Judging a Book by its Cover (again)

My customers sometimes get sheepish when they admit they’re choosing a book because they like how it looks. “I know you can’t judge a book by its cover…” they say, trailing off in embarrassment. I immediately reassure them. “Oh yes, you can,” I reply.

You can tell quite a lot about a book by its cover. And that’s intentional.

Publishers have developed certain design conventions for different sorts of books. These design styles indicate to the reader what kind of book it is. The reader might not even be aware of this. They may simply see a book and think: that looks like the kind of book I like.

Here are some examples.

Years ago I used to get upset as I saw more and more books being published with pictures on the front of women in period costume with their backs to the viewer. “Don’t these women deserve to have a face?” I complained.

But the style stuck, and soon it came to represent an entire genre: historical fiction. (Or maybe, specifically, historical women’s fiction.)

Go take a look in your neighborhood bookstore at the table of historical fiction. Every book will look like this:

You don’t even have to think about it; these books signal. You don’t have to waste time and read the back cover copy. If you like one, you’ll like them all. Step right this way, historical fiction reader. These books are for you.

Self-help is another genre that has a very specific style. The title is usually in a blocky san-serif font (san-serif is without the little tails and decorations that appear on a serif font. Think Arial vs. Times Roman.) This big title will usually be on a solid color background with no or very little art. It is trying to look authoritative and reliable. We don’t mess around, it says. We get right to the point and we’re here to help you.

Other genres have their particular styles as well, although they may not be as straightforward. I can always tell literary fiction, for example (which is what I prefer to read). It looks artsy.

Mystery/thrillers tend to resemble each other as well, often with that blocky type, but in a vivid color, and often with a dark background, like this:

Of course you’re going to judge a book by how it’s written, how much it helps you, and how much you like it. But judging by the cover is step one, so don’t be ashamed to jump to conclusions based on what you see on the front of a book.

Author: Lynn Rosen

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