Ode to the Book Cover

Rachelle Gardner

Blogger: Rachelle Gardner

Yesterday I had a little epiphany that made me just the teensiest bit less enthusiastic about the brave new world of e-books.

I was flipping through the books I have on my Kindle Fire—hundreds of them already—and  I suddenly noticed that I was looking at book cover images that were one-half inch high. If I chose a different view, I could seem them at one-inch high. If I clicked on one, I could see it four inches high.

Suddenly I wondered what I was missing by not having actual books with covers that I could see in detail. Many of the books I’ve read on my Kindle, I never paid attention to the cover (mostly because I could hardly see it.)

I started to wonder if I would have approached these books differently if I’d held them in my hands and seen the detailed cover art first. Maybe, looking at the cover, I’d have had a better feel for the book right from the beginning. I would have understood something about the tone and the feel of the book. I’d have known what kind of book I was reading. I’d have context.

A book cover may not be worth a thousand words, but close.

And it hit me once again in a whole new way that when we go to strictly digital books, we’re losing something. I won’t talk about all the things we’re losing and gaining (because I know it’s a trade off and I do love my e-books), but this makes me a tiny bit sad.

Book covers are a whole art form unto themselves. There are people who are incredibly talented at this specific art form—creating a visual design that sets a tone and prepares a reader for the words within the cover. How sad to think that we may be moving to an era where far less effort will be expended on actual cover design—and even when the effort is made, many people will only see it in a one-inch thumbnail.

It’s not just that we judge a book by its cover—it’s more than that. The cover design tells us at a glance information that it would take several minutes (or more) to get in words. It can do this on a subconscious level, too, helping us to instantly recognize books that are “for us” and reject the ones that aren’t.

I can only hope that with the iPad and other technologies that have the capacity to show a beautiful image with clarity and definition, that book covers won’t become a thing of the past but will simply be viewed in a new way. And I hope publishers and even self-publishers continue to put a priority on quality cover design, because no matter whether it’s viewed on paper or digitally, I believe the cover of a book is an integral and important part of the whole reading experience.

How important is a book cover in your buying or reading decision?

57 Responses

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  1. Most will agree that the human eye is drawn to beauty, whether one similar image is interpreted equally is entirely arbitrary. Let’s use a beaten up piece dresser for example. I would happily drop 65$ for a four drawer bow front bird’s eye maple dresser with an attached mirror in absolutely horrible condition and a matching night table. that needed rebuilding Why? Because I can see what I call “good bones”. Give me a hundred hours and my tools, and I’ll sell those pieces at an auction for 950$. I knew what was inside.A Ted Dekker novel with a solitary colour on the cover is still a Ted Dekker novel! He could put a stick drawing on the cover and still sell zillions of copies. Everyone knows he’s got some great bones buried in there. 😉
    But for something such as a Regency book, I want to see layers of silk and lace on a brilliantly coloured gown. Why? Dress the bones up and wow me with colour and texture. Someday, when my book goes out, I want to know that my cover will knock the socks off the reader and lure them to the first page, then the second and 8 hours later, they go to bed still wanting to keep reading.
    A cover is the wrapping on a huge Christmas present for your very selective boss, wouldn’t you want to wow her?

  2. Rick Barry says:

    I must agree that a good book cover instantly conveys valuable information about the contents. Let’s make up a title, such as “Conspiracy.” That title gives little information about the genre. However, possible cover art would include the Oval Office, or the deck of an aircraft carrier, or a roomful of 18th century aristocrats sitting around in powdered wigs. Titles are great for snagging attention, but covers are powerful tools for hooking buyers’ attention and causing them to flip it over and read the back cover copy.

  3. Rachel says:

    Maybe I’m the odd e-reader, but I still look at the book covers. I usually choose what to read from Amazon on my big-screen computer, and I enjoy all the pretty covers on my Kindle Fire. I get a little miffed in the rare cases when my e-book has a beige cover instead of the one to match what I saw on Amazon. The book cover tells me the flavor the book I’m reading, and I want to keep it close.

