edition of the same book. I wonder how many people bought Pride and Prejudice because Colin Firth was on the cover? Or bought One Day by David Nicholls because the cover featured Anne Hathaway? It must have an effect on sales otherwise publishers wouldn’t use this tactic but it doesn’t encourage me to part with my money.
3. Sacccharin sweet images
Outside of the romance genre, we’ve thankfully moved away from covers that featured women looking wistfully towards a setting sun or a far off landscape. But that doesn’t mean an end to unrealistic images.
They still crop up frequently in the artwork for historical fiction novels. It’s not unusual to find an image of a sixteenth century maidservant with perfectly coiffured hair and so much make up she’d be more at home at a department store beauty counter than in the kitchen of a manor house. The book doesn’t even have to go that far back into history to give us illustrations of squeaky clean and ever so wholesome females.
I hope I’m not coming across as a literary snob by drawing attention to this kind of cover. There’s clearly a market for this kind of book and oodles of readers who love them. If they get pleasure from them, that’s fine by me. My aversion shouldn’t spoil the enjoyment for other readers.
4. Inflated Praise
It’s hard to pick up any book now that doesn’t come emblazoned with comments from other authors, critics or celebrities. Whether you call them testimonials or blurbs we’re talking about the same thing: bylined endorsements that sing the praises of the book. Every one of them designed to tell you that this is the greatest book EVER and you’d be a fool not to want to read it.
The same words crop up time and time again: compelling, gripping and unputdownable are popular choices while and luminous has become more noticeable in recent years.
It would be easy to get swept away by the praise, particularly if it comes from an author or book critic you admire. But these testimonials are not book reviews, they are advertisements, which, as we all know, never under-sell anything. So none of these testimonials ever say a book is interesting; it has to be fascinating. Good isn’t sufficiently praiseworthy; only excellent or superb will do in the blurb world.
These endorsements are never going to give me a true sense of a book’s quality, especially if they’re just one or two words. If I see more a more extensive comment I’m more likely to read it but at the back of my mind is always
5. Promotional Stickers
I wonder if designers weep when they they see book covers disfigured by promotional stickers? Hours of creative energy went into that artwork and yet here it lies, part hidden under a “Waterstones Exclusive Edition” or a “Oprah Winfrey Book Club” sticker. Two for one offers, film or tv tie ins, award winners; from the author of XYZ: publishers milk every possible opportunity to plaster their books with these horrid labels.
But if you try to remove one of these offensive objects, the result is often even more unsightly. Those stickers seldom come away cleanly. You manage to get your nail under one edge and gently try peeling it off the cover only to remove a miniscule bit of paper and leaving the bulk still attached. Multiple repetitions of the process are required. The label has gone but now you have the residue of manky globules of glue to deal with.
I don’t know what book binders are using for glue these days but its tenacity is remarkable. Scratch it with a finger nail and you end up with score marks all across the paper. Apply nail varnish remover and it takes days for the smell to evaporate (even then you can still see a shadow of the label).
I know I’m not alone in my distaste for these adhesive carbuncles. I’m just hoping that one day, we’ll see them kicked into touch.
Give Me More Like This
That’s enough of the negative commentary. Here are the elements I do appreciate when I find them on book jackets.
1. Art images
Reading is an emotional experience so I want artwork that makes me feel something when I look at it. I don’t get that with covers that use typographical or line illustrations.
Artwork that uses paintings or photography works far better for me because these give me an impression of the mood and atmosphere of the book. Images that show an individual arouse my curiosity while images showing a location help me to begin to visualise the setting. That’s one of the reasons why I lean towards Oxford World Classic editions. Virago Modern Classics (the original green spine versions) are also favourites.
The cover of The Dutch House by Ann Patchett was particularly arresting. It was clearly a painting but frustratingly, I couldn’t find any reference within the book to the origin of the work. Only recently I discovered that it was specially commissioned by Ann Patchett from a portrait painter called Noah Saterstrom. Patchett wanted him to visualise one of the main characters from the book, stipulating that the girl needed to have black hair, wear a red coat, and be shown in front of some extravagant, old-fashioned wallpaper, with “her eyes bright and direct,” as described by the narrator of the novel.
