As if you really could tell a book by its cover, publishers spend a lot of thought on cover design. There is even a web site dedicated to the subject! And, of course, when a publisher can nab a movie tie-in to the cover — In Cold Blood and Pride & Prejudice come to mind — the sales can be phenomenal. (My God, if you can add Johnny Depp to the mix, you might just trump Donald Trump in annual earnings.)
But does a cover really sell a book?
I would like to think I am above all the crass commercialism and shameless huckstering. Buying a book strictly because of a pretty cover is like buying a McRib Sandwich because of the blinking menu sign at the drive-through. Or shopping at Wal-Mart.
Logically, I tell myself as I enter a bookstore and inhale a whiff of fresh ink and crisp paper, I seek books of compelling content, written by elite authors. As I peruse the shelves, a quirky and interesting title might inspire me to read the dustjacket and critical blurbs. Otherwise, I’m discerning. I’m in charge. I’m an informed consumer.
That’s what I tell myself.
I had one experience, however, in which a cover impelled me to buy the book. It was Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated. As I moved through the portal of a reputable independent bookseller, a book with an acid-green cover and pink lettering caught my eye. In fact, a literal phalanx of these books barricaded one entire wall of the reputable independent bookstore in a dazzling burst of neon: blues and oranges and yellows. The same book, different color combinations. Could this bold marketing strategy be heralding the launch of a new literary voice? Perhaps the publisher was communicating to me: This is something “New” and EXCITING and innovative, the Next Generation’s shouted mantra, an Enlightened Messenger arriving in a hallucinogenic spectrum of spilled ink. This was the prose you’ve been searching for since A Confederacy of Dunces. The cover told the story!
I behaved exactly like a sucker. I got into line, barely glancing at the contents, and handed over my hard-earned dollars. When I got home, I immediately opened it up and began reading.
Jesus. Another bull$hit self-conscious meta-fiction piece of crap.
Now my face was neon pink with bile-green tinges.
Would I be hustled again? Oh, yes. By titles (The Devil Wears Prada) and blurbs (The Ruins of California) and most definitely by that biggest Sucker Magnet of all, The Pre-eminent Award List. But, by George (Eliot), not by a pretty face.
Which leads me to my pointless reader poll: Do you judge a book by its cover? Have you ever bought a book for inglorious reasons? Did you ever get hooked just by a title or blurb? Tell your story and win…well, nothing. But you will feel that guilt lift from the depths of your literary soul, I promise.