Devil’s Advocate #4: You *Can* Judge a Book by its Cover

The old adage, “You can’t judge a book by its cover” is somewhat inaccurate, IMO. A better saying would be, “You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.” Either way, people will judge things by appearances, at least at first. We do it all the time, though most people are ashamed to admit it, so as not to seem shallow. The guy covered in tattoos and piercings may turn out to be a caring father, while the clean cut choir boy often ends up a serial killer. You really can’t know the value of something until you spend some time with it. Unfortunately, time is becoming an increasingly precious commodity. If you’re in the business of entertainment, you are constantly battling for eyeballs. One problem in my life (albeit minor) is deciding what to do. What TV show should I watch? What game should I play? What book should I read? Between cable, Netflix, HBO NOW, Amazon Prime, Hulu, etc., the choices might as well be infinite. And that’s just television. What about the web? Which of the million+ YouTube videos will be earning your attention tonight? For that matter, why are you even reading this post? Don’t you have better things to do? Walking into Barnes & Nobles is no better. There are literally over a million books in print. Sometimes, I just walk out of the store in a daze, having purchased nothing. On the other hand, if Ancient Athens had a B&N, you can be certain everyone who knew to read would have copies of The Iliad and The Odyssey, whether fans of fantasy or not.

This is why we end up judging books by their covers. What choice do we have? I could pick novels at random, or look at titles, the synopses on jackets or the praise from reviewers, but these are all still part of the cover, and are no more indicative of great storytelling than the picture. When I chose Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, because the title moved me, I was pleasantly surprised by the power of his story. With other books, like The Maze Runner and A Wrinkle in Time, I was not so fortunate. This is not to say that you might not have the opposite experience. My younger self would probably find Ishiguro a snooze-fest. Now, you might purchase an early edition of A Game of Thrones because you’ve seen the TV show and could care less about the clip art wolf on the front. This is where not judging a book by its cover makes sense. But for those of us without TV shows, struggling to make it in the literary world, we do not have such a luxury.

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Seriously, is this clip art?

 

This brings me to the e-book wasteland. Typically, I can immediately tell when a book is self-published, and admit it, you can too. If you’re a newbie writer, and your undiscovered masterpiece is lurking behind a Photoshopped image of your backyard, don’t expect me to be reading it. To the author whose name isn’t a marketing draw, the cover is everything. A good cover communicates many things about your work: a cartoon drawing is usually kids’ fare, a dragon indicates fantasy, a spaceship Sci-Fi, and a brooding, hooded rogue means big-name publishers have no imagination. But more than anything else, a good cover conveys professionalism. If you cannot be bothered to waste time or money on a cover, it’s doubtful you’ve spent enough time on the writing.

For the past three years, I have labored over The Princess of Aenya. The book represents hundreds of hours of writing, editing and rewriting, not to mention a lifetime of practice. For me, every character has to be engaging, every chapter intriguing, and every line has to sing. If the reader is not moved in some way by the last page, I know I’ve failed my job. Why should the face of the book, the very thing that might encourage someone to discover your story, be of any less concern?

The image below is a proof-of-concept. While some of the elements are copyrighted, I was lucky enough to attain the rights to this portrait, by Selene Regener, originally titled “Awakening.” Now this might make for a decent cover as is, but I will be using it primarily to give direction to my artists. If I am the one to do it, and not some big name publisher (who’ll likely put a hooded rogue on the front), I might come up with a better idea. Who knows? Either way, the art should reflect the writing, and vice versa, because, like it or not, everyone judges a book first by its cover, and second by its contents.

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