  4. Oh, yes. Not only do I miss the book covers, I also miss the flap copy, or the back cover copy.

    I download many books when I find them free or on sale or just when I read a review and I know I want to read the book later. But later, I open my Kindle, and I see a list of titles and there is no reason for me to choose any of them because there is no cover image or back jacket copy to draw me in.

    I guess authors need to really work on killer titles, because that’s all they have on the old Kindles.

    If I knew anything about making apps I’d make an app that would set books on shelves spine out and when you touched a spine it would flip the book face out and take up the whole screen, and when you clicked a small icon it would pop-up flap copy. Maybe there is something like that already. Anyone know?

    If I could get that I’d probably move from my Kindle to my iPad for reading.

    • Jeanne says:

      Ooooh, I love that idea. 🙂

    • Sally, I’ve found this to be true! I buy or snap up a free book and I’m extremely excited about it. Then it turns into just another line of text on a screen. But here’s the funny part–I’ll see the cover if I’m on amazon on my computer and I’ll try to buy the book again because it’s so attractive and they have to remind me I already have it!

      • Yes, I have also tried to buy books over that I already have. I’m glad Amazon tells us we already have the books, although, I do have several hardbacks that I’ve got duplicate copies of because I’ve purchased them at different places. 🙂

  5. Fabulous post, Rachelle. I don’t even bother with a book blurb unless the cover captures my attention. Even when I browse through Kindle freebies, I don’t glance at the blurb unless the cover captivates me. My feeling is that if you don’t give a great deal of thought to what is the reader’s first impression of your book, what is the quality inside?

    Cover art seems to be a challenge for some who self-publish. If I ever went the self-publishing route, I would pay a designer to create my cover art. It’s too important to try to figure out on my own.

    Thanks for the great post.

  6. Michelle Lim says:

    The cover is the thing that makes me pick up a book for consideration. Looking specifically at Romantic suspense, I am less likely to pick up a book if it has a happy face on the cover. Maybe that seems odd, but it is true. Some faces work, like Tracey Bateman’s cover for “Tandem” and Dani Pettrey’s cover for “Submerged.” Others don’t. (I won’t mention names)

    Truth is, I am looking for a suspenseful read and usually that is more pronounced when the cover shows it without apology.

    It is my greatest hope that if I have the opportunity for a fiction cover that it will have a suspenseful cover…hopefully, no happy faces. But alas, we don’t always get to choose. So I will grin and be happy if I get the awesome opportunity to be published, smiley faced cover or not.

  7. Jeanne says:

    Book covers play a huge role in the decision of whether or not to read the back cover copy. You put to words something I’ve been thinking about as I read books on my Kindle. I miss seeing the front cover. After downloading many books from Amazon, I miss seeing the covers as I look through my TBR file on my Kindle, and having the reminder of what the book is about. Covers convey so much in a glance–emotions, hints at what the story is about, who the characters are, the promise of a great read. Sorry, I’m rambling. I enjoyed your post today.

  8. Cheryl Dale says:

    When I buy shoes I judge their cuteness first and their comfort and fit second. The same with books. If I’m perusing a book store or paging down a Barnes and Noble list, it’s the cover that makes me stop and look for comfort and fit. The other think I love about the cover is that as the setting and characters become more real to me in the text I look back at the cover and see things I didn’t notice in my first look. I attach meaning to the object and people in the cover. It takes me a few steps deeper into the story.

  9. Annie says:

    Very much agree. Although I don’t avoid ebooks (the content is still the same), I prefer hard copies for design and general feel. We may not judge books by their covers, but covers are certainly a part of the reading experience.

  10. I just got a Kindle Fire and didn’t notice this…I’ll have to look! While I’m not an artist myself, I am definitely attracted to different books based on the cover. It’s what initially draws me in (for example, when I saw the cover for Siri Mitchell’s “She Walks in Beauty”). Of course, the back cover copy has to also intrigue me for me to actually read the book, but the cover gets me to do that in the first place. When the cover appears to be of “lesser quality,” then I assume (not always correctly, of course) that the writing is as well.

  11. Sarah Thomas says:

    Book covers pull me in almost as much as snazzy wine labels. I’m terrible to pick my reading material and my merlot based on looks.

