Running for cover

Common wisdom has it that a good cover has a significant influence in selling a book – alongside its title and the blurb or description, and excepting the reputation of a well-known author. A good cover must, runs the advice, convey something about the contents; it should match the genre of the book in terms of image, font, and choice of colour palette. And it should, ideally, catch the eye, stand out in a crowded market.

These articles – What makes an iconic book cover from BBC Culture and The 25 most iconic book covers in history from Literary Hub – have some wonderful examples of extraordinary book covers, and the articles break down why the covers are successful. The covers chosen are original, in the main, yes, but they also provoke a response – curiosity, intrigue, amusement, possibly shock. They stay in the memory. I’ve never read Peter Benchley’s Jaws, for instance, yet I recognise the original cover – the tiny lone swimmer ploughing the waters, unaware of the upraised head of the predatory, enormous, and prodigiously toothy shark that lurks in the depths below.  Your imagination does the rest…

The more ebooks threatened the market for physical books, the above-mentioned BBC article suggests, the more publishers hhave upped their game, with bolder fonts, tactile embossing, foil ettering, cloth bindings, special editions, and the like. 

We had a discussion in my book group the other week about the joy of going into bookshops, particularly a certain sort of small, independent bookshop, to treat ourselves. Most of us use electronic readers alongside paper versions, and most save some pennies by picking up copies in second-hand places, online and physical. But there is nothing like the pampering thrill, we agreed, of buying oneself a new book, a ‘real# one. Especially a hardback copy and, most especially of all, we drooled, one with a beautiful cover. The only thing better? Buying two such books.

Thanks to covers being developed for marketing purposes, even successful authors do not necessarily get a say in choosing cover design. Agatha Christie, for instance, is on record as having complained to her publisher about ‘awful’ book jackets. F. Scott Fitzgerald was not complimentary about Francis Cugat’s originalCelestial Eyes image for The Great Gatsby.  ‘For Christ’s sake don’t give anyone that jacket you’re saving for me,’ he wrote to his editor.

Certainly, there are some shocking examples of bad covers. If I had encountered books for the first time that featured the covers shown below, I don’t think I would have picked them up. They have little resonance (at least for me) of what’s inside.









Literary Hub (again) has more examples in 50 Very Bad Book Covers for Literary Classics to entertain you with.

Of course, it’s easier to identify what we should not do with a book cover – and much harder to hit that perfect spot in getting it right.

There. A whole post without ever once using the phrase ‘don’t judge a book by its cover.’ Oops.

What about you – in terms of its cover, what makes you pick out a book? Are you even aware of what influences your choices?


Image thanks
Main photo by Ugur Akdemir on Unsplash

I am aware book covers shown in this post may be copyright protected, and showing them here is technically reproduction.  I am showing them here under fair use, and for books I would recommend.

9 thoughts on “Running for cover

  1. I love covers and pick up books because of them. How can we not love them? They call to us, flashing their colors and artwork, bold and aggressive, or soft and cat like. They are not only beautiful, they can influence our choices.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. ‘They call to us’ – that’s a lovely way to put it. I am sure the covers do influence our choices, in ways we are both aware and also unaware of.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. A fascinating article. Although I have collected illustrated books all my life I am rarely influenced by the cover; I am more interested in reviews, recommendations, and reputations of writers and artists. I gathered most of Iris Murdoch’s novels, except Jackson’s Dilemma which was slated by critics unaware that it contained first signs of her dementia

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I also adore Murdoch and have read many of her novels – no factual works, but her fiction provides lessons in Philosophy, of course. Reading your comment makes me think I must go back tp pursue those I have not read.
      I know from your posts on Dickens that you have an appreciation for illustrations. I wonder if that is a tradition that will ever be brought back – illustrations of novels for adults (bar ‘graphic novels’ as such).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Probably only in limited editions, I would think. Thanks very much, Libre

        Liked by 1 person

  3. If I’m browsing, it means I want a light fun read. Which means the cover needs to be light and fun. If it’s dark, or abstract, I know it’s not what I want. Nor is a book with two people giggling, or in any state of undress, because I don’t want a romance either

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Agreed – covers are (or, arguably, should be) a signal of the genre within. Even colour choices of the lettering – the perky pinks and lime greens of a lighter read versus the more sombre tones.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I used to think judging a book by its cover indicated someone was shallow. But then I really started checking out both traditional publishers and indie published books. The ones that look “self-published” are not likely to go into my queue online, to be honest. If someone recommends a book to me because they loved it, I will buy it whether or not I like the cover. But in general, we are a visual species, and we can’t help but be influenced by beauty or by good design. I just love the look and feel of a real book, and I seldom read eBooks. The books that stay on my shelves and out of the donation bag tend to be the ones that are beautiful or that I loved so much I’ll likely read them again. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree about ‘beautiful’ books; they have a second life as an object to admire, beyond their contents there is the sheer craft of them.
      Also think it’s true that we’re influenced by covers because we are, in the main, visual; it’s simply human.

      Liked by 1 person

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