You Can’t Judge a Book From its Cover – Or Can You?

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A catchy title with a catchy images always attracts. Image courtesy of the author.

A catchy title with colorful images always attracts. Image copyright Emily-Jane Hills Orford, all rights reserved.

What attracts you to a book? Is it the title or the topic? Is it the author’s name boldly etched across the front and the spine of the book? Or is it the overall design on the front cover that suggests a topic or a story that might interest you?

There is a real art in designing the perfect cover for a book. It’s all about what will attract potential readers and make someone want to read the book. Artists and marketers know that specific colours and images definitely attract potential buyers. There are even colours that turn people away.

An attractive cover may not mean a great book, but it certainly helps to promote the book; we live in a very visually-oriented world.

A History of Book Covers

As Christ Church, Oxford, English professor and established author Peter Conrad points out, “Books used to come naked into the world, with no paper jacket or stiffening suit of cloth-clad boards to protect the bundles of pages sewn together by the printer.”

Publishers introduced book jacket covers in the 1830s to keep the book clean until buyers took their purchases home. Gradually, these disposable covers became a marketing tool to sell the book. Conrad says, “But those cheap, ephemeral outer garments gradually became essential to the books they wrapped.”

These early book covers quickly became a means of marketing – advertising the product within, i.e., the book. In contemporary society, where the best sales pitch is the visual image, book covers have evolved over the years into a work of art; a commercial tool which determines the very survival of the book. It no longer matters if the content of the book matches the image on the cover. The bottom line is, and has been for some time, book covers serve as the ultimate sales pitch, or the selling strategy.

What Catches the Eye Sells the Book

After publishing sixteen of my own books and overseeing the book cover layout (often doing the design myself), I developed a keen eye on what appeals and attracts readers.

When I sit with my books at a book fair that some of my book covers, like the one for Ukulele Yukon, attract more interest than do others. Colours certainly affect the overall visual appeal of a book.

Through this process, I learned that solid colours like black or white as the background for the title, author and publisher, are not as effective as a rainbow of colours and a striking image that represents the book’s contents.

I also believe that some book cover colours reflect emotions. For example, lighter pastel colours appear calming, making them suitable for self-help topics. Darker colours better suit crime stories and dark, gothic tales. The bright primary colours attract children and work well for funny stories and other things with a bit of humour.

I tend to associate predominantly solid coloured covers with the type of book. For example, a book cover that is mostly blue, like Calculus (2010), suggests a textbook, in this case one on mathematics.

This isn’t exactly the type of book for pleasure reading, unless you’re really into maths and sciences. The cool shade of blue, almost a grey, couples with the signs and symbols used in mathematical equations suggests a typically numerical study– a textbook no less.

The cover of a Calculus textbook, a book on mathematics, doesn't suggest an exciting read, but rather an academic study, a textbook.

The cover of a Calculus textbook, a book on mathematics, doesn’t suggest an exciting read, but rather an academic study, a textbook. Cover by Stewart Calculus.

Blue doesn’t necessarily mean a technical, academic textbook. Blue, used with other images, can and does suggest romance, history and, most definitely, something royal. Take Sharon Kay Penman’s series of historical novels, for example.

Her most recent one, A King’s Ransom (2014), uses a considerable blast of blue to convey her message that this is a novel about royalty. Even the title is in blue. The imagery on the cover suggests the historical excitement and intrigue that the reader expects and appreciates in Penman’s well-researched and fast paced, action-filled novels.

A book cover can attract potential readers. It can also turn away readers, if the image is controversial or the colouring too bland. The art of the cover is in attracting, not detracting readers. The art of the cover conveys the contents of the book without giving too much away.

Sharon Kay Penman's recent novel, "A King's Ransom", uses the colour blue most regally.

Sharon Kay Penman’s recent novel, “A King’s Ransom,” uses the colour blue most regally. Cover by Marian Wood Books/Putnam.

Book covers are a form of art, creative as well as being a marketing tool. It’s not surprising that book lovers take great pride in showcasing their favourite books, usually those that have striking covers, by displaying these books on coffee tables or prominently in bookshelves.

Book Covers in the Digital Age

Books are like small posters for themselves,” says Suzanne Dean, creative director at Random House, told The Independent.We have roughly a two-minute window to seduce the reader and bookshop browser.

With the increasing influx of ebooks, the survival of book cover art becomes a very real challenge. The two-minute window that Dean mentions might be considerably less when one considers the surfer who quickly scans page after page of resources via the Internet. One can’t help but wonder how this will affect the art of designing a book cover in the future. 

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