Posted by: Sarah | July 2, 2009

Sure, we judge a book by its cover!

The Time It Snowed In Puerto Rico

This morning, a friend of mine sent me a link to Seth Godin’s blog regarding the effectiveness of a book cover in capturing the reader’s attention. Godin argues that the cover design should “tee up the reader so the book has maximum impact.” With my debut novel hitting the bookshelves in a month, I couldn’t agree more.

But my friend asked an interesting question: How often do we make snap decisions at the bookstore based on first impressions?

Scene: I’m walking through Barnes and Noble perusing the stacks. Anything with a weapon, shadowy figure or bikini body on the jacket is immediately bypassed.  My eye is drawn to bright colors, beautiful landscapes,  friendly faces, and inviting scenes. Though these images say nothing of the quality within, I like a cover to make me dream about the adventure that could be. It lends itself to my overall literary experience. Is it fair? I’m not sure.

The MaytreesYears ago, I may have tried to argue that I purchased works based solely on content. (Oh, the lies we tell ourselves.) Then in 2007, Anne Dillard’s The Maytrees released. Let me just say that I adore Anne Dillard’s writing. She’s a Virginia girl and her An American Childhood had me laughing, crying and hugging the pages. But as I stood before The Maytrees on the shelf, I felt slightly lost. The cover is eggshell white with a yellow border. That’s it. Nothing for my imagination to romp with.

I bought the book because it was Dillard, but sadly it sat on my shelf for nearly two months before I read it. Instead, I read Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants because

Water for Elephants

—well, because the cover alone was fascinating: circus tent, ringleader and gold title whimsically scrawled across. It looked fun; whereas, while I was sure Dillard’s writing would be excellent, I didn’t have a clue about the story besides the inner flap description.

So do we really judge a book by its cover? Yes. That’s the unaffected truth. Isn’t the job of the cover to spark our imaginations for the journey within; thereby, preparing us for the author’s fictional dream? I think so.

Of course there are exceptions when word of mouth about a book solicits our purchase without any concern for the cover.

The History of Love

Case in point: the book I’m currently reading, The History of Love by Nicole Krauss. I have the paperback edition, which boasts a fuzzy blue-grey cover that may or may not be a photograph blown up too large. I’m not quite sure what it is: a blob of varying blues. In any case, it leaves very little “scene to imagine” but somehow, it works.

Another cover I enjoy is the 2003 hardcover of One Hundred Years of Solitude by G.G. Marquez. Don’t ask me what the artwork symbolizes—I haven’t a clue, but something about it makes me happy. I often find myself pausing to glance at it on the shelf. So bright and whimsical, and so Marquez.

Joy School

Similarly, covers displaying action catch my attention. Example: Many of Elizabeth Berg’s book cover are of people engaged in activity. Joy School shows a girl spinning on the ice. Dream When You’re Feeling Blue has two WWII-era individuals locked in embrace. Both of these start my imagination dreaming, one foot into the storyline without reading the author’s first word.

As readers, we know what we’re ‘looking for’ when we go into a bookstore. We have a craving for something particular, be it a self-help book or a fictional escape to a foreign land.  I believe the job of the cover is to give its targeted readers exactly that: a start into the book’s world. It’s more than a means to keep the dust off. It’s a part of the imaginary package.

Got any covers that you love?

Yours truly, Sarah

For Seth Godin’s blog:

For the LA Times blog’s opinion:



  1. this is a great post, well exampled! thanks.

  2. Thanks, Seth! It means a lot coming from you. Obviously, your blog was excellent and made its way round the literary community. Thanks, again.

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