Judging a Book by Its Cover

It’s hard not to, isn’t it?  Judge a book by its cover, I mean. First impressions matter. Often there is a subtle reaction playing out on a subconscious level. I have shied away from books because I didn’t find the cover appealing. But what makes a book cover appealing? I assumed the answers are as varied as there are readers. Then I attended a publishing industry seminar about cover design, and I realized that personal taste is only one small part of the bigger picture.

Book covers have to tell their own stories, but they are “in service to another piece of art,” says Chip Kidd, the art director at Knopf.

We attendees were divided into the decision-making groups as you might find in a publishing house:

  • Publisher: Responsible for the commercial success of the book. Wants the cover to have maximum consumer appeal across all platforms.
  • Associate publisher: Ensures the book reaches its target consumer so the cover needs to speak to a specific audience.
  • Editor: Makes sure the cover speaks to the content of the book.
  • Publicity: Wants the cover to have an impact no matter where it appears: Amazon, a banner ad on Goodreads, or this blog post.
  • Author: Yes, the author has a say-so, though some authors have more say-so than others.

A designer will often provide five to seven completely different mock-ups of each cover and circulate them for feedback from the aforementioned groups. The designs are narrowed down and tweaked before showing one or two to the author. In the seminar, we reviewed each mock-up and considered the following questions (among others):


1. What category does this book fall into? As many of you know, book categories have gotten very specific in recent years! Contemporary women’s psychological thriller? Humorous performing arts memoir? Coming-of-age dystopian fiction? The cover design should suggest the genre.


This book is nonfiction, but it’s going to be humorous. The mouth illustration is whimsical. The title is placed on the tongue and the subtitle playfully follows the curve.




2. Who is the specific audience? “We’re looking to reach readers who liked The Girl on the Train.” What does that mean? A cover that has abstract elements that evoke mystery.

3. Is the cover trying too hard? The cover design should convey the heart of the story. Without a doubt, my group gravitated toward striking images.


This cartoonish outline speaks to the author and the silly nature of the movie (the inspiration for this behind-the-scenes book) without trying to incorporate all of the elements of the movie.




4. How will this cover look as a thumbnail? A book jacket needs to look good on store shelves and as an image attached to an email newsletter. There were several sample covers we saw that used a script too difficult to read when scaled down.


Some other takeaways:

  • Don’t forget about typography. As someone who admits to having used ComicSans, I was often surprised by my different reactions to the mock-up covers based solely on a change of font.
  • Clarity versus mystery. Should the cover be sincere or intriguing?

The Vacationers

Every time I look at this cover, I want to find a pool and take a dip. The background color, the spot of red on the girl’s bathing suit, and the clean, white type give me a hint about the story. (Read my review of The Vacationers over at Great New Books.)





This cover gives the reader nothing. No information, no intrigue, no hints. If it hadn’t been written by Ann Patchett, I would have never read the book.





  • Negative space can be your friend. We overwhelmingly felt frustrated by covers that were cluttered with images.


No worries about clutter here. Even if you didn’t know who David Rakoff was, you might be interested enough to give this essay collection a chance. You know it’s nonfiction rather than fiction because “Fraud” is written over the author’s name.



  • Give the reader credit.  Readers need enough information to grasp the gist of the story, but give them the credit for the knowledge they already have about this subject/author/book.


What book covers do you love? Hate? 

Plug for my new online class! The Writer’s Muse: Explorations in Creativity offers guided exercises to help you move through the world as a writer and cultivate your curiosity. Consider this class a mini writing retreat with inspirational exercises in a friendly environment. Hope to see you there! 

Have a great weekend, everyone!




  1. This is so interesting. Thank you for sharing your experience! I’ve always loved the cover for the old paperback edition of the Great Gatsby. It’s the one with the night sky and the woman’s face and some bokeh in the background. It’s haunting and strikes a chord with me. Another favorite is the cover art that Leo and Diane Dillon did for Franklin Russell’s Watchers at the Pond. They’re fantastic illustrators.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I wasn’t familiar with the cover of Watchers at the Pond, so I looked it up. I can see why you like it so much. It’s charming and evocative. Lovely art! I’ve added it to my “to read” list. Thanks for sharing. 🙂


  2. This is too bad. Books do not need to be an entertainment package — what matters is inside. Sure a cover might have appeal or not on a standalone basis, but that should never be the basis for deciding whether it’s worth reading. There are enough challenges with getting people to read without setting up another hurdle.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. True! I do enjoy going to a book fair and looking through (and buying) old books whose dust covers are long gone –like Forest Gump and a candy box you never know what you’ll get till you unwrap it.


      2. I love the Forest Gump analogy. 🙂

        I just heard about the earthquake and tsunami warning in NZ. I’m not sure if you’re close to the epicenter, but I hope you and your family are safe.


