Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 27, 2021

Book covers – how much do they matter?

The rather lacklustre 2021 longlist for book cover design has inspired me to resurrect a draft that’s been languishing since late in 2019.


When I was writing my post about the 2019 Goodreads Reading Women challenge, I commented about one of the items: I wrote that I don’t buy books because of the cover, and more often I don’t buy a book because of the sexism inherent in the cover (back view of headless woman; title in sickly pink script, anything with ridiculous high heels &c).

And I’ve been thinking about book covers ever since, and whether what I wrote was actually true…

I’ve been interested in book cover design for years, ever since I filled in an online survey about it, and learned a little bit about the ‘rules’ it plays by.  I have a Book Cover Design tag here on the blog though I don’t always remember to use it, and every now and again I see publicity about design awards, and sometimes share it here on the blog.

But although there is now heaps of online advice for DIY designers for self-published books, it’s more about how to do it, than about how to appeal to a target market.

There are two cover designs below that are from self-published books.  Can you guess which ones they are?

These ones IMHO are examples of effective non-fiction design:

 

Life stories (biography and autobiography and memoir) are harder to do well, because too often they just feature a portrait of the subject.  It seems to me that they rely more heavily on having an enticing title, unless the subject is well-known and admired (like Magda Szubanski and Gillian Triggs):

 

I prefer these memoir covers.  (well, ok, Smoky the Brave gets in because it’s got a Yorkie on the front cover).

 

Art Books are easy IMO:

And then there’s fiction.  There’s a whole vocabulary of signals for different types of fiction, and we all respond to them according to our tastes.  These are covers that tell you nothing at all about the content, except that the book is ‘literary’:

They are ok, but I’d pick those ones out in the bookshop because I know the author’s names.  I admire designs that allude in some way to the content of the book (even if you don’t know that till you start reading it).

And then there are ones that feature great art, mostly—but not always—from long ago.  Many of Patrick White’s novels had cover art by Sidney Nolan.  I’ve added three from the OUP editions of Zola because they all feature details from gorgeous French paintings:

Indigenous fiction deserves a special mention:

What do you think?  Does cover art influence your book choices?


Responses

  1. I am often attracted to covers similar to your Memoirs selection. I like illustrations. Photography, as much as I love it, does not appeal to me on book covers. I like to get excited about the book and colours tend to influence me more. Who knows why.😍

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Book covers don’t influence what I buy or borrow, but of course they contribute to the experience of the book.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, that’s definitely so, it’s more than just marketing, as my experience with the cover of The Ogre shows.

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  3. I am totally inconsistent. I don’t usually pay much attention to covers. I don’t usually browse for books these days: I have usually identified the name and author and then buy. BUT, if I do browse (such as in the National Library bookshop, or at the National Museum or Gallery), then the cover art is what I am looking at. Some cover art is spectacular, but some (especially on the popular fiction) turns me right off.

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    • That’s a good point, Jennifer… maybe the reason some publishers don’t bother so much with cover design is because they’re relying more on the online chatter to sell the books than they did when getting the book ‘face out’ at the booksellers was more important.

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      • And I imagine, as well, that they are trying to reduce costs …

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        • A graphic artist friend of ours lamented some years ago that many people think they can do their own design these days. I don’t know how it works in the big publishers, but most of the designs I’ve tended to admire have been on books from small publishers who (presumably) contract the work out to the best designers that they can afford. Many of the covers here come from small publishers, not big ones.

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      • I don’t know how it works in Australia, but here in the UK the complete opposite of that is true. Huge emphasis is placed on cover design these days, and that is largely driven BY social media – Instagram and Twitter are key to most marketing strategies: the “cover reveal”, animated versions of covers that look like film trailers… or look at how publishers present their book on Amazon these days: multiple photos of the actual book from several angles to show off the design, crops from cover art with quotes overlaid. The idea that they “don’t bother so much” could not be further from the truth.

        Though of course booksellers are still important too. Again here in the UK, Waterstones is king: a cover will first get approved by the publisher’s art department, then get approved by sales and marketing and then – bizarrely – go off to Waterstones for final approval. And you wouldn’t believe the lengths publishers will go to in terms of design if they’re trying to win the coveted Waterstones Book of the Month positioning, which is massive in terms of sales.

        I should say, I’ve been reading and enjoying your blog for years (probably found you via Kim’s blog), I’ve just never commented before, but book covers are a bit of a passion for me.

