Saturday, April 21, 2012

On judging a book by its cover

"Don't judge a book by its cover" means "you shouldn't prejudge the worth or value of something by its outward appearance alone".

Writers will claim it is unfair when their books are judged this way.
Hack philosophers and purveyors of 'good will' messages will say you shouldn't.

Instinct overrides it all. We will instinctively judge everything we see on appearances before trying them in any way. Why? Survival depended and still depends on it.

This is smashed cake. Chocolate cake too. Now, do you have any niggling doubts about eating this? Do you wonder why it was smashed, what was used to smash it and whether there are and germs on it now that wouldn't have been before? These are all conscious thoughts related to and justifying your initial hesitation. You might go ahead and say, I don't care, it's all good. You might not but not mind when others go ahead and eat it. Or you might be utterly disgusted by the thought of eating it or others eating it. All are reasonable enough in some way. The poisoned berry does look sweet sometimes and you don't know about poison until you or someone else tries it. Other things like dung and rotten meat look and smell bad to us, showing obvious signs not to get near it and we don't. Many other creatures, dogs definitely excluded, have instinctual negative reactions to such things unless of course it is their food source (dung beetles and flies and vultures).

Books with bad covers look to us like rotten meat. The signs point to nothing much good will coming of eating the rotten meat. 

Bad covers give us signs that there is bad writing within, whether this is accurate or not. Bad covers also let us know that the designer was not in the least inspired about the story. So why should we be. Unfortunately this could just be due to the designer having a lower skill set than his or her competitors.

Still, reasoning aside we will judge the material within by the cover design simply because we always instinctively judge before trying. You cannot stop yourself from doing this, you can only force yourself past it to give the book a try. You may find your initial judgment validated or you may find a gem. There is no guarantee either way.

I believe "You can never tell a book by its cover," as appears in Murder in the Glass Room by Edwin Rolfe and Lester Fuller 1946, is a more applicable saying. This saying doesn't tell you not to judge, just that your judgment shouldn't be given too much weight in the case of books. It isn't likely the book itself will kill you if you touch it or absorb its contents (though in strange cases this might happen when it comes to touch).

Skilled designers and publishers will be aware of the problem and work hard to create enticing book covers, ones that intrigue you and pull you in. They are like flowers, making only sweet promises to the targeted readers.

What makes good book covers?
  • Bright colours appeal to the eye and snag immediate attention. The promise a quick paced read or shocking content.
  • Shading and a stark use of black and white imply intrigue and gritty, tough worlds that will make the reader think on what it is to be.
  • Patterns that appear almost textural and offer the promise of tactile rewards (rarely the ones offered but there is always a tactile reward in holding a book). Patterns also promise complexity within the story.
  • Depth - the use of the small space provided in ways that denotes large spaces, great thoughts or expansive worlds within. This could be the creation of long perspective in landscapes etc, overlaying images to create holes, expanding images past the edge of the page so that the cover obviously cuts them off and overlapping images in a collage format while paying careful attention to colours and shade that create false perspective.
  • Text as art - the use of freeform or beautifully stylised font and its placement or arrangement reflect the structure of the story within just as much as what the title is.
  • Images are arranged in ways not see on the covers of other books. Uniqueness captures our attention while conformity turns our eyes away as we've already seen and experienced that. Distorted images will also draw a potential reader in by 'asking' the potential reader to figure out what's wrong and why.
  • Art conveys a personal touch, offers a direct connection to the author or the main character. Art denotes care, consideration and value so if it appears on a book's cover then the book must be worth such care and consideration as it is valuable.

What makes bad book covers?
  • Bright colours are used but the colours are off putting or badly placed. Glowing figures, badly touched up features, colour bleeds, overuse or the placement of splodges of colour where none is reasonably required. Only in rare cases will the potential reader's recoil or questioning of the colour be a good thing. Usually recoil does not lead to a second glance.
I almost put this in images but the red shirt won out. Really, too much is wrong here. There's also shading and pattern problems.
  • The shading used is too dark, too rough, inappropriate, unnecessary or without adequate gradation. The cover can appear bland, flat or dull.

  • Patterns are sickening to look at. Only in the case of books on illusions or eye tricks will this be a good idea. Potential readers will understand that this is part of the books intent and content. Pattens are also over used so that you can't tell easily one image, item or figure from the next when this isn't required.
  • Depth is either absent, not required or stretched too far. An absence of depth makes the book appear flat and dull while the excess of depth may confuse a potential reader or sicken them as can happen with patterns. Too much depth can also give the impression of over-compensation, like a sales person shoving his wares at you with a brilliant smile and desperate eyes. Also, inappropriate use of depth where none is needed, which is much like the splodging of colour.
  • Text design and placement does not match the story or the genre in any way, whether in line with it or opposing. To draw in a potential reader the elements on the book cover should appear tied together in theme and format unless there is a rare need to show that there is discordance within the story. Even so, there is another design aspect can be used to overlay or establish the discordance. Inappropriate font and placement alone isn't likely to get such a message through.
  • Images used are not tied together correctly, shouldn't be placed together or show a highly improbably scene. Such usage will convey that either the writing is slapdash or the story within isn't going to be very credible. This is as important in fantasy as it is in literature as the likes of fantasy rely heavily on a reader suspending disbelief within very particular parameters. If there is much that is improbable in the cover (a dry person standing in the surf) then the reader will come away with the impression that the story will be improbable, badly constructed and a chore to read.
  • Surprisingly, art is very rarely used on bad covers and this is likely because anything meticulously made cover art is usually made by someone with skills great enough that the story is accurately reflected. Even if it looks like scribble it actually reflects the main character's personality, the state of affairs or the mood of the story. If you see art, whether it is made up of drawings, collages, cartoons, etchings or paintings, you are likely to find a good book within the cover. Still, this is not always the case but blurbs and a quick scan of the first page will likely solve this issue. But if bad art makes it through it practically screams not to go near the book.

Whether you wanted to or not, I'm betting you would have been more interested in the first set of books than the second and yet there is a Kate Elliot and Laurell K Hamilton book in amongst those with bad covers. They might not be your cup of tea but they aren't bad stories.
Cover design does play an important part in our selection and judgment of books so to design good book covers attention must be payed to our instincts and our appreciation of the aesthetic. Discarding such things as a waste of time and effort as the story will convince a potential reader is a very bad thing to do if you want to be successful as either a writer, publisher or designer. Potential readers remain only potential if they aren't drawn in by good looks or curiosity sparked by visual pleasing oddities.

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