Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Judging a Book by Its Cover

by J. Lea López

There isn't an author alive who hasn't heard "Don't judge a book by its cover." There also isn't an author alive who doesn't know that readers are judging books by their covers. You can probably point out a few different book cover clichés in your genre. If not, check out this list with 19 of them that you may have seen. Certain "typical" cover design elements can signal to the reader a great deal of information about the story. Usually, it's those elements and that conveyed information an author or publisher hopes will entice a reader to buy.

Sex sells ... or does it?
If you read romance, erotic romance, or erotica, you're well aware of some of the cover trends in those genres. If you're looking for a steamy read, books with covers featuring near-naked bodies are a sure bet. But while a "typical" cover may seem like a guaranteed way to attract "typical" fans of the genre, there's also the risk of deterring other potential readers.

Over the past couple weeks, I've been catching up on some ebooks I'd downloaded to my Kindle during various free promotions. I scrolled through the carousel on my Kindle Fire, which shows the book covers for the books on the device, trying to decide what to read next. I kept passing over one particular book because the cover gave me a certain impression that I wasn't interested in, even though I'd already downloaded the book. I often download books that I might otherwise feel meh about, if they're free. Don't judge me. I know you do it, too. So anyway, in the weeks since I'd downloaded the book, I kept passing it up and reading other things instead, based solely on the cover. I'd mostly forgotten the description by then.

The cover features the muscled torso of what we assume is an attractive man. We don't know, because the only parts of him we see are his pecs, abs, and arms. A woman's hands are groping him from behind. In the background is a cityscape as seen through the window of what we probably assume is a penthouse apartment.

Now let's not forget that I, and other readers, will bring our own reading baggage and preferences to the table when judging a book by its cover. It's inevitable. What I'm about to say may seem harsh, but it's the truth of what I was thinking at the time, and it may mirror the thoughts of other readers more than authors would care to think about. Here's what I was expecting from this book, based on the cover I just described:

A billionaire-themed steamy romance. Not particularly well-written. Probably will require a greater leap of faith to suspend my disbelief than I generally like in books. Most likely will cause me to roll my eyes or shake my head at what I see as utterly illogical leaps of plot or characterization, but that I could still see coming a mile away because I'd read three or four similar romances in the week prior that were scripted exactly the same way.

Not the most flattering picture, right? Still, I finally decided to read it. And something strange happened. I found myself smirking on the first page. Not because I was saying "I knew it. Mediocre at best." in my head, but because I was actually amused at the characters. Their personalities came through right away. The way they met and the details of their first interaction were fresh and fun and a little bit silly, and I absolutely loved it. And I found myself reading chapter after chapter because I wanted to, and not just because I told myself I had to.

Yes, it was a billionaire romance, which is something that has never really appealed to me. But that aspect of the story was treated in a way that made sense for the characters and added to my enjoyment most of the time. And yes, there were a few things that went the usual way seemingly because that's the way a romance should go, regardless of whether it was the way this particular story and these particular characters should have gone, given everything up to that point. Overall, I enjoyed the book. Writing about it now makes me want to go back and read it again, which says a lot.

But I almost didn't read it because of the cover.

I realized after reading it and revisiting the Amazon page that I had downloaded it in spite of the cover because the blurb was interesting AND it was free at the time. Once it was on my Kindle and I completely forgot what it was about, the cover really held me back from reading it sooner because it conveyed a type of book that I was not very interested in.

What does this mean for readers? Obviously, don't judge a book by its cover! But it's hard not to, and I don't think there will ever be a time where we don't judge books by their covers. Especially in an increasingly digital marketplace.

So, then. What does this mean for authors and publishers? I think it means we need to be a little more careful with the messages we choose to send with our book covers. This particular cover will attract quite a few readers who like to read certain things. I'm not denying that. But there's a potential market that it's probably missing as well.

I know we can't appeal to all readers all the time, nor should we try to. But I think there's a more nuanced balance between hitting your target market square between the eyes and roping in your target market without completely alienating readers who might really like what you're writing, but they just don't know it yet. Like me. I'd probably read this author again in the future, knowing that if she has a cover that would normally turn me off, there's likely a better story inside. (And if you're curious, the book I've been referring to is She's Got Dibs, by AJ Nuest. Check it out. Even if you don't like billionaire romances.)

What are some books you've read and enjoyed despite a cover that would've made you think otherwise?

J. Lea López is a shy, introverted writer with a secret world of snark and naughtiness inside her head. She writes character-driven erotica and contemporary new adult stories. Her first novel, Sorry's Not Enough, and her free short story collection, Consenting Adults, are available now. She'd love to tweet with you.


Debra McKellan said...

If I don't have time to read a page or two or can't find the blurb right away when at the library, the cover is make or break.

Jemi Fraser said...

So true Jen. Those covers are so important - as is avoiding those clichés!

J. Lea Lopez said...

As much as I think we all hate to judge a book by its cover, we definitely do! It's inevitable. I'm glad I read this particular book, though. It was a lot of fun.