The Cover Conundrum


In the April 6th issue of Entertainment Weekly, Stephen King featured Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski in his regular column, The Pop of King. This column was titled “How to Bury A Book.”

It wasn’t your regular book review. . . He did summarize and praise the work, but the gist of this column was how he almost overlooked this book just because of its cover. If he hadn’t picked it up on a whim, and read the flap for the blurb, he might have passed this book up. He says

I picked Fieldwork up because I saw interesting words on the flap (fascination, taboo, sexual), but when I think about how close I came to passing it by, I just get mad. As it was, I grabbed it on impulse, thinking: I know you don’t want me to buy you, you dull-looking thing, but I’m going to. Just to spite you.

His frustration is one of many loud, un-listened-to voices among authors today, those who bang their heads on their keyboards because of the poor choices made by publishers and editors regarding titles and artwork for brilliant books.

The Mid-West Book Review has an article regarding the importance of book covers. Within this piece, James A. Cox says

There are those who would suggest that it is incumbent upon reviewers to at least read the first sentence (or even paragraph) of a book before dismissing it from consideration. But the real world situation in a book review publication that routinely receives hundreds and thousands of submissions is that those books with flawed or substandard covers are simply outnumbered by books with acceptable to outstanding covers. So there is no compelling necessity to spend time and resources on the substandardly packaged book hoping for a true literary gem within, when there are so many others which are attractively packaged and seek the reviewer’s attention as well. . . It is that cover that will entice a reviewer, bookseller, distributor, librarian, or customer to at least pick it up long enough to open it up, and then cast eye tracks on the interior where (hopefully) the really good stuff is waiting for them.

Thanks to, I found an article by Helen Rumbelow titled You Can Tell A Book By Its Cover. (Dec. 17, 2005 )(I also found a blog about book design, too. Check out Foreword, A Book Design Blog.)

“All the research shows that consumers are very, very influenced by the covers, not necessarily to buy a book, but to pick it up,” Joanna Prior, publicity and marketing director at Penguin, says.

Studies show that a book on a three-for-two table has about one and a half seconds to catch a reader’s eye. If it is picked up, it is on average glanced at for only three to four seconds.

In this story, Rumbelow states that Patrick Janson-Smith, the literary agent and former publishing director of Transworld, believes covers can do more harm than good.

“I can’t think of a jacket that has transformed the fortunes of a book, but I have seen books absolutely die on the back of a jacket. . . Publishers don’t know a good cover until they see it . . . I don’t know if they know anything much.

To be fair, the story also says

Publishers are increasingly appreciating the power of the artwork as advert, right down to the present angstfest over what appears on the a book’s spine. This is why we see more and more of what the trade calls re-jacketing: we don’t judge a book by just its cover any more, but by a succession of covers.

But I know many authors who disagree – – strongly. Recently, I was in contact with one of those authors, who was completely devastated when she received an advance flat of the cover art for her next release. The story itself was her best work yet, and she is completely proud of it, and had been excited about it while writing it. But when she saw the cover art, the word ‘deflated’ is too weak to even associate with her feelings. The work she’d been so proud of as she created it seems to be destined to be wrapped by a cover that is completely at odds with the subject and theme of her novel. She actually said she was ashamed that her name was going to be on the book. She would actually rather buy the book back than let it go out with the cover currently in line for the work.

Seeing the cover myself, I can see why she is so distraught. It had been described to her in the vein of another type of bestselling novel, but in reality, the way the publisher has chosen to market it targets the wrong audience. This is such a shame, because her feelings echo those in the quotes above. The way the cover is at this time, it will not capture the attention of the mainstream market, missing those that would snatch it up otherwise. Thus, it will possibly have lower sales, it will be placed in the wrong section at the bookstores, and who wants to promote a book they are disappointed in or ashamed of?

Why can’t publishers get it together? They’ve said they never know what will appeal to readers. I just have to ask, why can’t they accept even a sliver of input from authors, and really consider what the creator of the work has to say about their readers and potential readers? I certainly hope the author I speak of can negotiate a better cover, because it will be a shame if this book can’t rise to its full potential.

Have you ever bought a book only to be disappointed that it wasn’t what you thought you were buying? Have you ever been disappointed in a book cover on one of your own books? What kind of book cover usually catches your eye? How do you feel about book cover art?


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