Judging a Cover by Its Book

Don’t judge a book by its cover. How many times have we heard this old adage? How many times have we done just this sort of thing when shopping for a new book to read? I’ve done it. You’ve probably done it too.

With thousands of titles for a reader to choose from, a book cover can either give a book an edge in the sales line or bury it in the bargain bin. It’s difficult not to be pulled in by a beautifully designed cover that attracts your attention and stimulates your imagination as you’re walking down the aisles of your local bookstore. You stop and scan the tables and the shelves, letting your eyes linger on images that are interesting and pleasing.

There are no two ways about it…book covers can help to sell books. But how well do they reflect what’s inside? Sometimes the cover perfectly reflects the essence of the story  and sometimes the cover doesn’t come close to the novel or completely misrepresents the book. Choosing a novel should be about what lies beneath the cover, but we have become dependent upon the visual clues on the cover that are meant to help us decipher if this book is our “type” of fiction.

The real question is how well do book covers do their job? To help answer this question, I asked a few book bloggers to judge a book cover of their choice by the book that it is supposed to represent. You may be surprised by some of the responses.


Georgia McBride
Blog: Georgia McBride Books

Book: Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

I was first turned on to Twilight by my brother-in-law (you read that right) back in 2007. He knew I was penning a young adult novel and mentioned I might be interested in Twilight. With no time to read (and feeling later as if I had been living under a rock)—I feverishly pumped out 170,00 words in three months and set my novel aside.

I picked up Twilight and upon first seeing the cover mused, “I thought he said this book was about vampires.” I found while reading the book and once done, I was drawn to the cover and its not so subtle implications. It was perfectly simplistic and complex all at once. The apple, known to many as a forbidden fruit/taboo is being offered by someone who is not scary—like a snake or even an evil, crumpled up old lady like in Snow White–but someone who is seemingly harmless, someone who may even look very much like the reader, someone you would never suspect is capable of harm.

The colors–black, white and red are used in a way to draw the reader to the book and away from everything else on the shelves in much the same way that Bella is drawn to Edward and away from everything and everyone else. It is the perfect use of design, color and content. It takes imagery we are already familiar with and twists is just enough to make it new and exciting so that we want to know what’s beneath the pages. Who will fall for the forbidden fruit and what will become of them? What is the forbidden fruit? And why is it forbidden? It’s also an amazing visual stunt in that the reader is being offered the forbidden fruit. Do you dare take it? The original Twilight cover is by far one of the best of the past decade.


Chelsea Mueller
Blog: Vampire Book Club

Book: Under Wraps by Hannah Jayne

The main character of Hannah Jayne’s Under Wraps isn’t a fighter. Sophie is sweet and determined, but when taken to the gun range it takes her all day to learn not to shoot the floor or the ceiling. She tries to store her new weapon in the refrigerator. She doesn’t like weapons. And you won’t find her fighting physically. And with that, I can say I have no idea who that sword-wielding badass on the cover is supposed to be, because it sure as hell isn’t Sophie.

The novel is fun, light urban fantasy, but the cover would have readers expecting a woman who kicks ass and takes names.


Jessica Estep
Blog: Confessions of a Bookaholic

Book: Perfect Chemistry by Simone Elkeles

I admit that I put a lot of faith in book covers. It’s the first thing that catches my eye and I will add, or not add, books based on a cover. I’ve had this backfire quite a few times. Occasionally I’ll pass over a book that turns out to be amazing, or read a book with a beautiful cover that turns out to be …not so great. One book in particular helped me see the error of my ways.

Perfect Chemistry by Simone Elkeles was a book I had heard of, but the cover seemed so boring to me. I read reviews that gushed about the book and the characters, but I just didn’t see the pull from the cover. Then one day I decided to give it a chance. I was blown away! It was, and continues to be, one of the best young adult books I have ever read. If it hadn’t been for the bloggers singing the praises of this title, I would never have picked it up on my own.

The funny thing about this cover is that it does, completely, represent the book. This is exactly how I would picture the characters. I just think it’s something a reader may not appreciate until after they have read the story. After connecting with the characters in the book, I loved the cover. I saw the significance of the couple and it helped me connect more with the story. In some cases, this can happen in the opposite way. A cover helps the reader get a glimpse at the book, and then the story brings the pieces together.

