Sunday, November 1, 2009

Judging a Book by Its Cover

A member of the Five Star chat list recently posted a thoughtful and passionate piece about the role of luck in launching a new book. He touched on a lot of points, but one in particular caught my eye—the cover design.

            Whenever anyone talks about the effectiveness or irrelevance of a cover, I recall an encounter in the old Spenser’s Mystery Bookstore in Boston. The sales person had just read what she considered a terrific mystery but found the cover so off-putting that readers just weren’t picking it up. She talked about how well written it was, how interesting the story was, how she had been thoroughly caught up in the whole thing. She thought I’d like it too. And as I listened to her describe it, I had to agree. But that cover . . .

            The cover was brown with a figure emerging from the darkness dressed also in brown, and not a particularly attractive brown either. I could not bring myself to pick up that book. I was like everyone else she had tried to sell it to (or most others)—I couldn’t get past the cover.

            When my first mystery novel was published in 1993, my editor, Susanne Kirk, called to tell me about the cover. “There’s an old chair . . .” When I saw it, I thought I understood why she made the call. A Victorian-style chair in purple was placed against a black background, and had two eyes, a nose, and a slash for a mouth scratched into the picture, as though someone were defacing a photograph. I gulped, reminded myself to be grateful for being published by Scribner and set about selling the book as best I could. I accepted the cover as one of those things. Then, a friend showed it to her son, a successful graphic designer, and reported back that he really liked the cover—he thought it was very effective. Really? Well, who knew? After that I just hoped I’d run into a lot of designers who read mystery novels.

            Most of the time I pay little attention to the covers. I look at mine, at those of my friends, and forget the rest. But after reading Gordon’s comments I thought about some of the covers I really liked. In 1992 Ellen Nehr, who has since died, published the Doubleday Crime Club Compendium 1928-1991, a massive undertaking in which she included a selection of book covers. Most are unremarkable in design (the usually threatening male with a gun, skulls, dead bodies), but one in particular has stayed with me. The Needle’s Kiss by Austin J. Small appeared in 1929 with a cover of near perfect 1920s Art Deco design in blues and purples; the scene is of a man standing on a bridge smoking and another man fishing out a body floating in the river. Unfortunately, the cover also comes with the prejudices of its times. The headline “A hideous menace confronts the Thames River Police!” floats over the standing figure, who is wearing a green Mao-style jacket and smoking a cigarette, with the suggestion of Far Eastern features.

            Most of the covers Nehr included make much with little—two or three colors, usually black and white and another, red or green or blue—and do their best to create the fear and suspense the reader hopes to find in the story. I was also surprised to discover that I owned one of these—a battered copy of Marion Bramhall’s Murder Solves a Problem (1944).

            All of this leaves me still with the question of the importance of a cover. A good cover is a gift from the publishing gods, a bad cover is a curse, but the mediocre cover is just that—sort of neutral. I doubt anyone remembers Small’s book (well, okay, maybe Jon Breen or Jim Huang) or the cover, or the cover of my first book, and that’s a relief. This business is hard enough without starting to feel that everything is out of our control—the success or failure of something we’ve worked on for months, even years, at the mercy of a young designer trying to decide which bar to head to after work if he can just get this last cover done. No, I’d rather think that somewhere, someone will love each and every cover and we just have to find that person—and then hope he or she likes the story as well.


  1. Okay, I have to admit to being shallow. There, I have said it. I do buy books, wine, crackers, and even cheese for their cover/label/box/wrapping. For me, if the cover is beautifully executed, I somehow think that it reflects the authors care and love of their work. But, unlike wine, crackers, and cheese, it isn't the same - is it? All the others choose the art/design to attract the buyers, yet ( learned from Mark when he was publishing Black Portsmouth) that the writer seldom gets a say in the cover. Why is that?? I like how you put it - it is a gift from the publisher whether good, bad or mediocre. But if it is the thought that counts in gift-giving...???

  2. David, I would never call you shallow. I too appreciate a well-designed cover, but unfortunately, publishers rarely consult writers about a cover for a book. I've had some good covers and some not-so-good, but I never felt as strongly about some of them as the editor. My guess is that designers think differently from writers and (supposedly) have an instinct for what will catch the buying public. The cover brings them in and the story makes them buy. At least that is the assumption. Susan

  3. I admit, I'm another who has bought books for their covers. In fact I own several books that are perfectly dreadful but I bought them because I loved the cover....