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        • Hello David, how nice that I have at last tempted you to comment!
          You know, I always ‘announce’ my book reviews on Twitter but I had completely forgotten about Instagram. I don’t have an account and I never go there, but I know that influencers there have enormous influence. And it is, of course, a very visual form of social media… we in the world of LitBlogs are all about words, not pictures, but of course they are a primary form of communication for a different generation to mine.
          Perhaps what makes things a bit different here is that there is perhaps greater diversity in book retailing? We still have a lot of independent bookshops—I went to two today in the Brighton shopping strip, they’re about 200 metres from each other and both appear to be doing well. Within a short drive I can go to two more, and there are dozens of them all over Melbourne. There isn’t a Waterstones here that can wield that kind of power, though Readings, which is our most prominent independent chain probably has a lot of influence through its monthly newsletters which would bring many sales.
          PS I’ve just had a look at the illustrations on your site, and they are gorgeous. I should qualify all of what I’ve said above to say that it doesn’t apply to children’s literature. Both in what we call ‘chapter books’ and picture story books, front covers matter a very great deal and they are often works of art. (I actually have one by Ann James framed in my library.)

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  4. Great post, Lisa. I like to think covers don’t influence me, but I’m definitely biased against romance covers or lots of pink. If it’s a writer I know and like the cover doesn’t matter. The Zola covers you show are lovely, interestingly I first picked up a Zola book years ago because I liked the painting on the cover! So I think covers can attract you to a new author.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s true, Janelle, knowing and liking the author trumps everything else.
      Which is a problem for the debut author, I guess…

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  5. This link might interest you: https://lithub.com/the-15-best-book-covers-of-february/

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    • Yes, thanks for posting it here… I saw it when Anna Blay brought it to my attention on my post about the design awards. I’m not so excited by any of them either!

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  6. Most of the time, the cover does not affect my decision to buy a book if I really want it, unless I find it offensive. I have learned that buying a book by the cover alone is unwise, one has to be careful not to be tempted by a pretty face. I am quite content to admire attractive packaging regardless of whether or not it’s a book I would have any interest in. And then there’s Seagull. I always recognize one of their books no matter what it looks like. Their designer, Sunandini walked in to their office over 20 years ago, put her portfolio on the desk and said “I’m going to work here.” Her style defines their books. But I think there are a number of publishers (mostly small) that really think about design. Oddly, it’s often the major publishers that release the head scratchers—design by committee (basically copying whatever is trendy).

    Liked by 1 person

    • That used to be true—designs being instantly recognisable—for Text Publishing and their designer W H Chong… but it’s not so true anymore…

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Very rarely, but sometimes a cover will make me look to see what a book is about, like recently a nonfiction title called Blue Spaces by Catherine Kelly came to my attention first due to the cover, then due to the title and subtitle and I’m now going to read it. It’s perhaps more common with nonfiction titles that a cover entices, making a kind of promise.

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    • I just Googled that title, and I can see why it attracted attention, though yes, it was the sub title that actually engaged me.

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    • A quick question Claire.

      You live in France and get to see French book covers all the time and they are quite different from anglo-saxon ones.

      What do you think of French covers vs English ones?

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      • It was quite a shock initially when I saw how bland many of the French covers were, mainly because it made me feel like there was a whole backstory missing, a gap in one’s cultural comprehension to not feel intimidated by that. It removes the added dimension of having a visual reference as well as a name based one.
        However there are also many editions now that are published with artwork on the covers.

        For me personally, walking into a library or bookshop where books show some colour and personality on the outside, knowing that on the inside is a world that might engage my imagination is a much more uplifting experience than being faced with endless covers with only text.

        In the US there is a similar model used when an author is very well known, the cover is text based, the idea being that the name is sufficient to attract readers because they are so well known. I find them mildly depressing. At the very least colour is a mood enhancer. That could be another reason why it’s not as enticing to read ebooks, there’s no reengagement with the cover every time you pick it up.

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        • Fascinating comment, Claire. It really is a cultural difference.

          I would agree with the imagination part if I hadn’t seen so many covers that betray the book they’re supposed to promote.

          I’m actually glad I don’t get to see the covers of the ebooks I download. (I mostly read books in English on the kindle)

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          • Good point, Emma, there are covers that betray the book they’re supposed to promote. Sometimes it seems as if the designer has not read a word of the book.

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            • Exactly. That’s how I often feel when I put together covers from different countries.

