Thursday, January 13, 2011

Book Covers through a Reviewer’s Eye

The wonderful authors at "The LadyKillers" invited me to join their conversation on book covers.  I was very flattered and pleased to contribute the following article:

A confession must be made; I rarely see the cover of a book prior to my receiving it.  My days spent perusing the mystery aisles of bookstores are many years in the past; and this may be more common than suspected.

Online shopping and e-books have changed the world for the writer, publisher and reader.  Access to online groups and reviews, blogs, social media and, my particular favorite, the sites and catalogues of genre-specialized, respected booksellers provide a plethora of ways in which to discover new authors and read opinions on their latest work without ever seeing the physical book.   The combination of these elements is the reason for my not viewing the covers of my prospective reads. 

As a collector of signed, first editions, I rely on independent booksellers throughout the US, Canada and UK to feed my need.  One bookseller, in particular, provides an excellent newsletter for collectors that not only provides each book’s plot summary, but often includes a very brief comment from a member of the store’s staff as to their feeling about the book.  This has both introduced me to authors whose books I’ve enjoyed that I may otherwise have never read and steered me away from those whose books I most probably would not enjoyed. Their printed newsletter, which I received, is devoid of pictures.  

As a reviewer, I am able to request the advanced reader’s copy of books, usually by author’s whose work I know.  Again, it is usually through a list I receive via email in which there is no pictures. 

None of this, however, diminishes the importance of a book’s cover and the elements at which I look when viewing them.  After all, many people still often judge a book by that first impression.

Cover art:  I’ve worked in marketing for a great many years so packaging is something of which I am very aware.  Although I first see the covers most often after having received the book, I do take notice.   Cover art that catches my eye, expresses the period and mood and theme of the story is wonderful.  When a cover is poorly done, doesn’t convey anything about the book, and/or particularly when it’s an historical novel and the period costume is inaccurate, it doesn’t affect my reading, but does put into question the professionalism and commitment of both the author and the publisher. 

The covers I most remember are very graphic, such as those for Edward Marston’s and Ann Parker’s books.  Mr. Marston writes several series.  The cover art is both attractive and provides a clear indication as to which series each book belongs and in which period it is set, not only through the art but, in the first four instances, through the title font used. 

Ms. Parker’s books are set in Colorado at the turn of the century; again both aspects being immediately conveyed to the prospective reader.

Some might feel it is easier illustrating covers for mysteries set in an historical timeframe. A few examples of contemporary mysteries whose covers I particularly like are from Tarquin Hall, Jack Fredrickson and Donna Leon:

It is my understanding that many authors don’t have control of their covers and, thanks to my marketing background, I certainly understand how difficult it is to create a cover representative of the book.  Considering how significant is the cover, an approval clause by the author in their contract might be beneficial. 

Story summary:  Even with the rise in e-books—yes, I am an e-book reader having been an early adopter of the Kindle--and/or whether one sees the cover, the story summary is critical as it appears not only on the cover, but as the product description for on-line booksellers.  I understand author’s often don’t write the summaries themselves.   This is another area in which a contractual clause, giving the author review and approval permission, might be wise. 

An ideal story summary:
  • Must be accurate and not contain any spoilers - There is nothing more annoying than to be told what is going to happen before you even start the book or finding a part of the story isn’t as was advertised. 
  • Should be short and sweet - In fact, I find most story descriptions too long.
  • Should include the essentials - Things I want to know are the timeframe and location in which the story is set, the principal characters and the basics of the puzzle. 
Author biography and photograph:  Yes, I do want to know how you look and about your background.  As a reader, I become invested in your characters so I have an interest in learning about you as the creator.  It is nice if the photograph has been updated within the past couple of years; okay, within the past five years for those of us who hate having photos taken.

Cover elements about which I don’t personally care are:

Award mentions:  It is wonderful when an author’s work is recognized by having been nominated and/or having won an award.  Yes, it should be noted on the book.  However, as frequently as I’ve disagreed with some of these selections, I take that information with a definite grain of salt for it doesn’t necessarily mean the book is one which will appeal to me.

Blurbs and review excerpts:  Sorry, I rarely read them.  It is only reasonable they would be positive, if not effusive, or why would they be there.  No publisher is going to include a negative blurb such as the classic quote from Gore Vidal on Herman Wouk’s Winds of War, “This is not at all bad, except as prose.” 

One of the great regrets I have about e-books is the inability to see what others are reading.  When out in public, it’s great fun seeing the books being read by those around me.  I even wrote about it and suggested a solution at Excuse me…What are you reading?.

