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Judging Books By Their Covers

The next person who tells me, “Don’t judge a book by its cover!” is in danger of a fat lip.

Usually, the people telling me so are the authors of books on this site, or friends of the authors. (Which means that they’re contacting me by email or comments, so they’re not really in much fat-lip danger. But still.)  This despite the fact that this site is all about judging covers, not books.  If there’s anything more to their objection than this one truism of folk wisdom (oddly, they never tell me further that I should look before I leap, or that a stitch in time saves nine), it is usually a sentiment or sentiments that something on this page will dispel. And yes, I’m making this page because I’m tired of typing variations on these reponses each time.

1) But you WANT people to judge your book by its cover.  Once upon a time, all books looked like this:

cover_lgWhy don’t they anymore? Because people realized that using that space to market the book made sense — people won’t discover that they like a book if they don’t open it (or read the back-cover material, another innovation), and they won’t bother to open it unless something draws their interest.

Would anyone complain about “judging a book by its cover” if people told them the cover was awesome?  Of course not. They want the book to be judged by its cover if the cover engages the reader positively.  It’s kind of hard to hold a position that says, “Please judge my book by its cover, unless you don’t like the cover.”

2) I may not judge the book by the cover, but I’ll definitely judge the publisher by the cover.  And that’s not a good thing for self-publishers.  I mean, if a traditional publisher saddles a book with a godawful cover, the writer can legitimately claim, “I had nothing to do with it!  They didn’t ask me! They didn’t follow my suggestions!  They’re a bunch of braindead boobies!”  All of which is quite apart from the quality of the book itself.

However, if the author is also the publisher, then there’s only one braindead boobie to blame.  If the person responsible for a bad cover shows no awareness of deficiencies in the cover, how is the reader supposed to assume that the same lack of awareness does not hold through for the book itself?  I’m not saying that a self-publisher has to be a great designer or artist; far from it. The self-publisher needs to be realistic about his/her own competence, and recognize when outside contractors are necessary.  Because an amateurish self-published cover tells the reader that the author doesn’t have the faculty to tell when something isn’t ready for prime time.

3) The cover is on the front of the book.  Not on the last page.  Occasionally I’ll hear the defense, “If you read the book, you’d understand the cover!” That would be terrific if the cover were the last thing I saw, instead of the first.  The cover is my first impression. The cover’s purpose is to make me want to read the book, and making me wonder, “What in God’s green earth is that mess?” is not the same thing.  You are not personally going to be able to stand beside the book or pop up like Clippy on the Amazon page, make excuses for the cover, and tell potential readers that if they read the book, they’ll appreciate the cover.  That’s exactly backwards.  The cover doesn’t just need to speak for itself, it needs to speak for the book behind it.  That’s its one job.

4) Nepotism is no excuse. Your kid/roommate/grandpa did the cover?  That’s sweet.  Unfortunately, I don’t know your kid.  I don’t have warm personal feelings for your roommate. I’ve never met your grandpa.  I have no overwhelming need to bolster their self-esteem by treating their cover as a credit to your novel if it isn’t.  You have to decide: Is it more important to do favors for family members (and by “do favors” I mean “accept work from them only because of their relationship to you and not because of its quality”), or to present your book in the best possible light to potential readers? If you decide in favor of the first option, that’s your prerogative.  But be aware that, by publishing your book on Amazon or Smashwords or someplace where those potential readers aren’t influenced by that same personal relationship, you’re exposing their substandard work to an audience which doesn’t absolve them of being less-than-professional in a professional arena because they are something to somebody.

Bottom Line: Your cover is your best opportunity to make a good first impression.  You can either put your efforts toward making that first impression the best it can be (and self-pubbers these days can switch out a cover with very little effort), or you can whine and say, “The commenters at LousyBookCovers.com are mean!” Only one of those reactions can lead to a fruitful career, unfortunately.


  1. Should the cover necessarily be related to any part of the story or plot, or at the very least feature one of the characters? As a (starving) author, I need to know these things. To quote the Bard, “Damn it, Jim! I’m an author, not Renaiscence painter.”

    1. Not necessarily, although that often works. What’s really necessary — and it’s more nebulous — is that the cover should convey to the reader how the reader would react emotionally to the book. Is it suspenseful? Lusty? Politically driven? Lighthearted? Or to put it another way, your book cover should be attractive to the kind of reader who would enjoy the book.

      1. “. . .the cover should convey to the reader how the reader would react emotionally to the book.”

        This is the best description I’ve read of a book cover’s function. Now the hard part is discovering what that means visually.

          1. What books have you authored…”Keep it Simple Stupid” or perhaps, “The Only Mistake I Ever Made is When I Thought I Made a Mistake”…?

            1. Please, Tom. Displaying your intentional ignorance so proudly in public causes others to be embarrassed by the lack of self-awareness which keeps you from being appropriately embarrassed for yourself. You can take your morally superior scold-a-thon elsewhere now, thanks.

  2. The cover has to convey a LOT, quickly, to a reader skimming a hundred covers a minute.

    If you’re looking for military SF, if had better look like military SF – or you’re not even going to read the blurb if there are better-designed military SF covers on your screen.

    Just like everything these days, the cover is in competition with others of its ilk, and gets a fraction of a second at first glance.

    And it is going to show up on most screens at a tiny size – so it had better deliver with that limitation: if you can’t read the title or figure out the images, it can’t grab that part of your brain.

    More than all of that, a cover says ‘amateur’ – or ‘professional’ – very, very quickly.


    PS Which is why I’m throwing effort, and possibly money, at it when I publish this fall.

  3. Its strange I stubmled across this site a few days ago and have been perusing the covers ever since. I find something strangely appealing about all the covers on this site. There is a haunting cocktail of optimism and ineptitude that permiates them all.

    I even feel compelled to order a couple of the books featured with the more bizzare covers.

    1. There’s a difference between seeking constructive criticism before publication and getting defensive afterward. Learn it.

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