Of course I’m not going to ignore novels just because the artwork uses type – if I did that I would miss out on some cracking books like Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie or Colourless Tazaki Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage by Murakami. But if I have a choice, I’ll go for the more visual cover.
2. Author’s biography
There are some authors whose reputation is so huge they don’t require any introduction. But for all the rest, a short biography is very useful. And I do mean short. I don’t need their life history; Just two or three sentences is enough. What I look for most is a clue about their country of origin because that gives me an idea of about the authenticity of their setting.
Sadly I don’t always find this info on the back – it’s been crowded out by all those testimonials!
3. Series information
Equally informative but also all-too-often missing, is an indication of whether the book is part of a series, and if so where in the series it fits. I’ve come a cropper on this multiple times, buying a book only to later discover it was title number two and wouldn’t stand up on its own.
I know that inside you’ll often find a list of “other works by this author” but that doesn’t always make the reading order evident, especially with a long running series. This is a bug bear of mine with the Inspector Gamache crime fiction series by Louise Penny. I bought some of the books in the series while travelling in the USA but the only way to know in what order they were published, is to go to the author’s website.
It would be much easier for readers to have some indication on the cover instead of making us do all the. hard work.
Elaborate graphics, original photography and hand drawn typefaces are not the only weapons used to grab readers’ attention. Today a book doesn’t just have to look good, it has to feel good.
According to an article in The Independent eight years ago, publishers had started to put more time and effort into providing a tactile experience for readers of physical books. It was intended as a counter to the rising popularity of e-books. So where publishers had previously gone for elaborate graphic design or a more artful photograph on the front, the trend was heading towards different finishes on paper.
If you’ve ever picked up a book and thought the cover felt like velvet, you’ve experienced part of that touchability trend. It’s achieved by using a super matt finished paper. I had my first taste of the effect (that should be feel I suppose) with a copy of The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton but I’ve noticed it become more prevalent as the years have passed. Other recent innovations include cutaways and foils and the use of ultraviolet coating to bring out the shine on certain sections of a cover.
These treatments add to the printing costs – and hence the sales price – but when it makes reading an even more joyous experience, I’m not going to quibble about an extra quid or so.
5. French flaps
“French flaps” — the extra folded bit of paper on the short edges of the cover— are standard with hardback editions. I have a few paperback titles from indie presses that offer this feature but they’re the exception.
It’s a shame because the flaps are useful for features that won’t fit onto the back page, such as the author bio I mentioned earlier or a brief precis of the novel. I know they’re not designed for this purpose but they also make a very useful built-in bookmark. Very handy for times when I’ve lost my own bookmark!
What elements of book jackets do you value most? What don’t you appreciate? I’d love to know, so just pop a comment below to tell me about your likes and dislikes. If you’re not familiar with Top Ten Tuesday, hop over to the rules and topics posted on the Top Ten Tuesday page at That Artsy Reader Girl blog.
46 thoughts on “Ten Loves and Hates About Book Covers”
You’re right, some of those promotional stickers and price stickers can be a nightmare to remove, and so unnecessary.
it was helpful to see some of the comments where people suggested ways to get rid of them.
A damp cloth usually does the trick!! Same with the stickers on the back of new shoes.
The damp cloth hasn’t worked too well for me in the past but I shall give it another go (much better than using chemicals). Stickers on the soles of shoes is an irritant. I’ve seen many couples at the altar who forget to get rid of theirs…
I agree with most of what you say. I don’t necessarily love art images, mainly because they can be busy. They are better, though, than those sickly sweet ones you talked about as they immediately tell me that the book is not likely for me. Art images are OK for classics (Virago, Penguin) etc because the cover is not so important there for attracting me but it is for holding a nice book in my hands! I most like minimalist, abstract covers, that intrigue me, rather than covers that try to match the story of the book. I hate those covers that overdo the author’s name where the author is a superstar (implying that we’ll read anything by that person). Conversely, I hate those where the author’s name is minimised because they are not known. I like clean covers – ie no stickers, and no or few promos/blurbs.
An example of a company that does great covers for classics is Text Publishing. Their Text Classics series books – all Australian and some not “true” classics in that some are only 20 years old – have almost universally appealing, interesting covers. There is a branding, with the use of yellow and their “t” logo, but the covers vary. Have a look: https://www.textpublishing.com.au/text-classics
That’s a very strong brand identity and yet they have flexibility to be creative. Very clever.
