You Can/Can’t Judge a Book by its Cover, by Carole Howard

In a bookstore in Paris, all cluttered with tomes, I was looking for Madeline … for my granddaughter. (She doesn’t speak French, but she does speak Madeline.) After I found the book I wanted, I wandered around, as if the books might be an insight into aspects of French culture. And indeed they were.


I realized, with a shock, that the French really don’t judge a book by its cover.

Full disclosure: that’s a bit of an exaggeration. Truth is, there really are plenty of books with the same kind of eye-catching covers we have in the U.S. The ones in the photo are the old style (though a French friend tells me this kind of cover is coming back), when all the books had that same cream-colored cover. There might be an outline inside the edge, either red or blue, single or double line. The title/author might be in modestly-dressed Times Roman, or maybe something a tiny bit more exotic. But for the most part they were truly “plain vanilla.”

It started me wondering: is that a good thing?

Imagine: You’re in a bookstore, not looking for anything in particular, just engaging in some luxurious browsing. You’re drawn to the shelf of “New Fiction,” maybe. Or “Best Sellers.” Or – one of my favorites – “Staff Picks.”

And they all look the same. Fifty Shades of Gray, The Goldfinch, Deadly Adagio, The Scarlet Letter, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Picture them: cream cover, stark type. No pictures to guide your choice, no colors, no fonts that hint at the genre. Mystery, romance, paranormal, erotica, literary, historical? All the same. There wouldn’t even be any blurbs from quotes to let you know that, for example, Ann Patchett liked this book so, if you’re a Patchett fan, you probably would too.

I can’t imagine I’d like this. I even have trouble when I read a digital book and don’t see the cover or title every time I pick it up (because the device keeps track of my last page read). Sometimes I even forget the title of the book I’m reading, because I see it so infrequently. And I don’t like that. Not at all.

How in the world would you choose a book if all covers were identical? Personal recommendations, yes. Books by an author you love, sure. Otherwise…… what?  I, personally, need a little come-on, like the coming attractions for movies.

Then again, some books have several editions, each with a different cover. I looked at the listings on Amazon for Moby Dick, for example, and stopped counting when I reached 10 covers.41Adtkskt7L._SL160_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-dp,TopRight,12,-18_SH30_OU01_AA160_51A2zA7DqvL._AA160_ So which edition of Bel Canto would speak to you, saying “Pick me up, buy me, read me”? I guess it’s different come-ons for different folks.

What do you think? Would it be better if all book covers, like the uniforms some kids have to wear to school to avoid being judged by their clothing, were the same? Or do you like to have a hint of what’s inside?


Carole Howard is the author of Deadly Adagio, recently published by Second Wind Publishing.


Filed under books, Travel, writing

17 responses to “You Can/Can’t Judge a Book by its Cover, by Carole Howard

  1. Interesting question, Carole, although obviously there is no right or wrong answer.

    A cover with images is obviously designed to catch the eye of the browser. It’s worked on me—that is, an attractive, eye-catching cover has gotten me to pick up a book. However, it will never entice me to buy a book if I find, after reading the blurb on the back and a few paragraphs at the beginning, that either story or style of writing doesn’t appeal to me.

    On the other hand, a bookstore laden with books with nearly identical covers forces the browser to pick up and peruse the contents of more books because they’re not distracted by the cover. From the merchant’s perspective, this is likely a good thing since it has the potential of getting more books into the hands of the consumer, which doesn’t necessarily mean more copies will be sold. But the potential exists for that, too. From the author’s perspective, I imagine it’s a good thing, too, because (if they’re a good writer) they can rely on their story and storytelling technique to sell the book and not some graphic artist’s concept of what the book is about.

    That leaves the consumer’s perspective, which leads me back to your question. I can only answer that by saying that no two consumers are alike. Some are very visual, while others rely more on title or author name, or content.

    It certainly will be interesting to read the responses to your question. I’m sure they will be many and varied.

    • You know, J. Conrad (is that what I should call you?), I never considered it from the merchant’s perspective, ie it gets people to pick up more books. But from a writer’s perspective (“Pick ME up and read ME”), I like the idea of an inviting cover. And from a reader’s perspective, it would be too hard for me to know which ones to look at, including the blurbs. On balance, I come down on the side of different-covers-for-different-books.

  2. I like book covers, I don’t necessarily judge a book by its cover but there have been some amazing covers which spark your imagination before you read a word

  3. Fascinating… I love color and style too much to go plain vanilla. It just doesn’t seem right not to have a teaser, hint or clue of what’s inside on the outside cover.

  4. Me neither, David. (“I don’t necessarily judge a book by its cover”) but, in the face of hundreds of books with the same cover, I’d be too overwhelmed. I’d rather have a hint of which ones I’d want to pick up…… to be judged later.

  5. I agree that a compelling cover attracts browsers, but I do like those understated, elegant covers and the idea of letting the authors’ words sell the book.

  6. Anita, I feel like I *should* feel the same way you do, “….but I do like those understated elegant, covers and the idea of letting the authors’ words sell the book.” I just know that, as a reader, I’d feel kind of lost and would want some guidance from the cover. Guidance like “this is a mystery, that’s literary, over there is YA.”

  7. I love color and design but I am not sure that is what draws me to buy a book before I read about it and/or something of the author and the genre, setting and plot. Saying that, the color and design draw me to pick up a book. So, I have another question, usually in a book store or library only the spine of most books is visible to the buyer, what does that say?

  8. That’s a really interesting question, Sadie, causing me to stop and think about my bookstore/library strategies. If I’m looking for something specific, maybe a friend’s recommendation or a review I read, I go right to the spine-facing shelves. But if I’m just browsing, that must be why I usually go to those tables where books are laying flat –so I can see them. Thanks.

  9. A thoughtful blog. There is something appealingly pure — dare I say virginal –about the unadorned cover. It encourages the potential reader to take her time, open the book, explore a bit here and there, see if she thinks she’ll like it. (The opposites of those virgin covers are the slutty, embossed, bosom-spillers which tell you all you don’t what to know at a glance.) I end up agreeing with you that a well-designed book cover — one that reflects the mood and content of the book accurately — better serves the reader. Sometimes that can be done with words alone — no illustrations at all — if they’re the right words. I’m pretty cynical about blurbs. Too often they are extracted from writer friends which compromises their integrity. The cover may draw me in initially, but ultimately, I end up reading a bit here and there, making sure I’ll like it. As they like to say these days, that’s a win-win.
    Mary-Lou Weisman

  10. Books are to book covers as ballroom dancing is to Dancing With The Stars. Moby Dick’s cover was plain as dirt – you can name dozens of bad literary efforts with glitzy covers. That said, a good cover will probably sell a book that might be overlooked, but it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the quality of the writing it enwraps.

  11. I’m more attracted by titles than cover images, though I must admit, if there’s a dog on the cover I will certainly pick it up, just ’cause I like dogs.

  12. Mary-Lou, I love your evocation of taking time to explore a book. And I totally agree with you about blurbs. The problem for me is having too many choices with no guidance whatsoever. I’d never buy a book because of the cover, but might be tempted to explore a particular one to see if I like it. (I also like restaurants with fewer choices.) As to the “slutty, embossed, bosom-spillers,” yes for sure — but at least they let you know that’s probably not one you want to explore. What if it had a plain cover?

  13. Chuck and Heidi, re: “That said, a good cover will probably sell a book that might be overlooked, but it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the quality of the writing it enwraps.” Amen for sure.

  14. Sheila, it’s interesting that you’re more attracted by titles than cover art. Hmmmm, gotta think about that one.

  15. Pingback: Welcome! | carolejhoward

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