Friday, May 3, 2013

Judging Books By Their Covers

By Susan

I look at novels differently now, now that I have invested in writing them myself. I have a hard time going into a bookstore and simply wandering. I end up looking for friend's books, or friends of friend's books. I move them around for better placement, I judge the covers of new releases, I read spines to judge the publishers. I snoop through the acknowledgements to see who writers thank, or don't thank.

I judge books by their covers. In fact, I now overly judge books by their covers, because all I've learned about marketing and writing tells me that the cover is just as important for sales as is the content (this can be disputed in another post.)

I was intrigued; to say the least, on a recent trip a bookstore, when I came across this:

The first, The House Girl by Tara Conklin (William Morrow, 2013), is described as "an unforgettable story of love, history, and a search for justice, set in modern day New York and 1852 Virginia."

The second, A Thousand Pardons by Jonathan Dee (Random House, 2013), is considered by Jennifer Egan to be "a rare thing: a genuine literary thriller. Eerily suspenseful and packed with dramatic event, it also offers a trenchant, hilarious portrait of our collective longing for authenticity in these overmediated times."

The third, A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea by Dina Nayeri (Riverhead, 2013), tells the story of twin sisters growing up in the 1980s in Tehran who are split up, eventually living very different, yet parallel lives.

All three are set in different eras and locations, printed by different publishers, and were released in the past three months. They share one glaring similarity: strangely similar covers.

My first reaction was to seek out their commonalities besides the covers. As it turns out, all three are agreed to be literary fiction, but the similarities stop there. My second question was whether the similar covers hurt or helped their book sales. My third puzzle was if it mattered at all. This is Tara Conklin's debut. Did she wonder about her cover opitons? Did the publishers, themselves, have any idea they were each releasing similar artwork at the same time as their competitors? Did booksellers group these covers together, or purposely set them apart?

As I considered the challenges these three novels face with similar jackets, I came across this:

Same title, same month and year of release, both considered literary fiction by two very different well-established and respected authors, Jill McCorkle (Algonquin) and Kate Atkinson (Reagan Arthur Books).
I suppose all this means is that authors can only control what they can control, and that is the words they put on the page. Covers are chosen by the publishing house's marketing team and the author has very little say so. An author's title is their decision primarily, but who's to say another author may pick the same title, at the same time?  
As for me, I can only hope that the similarity in jacket design for these three books increases the visibility for all of them. In fact, I discovered the fabulous Tobias Wolff many years ago by looking for the novel Boy's Life, by Robert R. McCammon, a book referred to me by a friend. Instead I found This Boy's Life, Wolff's memoir. That find opened me up to a whole new world of writers I wouldn't have found on my own.

As for Life After Life, I hope both authors gain new audiences by sharing the same title. Reading isn't a competitive sport. The more people read, then all authors win, right? So here's to all authors writing the best book you can, and here's to all readers reading the best books you can find. 


  1. Suze,
    Loved this post! I, too, am intrigued with book covers and much of my daily work involves convincing my young library patrons--by way of the cover--that a book is worth checking out. I remember learning in my library media grad classes that the psychology involved in marketing books to young (and old) readers is something publishers and librarians should take very seriously. We even learned that boys are much more likely to check out a book that is smaller because it may fit in their pocket. Boys are also especially hesitant to check out books with covers that are in any way "girly." We often weed out our old books (with the painted 1960-70s covers) because there's no way in hell that the students will check them out. Simply getting a new, updated edition of a book can put it right back into circulation.

    Yesterday my English department colleagues were chuckling about some of their senior girls who had gone out and bought Wuthering Heights and were asking their English teacher if she had heard of it. They were smitten. She was pretty sure they had picked it because the new WH cover (something involving a ribbon or rose as handcuffs?) looked strikingly similar to some of the Fifty Shades books, which the girls had their hands on the week before. (Yes. Sad, I know. Worse than our generation’s sneaky reading of Norma Klein and the later Judy Blume books?)

    My bibliophile friends and I have also discussed how we hate it when publishers come out with the movie tie-in book covers. It seems almost a sacrilege to us, but I’m sure it boosts sales, and I guess we can stomach the whole thing if it gets our young folks to read those good books. The latest “blasphemy” making the media rounds is the new Great Gatsby cover. I have to admit, I think Leonardo makes a damn fine looking Gatsby, but I do lament the loss of the iconic eyes and lips on blue.

    Do you have fantasy sketches of what your first book cover will look like? Do authors have a say in that decision? I can’t wait to see yours on a bookstore shelf. I will mostly certainly move it around for optimum placement. Love to you!


  2. Mel, you are absolutely right on so many points here. I think the cover tells the potential reader the genre (Sci-fi? Romance? "Literary" fiction?) and I think you are spot-on about what boys and men tend to read. What baffles me is the trend to produce so many similar covers-- remember when all the women on covers were photos taken from the back, or they were headless? We still see a lot of that in women's fiction, which is strange to me (Is the reader supposed to imagine themselves as the heroine? Maybe.) And these portrait outlines are appealing, but so similar it's jarring.
    As for my cover... who knows. It's not in my hands, and from what I've heard from other published authors they have very little say-so in cover choice. (Our own Julie had a drastic cover change decision made by her marketing team right before publication.) At this point, I'm just trying to complete the best draft I can for my agent and then pray for her to do her magic. The rest is out of my control!


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