Judging books by their covers

Merlin Mann, editor of 43 Folders, who appears to be a personal productivity guru and which appears to be a sort of personal productivity website (among other things: the whole thing, author and endeavor, appears to be very Web 2.0, which I’m not sure I mean as a good thing or a bad thing), offers a reductive checklist of what he considers in evaluating a book when deciding whether to read it.  He applies it mainly to non-fiction by authors he’s never heard of, but a lot of his bullet points are pretty universal:

  • At the highest level, is this book’s topic based on the typical “zeitgeist” product that gets greenlit by someone who watches lots of golf on TV and who seldom finishes reading the 1,000-word “features” found in in-flight magazines?
  • Does the book have one of those irksome, “Everything You Know About Everything is Completely WRONG!” titles?
  • Is the author’s large, whitish face the primary feature of the cover?

Deciding Whether to Read a Book: Some Wildly Reductive Heuristics | 43 Folders.

It set me to wondering.  I used Springsteen and Sinatra as inspiration for my cover, and I still think it looks pretty good.  I’ve been playing around with ideas for covers for other books (one thing that helps me, in my own writing process, is having a visual of the finished object in my head as I’m writing it.  It helps to have something in mind between what the black words on the white page are conjuring in my head, and seems to help me get into a more concrete setting).

I’ve heard lots of marketing theories that break down the amount of time and attention browsers give to prospective book purchases.  Something like a half second on the front cover, another half on the back, a second on the first page . . . it’s amazing how quickly we process and make decisions.  Partly, I believe, the thesis of Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink.

I started to consider my own purchasing habits, which are as follows: go to the remainders table/bargain section, hit novels (I rarely read non-fiction unless of research for stories), search for everything under five bucks, and then consider the covers.  Also the author: I tend to prefer the style of female authors over men (no idea why).  No spaceships or half-torsos (hallmarks of genre-driven science fiction and fantasy).  No quiet family sagas, nor middle-aged-crisis-driven protagonsists who are losing their families and careers and whathaveyou and must face their own demons.

Because seriously, if someone in a story has to face a demon, it had better be a real one.

But I’m interested to know: what do you consider?  What prompts you to take a chance on a book/author you’ve never heard of?

6 Comments

  1. My activities within a bookstore vary a great deal, depending on what bookstore I’m in. There are really two big options here in Denver: Barnes and Noble & The Tattered Cover. The downtown BN’s first floor is dedicated to new releases, novelty, magazines, bargains, and science stuff. I tend to beeline for the magazines first and then meander to science, bargains, and novelty. Then, it’s upstairs for a coffee break. Then, I rummage around political, drama, poetry, and then fiction.

    At Tattered Cover, I never get coffee and I never look at the magazines. I mostly wander around–like I was in a rich old guy’s library–and I tend to spend way too much time in the novelty area. They have cool book-lover type of shit.

    I do judge books by their covers. In fact, most of the books I’ve read I’ve found because the cover looked interesting. I rarely will sit and read the back cover or a few pages. I often will buy something because I’m familiar with the author and know they’re reliable. Other times, I rely on word of mouth–though, it usually takes me a long time to act on those suggestions.

  2. LISA NOYES

    *sigh*

    It feels like an eternity since I’ve bought myself a book. Though Ethan’s collection is growing like mad… it seems the only books I’ve been reading lately are Dr. Seuss – or else I’m reading coin/gemology books.

    When I do shop for books, I’m definitely into the covers – but, I take forever picking books, I like to read the intros (they’re what usually grab me).

    I walked into a bookstore this summer, because I’d never been there before and was able to walk from the house. Then I realized what kind of a bookstore it was (all books about God). I wasn’t there too long.

  3. KRISTEN

    It’s all about the packaging, in my opinion. It’s natural for people to gravitate toward items that are wrapped in pretty packages, whether it be books or cosmetics or shampoo bottles or particular brands of dog food. I buy Loreal cosmetics simply because I like the way they’re packaged, not because they work any better than, say, Maybelline.

    People judge books (both literally and figuratively) by their covers constantly, whether they realize they’re doing it or not. Marketing is an extremely powerful selling tool in the modern world, and I think if more authors accepted this fact instead of calling it a “sell-out” method of getting their books sold, more authors (assuming said authors are actually worth reading, mind you) would see increases in sales. Authors need to start seeing themselves as a brand in the same way other “artists” do.

    Titles of books are also insanely important. It’s funny how over the years, book titles (in general) have become shorter ‘n sweeter (I took a history class over the summer in which the author of the textbook quoted from various classic titles [both academic and commercial], and every single one of those titles was, like, fifteen words long). Then again, I suppose they have to be in the ADD society we live in today.

  4. GOTHAMGIRL

    “Because seriously, if someone in a story has to face a demon, it had better be a real one.”

    THANK YOU! I saw online a trailer for a movie called Fire Proof. the first ten secound show a fire fighter saving a lady from a train. it’s about his relationship with his wife and God. ??? Why is a movie called fare proof when it’s not about a supernatural fire fighter who is FIRE PROOF!I know that wasn’t a book thing, but the same principle applies.

    In a book store I go to the same areas you do. (side note: some genious at Barnes and boble put a Geisha romance novel next to Harry Potter. I only noticed because the title was Blonde Geisha and I’m like, “Hey!” at first. Then I saw what it was about and that is was romance and was like “heeeeeeeeell no.”) The most amount of books I bout was when a Barnes and noble had a huge sticker sale, three books for $7. *Drools* Most of them were not fiction. Why? Because alot of fiction dosn’t appeal to me but alot of sunjects do. If it’s Egyptian I’m drawn immediately. The best book i got from that sale was called Seductress. It’s historical accounts of some of the greatest seductresses of all time. Some of them were old, ugly, and/or poor but they all got the men they wanted. it’s not fiction, but their stories are worth reading.

    I guess I just study a book and my wallet till I either buy it or put it down.

  5. The title and the cover get my attention. I won’t pick up a book if I think the title or the cover are awful–unless I know I already want the book (like it’s by Margaret Atwood or Neil Gaiman).

    I buy fiction. Or books about fiction.

    A cover may not tell you if the book is any good, but I think it tells you something about the publisher’s belief in the book.

  6. Embarrassing to admit but I also search through the clearance section first before venturing elsewhere! I rarely ever buy a novel when it first comes out; I always wait for it to go on sale! But having said that, the title grabs my attention first … then the front cover … then the back. And … if I’m walking out the door, reading it as I head for the car … then I’m thinking it’s gonna be really REALLY good!

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