  12. Jeff Braun says:

    At Bethany House, we noticed this challenge a year ago when we wanted a similar look for our new line of Ebook Shorts. We had some great designs to choose from. Before going with our favorite, though, the designer placed the small image in a mock-up of a typical Amazon listing. To our surprise, what would have been a great cover in print, got lost among the other images and information. Instead, we went with a design that had a colored border that framed the cover on two sides and we also made sure each book had only one main title in large print. We even increased the height-width ratio slightly to help the image stand out from print covers. To see an example, check out Escape from the World Trade Center.

  13. Kate says:

    Stimulating discussion Rachelle. While I recognize I, as an adult, could survive without the joy of imagining the contents contained in an intriguing cover, I cannot fathom a child missing the absolute bliss of touching, and anticipating the wonders beyond the cover! Let alone being deprived of the feel, the smell and the charm of holding the printed words in their hands!

  14. Tiana Smith says:

    Book covers are extremely important to me. I even wrote a blog post about judging international covers to USA covers and how I judge covers first before I buy a book. As someone who loves me my e-reader, I do miss covers. But, I usually still look at them online before I download the book. I do hope that one day, the technology will be such that we can see beautiful covers on our e-readers.

  15. I have seen some beautiful covers on which the TITLE becomes ILLEGIBLE when shrunk down to Amazon’s postage-stamp icons. I’m sure designers are increasingly taking this into consideration. I think we’ll lament every step down the digital pathway, but in the end, it will be good.

    Where would we be today if we hadn’t emotionally let go of scrolls? “I sure do miss rolling a good book!”

  16. Gotta fess up here, I do judge books by their covers. I love the aesthetic and luring quality some book covers possess. I’m a visual person and as e-books gain in popularity I will go through a bit of a grieving process as covers begin to appear less and less.

    I just had breakfast with a young woman I led in high school who is now an art major (a wonderful talent in this world). It’s strange for me to think of how the need for cover artists will potentially diminish as our format for reading changes.

    Ode to the book cover, yep, I get it.
    ~ Wendy

  17. As a romance reader, I love the front cover. Sometimes I forget the color of the guy’s hair, or just like to see that smiling couple on the front to remind me who I’m reading about. When I pick a book to read, I often peruse cover art to see how I “feel.” with the eReader, I’ve lost this, some. Kindle Cloud has beautiful covers, though, and it’s easy to access the cover info with the push of a button (or three)…but I’ve bought several new eBooks and have forgotten which ones I have. My solution? Back to paper. I’m going to copy/paste the book Art and print my unread covers so I don’t forget what I have!

  18. Dale Rogers says:

    It definitely makes a difference to me. I can sense the tone and essence of what’s inside.

  19. I think book covers IS the biggest downfall with e-readers (says this Kindle user). I love a good cover and, like someone else said, a good back cover. Remember Siri Mitchell’s with the unique back? How cool were they?

    On the other hand, I do most of my browsing on my computer. I live out in the podunks where I get super excited when my Kindle has two bars of reception. It’s so much faster for me to hop onto the computer and look around. So maybe I’m just missing that gorgeous back cover.

    • Oh, my goodness. Did I really say book covers is? Hanging my head in shame. Where on earth was my editor when I wrote that???

      • ha ha. And you not only said “is” you said it in big, huge letters. Sorry. I’m chuckling. I do this stuff all the time. I edit my comment quickly and I leave in commas that should come out or I change the tense one place and not another.

        It’s no fun for you, but the rest of us are getting a chuckle out of it. 🙂

  20. I understand what you’re saying, but personally I think not being able to examine the cover is better. There are far too many books that I actually refused to read until a friend of mine insisted or it was required for school. I rejected the books based on the cover in most cases, and several of them I ended up liking. I know if I hadn’t seen the cover then I probably would have chosen it myself and loved it. With ebooks, my decision is based more on the back cover copy and consumer reviews than the cover art – and I think I make better choices overall like that.

    • Since I read classics a LOT, often I have nothing more than a black cover with writing on it to work with. Of course, classics are well-established, so I KNOW my reading time will pay off (esp. for authors I love).

      But as an author, I’m fully aware that a bad cover can kill a book before it’s out of the gateway. And a good cover can sell a mediocre book. This is why word-of-mouth usually trumps cover art in my book-buying endeavors!

