Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Judging a Book by its Cover: Michelle's Take

After rereading Jeannie and Alexis’s posts on this book cover business, one thing became clear to me…

Book covers (like books) function and satisfy in a multitude of ways.

Books! Books! So Many Books!
Perhaps that sounds a little like a copped-out response. But, what more could I possibly say on the subject? The passion and the reason have both been addressed by each of my pod partners. Let’s see if I can peel away at the subject from another angle. Romance.

Personally, as book buyers go, I’m beginning to believe I’m a specimen of a dying breed. With sales of e-readers and tablets rising and the doom and gloom of the future of publishing looming overhead (all of this partnered with the supposed empire-altering-power of e-publishing), I’m not sure what to think of the way I buy books -- especially in our current publishing market. Every one I know owns and raves about their Kindle or Nook. I’ve had mine for three years and have (maybe) fifteen books downloaded onto it. (My husband can attest that I have bought near ten times that, annually, in actual books). In my mid-30’s, I’m already one of those people saying stuff like, “Back in my day if I wanted to read a book, I had to flip pages. Actually FLIP pages.” There’s no romance, no nostalgia, in digital files.

I’m nostalgic about books. I like the feel of a book; the look of it in my hand. And even though I know I shouldn’t (in our world of renew, reuse, and recycle)… gods do I love the smell of paper! Both the gluey, inky scent of newly printed as well as the slightly mildewy, dusty odor of pre-owned. (The latter isn’t probably healthy for me, but man, it’s so delicious!) Bottom line, I’m the kind of book buyer who frequents the two big box bookstores in my region (because all the independent stores have since closed). And I visit my local library’s swap bin every three weeks, looking for that gem in the sand. In both cases, I peruse the bindings, cover by cover, and fill my arms until I’ve found the tomes that make the cut.

How do they make the cut?

A lot of it has to do with book covers.

"Which one will give me that come hither look?"
First, I pick up the books that attract me. Books covers are a first impression, after all. You should know that I prefer hardbacks because they look substantial. They make me feel they are dependable. But book covers are ultimately a tall, dark drink of water that one desires to get to know a little better. Often the attractive ones showcase the promise of a twist of darkness, mystery, and high stakes. How do I know? Symbolism, color choices, and enough vagueness to make me feel like there’s a little risk involved. But mostly… I read the back of the book. Then I read the inside jacket-flaps. And finally, I read the first three to five pages. On a rare occasion I’ll consider super-famous-author-X’s one-liner in my decision-making process (if that one-liner is flirty enough, yet transparent enough, to put me at ease). And on an even rarer occasion I’ve been known to “date” a book, see it more than once, or maybe buy it a cup of coffee and fondle it a little before taking it home. But, I digress.

My point? With so many books to read, if I’m not at least mildly intrigued by the premise and the writing before I buy it, I don’t have the time to make a ten to fifteen hour commitment. And my time is precious to me.

But, let’s back up for a second. What is the initial factor that makes me reach for a book?

I had to think hard about this – really hard. As a writer and reader I’d thought this would be a no-brainer. But I found myself stumped. I even talked to my thirteen-year-old niece, a formidable book consumer, because I realized I hadn’t ever thought really hard about why a book cover entices me.

She said to me, “I hate it when books put people’s faces on the front cover.  I don’t want to know how they see the characters. I want to imagine them the way I want to.”

Sound familiar? (see Alexis’s post on Jan 10)

Some of My Favorite YA Covers
So, I went to my YA bookcases (because those are at hand in my dining room) and I quickly hand-selected books that I remembered that I loved the covers of and...something interesting appeared before me.

No faces.

It seems that I, too, don’t like to be told how to imagine a character. I’m an adult after all, and I can decide with whom I want to spend my time. Without you spelling it out to me.

It’s like the whole Harry Potter/Daniel Radcliffe conundrum. After being inundated with the visual bombardment of the movies and media frenzy I can’t -- even in my mind’s eye  -- recall the Harry I imagined and fell in love with when I first read the books. And I felt the same heart-stricken woe Alexis did when Behemoth was released. I totally get it!

A Selection of Other Favorite Covers
So I looked a little harder. I went into my office. I found this goes for my “adult” bookshelves, too. I pulled out some of those. My findings? I lean toward simplicity, suggestion, mood, what feels like originality to me, and above all, promise.

But, wait. Let’s talk Cheetos for a moment. (see Jeannie’s blog on Jan 17)

Yes, those scarily orange crunchy salty empty carbohydrates we pretend not to love but secretly stuff in our underwear drawer and eat in the middle of the night when no one is watching. I’m referring to whatever you find pleasure reading, escapist fiction, genre fiction, A.K.A., pretty much anything that has a clear label on a bookstore shelf and you buy because you expect it to make you think and feel a certain way.) Some of us hide these treats. But, some of us know that the tried and true bag of snack food is meant to be passed along to our friends like a bad case of mono, because we know there’s something so sinful, possibly shameful, and utterly delicious in them. We don’t want to be alone with our guilty pleasures. And because on some deep-seeded level we know eating Cheetos, in the dark, is a one-way path to a lonely addiction. No one wants to be a lonely addict -- we want friends to validate and enable us! After all, only those who drink alone are alcoholics, right? Again, I digress.

