Friday, May 7, 2010

Judging a book by its cover

I grew up reading comic books. I bet I just lost a lot of you right there. Believe it or not, comics can teach us a lot about how people decide whether or not to look at a book. In no other area is a cover image more important than for monthly periodicals.

I spent several years in magazine circulation and learned that readers flock to a pretty cover. One of the magazines I worked with was a food publication. They could have an issue with the best recipes and articles about food written by world renowned chefs and critics, but if they were stuck with a cover image of a wilted bologna sandwich, they wouldn’t sell an issue.

When I was small, my dad would come home from his job chasing bad guys as a State Trooper every Friday and bring me a comic book. We would sit together and read a story about (what else?) chasing bad guys. He didn’t pay attention to covers. He just grabbed whatever comic was on top of the rack at the convenience store on the way home. I grew up with a love of reading and a love of comics.

I drifted out of comics for several years after dad retired and no longer made it by the convenience store each Friday. One day after school, a comic caught my eye: Incredible Hulk #340. The character Wolverine had his claws drawn and a snarl on his face while a reflection of the Hulk’s face showed that the anger was mutual.

I opened the book and found exactly what I hoped to find: those two characters engaging in a brutal battle.

When I browse novels, nothing thrills me more than an exciting, artistic cover. I have been burned enough times to learn never to buy a book based solely on the cover, but that is what draws me to a book. The cover should be a window inside that gives potential readers a taste of things to come.

Blue Moon by Laurell K. Hamilton, is one of my favorite books. It is also the last book in the Anita Blake series that I have been able to finish. Here is the cover art on the version that I originally purchased:

The image is dark and foreboding. There is no question that this is a werewolf tale. I had read one previous book in the series before this one. I bought Blue Moon on the spot and read the other stories leading up to that one shortly thereafter. And then it stopped.

I let a friend borrow my copy of Blue Moon and it was never seen again. I wanted to reread it a few years back and decided to pick up another copy. To my dismay, the image above was now indicative of what that series became. If I were to evaluate Blue Moon based on this image, I would guess that it is a book about a wolf that has sex with a giant smurf. This would be an inaccurate assessment. From what I understand, that does not take place until much later in the series.

One of my favorite books in high school was Surfing Samurai Robots by Mel Gilden. The book can be judged by its cover with 100% accuracy:

When I wrote Lucifera’s Pet, I knew exactly what type of cover I wanted it to have. Alissa Rindels was able to bring the lead characters to life in a painting that became the cover image below. You can take one look and know exactly what to expect.

Will good cover art and design alone sell books? Maybe a few. As a reader, I look for a cover that conveys a true sense of the story contained within a book’s pages. As a writer, I want potential readers to know what they have in store.


  1. As I was developing the cover for my novel, we (me, hubby/artist) would show it to a few people without telling them what the book was about.
    The final result hinted at the vampires (pool of blood), the threat (the characters on the cover are facing each other, but one is having an "oh shit" moment).

    I have seen too many covers lately, like the blue smurf one above, pushing the romantic part of the story and not the horror. If the book goes that way, good. But if it goes more horror, you lost me as a reader.

  2. I will admit that the most boring covers on my book collection belong to authors I know I love, or books that were recommended to me. The ones I pick up in the library, though, are usually picked up because they look so sweet. It the book is only text with a little clip art, I'm not sold.

    My cover art is being done for me, based on my sketches. I can do comics, but when it's a still image, I'm all at sea. When you take the written word out, I'm paralyzed with indecision.

  3. Mari, that is a fantastic way to generate your cover art. You are very fortunate to be part of your very own two-person art department. I say down with the blue smurfs and ambiguously sexy headless torsos. Let's see what's going on under behind the cover!

    Monica, I think you summed up the book buying habits of 99% of us casual readers out there. We are spurred to decision by our eyes and a fascinating image is the fastest route to our pocketbook. Good luck with your cover. If you can provide someone with sketches of what you want, I think you will be pleased with what they are able to produce.

  4. I'm all over the cover image. I've bought many books because the cover art drew my attention to it.

    The second blue moon cover looks like it should come in a brown unmarked paper bag. Generic naked torso. bleh.

    I think it's important for people to be able to look at a cover art and immediately associate the image with you. Good topic BTW.

  5. I do my own cover art, and try to illustrate a scene from the story.

    Like so:

  6. Thanks, RVS. I'm with you. Cover is just as important to building an author's presence as content in the beginning. Even more so if the author has a series.

    I love the cover, Scath. What programs do you use? The character models are fantastic.

  7. What do you think of my cover art?

  8. Nic,

    I really like that cover. It's got an old pulp noir vibe to it. In fact, you may have just inspired me to write another book cover post and highlight some of my favorites. Stay tuned.