  3. Hi Jackie,

    Your post reminds me of the time I heard Kathryn Stockett talk about her novel, THE HELP. She had no say in the cover, this being her debut (Ann Patchett apparently had a lot of say about her new novel’s cover, COMMONWEALTH). Stockett, armed with 60 rejections, said she told her publisher her only wish was the cover not be yellow. Remember the cover: bright yellow! And, what did those birds on it have anything to do with the plot?! I think the intention was to stay away from the plot because they didn’t expect the public was ready for the plot! Gives those of aspiring to or writing novels encouragement! Personally, I didn’t care for COMMONWEALTH’s cover either, although the oranges do have something to do with the plot. Thanks for this post. Lorraine

    Liked by 2 people

    1. What an interesting story about Kathryn Stockett’s experience. It definitely seems that established authors have more input at an earlier stage when it comes to cover design. In the seminar, the designers told us that it is important to them that the author likes the cover. While they have many groups to please, they want the author to be happy with the outcome. (Yellow covers not withstanding! 🙂 )


    1. I’m also drawn in by titles — not too clever, but something evocative. I would love to take another seminar about book titles and learn more about the best way to select a title that speaks to the characters and story.


  4. Love the examples you give! One of my favorite book covers is Little Bee. The black silhouette and font pairing are striking. On a separate note of mistakes: Something I see a lot of self-published authors do is not pay for quality design…and then their name happens to be bigger than the book title. In my author marketing classes I recommend new writers rely more heavily on their title and let their name get bigger as their career does. Readers won’t recognize their name at the beginning. I like doing an internet search for ‘award-winning book cover designs’ – lots of great inspiration and a good way to see contemporary cover art.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh, Little Bee is a great cover. I love the orange background against the black silhouette. That was a terrific choice. A reader can see that cover across a room and it really stands out. You’re spot on about self-published book covers lacking in sophistication. Do you think that the reason is that self-published authors underestimate the cost for a high quality cover design? Or do you think many authors try to “DIY-it”?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think the cost is a factor, which results in DIY. Even when it’s not DIY – I think the authors have tunnel vision and aren’t open to thinking how their audience initially interacts with the book. They’re just set on getting it published. :\

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I could understand that! After a long road of writing, revising, and editing, you just want to get the book “out into the world,” but the cover is how the world first interacts with the book. Better to spend the time and a bit of extra money and make it great. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on that!


  5. Wonderful post, Jackie. I’ve found the whole process of creating a book cover to be fascinating. The artist and I kept working on successive drafts until the cover was the way I had envisioned it. It was such a valuable experience. I think of the cover as a doorway to the book. If the design “works,” the reader will step through the door and into our fictional world.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. All of that hard work shows, Patti! I love the cover of The Incident at Montebello. The contrasting colors between the woman’s face and the dark background really stand out for me. It certainly looks handcrafted, rather than something picked up as a stock photo, etc.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Now that I read mostly on the Kindle, I don’t get to see the great book covers anymore and I miss that. If I’m browsing in a bookstore, I’m drawn to covers that have bold designs, such as the one for The Ninth Life of Louis Drax and Tell the Wolves I’m Home.
    I didn’t know novice writers don’t get to pick their covers! That would be tough, especially if the publisher picked a lousy one.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That is certainly part of the joy of browsing in a bookstore — checking out all of the covers and deciding which ones to pick up. When you mentioned Tell the Wolves I’m Home, the cover immediately sprang to mind. Good work on their part. 🙂 I like that the design is a bold with one single image.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. So true about the cover of State of Wonder. I find many of the more literary books, especially ones by woman who work hard to be taken seriously, seem to scream “I am a very serious book.” I wish the publishers/PR people/authors etc., would allow those covers to lighten up a bit. I feels the authors have something to prove and maybe are trying too hard.

    Loved this full analysis and interesting to learn more about how covers are chosen.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I’m drawn to simplicity. I think one of the best covers is the original for Twilight with the offering of an apple. However, like someone else, I do love the cover of The Great Gatsby with the eyes. Guess it depends on my mood.

    Hope all is well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve learned that I respond differently for fiction versus nonfiction. For nonfiction, I want the cover to depict a bit about the subject matter. For fiction, I want the cover to evoke an emotion based on the content.


  9. What an interesting seminar! I’m always fascinated by the different book covers for the same book in various countries. No example comes to mind right now, but sometimes I will like a book cover in America and then not like it in France or vice-versa. Or the English one will be oddly different. Or I will like all three!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The covers for foreign editions are fascinating views into what the readership values in that part of the world (or at least what the publishing houses think the readership values). I was recently searching for a Bill Bryson book and was amazed by how the cover designs get completely reimagined for different parts of the world.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the link to the clip on CBS Sunday Morning. It is interesting that all of the interviewees consider the cover design to be a piece of art. This must be one of those rare instances where one piece of art is in service to another piece of art. 🙂


What's on your mind?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s