              Liked by 1 person

          • I think if I’d grown up in this culture, I’d have a different view, it’s interesting because I didn’t think it was important until I saw the library shelves in the adult section. I mean can you imagine children’s books without covers? I think that playfulness continues and controversy about a cover sparks an interesting debate. Titles have been accused of being spoilers too, I had that comment mage recently about the book Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy. That the British title (which I won’t mention) was a spoiler.

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            • In the OpShops and second-hand shops, many of the older books that were published in dustjackets have lost them, and so the shelves are full of books distinguishable only by the colour of their hardback covers. It can be a dispiriting experience to browse through them.

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  8. Well, they do and they don’t… If I intend to get a copy of a book, I would prefer the cover to be a design I love and am drawn to, though it isn’t a deal breaker. However, where I think it matters is in drawing a potential reader to a book they haven’t come across before. I do wonder if there are books I might have liked that I haven’t read because of abysmal cover design…

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    • Yes,,,
      *musing*
      Perhaps we’re not really the target market. Leaving aside differences of taste, perhaps because, one way or another, we’re already in the marketing loop, we’re not so dependent on an enticing cover. We get the publishers’ newsletters, we read each other’s reviews of books that are coming on the market, and by the time we get to the bookshop, we already know what we are looking for.
      But thinking of my younger self, wanting to read but not knowing really what I wanted to read, perhaps those covers that we find so ‘meh’ are the very ones that bring an uncommitted reader to the book?

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Lisa, I appreciate your post exploring the topic of book covers. I am such a visual person that cover art can emotionally draw me to a book that I would otherwise not be interested in. For example, I am starting a journey to learn Latin and I chose a workbook based on the cover and title (Learning Latin the Ancient Way). This book is okay, but not what I would have purchased otherwise. Without access to bookstores, however, this limits my ability to judge a book by the format or contents inside. The reviews on Amazon do help, but can also be limiting. This is one good reason to read blogs and follow blogger’s recommendations of books that pertain to my interest. Your blog has inspired me to look at the cover art of my library and see how the emotional pull or nostalgia influenced my decision to purchase these books.

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    • You’re learning Latin too! I learned it for a couple of years at school, but I started again last year and was effectively a beginner. The book we are using is Latin One for Common Entrance (by N R R Oulton 9781471867378 and—speaking here as a qualified teacher of LOTE (Languages Other than English)—I’m finding it very good. (While we were in Lockdown with no f2f classes all year our class basically used it as a correspondence course, with the tutor providing the answers which you have to buy separately). It doesn’t take a communicative approach, but rather, a coherent, structured approach which builds on prior learning the way a good maths textbook does. If you are a self-disciplined solo learner it would be ideal because before long you can find yourself reading short stories about events in classical history, which is very affirming. But it does have a dull cover!
      I bought some other texts prior to actually enrolling in a class, including the (expensive) Wheelock Course, which was recommended by Five Books. I found it completely useless, confusing and longwinded. But *chuckle* it has a really nice cover.
      I suppose this business of being influenced by what is essentially packaging is a finely tuned marketing art…

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you for the recommendation. This appears to be exactly what I need. I will look for this text! As I looked through my library yesterday I realized that I am also drawn to old, tattered, classical, gently-loved books (19-20th century French and German language 1st choice) and I also tend to judge these books by their jacket-less, sans art, covers. Good rule of thumb for me— seek out known authors or subjects I’m passionate about. ( I am also crazy about fonts which can influence my book purchase. I found “Just My Type” by Simon Garfield to explore this infatuation more!)Have a blessed day!

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        • I’m certainly influenced by fonts when they’re too small and hard for me to read!

          Liked by 1 person

  10. I couldn’t find which two book covers were self published. Can you point them out.
    I’m a debut author about to self publish, so always looking for advice. Thanks

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    • Hello, it’s good to hear that you can’t pick them:)
      The first one is Around the World in 113 Days, (in the NF section) which is (sort of) family history. Using diaries, postcards and photos from a world trip in the 1960s, it tells the story of the two people on the front cover. The designer is Mary Jane Neil based here in Melbourne. I think it’s clever the way she has used a map of the world as background behind the portraits and made the book stand out by doing the design horizontally.
      The second one is in the second fiction section. It’s The Fethafoot Chronicles, a series written by an Indigenous author who wants Australia to have its own mythology instead of European ones. I don’t know who did the design for that one. It’s a clever design too, because each of the books in the series looks almost the same except that the picture (in this case the tree) changes for each separate volume.
      Good luck with your book!