There are some covers I hardly give a second glance at once I have the book. And others where as you say they are intriguing enough that I keep turning away from the content to look at the cover. I’m tying to think of examples I’ve seen where the author’s name is writ large. Mainly I can think of the big, big names – your James Pattersons, Stephen Kings etc. I can see why the publishers do that, especially with series. They’re banking on the idea that a reader who enjoyed one of the books by that author is more inclined to pick up another if they recognise the author name. But it does take away some of the thrill of discovering a relatively unknown author
As a secondhand bookseller, I must say STICKERS ARE FROM THE DEVIL. THEY ARE THE BANE OF MY EXISTENCE. There are all kinds of tricks and tools for getting them off, but it makes cleaning a book and readying it for sale so much more labour intensive (and sometimes, all the tricks and tools in the world won’t save it). I have also, as a result of my work, developed an intense dislike for predominantly white or light-coloured covers. They look SO PRETTY… for about ten minutes. As soon as they touch human hands, they become magnets for grime and dirt and discolouration. If I had one wish for the publishers and designers of the world, it would be STOP PUBLISHING WHITE BOOKS.
Baby oil also works on sticky residues, I have used cooking oil before in extremis – any oil will work – but don’t use oil-based removers on uncoated paper/board. I like that saga/romance covers tend to be twee as I can just totally ignore them as I don’t read them! I do love a French flap, but rarely use them as a bookmark as they’ll deform as you read further into the book.
Oh I do love a French flap! And I feel so sorry for designers who make beautiful covers and then have them littered with puff quotes and other text, ruining the design.
Worse than stickers, of course, is the fake sticker printed onto the book…
I especially enjoyed reading this because I just got the draft cover for my debut mystery novel, Pesticide (which won’t be out until April 2022). I’m very pleased with the image on it, but that’s just luck: authors like me who are starting out have very little say about what goes on our covers. Believe me, if I could have French flaps on mine I’d be delighted.
I appreciate knowing in advance if something is part of a series, too! That’s the sort of information that should be very easy to find about a book, especially if it’s not supposed to be a standalone read.
My post: https://lydiaschoch.com/top-ten-tuesday-titles-that-made-me-want-to-read-the-book/
I’m certainly with you on the promotional stickers. I’ve finally learned not to try to remove them, just shed a metaphorical tear and open the book.
Every thing you say here I’m figuratively nodding at. Including the art covers: I still prefer the ‘adult’ editions of the His Dark Materials trilogy, but sadly haven’t located one for The Amber Spyglass, which distresses me!
Strange that there isn’t one for “Spyglass” – not even in the US editions?
This is the 2001 cover, don’t know who the artist or painting is, but it’s generally available secondhand online: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/828388.The_Amber_Spyglass
The one I’ve got has a background photo of scrubland by Pullman (when he was in Rhodesia?) with a depiction of Mary Malone’s Spyglass superimposed.
I agree with all your dislikes (as surely would any discerning, right-thinking person), and I’m certainly with you on French flaps.
Personally, I’m fond of French-style plain text-only covers, such as those you get from publishers like Fitzcarraldo Editions or Galley Beggars, though I can see that the marketing department at a large commercial publisher might not be a fan of these. And like you, I also like covers with art prints and consistent publisher branding – e.g. Virago Modern Classics or NYRB.
I also set great store by the quality of the paper – not just the cover but the book pages as well.
US mass market paperbacks in particular are everything I hate: cheap, thin, crappy paper, garish artwork and plastered all over with testimonial quotes. The prevalent view in mainstream/mass market US publishing seems to be that only hardbacks need to be “quality” books, and that paperbacks are intrinsically cheap and disposable.
I like to think I’m not influenced by a book cover either way – but of course I am. I’m much the same as you with likes and dislikes and would add I don’t like those covers showing headless woman on historical fiction. Those pesky stickers come off with Sticky Stuff Remover and the smell does evaporate quite quickly.