What I’m saying is… book covers are at their core, labels. And (as Jeannie said) these are the kinds of labels we as consumers don’t like to be surprised by.

Switch gears. Let’s think about blockbuster films. A vast majority of us would have a bit of a problem if the trailer or poster for the next Pirates of the Caribbean movie promised another swash-buckling pirate adventure but we find these promises are images pulled from flashbacks of previous films. Really the movie is about how Jack Sparrow falls into a time machine that lands him in the year 3027 and he must peril, hopelessly, through a scorched post-apocalyptic earth. In the end, the film is nothing more than Jack walking, endlessly, as he feeds the only stray dog on the planet portions of his own flesh to psychotically hold on to his own humanity. Then, he dies. Most of us would be a little put out. (Though, I admit, if any actor were capable of pulling off that twist, my money's on Johnny).

So what I’m trying to say is… I get it!

Readers like Cheetos. Publishers like Cheetos. Marketing departments like Cheetos. Booksellers love Cheetos! And most importantly… I love Cheetos! Processed, branded book covers are as sure a thing as a nice big bag of Cheetos. Admittedly, I do like a certain amount of risk. But I also relish in the security of knowing I don’t have to take a risk. I can take the safe bet.

So where does that leave me? (With a really long rambling blog entry that basically says what both Jeannie and Alexis already did. So “good on you!” those who have stuck it out this far.) Let me see if I can wrangle this monster of a topic the ground… and put it out of your misery (and mine).

 In the immortal words of Inigo Montoya, "No. There is too much. Let me sum up..."

I collect certain kinds of books for certain reasons. And it’s largely due to the cover. So, in a sense, I collect book covers. I have a growing collection of fine bound books. Collectible books. Many are timeless classic titles in leather, cloth, or are limited release and art cover editions. These books are only about the cover. Personally, I think Folio Society does a great job with moderately affordable fine editions and I love those editions solely for how they look and feel (and smell). They are simple, elegant, and hold the promise of something wonderful between their covers. Then, a couple of years ago, I passed through an airport and spied my first Corelie Bickford-Smith Penguin Edition. It’s the kind of book cover I covet, pet adoringly, and snuggle with at night because it’s an aesthetically pleasing specimen for my book collection whilst being truly affordable. The titles are classics so they're somewhat vetted. But let’s be honest -- owning them is all about the pretty cloth cover.

Then there's the old books. Sometimes they come from used bookshops, thrift stores, libraries, and antique shops. I like those to look like old books should look. Old. Crafted. Lasting. They should look like art pieces that have stood the test of time. And if there's a mysterious inscription on the inside of the cover from someone in the 1880's... awesome!

Timeless, Don't You Think?
In our digital age, buying actual physical books is romantic. It evokes a sort of nostalgia. Book covers are potential lovers and friends. When I buy a book and read it, it then becomes something entirely different. It becomes an artifact from a past relationship. It becomes an experience I’ve had, a memory I’ve collected, a story that evolved me emotionally and/or intellectually in some significant way. It’s not all about a rapid download of information before I move onto the next file. And at the end of my life, I like to imagine I will take comfort knowing when I lose my sight I can put my hands on that artifact, smell it, feel it, and still flip through all those pages.

Book covers evoke a sense of romance. And like any romance, when you take the time to examine it, it can quickly become complicated, layered, and even controversial. Some of us go on blind dates because our friends set us up. Or we have a measure of faith that internet-dating sites do actually weed out some of the undesirables. Not everyone is looking for the same thing. But in the end, I know I will always be a book shopper because I love to scrutinize their covers.

So basically... yeah... what Alexis and Jeannie said.  *grin*

Next week? Something far more interesting and entertaining than this. And shorter. Promise.

Peas Out.


  1. Love it! Good take!! (only a couple typos ;P ) I completely agree with your feeling of the romance of real books. I am romantically involved with at least 400 of mine! ;) and eyeing a few I've yet to own like they're Nathan Fillion (yum)!

    1. Please feel free to point out the typos. :) I knew it was inevitable.

  2. I feel I must state that Michelle is the reason that--despite an agreement with my husband to purchase new fiction titles on my Nook--my collection of physical books is still growing. This can largely be blamed for Michelle's (and Alexis's) influence toward the "collectible" covers of classic novels. Yes, I dare say, my fellow Peas have turned me into a book fondler. *hangs head in shame*

    1. That is because I'm an enabler validating your cheesy desires.