      Liked by 1 person

  11. You know I love comparing covers from a same book in different languages. It’s fascinating to see how a cover can betray a book instead of promoting it.

    When I do that, I often think that English-speaking covers are tacky, except for the classics. Lots of colors, big letters, all the space covered.

    In France, they often use photos, paintings and much smaller prints. But things are changing and it really depends on the publisher.
    J’ai Lu editions have the same vibe as English covers.
    Gallmeister have an artist draw original covers for each book.
    Folio has the same layout: smaller print on a white background, a picture or a photo.

    In my French mind, books are classy objects and the covers shouldn’t be loud.
    “Loud” is the word I was looking for: the covers in your post (except the Zola ones since they could be a French edition) feel like they’re shouting “look at me, look at me!”

    It’s logical from a sales standpoint and it says all about how USA/UK/Australia handle the book market. It’s an industry. Books are like cans of peas and the same marketing approach applies.
    The same recipes are used here by publishers of mainstream fiction.

    And don’t get me started about the difference of covers between men and women writers.

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    • I hear you.
      But I think we need to distinguish between popular (commercial) fiction and literary fiction. There are famous writers of popular fiction like Wilbur Smith whose names are plastered all over the cover, taking up all the space and often gaudily printed in gold. This is what I meant in my third paragraph by ‘the rules they play by’. A BIG name is a famous name and even if the buyer doesn’t know who the author is, they know subliminally that the writer is famous and the book appeals to many people. So they feel confident about buying it.
      It’s the same with chick-lit, which uses a lot of gaudy pink, images of high heels and makeup and italic fonts. This tells the buyer what kind of book it is and if she likes chick-lit she will probably like that book.
      If we confine the discussion to literary fiction, however, the ‘rules’ are different. As you can see from the samples I’ve chosen, they are usually just the title and author on some kind of indeterminate background.

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      • I agree with you: Literary Fiction covers are usually better.

        As you see before with Claire’s comments, it’s a cultural difference. I’ve always seen books with small prints, lots of white on the cover or monochrom covers because it’s a special collection.

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        • There’s another cultural difference too, perhaps… here, books have to sink or swim with very little help from the government, too bad that we are competing in the English-speaking world with the power and dominance of the US and UK. Whereas the French government, because it has to protect the French language from being overrun by English, makes sure that books are published in French.

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          • I don’t think there’s much direct protection from the government. Except for the huge network of libraries. Almost each village has one.
            It’s mostly the fixed price for books that helps keeping independant bookstores open. They give chances to books and smaller publishers.
            We read a lot of translated books too, you know. If it were just about protecting the French language, we’d see more books from Québec and French-speaking African countries.

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            • I know you read a lot of translations… I’m hoping that when my French is good enough I’ll be able to read French translations of books that haven’t yet been translated into English.

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              • I don’t read English translations of books, it’s too complicated. I’ve tried and now I only pick books in French translations

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  12. Cover art definitely influences my choice. If I’m buying online, I may choose a slightly more expensive edition of a book because I prefer the artwork, especially if it’s a book I expect to add to my permanent collection. In the case of one book by a favourite author, I am actually putting off buying it because I dislike the cover so much. Surely it’s time they brought out a different version of Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments? But no, green silhouette bonnet lady is the only one.
    http://www.marketgardenreader.wordpress.com

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    • LOL It was the TV series that put me off reading The Testaments. That ludicrous scowling actress has put me off it forever.

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      • I really enjoyed The Handmaid’s Tale (the book), so I was really looking forward to reading The Testaments. I missed the series on TV and don’t have the right streaming service to watch it now. Never mind. I’m sure there’ll eventually be a glut of the book in the charity shops, so I’m bound to find the book eventually. It won’t feel so bad, buying it for a pittance.

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        • Ha ha, you’re more strategic than I am!

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  13. i read your post days ago but wanted to think about the question before responding. Cover art does play a part in my choices but more in the sense that it often acts as a disincentive to buy/borrow rather than as an enticement for my to choose that title. Apart from the very obvious things that signal a particular book will not be to my taste (images of men with highly toned torsos, ) I don’t respond well to artwork based entirely on textual treatments. I seem to need an image of some kind to give me a clue about the mood of the book. Failing that I’m keen on graphic elements like patterns.

    I’ve been wondering whether I have bought books based entirely on the cover design and the nearest I can come is that I prefer the designs of the Oxford World Classics and the Penguin Classics to all other editions.

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    • Oh, so do I, they have such lovely art work on the covers, and their spines look so classy on the shelf!

      Like


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