Covers are a funny thing and I think it’s impossible to say that they don’t matter. People are visual. We see things that interest us first, then we read the summary and decide if it’s something we may enjoy. Publishers spend thousands of dollars deciding what covers to use for a story. Recently I have been amazed at some of the outstanding covers they have come up with. As a blogger, I don’t see books in the same way I did before. In the past I would enter a book store, browse around, and only pick up books with a cover that grabbed my interest. Now, I may see a cover first, but I make sure to always read about the book as well. I know now that I could miss out on some amazing stories if I judge a book by its cover.


Blog: Satisfaction for Insatiable Readers

Book: Eyes Like Stars by Lisa Mantchev

The cover for Eyes Like Stars may not show a lot of action, but it does reflect the story well. Bertie’s unique look (blue hair and all), her fairy friends (even if they are trouble makers at times), the all eyes on her situation that she finds herself in (see all the lights/eyes in the audience just beyond the curtain?), and her determination (with a bit of mischief) to see things come out all right in the end (hence the look in her sideways glance) are all equally represented and in beautifully magnificent colors to boot.

All the world is a stage…and for Bertie (as the cover suggests) it’s her WHOLE world.


Blog: He Followed Me Home…Can I Keep Him?

Book: The DUFF by Kody Keplinger

It is sad to say that we judge books by their cover, but first impressions have a huge impact. in deciding what books make it to the wishlist. I remember reading reviews of The DUFF by Kody Keplinger, yet the cover did nothing to grab me at all. Had it not been for those glowing reviews I doubt I would have picked this one up. You know what, The DUFF ended up being one of my favorite reads last year!

I am not a big fan of faces on the cover, let alone a face being the entire cover. I chalk this up to wanting to visualize the character in my own head. The girl is depicted blowing a bubble with matching aquamarine colored eyeshadow, nothing that jumped out at me causing me to wonder who she is nor what the book is about. In fact, it brought back those horrible memories of Grade 7 and blue eyeliner…oh how I thought I looked so cool!

After reading The DUFF, I have a greater appreciation for this cover. The DUFF is about those odd teenage years as told from the perspective of a neurotic, sarcastic teen sadly given the title Designated Ugly Fat Friend. The simple cover perfectly captures those awkward moment’s in a teens life and the main character’s attitude all in one! I’d give it two thumbs up for perfectly depicting the story but not in making the book stand out as a must read, which it is!


Shiai Mata
Blog: Slayerlit

Book: Witchery: A Ghost of Albion Novelby Amber Benson and Christopher Golden

I think that the cover to Witchery: A Ghost of Albion Novel is particularly striking.  I recall that when it was published, a number of people online said how much they liked it (and a few wondered aloud if the woman on the cover was Alyson Hannigan; clearly, it’s not, but there is a passing resemblance).  I think many people assume that authors help design their book covers, but in fact its the publishers who generally handle that exclusively.

At any rate, I’ve always liked it, so imagine my sense of betrayal when I found that the cover girl was playing the field!

Obviously, the same stock photo was used both times, and the publisher of Becoming Lucy probably had no idea it had already been used.  It is kind of funny, when you think about it.  🙂


Erin Underwood
Blog: Underwords

Book: Possessions by Nancy Holder

I’m adding the Possessions cover last since I am admittedly biased on this book. Here’s another case where the publisher changed the cover image. My guess is that the change was made to better reflect the story and to attract readers who would be interested in a dark fiction/horror ghost story. The original cover (see right) depicts the image of a wide-eyed, dark haired girl who is standing in front of a nondescript house, which doesn’t capture the story in the slightest. In fact, the cover fails to adequately reflect the genre, the characters, or the storylines within the novel.

The new cover is gorgeous (see left). More to the point, the new Possessions cover targets with pin point accuracy the ghost story that fills the pages. In Possessions, Lindsay finds herself in a new private school that is haunted by ghosts who are tied to the mysterious black lake on the edge of the property – and one of those ghosts wants to possess Lindsay at all costs.

The beauty of this cover is that you see the double image of the girl as she emerges from the black lake, but you don’t know which image is the ghost and which one is Lindsay. Not only is the cover beautifully illustrated, it’s also a perfect visual metaphor that accurately represents this chilling young adult ghost story. Anyone who picks up this novel will be expecting a spooky read…and they will get exactly that!


