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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Can't Judge a Book by its Cover

By Lisa Karon Richardson

It’s a well-known adage that you can’t judge a book by its cover. And while the metaphor often holds true for people, I would contend that it is possible to judge a book by its cover. Or at least it ought to be.

(Actually I have a bad habit of looking at the cover and reading the blurb only. I need to remember to read the first page or so to see if the writing intrigues as well. Surprised me when someone first told me they did that. I just never had!) But publishers hire designers to create covers that capture a reader’s attention and entice them to part with their hard earned cash. But it must also accurately capture the mood/genre/tone of the story.

In fact, if the cover doesn’t reflect the contents of the story, I feel ripped off. I mean, I’m expecting a certain sort of story if I pick up a story with this kind of cover:

If I picked up a book with this cover though, I’d be looking for an entirely different kind of tale.

Yeah, I think I'd be aggravated if I picked up a book looking for a take promised by the first novel, and found words fitting the second, and vice versa. There would be lines of disgruntled customers out the bookstore door if we couldn't judge a book by its cover. The promise of a novel begins with a glance at the cover, a quick survey of the back cover copy, through the first line, first chapter and all the way to the end. If the reader is let down at any point it can spell disaster for an author's career, and a publisher's bottom line.

What makes you pick up a book? What make you buy it? How do you feel when the story's promise isn't delivered?

39 comments:

  1. As books are on the shelf and rarely facing out, I guess the title and or author is the first reason I'd pull it off the shelf. Then it's a tie between cover and blurb. Both must win me over.

    Of course, word of mouth is going to make me recognize a title and author also. I have so many books I'd like to buy that I rarely pick up something unknown in fiction.

    Looks like I'm at least two Julie Klassens behind now. Sigh.

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  2. Good point, Deb. The title has to be intriguing to the target market too. I'm no good at titles either. Luckily, from what I heard they usually change.

    And don't worry, I don't think this one from Julie is officially out until January. You've got two months to catch up!

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  3. It's like you're expecting poetry and end up with a shopping list instead. Disappointing!

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  4. I have a similar approach to yours. I really hate it when the cover doesn't reflect the story/characters. I've been gypped.

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  5. I had so much fun helping Roseanna with the photoshoot for her Jewel of Persia cover!!! Now I size up every pretty girl I meet as a potential model for one of my stories. Ha ha. I think the cover is very important.

    I learned something interesting at ACFW this year. Thomas Nelson tries to keep their covers simple but intriguing to appeal to a broad spectrum of readers. Case in point, Faithful, which I bought, has just a simple elegant white cover bordered by rose petals. It captures the romantic women's fiction genre without giving away too much. Reason, two of the three main characters are black, and they didn't want white readers to immediately think African-American fiction and put it down without further investigation. While I personally like to read about black characters, I thought that was very smart. I hope the book does well.

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  6. Cheryl, I only know one person who's shopping list might be interesting enough to read. And it most certainly isn't me!

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  7. lotusgirl, conversely there are some books, especially self- published ones that,where the cover art turns me off and I don't investigate further. In some of those cases I haven't been cheated out of money, but I've been cheated out of a good read!

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  8. I've seen the cover for Jewel of Persia and it's beautiful! That's an interesting take from Thomas Nelson. They definitely have some interesting covers. I have to think about that more. What if by trying to appeal to too broad an audience, you miss appealing to your target? It must be a fine line to walk!

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  9. Like the rest of you, the title, cover and blurb has to appeal to me. And yes, even the first paragraph. I found that out during one of my local writing chapter meetings. We were given books and could only read the first line/paragraph. And then a show of hands to see who would want to read more. Very interesting. It confirmed that sometimes you need that extra bit of information to decide.

    Since I've submitted Emma's Outlaw, I've been thinking of possible covers. I used to think it was premature, but from everything I've heard, once you're offered a contract, they want to know things Immediately. So just in case, I want to be prepared. But it's so hard. I know which Wyoming land formation I want in the background, but the foreground eludes me. And part of that is because I'm not just thinking about catching someone's eye when they're buying, I want them to look at the cover after they've read the book and feel satisfied.

    You're right, Lisa when you said it's a fine line to walk.

    Anita Mae.

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  10. The first time I remember a cover jumping out at me and demanding I buy the book was Kristen Heitzmann's "Secrets." The model used for the picture was so unlike the norm for romantic fiction (and I really liked her hair).
    There's an entire website devoted to taking the old-fashioned bodice ripper covers and changing the titles to fit the pictures. A bit crude (as were the books) but very funny.

