My lifelong love of the printed word, my extra-curricular work as a graphic designer, and my job as an editor: these are the three aspects of my life that have coalesced to form a cocktail of disdain towards a particularly hideous bugbear of mine: terrible book covers.
Now, before you point out that ‘you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover’, I certainly do agree that the quality of text within a book is not 100% guaranteed to be either awful or good, depending on the prettiness of the cover. However, there are reasons why many books with awful covers are neither commercially successful, nor critically acclaimed.
In most cases, self-published authors, and authors who are attached to less reputable publishers, are both the perpetrators and victims of bad book cover crime. When design is done 'on-the-cheap' by the authors themselves, or by those with a tenuous grasp of design principles, the results are often abysmal. A dull, uninspired, or downright ugly book carries no allure for the bookstore browser*, and it runs the risk of not properly conveying the overall tone of the story being told. As a consequence, the book may not sell.
Let’s think about how you’d normally behave whilst browsing in a bookstore. After skimming along the shelf for titles or authors that grab you, head cocked to one side, you’ll eventually settle on a winner, pull it off the shelf and scan its cover. Now, tell me, which of the two books below do you think will be written in a thoughtful way by a self-aware person, and which will you quietly place back on the shelf and back away slowly?**
On Seeing and Noticing by Alain de Botton and Princess Gives it Away by Dabio...or Dab10? Who cares.
* The same principle applies to online bookstores.
**The answer is the Alain de Botton one, although you may be morbidly curious to learn why someone would graft a Yorkshire Terrier's head to their chest.
The origins of the phrase, ‘You can’t judge a book by its cover’, can be traced back to this passage in The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot (1900):
‘The History of the Devil by Daniel Defoe; not quite the right book for a little girl," said Mr. Riley, "How came it among your books, Tulliver?"
Maggie looked hurt and discouraged, while her father said, "Why, it's one o' the books I bought at Partridge's sale. They was all bound alike, it's a good binding, you see, and I thought they'd be all good books. There's Jeremy Taylor's 'Holy Living and Dying' among 'em ; I read in it often of a Sunday." (Mr. Tulliver felt somehow a familiarity with that great writer because his name was Jeremy); "and there 's a lot more of 'em, sermons mostly, I think ; but they've all got the same covers, and I thought they were all o' one sample, as you may say. But it seems one mustn't judge by th' outside. This is a puzzlin' world."
Fun Fact: George Eliot's real name was Mary Ann Evans, and she operated under a pseudonym to be taken seriously as a writer. But she does look like a George, so I guess it all worked out for the best.
As mentioned before, a bad cover doesn’t always signify a bad book, however you can question the judgment of an author who settles on a horrible cover to sell their work. Among the many traits that exemplify the ideals of good writer (discipline, passion, imagination, humour, curiosity), chief amongst these is self-awareness.
To have a desire to learn more about the wider world, and how your thoughts and ideas come across to others, as well as being willing to acknowledge your faults and work hard at smoothing them out is key to producing a resonant piece of work, and not becoming a Tommy Wiseau or David Brent-esque laughing stock. Sadly, a huge proportion of budding (and embarrassingly, experienced) authors lack self-awareness, and thus, here are the results:
1. Naww, they tried.
2. Derivative Drivel.
3. Sometimes, sex doesn't sell.
4. Help, my eyes are vomitting.
5. I...don't know what's happening.
6. How to do it right.
Parting Advice: Hire a freelance graphic designer to design your book cover. It's relatively inexpensive, and people may actually want to pick up and read your story, rather than throw it in a fire, or worse, write snarky, mean-spirited articles about it.