How To Judge a Book By Its Cover, Part 1

This will be a two-parter, because there’s a lot to talk about.

One of the best parts of spring at the bookstore is the arrival of a whole crop of new books. (This happens in summer, fall, and winter, too, but hey, it’s not summer/fall/winter right now.) We order titles from publishers a couple of months in advance, and then they arrive in staggered shipments over the course of the season, showing up a couple of times a week in various boxes that have to be unpacked and inventoried. Putting books into our inventory system isn’t the best part of my day, but unpacking boxes can be like Christmas every week when you’ve got a lot of new titles to get excited about. Picture books! Cool history! The Hate U Give! Paperback copies of a book that’s been out in hardcover forever!

With kids’ books I’m frequently there when my boss orders them, so most things aren’t a complete surprise, but there’s still a big difference between seeing a tiny, much-compressed photo of the cover on a computer screen and getting to hold the book in your hand. Picture books are especially potent. When Hoot Owl, Master of Disguise came out, my boss laughed so hard that everything in the children’s department came to a screeching halt while she read it aloud to all of us. We sold three on the spot.

Which brings me to today’s point: cover design is a huge part of how we pick books, and that’s not a problem.

But, you interject, we shouldn’t judge a book by its trappings! Thus there is no such thing as bad cover design! And yes, hyperbolic representation of a hypothetical reader, you’re wholly correct, in a broad ethical sense. We are all more complicated than our appearances make us out to be, etc., etc. But regardless of whether we should judge a book by its cover, we nearly always do. Take a look at the nearest shelf of books and you’ll see that some spines stand out to you as particularly appealing. Lay out a dozen books on a table, face-up–they come face-up in the boxes, for the most part–and you’ll find that you’re drawn to some covers more than others. Though it’s true that which books you’re drawn to may shift depending on the day of the week, it takes a conscious effort to look past your first impression that this book is more interesting to me than that one.

And that can frequently be a good thing! Covers are basically a quick shorthand to let us know what kind of story we’re getting ourselves into. There are far more books in the world than there is time to read them all, and covers can tell us at a glance if the book we’re holding is one we’re likely going to want to finish. There are genre conventions–you can probably pull a generic romance-novel cover to mind pretty easily–and I’m suddenly wondering about the shared roots of “genre” and “generic”–anyway, there are genre conventions, and there are other rules of thumb that can give you clues to what’s inside the book.

Hate U Give cover 1

The jacket design for The Hate U Give is, to me, both beautiful and brilliant. From a quick genre-check perspective, it has no spaceships, loopy fonts, soft-focus photographs of an attractive couple gazing longingly at each other, or still-life paintings of fruit and bread on a table. The spine and front cover are both eye-catching, with simple, highly readable fonts that are unlikely to be confused with others on the shelf. The graphically bold yet understated figure on the front and the quieter figure on the back are immediately identifiable as individual people in the context of the book, but the choice to use artwork rather than a photograph allows them to stand as American archetypes as well; there’s a kind of tension there that’s explicitly and tacitly discussed throughout the book. Then, too, you have to make the effort to draw Starr’s face in your mind instead of conveniently filling in a stock model. This jacket design represents the very best of the form: a cover that’s a work of art in its own right as well as a window into the story. Before you’ve read the book, it draws you in; after, it takes on deeper personality as you connect the very specifically individual people you’ve just read about to the way we discuss them as archetypes. It complements the book rather than simply describing it.

The artist who created those striking images is Debra Cartwright, and she’s incredible. I definitely encourage you to go look her up.

Man. I could talk about this book all day. But let’s all go look at Debra Cartwright’s work instead, and we’ll come back to covers on Saturday for Part 2.

One thought on “How To Judge a Book By Its Cover, Part 1

Comments are closed.