Thoughts for Thursday – Book covers

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.

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15 Responses to Thoughts for Thursday – Book covers

  1. Courtney says:

    Hmm, great question! And one I can’t think of an answer to immediately. Surely I have bought books based on their covers, but I can’t remember the circumstances surruonding the purchases at the moment. Now, with all the amazing book blogs in the world, I’m always looking for specific book and so am no longer seduced by the allure of unknown books…I’m in a monogomous relationship with my TBR list, right now…

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  2. Kailana says:

    You have until April 15th to enter your ten books you cannot live without! Don’t rush!

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  3. iliana says:

    If I see a cover I like, I’ll pick up the book. I don’t think I’ve ever bought a book just on the cover alone though. And, if there are movie tie-in covers around I’ll avoid those at all costs (well, maybe not the Johnny Depp ones 🙂

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  4. Dark Orpheus says:

    Er – I once found a copy of a Douglas Coupland novel with a printing error on the cover.It’s this one < HREF="http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/0007151705/" REL="nofollow">here<>. The words on the cover were missing, so all you get are the pictures.I thought it was rather Zen so I bought it.That counts?Oh, and I sometimes end up buying multiple copies of a title because they have different covers.

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  5. Hal says:

    A great book on book jackets is Book One by Chip Kidd one of the very best jacket designers. Published by Rizzoli.It’s great and worth the money

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  6. Dorothy W. says:

    I like to pretend I’m not influenced by book covers, but I’m certain I am. But because I pretend I’m not, I don’t have an example for you. I know I make snap judgments about what type of book I’m looking at by the cover — I won’t take something seriously if it looks like a romance or if it looks cheesy for some reason. I <>always<> look at books from publishers I like, like The New York Review of Books.

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  7. charlotte says:

    I am lured by a good cover, but I also read the blurb, stroke the book a bit and read the first few sentences. When I’m sure I want to take it home, I buy it. However, like Courtney, I’m exclusively dating my TBR pile right now.

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  8. I love good design, but i still browse the book and read a few random paragraphs to see if it is worthy. when i was in Norway I was horrified to see how they designed the covers for Jane Austen books–they looked like romance novel covers. One looked like Scarlett O’Hara about to rip open her dress and show her twins. I have also spotted tacky covers on other classics… Thomas Hardy springs to mind but I can’t be sure–because I would never buy that edition!feeling low today so I am planning a massive blog party over at tangled. Hope a zillion people show up.

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  9. I am fascinated with bookcovers and will often pull a book off the shelf just because it’s caught my eye. What makes me decide to purchase the book, however, is the subject matter. So, in that regard, while a bookcover tempts me, it isn’t what wins me over in the end. Titles can lure me in too although are not quite as magnetic.

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  10. pinochiette says:

    It’s actually quite different in France because many of the publishers just publish most of their books with the same cover – for example the publisher Gallimard’s books have a plain cream-coloured cover with the title in red, no photo, no picture. I prefer it that way. With books from the English speaking world i’m often turned OFF rather than attracted by a book because of its gaudy cover.

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  11. ted says:

    I like that <>Everything is Illuminated<> cover as well (I have the blue/yellow one) — and I didn’t think it was all that bad. Certainly not <>Dunces<>, but that’s a lot to ask for.

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  12. Stefanie says:

    Okay, yeah, I’ve bought books because I liked the cover, these are mostly fantasy or scifi books. And if a book has a lurid pink cover I will think long and hard before I buy it.

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  13. Hi, I found you via Chedwick and glad I wandered into your literate blog. I am looking for some new authors and can see that I came to to the right place. Have a nice week-end.

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  14. snackywombat says:

    “The biggest Sucker Magnet of all, The Pre-eminent Award List” Hah! So true. I went on this streak of buying used books from the 70s w/ great kitschy covers, like “Coffee Tea or Me?” and then eventually gave them as gifts be/c I never read them.

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  15. Smithereens says:

    When I am tired I am particularly weak and tempted by good-looking covers. For me, the famous award list is not the worst, it’s rather “If you like XXX, you’ll like YYY”. I know it’s a stupid argument (if I like XXX I just should buy another of his/her books, right?), but I fall for it every single time. Marketing guys are so clever!

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