  21. Heather says:

    This is so true! And I have an older Kindle (not the Kindle Fire) so I really can’t see the covers…

  22. Sue Harrison says:

    Really good point, Rachelle. I hate to admit how often I buy a book (or don’t buy one) because of the cover. Alas, I am that shallow.

    • Sue, you’re not shallow! We’re all attracted to something different. Someone said she would prefer not to have a smiley face for romantic suspense – another referred to beauty, and still someone else mentioned being visually stimulated. We’re each unique. Different. I prefer to have and to hold and I love a beautiful cover, and the opposite is true as well. You’re not shallow! You’re discerning. You know what draws you in – and that’s perfectly fine! 🙂

  23. Elizabeth Kitchens says:

    I’m much more likely to pick up a book with well-done cover design than one with a mediocre one. Truth be told, the gorgeous gold dress on Siri Mitchell’s She Walks in Beauty was the reason I bought the book (it was a wise choice).

    After I put books on the shelf, one glance at the cover and I remember what I loved about the book or what it taught me.

  24. Elissa says:

    I am an artist. I most definitely buy books for their covers. In fact, I have bought books of cover art. Both sides of my brain need nourishing. Words are lovely, but I will not buy any e-reader until they can give me full-size, full-color luscious imagery.

  25. I haven’t read all of the comments above, so please forgive me if this contribution is redundant. I have a third generation Kindle (i.e., no color). I don’t know whether this is true of all Kindles; but, when I click on an e-book for the first time, it generally defaults to the first page of the story. Perhaps those companies that produce e-readers could agree to make the front cover the default page to prevent the gradual eradication of book cover art. Just my 2 cents.

  26. Josh C. says:

    I have purchased books I’ve read in paperback a second time in hardback because I liked the cover better. Yeah, I’m sick. Don’t own a Kindle/Nook/iPad, not out of any moral objection, but I have no need for a tablet and I like books, especially hardbacks. Perhaps a little too much. So, yes, the covers play an important role to me.

  27. I’m a cover girl. No, not those gorgeous models (hey, I can dream), but a cover fanatic. If its got a cover that speaks to me in some way, I’ll purchase a copy of the book. I’ve even gone so far as to read a book on my device only to later go out and purchase the paperback – so I can mull over the artwork. Odd? Perhaps. But I’ve found a good cover will jump start my own imagination. I haven’t had that happen with the eBook covers.

  28. Bonnie Way says:

    I agree! I love good book covers and often decide what to read by the cover (vampire novels really don’t attract me, in part because of the blood all over the cover). I’ve only used borrowed eReaders but I agree with you that the covers are very hard to see in browse mode, making it hard to pick what to read – title and author don’t always give the same impression about what a book is about as the cover does.

  29. Leah Good says:

    That is sad to not be able to see the book covers well. I love comparing my favorite covers almost as much as my favorite books.

  30. Shawn says:

    As a retailer, many a books are sold with the cover being a deciding factor. Retailers also will rule out a carrying a book because of a poor cover. It is shocking to me to see major publishing houses allow and promote an inferior cover.

  31. Brad Huebert says:

    I understand that a traditional book’s cover is an important, fifteen second part of its sales strategy. People like the cover, they flip the book over and read the back copy… then the table of contents… then the first few words.

    Score. Or not.

    What I want to know is, now that ebooks don’t major on covers or back covers, what’s the “new” flow strategy?

  32. Brad Huebert says:

    In other words, how to ebooks hook?

  33. Great post and really challenges us readers to be more aware. Minimizing the cover minimizes the effort we authors and agents and publishers put into making the cover so wonderful. It’s hard work… because we know that despite the old adage, you CAN judge a book by it’s cover and most people do.

  34. Brian Taylor says:

    Book covers have a subtle way of connecting us with the book itself and create their own sense of an identity for us. I find that a book cover has an ability to attract or repel me in the same way that a person might be drawn to a nice looking car or person or food. It’s a form of advertising like a commercial, but only it’s a single still.

