Can you judge a book by its cover?

How many times have you heard the phrase “never judge a book by its cover”?  Countless times, right?  And hearing it, so many times, over the years, it has kind of sunk in.  To the point that if someone were to ask you “should you judge a book by its cover?” you would quickly and automatically answer “most certainly NOT!!!”  And you would be outraged.  Because you have been programmed to respond in this way.  But is that right and true?  Can you judge a book by its  cover?  I am going to let you in on a little secret.  I think you can, I think you do, and I think you should.

When you go to the library/bookstore, you make selections.  And those selections have to be based on something.  Sadly, you don’t have time to read various excerpts from each book you pick up, discuss with close friends, give the author a ring and ask her if she thinks this one is worth your energy/efforts given your particular tastes and what have you.  With so many books and so little time, you have to make snap decisions, and what better tool than the cover?

(Obviously, there are exceptions.  Many times we read a review or have a solid recommendation from a trusted cohort.  In these times, you find the book and pick it up, no matter what the cover, with the fair hope that it will be at least okay.  Same for trusted authors.  We have our favorites, and our confidence in them allows us to find and select their books without being influenced by cover art.  This article refers exclusively to those situations where you are selecting a book cold, with no frame of reference.  I hope it’s helpful).

I have never read a great book where a shirtless man was ravishing a heaving-bosomed/torn-bodiced/ruffled-petticoated pilgrim/frontier woman/nurse/librarian on the cover.

Same for book covers with men standing solo in vests or liberally unbuttoned shirts wearing a cowboy hat/fireman’s helmet/Indian headdress and staring smolderingly out at the reader.

Same for men with billowing Fabio-like hair.

Same for any book with Fabio himself on the cover in any state of dress or undress.

But I am not just slamming harlequin romance novels here.

I have never, for example, had great luck with books with horses on the cover.  Just horses, with no riders.

Never had luck with aliens.

Or time machines.

Pilgrim/Puritan/Western women, standing alone, bravely facing untamed frontier/billowing dark clouds/raging ocean.

Haven’t liked any books with ghosts on the cover.

Or spacey, super-modern futuristic-looking scenes.

I have liked books with dogs (i.e. Where the Red Fern Grows) but they are always depressing.  (SPOILER ALERT: if there is a dog on the cover, there is a dog in the book, and that dog is going to DIE!  I guarantee it).

Also, everywhere you look these days there are books with teenage girls in hooded sweatshirts on the cover, looking very serious and pensive and purposeful, with lots of shadows around.  I guarantee 95%+ of these are crap.

I’ve never had great luck with fairies, but maybe that’s just me.

Same for magic wands.

I like vampires, but if there are vampires actually on the cover, you are in for a junk read.

Pastoral scenes can go either way.

And there are certain other, less-easily generalizable qualities that are telling but hard to describe sweepingly.

For example, I can usually tell with high accuracy whether or not I will like a book by its cover title font.  I don’t know how to get any more specific than that.

And the little summarizing clips can tell me a lot too.  For example, if there is anything about a “woman’s journey from Africa/Jamaica/Chile…” I know I’m not going to like it.  Same for death bed retrospectives.  Same for anything to do with “sisters” or “sisterhood.”

And, like I said, there is that instantaneous, knee-jerk, you like it or you don’t, based on font or color or art selection or author’s name, and I have been surprised how often that has born out for me.

I know, I know, the phrase was maybe not meant to be taken quite so literally.  Often it is used to refer not to books at all, but to people.  And, as applied to people, the phrase is very true.  Usually.  You usually can’t tell a person by their outward appearance.  Often (but not always) what you see is not what you get.  Most people are more complex than books.

But as to books specifically, I can usually tell with just a glance whether I will like it or not.  And I’m usually right.  I can tell a book by its cover.

How about you?  Anyone else do this?  What are your tell-tale giveaways about whether you will/won’t like a book?

12 thoughts on “Can you judge a book by its cover?

  1. Baby on the cover = no.

    You’re extremely confused about ghosts and aliens. We’ll remedy that in October.

    And never, never speak ill of the Hoodies of Angst covers again. Or those pensive girls will rend you.

  2. Concur re: baby.

    I’m not shunning all books ABOUT ghosts and aliens. But if the ghosts and/or aliens are prominently and cheesily displayed on the cover, I have had no luck. It’s like Anne Rice and vampire books. I like her books, and almost all of them are about vampires. But no vampires on the cover. It’s too obvious or something.

    LOL re: “Hoodies of Angst” and “pensive girls will rend you.” I think I’ll take my chances.

  3. Do you read fantasy? I never have. I don’t have a problem with the genre, but have just never come across anything I found to be particularly well written. Do you have any suggestions?

    • If you read it, and deem it exceptional, I will buy you and each of our subscribers an author-signed first edition, and throw in a one hundred dollar bill to be used as a bookmark.

    • You have to read it AND deem it exceptional. I guess you could “deem it” whatever you like. Dang it! Should have been more discriminating. The cover looks so awful, I didn’t think anyone would take me up on it.

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