The Trouble with Book Covers

There are about—oh, let’s see—fifty or so books inside the shed. Maybe twenty on a shelf left of my desk and another thirty on the shelf behind me against the back wall. A handful are stacked on the desk itself. Spines and front covers exposed. These are not all my books, just a sampling. And this morning, after a fifteen minute meditation session that was a bit of a struggle, (it’s a work in progress) I sit in the chair and consider the front cover of my favorite book of 2018: The Friend by Sigrid Nunez.

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I love this book. The cover? It’s…okay.

Every literary marketer and publisher will tell you about the importance of a book’s look. The cover is what draws a read to your book, unless you are already a famous writer with a following. If that’s the case, the cover could be all white, like the Beatles’ White Album, and still, it would sell. But for most of us, that cover is a big deal, and proportionally bigger than it should  be or what we’d like it to be. After all, what’s inside is the most important thing, right? The prose? The story? In the case of The Friend, the cover is at least not a deterrent. There is a dog on it and dog photos or illustrations can be like magnets.

Still, dog or not, that cover is the first impression. And we all know about first impressions.

Around me in the shed are some of my favorite book covers along with a few that, well, have me wondering: What were they thinking? 

Some time ago, I read an interview with a respected book cover designer who said that he liked to think of his covers as “haikus of the story.” That implies that he’s read the story. That isn’t always the case with book designers. You would think it would be a requirement. But wherever the inspiration comes from, the end result has to be that the cover captures imagination and emotion, and relates to the words inside.

That’s why the cover of The Friend doesn’t necessarily work for me. The dog is a part of the story. Overall, it’s a nice design, just not memorable.

Let’s  grab a few books off the shelves in the shed. These I love.

The complete wonderment and beauty in the Knausgaard cover. The retro-chic of Kerouac’s classic. The color and the light in Michael Pollan’s book on building a writing shed. (I read it twice while I was building mine.) And the 1950s Jazz era coolness of the Borges’ book. Not all are “haikus,” but they do grab the reader and they do say something quite emotional.

Here are three that don’t work for me. That is not to say anything negative about the prose inside. I like these books, a lot. Just don’t like the covers.

The photo on the Katz book could have been far better. Don’t like the angle. Don’t like the light and how the one dog’s face is hidden in the shadows. Hemingway’s classic is too cartoonish for my taste. And David Szalay’s cover, a book I truly love, is just….nothing. The out-of-focus photography is not working for me. Am I missing something? Out-of-focus photos can be wonderful for presenting a certain mood. Not this time.

Of course, some of you may love these covers. These are simply my opinions, linked to my taste, aesthetic, and my own history with book covers.

The passage of time has even altered how I feel about my own books. I’m not thrilled so much anymore with some of the covers. I might have loved them once, not so much now. Not all of them, but a couple, at least. They are not bad covers. It’s just that times change. My tastes change.

And that’s the trouble with book covers. They are considered SO important. Yet, in the end, it’s what they represent that matters most—the words inside. Are there any other creative forms that put so much emphasis the wrappings? The only form that comes close is record album art. Decades ago when vinyl was more than retro cool, album art was celebrated. But what makes album art different from a book cover is that art on the record jacket was never what made you buy it. It was always about the music.

I’m not sure that’s true for books.

Come to think of it, like books, it is true for wine. Cool cover; I’m drawn to it. Cool label; I’ll try a glass. And you can argue that making wine certainly is a creative art form.

In the end, the book cover—front and back—has its place, and an important place. But let’s not overstate it. Like the Oreo, what is in the middle is the best part.

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Photo by Gabriela Rodríguez on Unsplash

4 thoughts on “The Trouble with Book Covers

  1. Covers are so hard. And, unfortunately often a bone of contention between author & publisher. I went through three ideation for mine.

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    • Been there! My first book – the first concept design – was awful. But in the end we worked it out, found the right design. If I could change something as I look at it now, it would be the font. But all in all, satisfied. Book covers…always a matter of debate.

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  2. Some of publishers’ handwringing over covers is lost on me, perhaps because I’m not a typical book buyer. By that I mean I don’t browse, searching for something to read that interests me. That interest has already been piqued before I come to a title or a subject or writer. In that sense, the cover has no effect on my decision to buy. Granted, I may not be thrilled with the cover art, but I can’t recall ever refusing a book that I want to read simply on the basis of the cover.

    I wonder if covers are a much bigger deal outside of literary fiction. Anytime I scan the paperback racks at a magazine stand or airport, one cover is more garish than the next. I suppose the aim is to at least hook a person into picking up the book . . . which brings me to what may be the most critical element while browsing: the blurb.

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    • I’m with you, most of the time. I know what I’m looking for. Cover doesn’t matter much. But as an author, I fret over a cover. Of course, authors fret over everything. (Is that comma in the right place?)
      Now, the garish covers…lots of them. Mostly romance or the like. There are some god-awful covers out there. But sometimes, even good literary fiction or literary memoir gets caught up in being TOO artsy and the cover design is lost in the interpretation. Sometimes you just have to say it, show it, like it is.

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