Why We Judge Books by Their Covers

Words by Jovi Revil and Luna Zabala

Art by Liane Baylosis and Sienna Buntile

Picture this: you’re in a bookstore and you only have enough money to buy one, lucky book. You’re on a tight schedule — you don’t have enough time or energy to read through all the blurbs, so you head to the fiction aisle to narrow your options. One book immediately catches your eye. On the cover, there’s a green pair of lips holding a cigarette against a bold pink backdrop. The Woman Destroyed, it says, written by Simone de Beauvoir. You read the summary, and you’re hooked! You don’t give any of the other books a second glance and head to the register to snag a copy. It doesn’t matter that there are other books more suited to your tastes or budget — this is the one. Love or hate its story, this specific book has made its way to your shelf, winning against thousands of other books. But why did it win?


Easy: you liked the cover.


As much as we try not to, we can’t help but judge books by their covers. Whether it’s the witty typography, strong composition, or the charming portrayal of the main character, book covers play a role in our literary purchases, from why we like the books we read to why we choose to read them in the first place. Like it or not, we'll have to veto what mom always says –– we do judge books by their covers. But that isn't necessarily a bad thing! Keep reading to find out why.

1. First Impressions Last

Book covers are your first impression of a book. They’re a taste test of the real deal –– and whether or not the story will be to your liking. Seeing an off-putting cover is enough for a potential reader to put the book back on the shelf, not even picking it up to give the blurb a chance. Sometimes, it won’t even matter if the story is really, really good, even Pulitzer-level excellent — if it has a half-baked cover, it will be much more difficult to attract an audience. A good cover is a book’s way of saying “Pick me! Choose me! Love me!”. It wants us to see that it’s not like other books, it’s different.


Take Flipped, for instance, which shows us a chick, quite literally, flipped. Without even reading the blurb, we know that chickens will be involved, somehow –– perhaps the main character has the power to talk to poultry, or maybe it’s symbolic in that the main character is a chicken chicken... You don’t know! The cover gives you just enough intel to be interested, but not too much that it will spoil the plot. It’s basically a preview into what you can expect once you flip to the first page, hinting at just enough information to keep you on your toes, but it’s ultimately up to you to take the bait.


2. Information Overload


In an era of information overload, it’s only natural that we want (and need!) to be discerning with the media we consume. You can’t possibly watch every movie, listen to every song, or read every book in the world. So in this sense, book covers become a sort of visual “tagging system” that allows you to instantly identify which books might fit your vibe, saving you the precious 20 seconds that it takes to read the blurb at the back.


Do you like romance? You might like this book cover that has two people holding hands! Or maybe you’re into steampunk fantasy novels a little more –– then, in this case, you’re more likely to gravitate towards books with cog and gear-laden covers. Whether it’s a noir mystery displaying a detective in fedora-and-trench-coat (bonus if it’s billowing!) attire or a YA dystopia set in a war-ravaged Western city, book covers act as genre filters for your type when you have too many options. They’re kind of like dating apps, in this regard –– there’s an age range, for one, and you have to like what you see before matching.

3. Quality Indicator

While certain elements in book covers really get some readers going, none of them really matter if the cover itself doesn’t look like it’s of quality. You could be into romance novels and drawn to sappy-looking covers, but if the two people holding hands on the cover were sourced from a Google search of “people holding hands clipart”, we guarantee that you’re not that likely to pick it up. This is because good covers can also indicate the quality of a book. Passing buyers are more likely to pick up on the effort the author and designer put into the cover, displaying the book’s potential to be, you know, a really good book.


Like everything of quality: good books take time, painstaking revision, and utmost care. Readers want to see this effort translated into the cover, as most won’t be able to gather that from a fleeting skim in the bestsellers category, especially if the cover only shows black text on a white canvas. Good books have the whole package –– good on the inside and the outside.

In short, it’s all about showing you a book’s capacity to be your next favorite read. The literary industry churns out millions of books every year, yet only twelve books on average make it home to our nightstands (Perrin, 2015), just small fish in a never-ending sea. Remember, the reading experience doesn’t start on the first page; it begins with the cover. So don’t feel too bad for skipping the cover with the Wingdings font and vomit-green layout –– if you don’t think it’s worth picking up, it might not be the book for you! Beyond the blurb, plot, title, and author, the cover is just as instrumental to choosing your next read. Trust your judgment! So when you lock eyes with that book across the room –– it’s probably the one.

References:

Perrin, A. (2020, May 30). Slightly fewer Americans are reading print books, new survey finds.

Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/10/19/slightly-fewer-americans-are-reading-print-books-new-survey-finds/

R., G. (2021, October 8). Why “Don’t judge a book by its cover” is bad advice. BOOK RIOT. https://bookriot.com/dont-judge-a-book-by-its-cover/amp/

Why it's okay to judge a book by its cover. (n.d.). Geeks. https://vocal.media/geeks/why-it-s-okay-to-judge-a-book-by-its-cover

Yes, we DO judge a book by its cover. (2012, November 2). Jeff Goins. https://goinswriter.com/book-cover/