Book Lab: Judging a Book By Its Cover Is (Mostly) Legit

That old axiom about judging books by their covers? It’s bullcrap. You can totally do it—and with a reasonable degree of success. That’s what our most recent Book Lab experiment proved: most of the books we chose lived up to our cover-based expectations. (Click here for the setup.)

This is not to say that the cover is always going to be a good measure of a book’s contents—both Jennifer and I were disappointed in our books, despite their appealing covers. But book designers are trying to depict something about the essence of each book with the covers they create.

November’s mental_floss magazine included an interview with book designer Keith Hayes about this very subject (one of Hayes’ more well-known covers is Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch). Contrary to what I’d expected, Hayes says “You can’t start a design from what you think a buyer is going to like….We think about what sums up the story, how we interpret the story. Then: is it going to be beautiful and grab someone’s attention…?”

He also admits “There are tropes…they think women on covers sell books. Feet were a big thing a couple years back. So were silhouettes. And records on book covers….Marketing or sales will often say to make it red, make it bright. But if everything is bright and red, nothing’s going to stand out.”

Let’s get down to it: the books, the readers, and our conclusions.


SophieStarkJennifer’s book: The Life and Death of Sophie Stark by Anna North

Did you enjoy the book? Why or why not?

Jennifer: Ugh. No. The title suggests that Sophie Stark is interesting enough that people will care about her life and death. But I kept waiting for her to die, I wanted her to die! The writing was good, but the story wasn’t interesting. There wasn’t a compelling reason for Sophie Stark’s suicide, she’s just a depressed artist.

Now that you’ve read the book, do you think the cover is representative of the story?

Jennifer: The cover made me think of fine art, but the book was about these sort of low-culture coffeehouse types. So, no.


40daysPetra’s book: Forty Days Without Shadow by Olivier Truc

Did you enjoy the book? Why or why not?

Petra: “I loved my book! I loved it so much that I read it too quickly, and when I’d finished I didn’t know who the killer was! I had to go back and re-read parts of it. The story had a lot of history and culture and racial tension—and of course, lots of snow!

Now that you’ve read the book, do you think the cover is representative of the story?

Petra: “Yes, there’s snow! And it looks sort of intense, which it is. The title is a little misleading because it takes place above the Arctic Circle, and you’d think that the forty days without shadow would refer to the time of total darkness, but in fact the story takes place during the time when the days are growing longer and longer.”


geometrySuzanne’s book was The Geometry of Love by Jessica Levine

Did you enjoy the book? Why or why not?

Suzanne: (sighing heavily) “No. It was boring. The plot was predictable, plodding, overly ambitious. It tried to be too cute.

Now that you’ve read the book, do you think the cover is representative of the story?

Suzanne: “The cover did match the story—it was boring.”

But you picked it!

Suzanne: “I was attracted to it because it looked different than what I’d normally read; I thought it would be sophisticated, but it was dull. I should have just been myself and chose a book with a dragon or something like that on the cover.”


tenacityNedra’s book was Tenacity by J. S. Law

Did you enjoy the book? Why or why not?

Nedra: “Yes! Oddly enough, it’s another book about submarines. But I liked the ending, it’s kind of open-ended, and leaves you hanging.”

Now that you’ve read the book, do you think the cover is representative of the story?

Nedra: “Not exactly. The cover has this scope on the front, but only a small part of the story takes place on a submarine—the rest takes place elsewhere. But it still grabbed my attention, and I liked the book enough to want to read other books by this author.


silverswanE. D.’s book (yours truly) was The Silver Swan by Elena Delbanco

Did you enjoy the book? Why or why not?

E. D.: “Meh. The quote on the front from Alan Cheuse, NPR’s book commentator, promises ‘beautifully flowing prose from beginning to end’ and so I thought I was really in for a treat. The writing was good, but it didn’t stand out to me as especially poetic. My main problem with the book was that it was utterly predictable. I saw all the major plot ‘twists’ from the very beginning.

The most interesting part of the novel was the effed-up dynamic between the protagonist, Mariana, and her father, but when the book opens, her father is already dead, and the relationship can only be examined by readers via Mariana’s memories and hindsight.

A lot of the plot is wasted, in my opinion, on the protagonist’s love affair with this smarmy guy, and she doesn’t do much self-examination. It’s clear to readers that she’s been scarred by her relationship with her father and seeks emotionally unavailable men, but this is just as tedious in a character as it is in real life. There’s no redemption, and there’s also no sense of resignation, either.

The best part is when she goes a little cray and steals the Silver Swan—I wished she was like that throughout the novel. I liked reading about the cellos and the music and the reality of being a world-class concert musician—that was all very interesting, and was written about with sensitivity. But over all, the story was a letdown.

Now that you’ve read the book, do you think the cover is representative of the story?

E. D. “Yes. There’s a woman and a cello on the cover, and the woman looks sad and serious and introspective.”


So there you have it. Judging a book by its cover is completely legit—although it helps to read the inside flap. (I’m also a big believer in the page 69 test). It’s not earth-shattering news, but for those of you who feel like jerks about superficially judging books, you can stop now. Book designers spend a lot of time and creative energy on those covers—they are meant to be judged. So fly your aesthetic flag, whatever colors or mascots it may feature—dragons included.





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