Friday, July 3, 2009

under cover: content matters

Earlier this week, Carolyn Kellogg of the LATimes commented on Seth Godin’s recent blog about how cover art relates to book sales. Kellogg agreed with Godin’s analysis of why the cover has a limited job. That is, the job of the cover design is to encourage the reader to pick the book up, but it’s what’s inside that counts. In the end, as Godin argues, if the written content of the book does not hold up to the reader’s expectations the attractive cover fails the reader, and consequently fails the author.

I admit that I judge books by their cover. Of course I shouldn’t. I should know better than this. Why? Because most authors have very little – if any – say about what a cover looks like. We dream about The Big Day when our first book adorns the shelf of our favorite bookshop, imagining every last detail of what it will look like. How it will smell. How the embossed font will feel under our fingers. Reality is, most times our dreams are just dreams.

Once the book is in the hands of the art department we may have a courtesy chat about preconceived notions. In the end, however, it’s the pros that have all the say. Which, quite frankly, I am not protesting. After all, publishing pros are pros for a reason. They generally have a good feel for what works and what doesn’t. They know readers, how to target them, how to speak to them.

However, I am also sure there’s not one of us who hasn’t picked up a book based on its cover only to either a) read the back copy and realize it’s not what we thought, or b) read the book and realized it was far from what we imagined. I know I’ve had this experience. It can be frustrating, feeling like we’ve been promised one thing and given another. But do I blame the author?

Actually, I try not to blame anyone. It’s hard to put a book in a reader’s shopping cart. This much I understand. I also recognize it’s not always easy to visually label a story in a concise, marketable manner. Sometimes it’s up to me, as the reader, to either trust what’s being marketed to me, or to read up on reviews to see if my instincts are right in choosing a title.

Godin makes all the right points in how a book cover can successfully target an audience. It’s about reaching the right audience, too. As authors, we want to expand our readership, but we always want to make sure to appeal to our current readers. So we hope for the best and trust the pros and do our job at talking up the books any chance we get. But a lot of that talk comes back to you, reader; you have the power. Regardless of the cover, when you mention how thrilled you are about a great new book, people listen. Your friends trust you; your co-workers nod their heads. Word of mouth, as Godin mentions, is the ideal buzz as in the end that’s what sells a book: Happy readers.

What are some of your favorite book covers? What cover made you pick up a book by an author you hadn’t read before? Were you pleased or disappointed with how the cover related to the story?

Authors hope for eye-catching covers. We want to get your attention. More so, however, we want to get your attention by winning you over with our words. Our stories are what we want you to remember, not just our cover art. Sure, we may have beautiful artwork adorning our pages; or maybe we’re less than ecstatic of the art department’s interpretation of our tale. In the end, what we really care about is if the work we create and share with our readers is making you come back for more. That’s the ultimate goal. To reach our readers and move them not just to buy more books, but to move them with how we connect over words.


  1. I've got Michelle Moran's "Cleopatra's Daughter" on my to-read list because of the gorgeous cover - girl in a red tunic, looking just off the page. And have you noticed the fashion lately for historical fiction covers - it's always a female figure with her face turned away or hidden off the edge? Michelle Moran, Antoinette May, and every book by Philippa Gregory has this.

  2. Hi Kate!

    Isn't it funny how there are trends for a time within a genre, like you mention. I suppose it comes down to, if it works for one book it may work for another. I'll have to look at some of the covers you mention.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  3. The covers for Jeff Somers's recent Avery Cates series are awesome and pertinent to the stories. And the novels themselves are great. So, there's one example where everything is in sync.

  4. Hi Frank, good to see you again!

    I looked up the series you mentioned; they’re so vivid. I’m unfamiliar with the stories, but it’s always nice to hear when an author has a successful cover. The Avery Cates series covers are very powerful, visually speaking. It’s nice to hear you’re a happy reader!

    Thanks for mentioning these.