    What I find interesting as I read your blog concerning this topic is that It now reminds me of the small peeve that I have with books that are reprinted with different covers. It’s one thing to know that if it gets a reprint from a different publisher, that the new publisher wants people to be able to identify that the book came through them, but at the same time, it’s like giving a book a facelift; you tend not to recognize it as it once was.

  35. Diane Stortz says:

    I’ve had my Kindle Fire about two months, and I’m a late adopter so it’s my first e-reader. I’m very influenced by book covers; I ignore and don’t buy books with unprofessional designs, and I hate it when I download a book and the cover comes up with just the title. That’s happened a time or two.

    What I really miss is the back covers! Partly, I think, because I know the book has one and I feel cheated not to get it, partly because I’d just like to be able to read the back cover. Seems like a simple request 🙂

    Even more than that, however, I miss enjoying the interior of a beautifully designed book, great typography and design tied to the design of the book cover. Right now the interior of nearly every book on my Kindle looks alike … and boring.

    I love the ease of accessing books, carrying books, and the good freebies and sale prices I’ve found. I love being able to read in the dark! Those are the plusses for me so far. But I’m glad my Kindle Fire is more than an e-reader or I’d be very disappointed with it.

  36. Peter DeHaan says:

    I’ve bought books with really lousy covers because someone I trusted recommended them.

    I’ve also passed on books with great titles but lousy covers.

    And I’ve bought books on impulse that had really great titles and great covers, only to find I wasted my money.

    It is true that you can’t judge a book by it’s cover, but too often I do. I should know better.

  37. I love book covers. Rarely will I pick up a book if the cover doesn’t grab me … but I don’t have an e-reader (yet) so not sure whether that interest will fade or not. I think not, but we’ll see.

  38. Rose Godfrey says:

    I think a reader should judge a book by the cover. If the author/publisher won’t take the time and effort to commission a quality cover, what does that say about the commitment to the quality of the text?

    When I see a sloppy, poorly designed cover, yes, I do expect less of the book.

  39. Connie Read Burris says:

    Book cover design was the subject of a TED talk on 4/4/12. Designer, Chip Kidd, did an amazing presentation. His 17 minute talk spoke volumes about the value of a cover. Worth checking out on YouTube.

  40. My 11-year-old granddaughter was sick the day her class took their state-mandated standardized testing. When she returned to school, they let her have a quiet table in the library in which to do the testing. Exasperated, she said to me, “Grammie, how was I supposed to concentrate with all those books around?”

    Ahh. A girl after my own heart.

    Walk through just about any room of my house and you’ll see a stack, rack, single shelf, or floor-to-ceiling bookshelf of books. There’s something about those covers that makes me swoon just a little–or a lot–when I see those covers and think, “I bought that book in…” or “I read this on that trip to…” or “I remember the passage where…”

    Can’t say that’s ever happened to me when I scroll through the menu on my Kindle.

    Page design as well as cover design distinguish books from stapled photocopies. I have a million dollar idea for how to maintain the inescapable connection between a great cover and the story within its pages. But if I told you about it, that would mess up the patent process!

  41. Miranda says:

    Rachelle, I totally agree with you! When I walk into a bookshop, the first thing that grabs my attention on the shelf, is a book cover. A thrilling sensation starts to build inside me, and I can’t wait to get started with the reading. It holds promises of a great adventure that should not be erased from a reading experience. I for one don’t believe that digital books will one day replace print. There will always be traditional print readers (After all, email didn’t replace post mail). I love ebooks, but there are times I want a solid book in my hands; and I can tell you one thing, the experience of reading the two, is not the same.

  42. Cottage Girl says:

    Unless I am seeking a specific non-fiction how-to or text book, the book cover is essential. Even when I am browsing several books on cottages or such, I will have selected one based on the cover.
    I also like scripts and manuscripts with readable fonts and middle placement of titles on the cover page.

  43. Nikole Hahn says:

    I know! I have a basic kindle and I don’t even look at the covers because it usually brings me right to the first chapter or table of contents or something. I love a good cover. The art is as good as the book. Maybe losing the art in book covers are just another sign that on top of taking cell phone calls in the middle of dinner, paying more attention to the iphone than the person in front of you, that we’re missing yet another thing in this fast paced world.