Whoever says “you can’t judge a book by its cover” is, frankly, wrong – at least when it comes to books. After spending quite a few hours this week judging books only by their covers, I’m more convinced than ever of the importance of getting the cover right, if you want to maximise the sales of your books.
What I’ve been doing is neither scientific nor in a professional capacity – but it’s been a real eye-opener all the same.
My first task was to trawl through the stock of my daughter’s Junior School Library. The books had all been taken off the shelves, which were about to be painted in a gorgeous red gloss. Call us shallow, but we didn’t want to spoil the look of the shiny new shelving with tatty books. It was time to sort and sift.
Some choices were easy. We should ditch any whose title was politically incorrect (e.g. The Life of the American Indian) or whose cover suggested that the content was past its sell-by date (e.g. the guide to modern computing with an Amstrad on the front).
Any volume falling to bits would be binned, no matter how enticing the inside. It was surprising how often the removal of a tatty dustjacket restored a book’s appeal.
Any book older than a teacher would be deemed out of date. (Apparently schools aspire to a no-older-than-10-years policy, but if enforced it would decimate a lot of school libraries.)
I expected this vetting-by-age process to be a tiresome process, requiring the inspection of small print inside – and tiring when you’re sitting on school lino surrounded by stacks of books. But I soon realised that all I needed to consider was the general look of the cover – font, image, use of space, etc. It was a totally dependable gauge of age and therefore of the relevance of the content to the young 21st century reader.
Next evening I was again surrounded by books but this time on a different floor – my kitchen’s. I was hemmed in by carrier bags of books donated for sale at a PTA bookstall, fundraising for the school library makeover. Knowing that they’d sell better if sorted by genre, I was assigning them to labelled laundry baskets for ease of transportation to the Village Hall.
The customer who (flatteringly) assumed that I’d read all the books on my stall was wrong: I was unfamiliar with most of the books and their authors. When I sat down to sort them, I resigned myself to having to read the blurb on the back to discover the genre. But I quickly realised that I didn’t even need to read the title – a glance at the cover told me all I needed to know.
A little later, my laundry baskets looked as if I’d sorted simply by colour: thrillers the colour of bruises, chicklits like sugared almonds, sickly psychedelic sci-fi – and so on. This is striking evidence of the most important rule of book covers: regardless of the book’s title, the cover’s colour, tone, image and atmosphere should suggest the book’s genre at a glance. Beware of any publisher whose books all look beautiful but similar. (Even the simple striped Penguin classic cover was colour-coded.)
Ok, so I’m being simplistic, but there are home truths here too. Cover design is a complex art, and no matter how fabulous your book’s contents, the cover needs to pull its weight in your marketing box of tricks. Perhaps, in his bicentenary year, the last word should go to Charles Dickens:
“There are books of which the backs and covers are by far the best parts.” (Mr Brownlow in Oliver Twist)
Post-script: A little book-weary after these few days of immersion in the printed page, I sat down at my computer to type this post, which I’d already written in my head. Undecided whether the most popular turn of phrase was “you can’t tell a book by its cover” or “you can’t judge a book by its cover”, I consulted Google. Then up popped a much longer article in The Independent a couple of years ago, of which the opening sentence is almost identical to mine. The article’s a fascinating read, all about book covers and their designers, heralding an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum and a new book about the history of the book cover. I couldn’t wait to see what was on that book’s cover! Click here to read the article.
In my view, the two book covers pictured above are examples of great book jacket design. Both are now available from the online shop of the publisher, SilverWood Books.