Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Can You Judge a Book By Its Cover?

by Robin Allen

Imagine being embarassed about your child's appearance. Not the color/length/amount of their hair or their low-slung jeans and silly t-shirts (well, okay, this one is clever), but the closeness of their eyes, the thinness of their lips, the de Bergerac-ness of their nose. You had no choice how they came out, really, but you have to live with these attributes for the rest of your life.

Same thing with authors and book covers. Our books are our babies. Whether the rest of the world grades them as A students or D, we think they're honor students. We believe we've written a beautiful story and we want to present it to the world in a stunning outfit.


Authors don't choose their book covers. (Unless you're Stephen King, I imagine, but some of his covers make me wonder if even he isn't consulted.) For the most part, the inside belongs to the author and the outside belongs to the publisher. The publisher can do anything they want. Anything. Black eyes, grotesque mouths that drool, ginormous hairy noses that leak into the drool. Unless you're Stephen King, you probably wouldn't be happy with that.

After I made my deal with Midnight Ink, after the contracts and the champagne and the congratulations (friends, family, self, etc.), I started to think about the cover of my book. I read horror stories (not written by Stephen King) about authors so distraught over their book covers, they fled the country or took a vow of poverty. I love both Texas and money, so the worst thing I could come up with was to draw a line in the sand.

Midnight Ink does great covers. (Lookie here. Or look at our covers on the right side of this blog.) I liked most of the ones I saw and didn't dislike any of them, so I knew I wouldn't be embarassed by mine. But would I love it? Would it represent the story? Would it be too precious? Would it feature a nine-toed baby even though there are no babies or toes in the story? Or worse--would it have a curlique typeface?

When my editor, Terri Bischoff, asked me what I'd like to see on my book cover, I knew a) that I loved her and b) exactly what to tell her: "I didn't write a pink book and I don't want a pink cover." I may have repeated myself two or three or eighteen times.

So, as you can see, my baby is beautiful, thanks to Desmond Montague.

The stock pot (= kitchen story), the skull and crossbones on the stock pot (= mystery), the steam rising into skulls (= danger, death) , the hot dog on the badge (= humor), the HowardJohnson color scheme (= I have no idea, but it takes me back to my childhood when my parents would take all four of us kids across town in the station wagon to eat fried clams).

It's funny that the saying, "don't judge a book by its cover" is so well-known and popular, yet publishers spend a lot of time, effort, and money on book covers.

I'm not a nihilist, so a clever title or interesting cover will make me pick up a book, but I'm also not a sucker. I'll always read either the first couple of pages or flip to a random page to judge the writing.

I do pre-snub covers, however, and am immediately warned off by blurred images (literary fiction = inordinant number of descriptions of things I don't care about) or children (coming-of-age story = 400 pages concerning things I don't care about).

What about y'all? Have you ever bought or not bought a book because of its cover?

Robin Allen
Author of the Poppy Markham: Culinary Cop Mystery Series
If You Can't Stand the Heat
Now available on Kindle, Nook, and eBook
See my poem "A Friday Afternoon" in the 2012 Texas Poetry Calendar


Lois Winston said...

When I browse the aisles of a bookstore, I'm first attracted to the cover. Hey, I went to art school. What would you expect? But then I turn the book over to read the blurb. If I'm still interested, I'll read the first few pages before I finally make the decision to buy or not.

But speaking of covers, here's a story that's not urban legend. I actually saw the cover. My former publisher once published an historical romance where the cover artist had given the heroine THREE ARMS! No joke. And no one noticed until the books were on store shelves.

Robin Allen said...

Three arms--the better to hug you with, my dear.

Here are a couple of websites that track Photoshop mistakes:

Beth Groundwater said...

Yes, I've been both turned on and turned off by cover art, so I agree that it's VERY important. That's why I've fought for changes on three different covers for my books that were vitally important in my mind. Thank goodness the acquisition editor agreed with me in all three cases. :)

Lisa Bork said...

Your cover is great, Robin, but at first glance I confess I didn't notice all the interesting art elements you listed. I'd be a terrible crime witness :)

Glad to have you and your cover on Inkspot!

Keith Raffel said...

Welcome, Robin. I have to say it was gratifying to be able to come up with the idea behind the cover of my ebook Drop By Drop and then see it executed.

Jess Lourey said...

I'm still giggling from all the side routes your links actually took me to. If your book is half as funny as your blogs, it's worth twice what you're charging.

p.s. You are changing all my stereotypes about Texas, one at a time, and it's terrifying.

Deborah Sharp said...

I definitely agree that the cover is a HUGE selling point (fortunately for us, Midnight Ink generally does a stellar job on this). But even the greatest cover won't convince me to buy a book if I open that first page and the first few paragraphs don't grab me. Picky, picky ... but life's too short to read bad books.

Darrell James said...

Great cover, Robin. But, like Lisa, I didn't recognize all the great little elements that make it so fantastic. (I think the eyes are going.)

Congratualations on the book.

Robin Allen said...

Beth - Good for you fighting for your covers. I asked for a knife on my cover because the victim is stabbed, so that would be my only issue.

Lisa and Darrell - All those little elements work on the same level as really good writing. At first I thought the hot dog on her badge was silly, but it grew on me and I worked it into my second book.

Keith - Writing the book is hard enough. I can't imagine having to be the art director, too. Nice job on the vision and the execution.

Jess - Yes, the links are part of the humor. Thanks for the compliment. Although what on earth could you be talking about with Texas stereotypes? :-)

Deborah - I agree. We spend a lot more time with the writing than with the cover.

Kathleen Ernst said...

Cover design is HUGE, whether we like it or not. Yours is great!

Cricket McRae said...

Welcome to Inkspot, Robin! And that's a terrific cover. I love that Midnight Ink is interested in what we have to say about our cover art, and the art department is terrific!

Robin Allen said...

Thanks, gals! My second book just went through a luanch meeting and I'm excited to see what they come up with for the cover.

Jessie Chandler said...

Robin, I totally agree with your cover assessment! And yours is FAB! MI really does do a fantastic job with our covers. I do confess if I dislike a cover enough, I often won't pick the book up for a closer look. If I do like the cover, I read the back and the flaps, and then think about making a decision.

Great post!

Robin Allen said...

Thanks, Jessie. I once bought a book just because of its cover--The Debt to Pleasure by John Lanchester. I tried to read it about five times, but couldn't get past the first couple of pages. I finally made myself read it and it has become one of my favorite books.

Sebastian Stuart said...

Most excellent post -- full of voice and charm. I couldn't agree more re: a certain kind of faux deep cover that screams exquisitely wrought (aka mannered and deadly dull) literary fiction. Your cover is great fun.

Robin Allen said...

Thanks, Sebastian. I want to read good writing, of course, but I also want a good story, which literary fiction sometimes forgets to include among all the metaphors and poetic language. Give me some Donald E. Westlake or Elmore Leonard any day.

Dru said...

I'm guilty of not buying books because I didn't like the cover, even if the book got great reviews.

The cover is going to grab me first, then the blurb and last, the first couple of pages will seal the fate of whether I'm buying the book.

Robin Allen said...

Yep, I've been turned off by covers--and titles. Oy. Titles are a whole 'nother post.