Oh I have that remover but have only used it on glass jars. I never noticed headless women until I had to create an advertising campaign years ago and was advised by colleagues in China that it wouldn’t be acceptable there. So I got more sensitive to that imagery –
I haven’t bought a French Flap book in YEARS. They’re so great, but I never seem to see them around. By the way, my copy of Offshore is different than yours here, but I like it as well. Finally, BOY do I hear you with the sacccharin sweet images! What’s more, lately I’ve seen a couple books where the 21st Century women look (badly) photo shopped into WWII era clothing – OY! And heaven save me from the romance books with people whose clothing is practically falling off, but there’s enough fabric in the woman’s dress to clothe an African village! Sheesh!
I saw a LOT of those WW2 incongruities too. I haven’t seen those romance ones but I don’t pay much attention to that genre anyway
The thing is, too often these are disguised as pure WWII historical fiction books, and then they end up being overly romancy for my taste. There’s one that really disgusted me, and when I described it to a friend of mine, she called it “Holocaust Porn”! Got to agree with that.
I really dislike a movie/ TV tie-in and will avoid when I can.
sometimes you can’t avoid it, especially if is a second hand edition and at a really low price
Great article. Thank you. I agree it’s impossible not to be influenced in some way by the cover of a book. The old adage never held water for me either. Also agree about the loathesome sticker virus and how hard they are to remove (thank you for the comment above re butane), My pet peeve is the film/tv tie in cover that I feel renders the book secondary.
That’s a good point about the movie/tv tie it – it does suggest that its the adaptation that is more important than what’s in those pages
I don’t think much about covers at all, and am amused by the attention paid to them in the blogosphere. If I’m looking along a bookseller’s shelves I look first to the imprints I trust, Gollancz, Virago, old orange Penguins, Text Classics and so on. And if I look around my own shelves I can say of nearly every book that I bought it because there was an author or title I’d been meaning to read.
I never buy a book just because of the cover – its more likely that I don’t buy it though if it has some of my pet hates like bare chested men….
I agree, Bill, that covers rarely influence my purchase — I buy because it’s been recommended. But I do love gorgeous covers and think about them on the books I have.
They influence my decision not to purchase rather than influence me to purchase. But if I get a choice between different editions, there are certain features I am drawn to more than others
A bookbinder friend clued me into the use of lighter fluid (butane) to remove labels and their gloop. Only use in a well-ventilated space. Gently use a cotton tip on the label and if the paper is delicate, test first. It’s worked on every label or stubborn glue spot I’ve come across, doesn’t damage the paper, dries immediately, and doesn’t leave an odor.
Butane! well thats a new one on me. my next challenge is finding that!
I buy a small container of Ronsonol, that stuff to refill lighters, and have used it for years without any damage to paper no matter how delicate! Good luck!
I like title and/or author name in screeching pink Italics… because they’re a clear warning that I am not going to like the book.
Hah! Spot on, and not because I’m a bloke but because it’s lazy stereotyping.
3 and 5 of the negative list resonate so much with me!
Totally agree. Though I don’t mind look-a-like covers for long dead authors, I don’t on the whole like a “branded” look. Each book is unique, let it have a unique cover. Also, it’s as though the publishers are saving money by having a few layouts they used to death each season.
I did a double take this week when I saw a blog post with an image of a book that looked exactly like a book I’d read last year – except this was a completely different genre. It was a close cropped image of a window frame, the colour palette was exactly the same in both covers, all they had done was to change the flowers
Publishers cut costs on everything. I swear they have about 10 cover designs now.
Pretty much agree with all that – classics and art images really do it for me! And I agree with the comment about misleading images – some of the cheaper editions e.g. Wordsworth Classics often get it so wrong…
Another reason why I don’t like those Wordsworth editions no matter how cheap they are
Excellent post, Karen. I’m with you on pretty well all of these but would add a pet peeve of my own: the use of images that are either entirely inappropriate and/or misleading about the themes of the book.
Hm that’s a good one to add. sometimes I look at the cover image and wonder what it has to do with the book!
I do love French flaps, and art images. I’ve come to cringe at every cover that gives me the back of a figure – usually a woman, but men have also figured into this. It’s not so much the idea itself, as the frequency with which it has been used over the past couple of years.
There are a LOT of those over the shoulder kind of images aren’t there! I suppose I shouldn’t be too critical of the illustrators because it must be so hard to come up with original ideas when the books themselves are too much alike