Whoever first said ‘You can’t judge a book by its cover’ probably meant well. It was likely said at a time when bindings lacked illustration, graphic designers and Photoshop hadn’t been invented and the eye-catching covers we have grown to know and love weren’t yet a thing! The materials used to create a book likely varied widely and only the very rich could afford huge, beautifully decorated tomes (for some stunning examples of bound books, why not explore the British Library database of historically bound books).
Even though the cover of a book may entice the eye, how do you know what’s in it without opening it? The words contained between humble paper covers may far outweigh those bound in fancy leather with gilded page edges. Who could say, until you’ve opened and read it? Who knows what gems of wisdom, entertaining stories and fantastical images lurk within the pages of the book with the plainest of covers?
Can you judge a book by its cover? Should you? Do you? We thought this would be a good topic of discussion so we asked members of staff from Warwickshire Libraries to share their views with us. Here’s what they said…..
Angie: I am almost entirely led by how a book cover looks when browsing the library shelves! The most memorable example I have is ‘Days Without End’ by Sebastian Barry. I remember thinking the cover was quite ambiguous, I didn’t really know what I was looking at: rainbows, falling figures, gold rocks…
Having read the book, the cover makes sense, but at the time of picking, it was just intriguing enough for me to give it a go. And now it’s in my Top Ten Favourite Books of All Time!
Carla: I think we judge a book by its cover whether we want to or not. Publishers work very hard to design covers with the right visual cues to attract a target audience. If you’re in that audience, you will surely be drawn to the cover. This type of marketing has been going on for a long time. I am thinking specifically of a cover I love (which apparently is the ‘most famous book cover of all time’!), the original cover of F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, ‘Celestial Eyes’, a painting by Francis Cugat. It’s so evocative, with its deep blue midnight background, its faceless, languid eyes (Daisy’s eyes?), inhabited by golden swimmers and heavy with makeup, the garishly lit fun fair with its ever-turning Ferris Wheel, like Gatsby’s raucous, desperate parties. It’s a wonderful cover, and Fitzgerald liked it so much, he wrote it into the book — a pair of eyes looming over a barren landscape figures prominently in a key portion of the novel.
Well, that may be a digression, but I do think we should allow ourselves to judge a book by its cover, at least when it comes to picking it up and taking a second look. But then I’m also reminded of a book I found on my mother’s bookshelves when I was about 12 years old: a plain, unassuming hardback book, dirty red in colour, with the words ‘The Black Rose’ imprinted on the spine and a triple crown crest embossed on the cover. Frankly, it looked boring. It looked like a volume from a set of encyclopedias. But inside those boring covers, I found the story of a 13th century Oxford clerk who journeys to Cathay and has many adventures.
It was my first historical fiction, and I loved it. I have never forgotten that reading experience, or what that book looked and felt like, and in fact, the memory of that book has helped me overcome reluctance to try other ‘boring looking’ books. Maybe you should and maybe you shouldn’t?
Mark: I’m certainly guilty about judging a book by its cover, in fact I often dismiss books out of hand if the cover doesn’t appeal without even reading the blurb. When I first started working for Warwickshire County Council, I went on a course where we had to bring along a favourite book to discuss with others. I chose my copy of ‘A Game of Thrones‘ which was published way before the TV series was made. The battered old copy I took had an almost Dungeons and Dragons type cover which was immediately dismissed by other people on the course, even though I tried to point out that the book itself was light years away from most people’s perception of “Fantasy” fiction. I’ve always found it interesting how the series has since been repackaged in covers very different from the one I bought all those years ago.
Emily: I want to say that I don’t do this but I do a lot of the time (though titles also reel me in, especially if I am browsing library or bookshop shelves and looking at books spines). Publishers spend huge amounts of money on designing covers so really, shouldn’t we take note? I follow a lot of bookish accounts on Twitter and the number of times when scrolling I will see an eye-catching cover, make a note of the title and then request it from the library (or for the very pretty ones, I will buy a copy).
What I love seeing is when there are ‘trends’ in cover designs and different publishers aiming at similar readers will use similarly designed covers to attract them. Currently, within the crime/thriller genre, it seems to be ‘yellow font/blue picture’ but there are lots of examples if you search for the phrase “similar looking book covers” online.
You probably won’t be surprised to know that I fall for this – if there’s a cover that looks even slightly similar to a book I have enjoyed I will at least spend a few minutes reading the blurb/reading reviews of it to see if I can be tempted (the answer is usually ‘yes’!).
