We’ve all heard the metaphorical phrase, “don’t judge a book by its cover.” We know it means look beneath the surface of a person before forming an opinion, rather than judging them by their outer trappings or behavior.
But authors have a different take on the subject. We’re hammered daily by writing advice sites that tell us covers—actual book covers—are important. They tell us some readers do judge books by their covers. If we’re designing our own, we agonize over every detail. If our publisher is designing it, we cross our fingers and hope the hair and eye colors are right and whatever is in the background helps set the tone.
Covers give clues to the sub-genre. Lovers in a clinch tell us it’s a romance, from sweet to steamy. A man with a naked chest tells us it’s a “new adult” romance or maybe romantic suspense. A cover with a man in a business suit tells us it’s a billionaire romance. Teapots, cats, dogs, flowers—these are often on cozy mystery covers. Women in long flowing gowns tell us it’s a historical. Ha! I’ll bet some of you didn’t know all this important stuff.
Authors who have rights to their books often change covers to fit the mood of the book. I did it with You Were Mine at Merlot. The original cover was a purple landscape scene with a bunch of grapes. “But it’s a romance,” shouted my colleagues. “The cover doesn’t say romance.” I quickly changed it to a perky heroine with her fake fiancé walking through a vineyard.
Romance bloggers will tell you covers are important. They are the first thing a potential buyer sees. The second factor is the “blurb.” The blurb is a very succinct description of who the hero and heroine are, what they want, and what’s in their way. Adept burb writers can sell a book. Clumsy ones (me) stumble through the description and hope for the best.
I’m talking fiction. Non-fiction has different rules and you will most likely not find people on the cover unless it’s a biography or a memoir.
When I buy a book, I approach the process in a slightly different way. First, I have my favorite authors. I’ll buy anything they write. When deciding on a new author, I like to peek inside and read the first few pages. This shows style, tone, and competency. The first five pages should tell you what the book’s about and help you decide if it’s going to hold your interest.
Some people go by reviews. But this isn’t always an accurate reflection because savvy authors have street teams, groups of dedicated readers who get advanced reader copies and have positive reviews ready to go the minute the book is released. But at least you will know what the readers liked best about the book.
Let’s get back to that quote. Who said “you can’t judge a book by its cover?” It is attributed to George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) in an 1860 novel called The Mill on the Floss. The book, about a brother and sister, was published in three volumes.
The covers? Words only.