A wonderful book cover can never excuse a poorly written book but book covers, as such, are wonderful things.  Even though they may not influence my buying decisions, except for that all-important story summary, those which enfold the approximately 6,000 books in my home are enjoyed and appreciated.

Please let me know what you think?  What elements of covers are important to you?  Do covers influence your buying decisions?


  1. Like you, LJ, I often see ARCs, rather than the books themselves. But, as a librarian, I can definitely say book covers influence selection. I've seen some fiction books that may have been good, but when I saw the covers, I knew I'd never convince patrons to read the book. I discussed it with a collection development librarian, who totally agreed with me. As a browser in a store, or library, an attractive cover grabs my attention. I love some of Berkley Prime Crime's covers. And, if it's a women's fiction book, with kitchen utensils on it, I'll try it. The new Sisters in Crime study seems to indicate that covers are very important to readers, most of whom are not active in social media as we are. I think it's an important study for publishers and authors to look at.

    Lesa Holstine -

  2. I'm embarrassed to admit I'm a buyer rather than a borrower so I hadn't thought about the importance of covers to librarians. You raise a good point. Thank you, Lesa.

  3. As both an author and a book cover artist, I must agree that both a good story and a good cover make the whole.

    I believe online book buying and promoting actually encourage getting a real eye-grabbing cover. It's more important than ever to draw attention to your book and stand out from the crowd. Of course, having a great story to tell is going to get readers to spread the good news that your book is as good as your cover.

    Patty G. Henderson

  4. I am drawn to dramatic covers and they'll get me to read the back cover copy. But if the text makes me realize it's not my kind of story, then I don't buy it. And I've read and loved books that have covers I hate. You need a pretty package and a great product.

  5. A good cover is important, but what draws me to a book, especially by a new-to-me author, is the story summary. Also, if I'm in a library or a real (rather than virtual) bookshop, I look at the first page or two. A good opening can make me want a book even if the cover or the story summary leave me undecided.

  6. LJ - It's similar to icing on a cake, isn't it? The icing may attract you but if the cake doesn't taste good, you may not finish it and/or not buy another cake from that bakery. However, if the cake is really yummy, even if the icing doesn't look perfect, you'll probably go back for more. And no, I haven't eaten yet today.

  7. I agree, Jane. The story summary is more important to me, particularly if I'm not looking at the physical book. If I am in a book store, as do you, I then read the first page or two and may even skip to a page in the middle just to see whether the author's voice still holds my attention.

  8. With novels by authors I have read, the cover only concerns me in it's style and presentation. However, the cover sometimes influences my trying a new author's work ... even though I try not to let it do so. I have got the impression - possibly wrong - that many book covers are becoming quite generic. The authors name is in the biggest type, the book's title is smaller but in an "exotic" font reflecting the setting and/or main *raison d'etre* behind the plot, a dramatic strap-line to entice fans of a particular genre and, finally, the illustration is generalised to the point of being almost abstract. Thus, you could take the contents of modern crime novels and switch them between covers - you probably wouldn't actually notice any change!

    It's only in fiction concerning the Golden Age or Victorian that an attempt at "period setting" is made with cover illustrations. Thus, Carola Dunn's novels are shown as being from the golden age of crime fiction, Anne Perry's remind the reader of the Victorian setting visually and so on.

    I suspect the "generalisation" of covers is enforced by publishers who feel that "dated" novels will only appeal to fans of that specific genre rather than "hooking" the general book-buying public.

  9. I am not great at identifying why I like a particular cover (or not) but I do know what I like. And I feel a little differently about blurbs--seeing a whole string of them by authors I like might compel me to try a new author. But definitely the layout of the blurbs along with the cover art and title influence my buying--or at least reading the first few pages!

  10. What about covers with respect to country of origin? I find British covers much more attractive than American covers. I love the moody, spooky covers and those that portray the setting of the novel well. Cartoony, cutsey covers leave me utterly cold, especially those that appear to be Chick Lit even though they are mysteries.

    I think my age is showing (smile).

  11. I agree with you, Kate. I find many of the UK covers much more interesting. I also like some their titles; i.e., Kate Atkinson (When Will There Be Good News, Started Early, Took My Dog), Fred Vargas (Seeking Whom He May Devour, Wash This Blood Clean From My Hands), Deanna Raybourn (Dark Road to Darjeling)and Shona MacLean (The Redemption of Alexander Seaton), to name a few.