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  11. Okay, Lisa, you got me thinking.

    If I'm in a bookstore, I'm generally there specifically to buy a book. Most of the books I buy are based on recommendations from friends, or I hear about the book online. Been a long time since I was in a bookstore for the purpose of browsing. I'm a target shopper.

    However, I can apply your questions to checking out library books. Generally I spot the spine and title first. If it's interestiing, then I pick up book. Most of the time I don't discount a book based on the cover...if the book is in my hand. I will discount it if the book is on a shelf.

    With book in hand, I turn to back-cover blurb. For me, it's the biggest selling point. I can ignore an unappealing cover or cheesy title if I like the blurb.

    Now occasionally if I'm not completely sold on the blurb, I'll turn to the first page and read.

    I can think of more than a few category novels that I've passed by specifically because of the title and front cover...even when I went to the store to specifically buy the book. So while I can generally overlook a bad cover, if it's really bad/cheesy, then not even me liking the author will make me buy the book.

    I should probably work to overcome that tendancey.

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  12. Oh, I thought about a particular christian historical that I read last year. Based on teh cover I thought it was a romance.

    Only the book had three heroines (including one contemporary one), three story lines, and pretty much no romance.

    I felt deceived by the publisher.

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  13. A book I was instantly attracted to by the cover was Tour de Force: A Love Story by Elizabeth White. It's a very romantic picture of a ballerina's legs. She's on pointe and in a tulle skirt. I bought it immediately and wasn't disappointed.

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  14. Anyone want to discuss the way newer romances and even straight fiction have to have the heroine's face on it? I like the ones where the h/h were alluded to but the details were left up to you to imagine as you read the book.

    Do you like this trend or not?

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  15. Anita, that sounds like an interesting exercise. It would be fun to do that in a book club to see what to read next.

    Don't stress too much about your potential cover for Emma's Outlaw. While they ask for ideas based on teh story, they don't give the author a whole lot of input from what I've heard! Still it's fun to dream

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  16. Niki, I saw a site that was dedicated to showing different book covers that had been created with the same basic stock images. These were on books that had been published. It was really interesting to see the creativity and array of different techniques that were used to personalize the images.

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  17. Gina, I'm the same way as you in the library. Title first (and even the font can make me pick something up!) Sad I know.

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  18. Dina, Did you ever pick one up based on the cover only to be disappointed?

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  19. When it comes to walking into a bookstore and browsing for a book by an author I'm not familiar with, I am hands-down guilty of judging a book by its cover... not just the artwork, but the costumes on the models. I just picked up a book solely because of the Regency-looking gowns on the cover. And when I see an empire waist gown on a book cover, I think lords and scandal broth and high-perched phaetons and all of that good stuff. Same with bonnets, bustles, and calico. I like pioneer/western stories, too.

    But the costumes don't always portray the era, I've found. Every so often I'll pick up what I think is a Regency (based on the cover) but the book is set 50 years off and I get irked. I am not a costume historian, but I feel deceived when a gown on a cover doesn't match the time period. Just a pet peeve!

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  20. I don't know, Deb. I don't think it's a new trend to have the heroine on the cover. They've been doing that for ages. All the way back to janette Oke. One of the new trends over the last five years or so is having partial portraits of the woman. Usually her head is cut off. Maybe that's the attempt to retain the reader's ability to visualize her as they please.

    Truthfully, my mind populates stories as it pleases without much regard to the front cover art. It's only purpose is to keep me interested enough to crack that spine!

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  21. Had to think about that one, Lisa, and the answer is yes. I bought a set of Christian novellas set in France with a nice artsy cover, but they were preachy and boring and I never got through the first one. Don't remember the author thank goodness.

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  22. i'm so with you Susie. That's totally one of my pet peeves. I can think of a recent book that was published recently with the heroine in a black and red striped gown--totally Victorian, but it was a story set during WWI. A lot of people think history is all the same so they don't know or care. But it irks me.

    If I'd known what the story was really about, I'd have bought it!I guess that's an example of a cover losing a sale for an author.

    Oh, and don't get me started on the hair. Why do so many historicals have heroines with long flowing hair down around their shoulders. It grates on my nerves because it's so... so... wrong!

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  23. Yep, books and authors we don't care for are usually forgettable!

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  24. I don't like books that don't show the person's face. I'm a very visual person and I like to see what the H/h looks like. To me, only showing the torso seems to be de-personalizing the story. (Is that a word?) Like - pick a face because any face will do.

    I think that's why I write so much about my characters looking and gazing. And talking about their eye color. Those things are important to me because they reveal so much about the true nature of the character.