Amy: Should we judge? Short answer is ‘yes’! And that’s okay! A lot of time and effort goes into making sure that the cover is just right, so why not soak in all that visual information to quickly appraise what you might spend hours reading?
It’s just like when we meet new people; our brains cannot help but make that rapid judgement of the person based on what they look like. It’s a subconscious reaction. Like people, books try to show what they are about by curating what is on the outside. Our clothes, hair, makeup, shoes etc all say a little something about us, or a very definite statement if we want. Books are just the same, the illustrations, pictures, font and title all serve to provide clues about the story within.
It’s not a hard and fast equation though – if a book is recommended to me, I don’t care what it looks like, I’ll still read it. However, in general, if I’m looking for something new to read, I’ll very much rely on the front cover to help me choose. Particularly when looking for a new eAudio book from Borrowbox. I’m very grateful that I can identify the genre I like and the books I may want to read, just by scrolling through the front covers.
Maria: For me, it depends on the genre. I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy, and the covers that draw me in are the beautiful ones, and any with a woman on the cover – particularly one on her own, not just as a love interest for the male hero. I think this comes from starting to read the genre in the 1980s when there were a lot less female-centric books. Whenever I found an author who wrote about women, I read everything published. For instance Anne McCaffrey who, thank goodness, wrote a lot and Robin McKinley whose books ‘The Hero and the Crown’, and ‘The Blue Sword’ I still reread to this day.
When I read a crime or thriller, the cover is irrelevant – they can be so similar that they don’t tell you much. I choose by author or by blurb. When I see a really beautiful cover, I will always read the blurb but more often than not, put it down again- the beauty draws me in but isn’t enough to grab me. I tend to go hunting online, looking for new authors, looking at the new books on Fantastic Fiction or Goodreads.com.
I rely on recommendations from friends and family, but it may take me years to get around to reading them. I read a wide range of books, but I am very picky as I hate having to stop reading a book if I am not enjoying it.
Speaking to my youngest daughter about this topic, she said that covers are of no interest to her, she only reads books by recommendation. Once she is interested, she then looks at the book – she is not a browser!
Linda: Book covers are always designed to attract the reader’s attention. If one of my favourite authors writes a new book, the cover would make no difference. However, on finding a new author in the absence of suggestions from friend and colleagues, I am just as guilty of judging by a cover which instantly draws me in. Life is too busy to waste time trying to read something which turns out to be dull and boring (unless of course I want something which will send me to sleep in a hurry!)
Sometimes covers can be misleading which can result in expensive mistakes, and this is where the library comes in, providing the opportunity to lose the necessity of being judgemental at no cost. The reader may be pleasantly surprised when finding a wonderful book which, on a first glance, appeared dull and boring. An intriguing cover is often worth a closer look with a quick read of the first page for further analysis.
Due to the current pandemic, I have recently had a change in my role at work and currently have the pleasure of being able to spend time selecting books to be delivered to customers isolating at home. This may sound like an easy task, but I can confirm that book covers are certainly a very helpful aid in this work!
Kate S: Absolutely yes – I do this all the time. A lot of the books I read are from recommendations or reviews, but that initial impression I get from the cover will usually be my guide as to whether it appeals to me. Often l’ll read the blurb and discover I am not the target market, or it is not the right book for me at that moment in time. And there you have it; the work of the cover designer is done.
I enjoy seeing the changing trends and fashions of book cover design. I used to produce stock images back in the early 2000s and there were a lot of requests for images of flowers held on dark backgrounds or women in elaborate dresses for stock images for book covers.Currently when you have a look at new releases you tend to see a lot of illustrated covers. I wonder where the trend will go next?
The evolution of covers on enduring classics such as Pride and Prejudice is something I’ve noticed over the years. I still have a battered old copy which cost £1 and has a very traditional painted image on the front. I’ve seen beautiful hardback copies which can be bought as a set with Austen’s other titles that would look very pretty on my bookshelf. But it’s just the same book. Does it being wrapped up in a prettier cover add value to it? Ultimately, it’s the same content inside rebranded to attract someone new to these classic novels, which suggests to me that the publishers know that most people will judge a book by its cover too.
Where do you stand on the discussion? Are you tempted by a cover alone? Does it take more to reel you in – a well written blurb, recommendations by friends/family/famous people?
Let us know in the comments and as always, happy reading from all of us at Warwickshire Libraries!