Judging a Book by its Cover

Chiding someone for shallowness might work well as an analogy and an expression, but everyone does, quite literally, judge books by their covers. I know; on and off over the years I’ve worked in several bookshops, from Barnes & Noble megastores to small brave local independent booksellers, and I’ve had plenty of opportunities to observe just what goes into the process of selecting and purchasing a book.

And the cover invariably, always, and without exception, begins that process.

The second thing browsers look at is the title, and—to some extent—how well the title aligns itself with the cover. I don’t think that part of the process is conscious, but it’s happening all the same, under the surface. Does it feel right? Is it attractive? Is there dissonance between what I see and what I read? Do I want to take the next step, read the blurb on the back, open the book?

But before that, we start with the cover and the title being deciding factors. Which isn’t particularly good news for me, as I’m completely graphics-blind and I struggle to come up with scintillating titles.

This is a problem.


Uncovering the story

A truly great cover is one that captures the book inside it in some fundamental and possibly unexpected way. Cover designer Peter Mendelsund says it’s about "finding that unique textual detail that can support the metaphoric weight of the entire book." 

Designer Chip Kidd agrees: good book design is about giving form to content—but also appreciating the balance between the two. In his TEDtalk, Kidd remembers his first graphic design class when the instructor drew a picture of an apple, then wrote the word “apple,” and said, “You either say this,” pointing to the word apple, “or you can show this,” pointing to the picture of the apple. But you can’t do both, “because this is treating your audience like a moron. And they deserve better.”

In fact, one of the challenges of cover design is resisting the urge to simply pluck an image from the text itself. "It's very tempting to read a book only for visual cues when you're a designer," Mendelsund says. "'Oh, her hair is blond, and it's a cold climate, and they live on a hill.' That's just really treacherous. Because if you read that way, you'll miss the point of the book. And almost never are those kinds of details the point of the book."


Naming the story

And then we come to titles. Titles are intrinsic to a book’s identity. They’re how people remember books, and how books get sold. That’s a lot of weight for what’s basically a one-to-four-word snippet to accomplish.

Most authors who title their own books (many publishers reserve that right, though they’ll entertain suggestions) have some sort of working title while they’re—well, working on the manuscript. My friend Daniel, himself an accomplished writer, counseled me once to make the working title as absurd as possible, to keep me motivated to find something better; his go-to working title is Eggplant. Once the book is finished, or at least well underway, they christen it with a final title.

This is a practical approach for a lot of reasons, not least of which is that it makes more sense for the title to sell the book than for the book to answer to the title.

Maybe I have trouble with titles because I’m bucking a logical and well-established trend, but working with something called Eggplant has never inspired me to sit down and put in the long slogging hours it takes to write a book. I need a hook on which to hang my work. I was a little surprised to read that I’m not alone: author Roddy Doyle says, “Do give the work a name as quickly as possible. Own it, and see it. Dickens knew Bleak House was going to be called Bleak House before he started writing it. The rest must have been easy.”

Well, maybe not easy. But—to me, anyway—infinitely clearer.


Making the story work

“The rest must have been easy.” Honestly? Yes. Writing isn’t easy, because nothing worthwhile is and because even if it’s work one loves, it’s still work; but it’s infinitely easier than figuring out how to name the story being born or thinking about how to represent it visually.

Others’ mileage will vary, of course. But I have all this on my mind today specifically as my publisher reveals the new cover for my new novel… and I’m already fretting about the next.

And knowing that it’s how, for better or for worse, how my work will be judged.