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.