    On the other hand, when the coloring on the cover doesn't match the story, it ruins the whole book for me.

    Anita Mae.

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  25. Titles grab me first. If it's artsy sounding and the blurb says romance, I feel like the author is being pretentious and probably won't read it. Title theory is a whole topic on its own. So glad I don't have to worry about it othr than giving my publisher ideas.

    Same with cover. Some of you ahve heard me groan about covers. I get annoyed when people think a historical is being inaccurate because the heroine's hair is down around her shoulders. Under numerous circumstances, women't hair would end up down--flight for example. If she's going somewhere in a hurry, an emergency, are two examples I can think of. I think accuracy of clothing and setting is far more important than hair. Unless, of course, the setting is a ballroom. Then again, maybe she was just dancing extra hard. :-)

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  26. Forgot to say that headless or partial-faced heroines are just weird. I think it was a brief trend that wasn't terribly successful. And, to me, not having anything on the cover to disguise that the characters are of a race other than white seems pretty deceitful to me. To me, it's sad that a publisher thinks they ahve to play a tricklike this on readers. But then, I've never not picked up and read an interesting book because of the race of the characters.

    An endlessly fascinating topic, Lisa.

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  27. I'm with Anita. If the characters don't match the way they're described in the story it's really distracting.

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  28. Now if there is a reason for the heroine's hair to be down, for example it's based on a scene in the book that's one thing, but I've found that typically that's not the case. Besides it makes it hard to disguise the model's modern haircut, which in turn makes it hard for me as the reader to suspend disbelief and buy into the story world. The characters are now just costumed moderns. Makes me want to pick apart the author's research, even though it's seriously unlikely they had much to do with the cover image.

    Thanks for stopping by, Laurie Alice. Maybe we should do a post all about titles. That would be interesting.

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  29. Lately I'm going by friends' recommendations, then BCC, then cover. Or kinda a combo.

    Great post.
    And I've added "A Stray Drop of Blood" to a BIG pile of TBRs.

    Blessings, dear Lisa and Inkies!
    Patti

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  30. Word of mouth takes the guess work out of book buying, doesn't it, Patti!

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  31. I agree with Laurie Alice about the hair on the cover. A woman can't wear her hair up 24 hrs a day. Not only that, but regardless of the current fashion of the day, there's always a small minority who don't follow the trend. (Like me.) :D

    Anita Mae.

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  32. you're right Lisa. I didn't phrase that well. Maybe I'm imagining it but it seems to me there's more focus on showing the heroine's full face rather than both h/h.

    One thing for sure, I'm going to pay more attention to what's out there.

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  33. True, Anita. No one wears their hair up 24 hours a day, but the cover should be representative of the story and the heroine, and the period setting. If she wears her hair down, that's all well and good, but if not, or if it isn't specified, then it's as annoying to me as getting the color wrong is to you.

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  34. I see what you mean. There has been a trend where they are going closer and focusing in on the heroine's face. I'm thinking specifically of the change Thomas Nelson did to the cover of In the Shadow of the Sun King. I loved the original cover, even if it did feature a headless woman. But the redo with the annoying grinning woman was much less appealing to me. Luckily I'd already read and loved the story!

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  35. Hi Lisa and Inkies!
    I'm coming in late on this but wanted you to know I love this topic. I hadn't seen Julie Klassen's cover yet for The Girl In The Gatehouse but it's stunning. I have to admit that I'm a sucker for a beautiful cover, but I wouldn't buy a book if I didn't like the blurb. I always read the first sentence too. :)

    I recently read Nora Roberts Black Hills and am currently reading The Search. Both provide great covers that suit the story perfectly.

    Since I haven't yet seen the cover for my book, Secrets of the Heart, I'm a little nervous. But hey, Strang/Realms just approved the title for the first book and the series. I feel great that it's still The Ravensmoore Chronicles. Yippee!
    Hugs,
    Jill

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  36. Jill, I'm so glad you mentioned Julie's new book. Lovely cover. I'm sooooo looking forward to reading it.

    And now I need to go update my book reveiw from this past weekend because i'd forgotten I'd read The Silent Governess this past year. Loved it.

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  37. I bet your cover will be lovely, Jilly. The title is already a winner as far as I'm concerned.

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  38. Debra, one reason why you don't usually have h/h on a cover, the Baker people tell me, is that it's too hard to get the models in for the photo shoot together, and pasting them in later from separate shoots turns out kind of weird covers, where they're not looking at one another, etc.

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  39. Ooh, that's an interesting tidbit. Thanks, Lauire Alice

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