Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Judging a Book by its Cover: Alexis's take

Book Covers

These two simple words inspire a passion of opinion and eagerness to discuss that you'll rarely see from me. Maybe it's my graphic design background, or my creative spirit. But honestly, I think it's just common sense -- aesthetically speaking -- regardless of my profession or hobbies.

It's been hammered into our skulls to "never judge a book by its cover" and as true as that is {for there are several books I absolutely loved which I refused to read in public without first taking off the dust cover and hiding that sucker} they have the saying for a reason. Because we do judge books by their covers. If we didn't, the publishers wouldn't spend so much time and money on cover art and artists to begin with. Covers matter. Plain and simple. They're signposts to the masses, beacons to individuals, tiny billboards working hard to get your attention.

But like billboards, and anything in advertising, not all covers are equal. {Why else would vanity presses and special edition covers do so well?} If the book's cover doesn't grab you, you won't grab the book. It gets passed by. Worse, if the cover turns you away, well... the book is being turned away as well.

Now, I'm not saying that the cover will make or break a book {my experience with Westerfeld's Leviathan/ Behemoth/ Goliath hardcover-dustjacket-redesign-midway-through-the-series-debacle is proof of that}... {I'll get to that later... possibly*}. I believe the title holds a fair percent of the initial pull, your loyalty to a story or author is another consideration, and then, if those things do their job, the back cover copy and the inside flap.

What I'm saying is that book covers get the coveted "first impression" moment. And for a reader {well, a reader like me... and most of the readers I know} that's a big moment.

The problem, lately, especially in YA, is that I'm starting to get a lot of bad first impressions. I'm being turned away. The publishers, who think they've hit gold plastering actual photos of actual people who may or may not look anything like the actual characters or have anything to do with the actual story, are instantly turning away an entire set of customers; those who hate to have images planted in our minds for us {hence why we read the books before we see the movies -- though "movie versions" of book covers are not my target}. It's almost insulting. We, the readers, the cultivators of imagination, are being told how we should imagine. We are, essentially, having to take creative direction on our own creativity.

Where before I'd be drawn to a beautiful, interesting, or original cover -- something that evoked the feel of the book and drew me in {which I have always prided the YA genre as doing} and maybe even inspired me as an artist -- I'm now overwhelmed, dismayed, and put off by the ceaseless sameness that seems to have pervaded the shelves. I skip entire sections... because they're all the same cover. Just a different title. Maybe a different shade of black or a different splash of color {I'm starting to wonder if maybe there's a shortage in cover artists and the YA publishers are just sharing the same person}.

So we have a problem. Luckily, there's a solution. {No, my suggested solution will never be "just switch to digital books and ignore the covers entirely," thankyouverymuch}.

Publishers need to stop regurgitating designs because they're afraid to take risks, constantly going to what's "safe" and what's "working"-- terms I've found they really enjoy. For one, there's no growth in that. Sure, it's working. For now. Just like Twilight-inspired wanna-be stories are "working." {Forgive me for the reference. I feel nauseous using it}. But eventually, safe becomes same and the market over-saturates. At that point, everything becomes a fad. There's no art in that.

Now, I'm not published. But one day I will be. And I certainly don't want the book cover equivalent of 80's hair or parachute pants holding a place of honor on my bookshelf -- with my name on it. I want a reflection of my work and thus a reflection of myself. How can you do anything but be original in your cover design if you focus on the individual in that way? If you stay true to the art? Art is risk. Art is outer expression of the inner. Art is rebellion against sameness and embracing the unique and creative. And book covers are art.

So for the love of the written word... somebody tell those publishers to let their artists create art again.

*for my opinion on this, visit the comments {I'm like, the 12th post. My "name" is Alexis} of a great little article I read the other day about book covers in YA (paranormal romance)... CLICK HERE :)


  1. Wonderful post, Alexis. I'm so glad that people are being so forthright and vocal about this! Good cover design should always triumph over trends.

    (Stephanie @ Read in a Single Sitting)

  2. THANK YOU because I swear to gods if I have to see another cover with a teenage girl in a fancy dress on it I might lose my marbles. Most recent discovery that drew me to the checkout with just the cover alone was WHEN THINGS COME BACK by John Corey Whaley. Great cover and even better story.

  3. Aw thanks so much Stephanie! I totally agree! Down with the trends! ;)

  4. Haha you're welcome Katie! It IS getting ridiculous. Thanks for the recommendation -- I'll have to check that out :)