There are a lot of books out there. We’d love to know what you think. Have you read any of these books? Do you agree with the analysis of these covers? Is there a cover that you think does a particularly good or bad job representing its book? Let us know how you would judge a cover by its book.

*Note: Due to an error on my part, I’ve removed the response to the Storm Front cover.”

About Erin Underwood

BIO: Erin Underwood is the senior event content producer for MIT Technology Review’s emerging technology events. On the side, she reads, writes, and edits SF.
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13 Responses to Judging a Cover by Its Book

  1. Terri-Lynne says:

    I have to be perfectly honest, and this makes me cringe–I have to agree with the Twilight cover. Yes, I’m one of THOSE who could not get past the first few pages. It’s just not my bag, and that’s all I’ll say. But that cover is perfect. Had I known nothing of the book, I’d have bought it FOR it’s cover.

    A really great thing about small press is that not only did I get to choose my cover, I got to choose my artist. We worked together, the artist, my editor, and me, to get exactly what we wanted. I love my cover, because it perfectly captures the gist of the WHOLE book. Not a single city, not a character at a particular time, but Jesse managed to get ALL cities, and ALL versions of that character in one image.

    Covers do get me. They do. I won’t pass up a book for a bad cover, but a good cover will snag me.

    • I feel the same way about the Twilight cover. The images are simple and iconic. When paired with a book, it hooks me because I want to know what that book is about. 🙂 I hate admitting that I do love a good cover!

      I have no idea if this will work, but I’m going to “try” to add Terri-Lynn’s cover for Finder to this comment.

  2. Terri-Lynne says:

    Cool! ha! Thanks, Erin. 🙂

  3. Lydia says:

    I am a voracious reader and surround myself with books I read a lot of classics. But how do I choose a contemporary book to read? I want to answer this in two parts if I may.

    1. I used to read a certain genre for the most part as in romance. I read a lot of them and it was based on favorite authors. I got most of my books from the library. Many romance authors write books as a part a series. Some I enjoyed some I did not. Those that I did not enjoy, I simply returned and had no angst on money spent over something I did not enjoy. When I bought a book, it was based on the content, not the cover. I bought books based on the NY Times Best seller or if I loved a particular book in the library and wanted to own it. I figured if a book was popular enough to sustain the interest of a lot of people or if I loved it enough to read multiple times, I did not mind spending money on it. The NY Times best sellers I did not like, I donated them or sold them to used book stores for credit. Those were my criteria for choosing books to buy, not the cover. I rarely bought books based on the spur of the moment. This worked for a long time.
    2. I own a kindle now. I buy most of my books online. I have not been to a book store in ages so I rarely see covers. I still go to the library, but mostly for others. I look to book blogs I trust as well as the NY Times best seller list, the Kindle best seller list and so on. I have ventured into non-fiction as well. And audio books especially when they became more portable on devices like the Ipod have become a part of my ‘reading’ as well.

    In the end, I am a bit of a tight wad and look for ‘value’, so I am rarely spontaneous. I do not buy a book by its cover, I look at reviews or best seller lists.

    • On a related topic.

      I read primarily on my Kindle now. I absolutely love it. I used to buy books that I’d take home and never get around to reading. However, with my Kindle, I find that I not only read all of the books I buy shortly after buying them, but I tend to be more effective in buying books that I actually enjoy. I’m still pondering this odd change.

      However, I still do enjoy “cover watching.” 🙂

      • Lydia says:

        I am not a cover watcher. I am more into old books with cracked spines, notes written in the margin and well loved as a collector :).

        You have to wonder though with more and more books becoming digital and as brick and mortar book stores go the way of the record stores, will the cover of a book have any value in selling a book ? You hardly see the cover of a book if you are buying from amazon. And almost nothing if you are buying from a kindle. But you do see reviews. And that has helped me decide most of all. I have not bought a book I did not enjoy so far on the kindle like you. I cannot say that about a brick and mortar store.

  4. Karen Dales says:

    The fact of the matter is that people DO judge a book by its cover and that is why it is very important for publishers to make sure that the covers of their books not only catch the eye of the reader (regardless of the topic matter). The eyes go first to the art work, then to the title. If the title and the artwork “agree” with each other and support the buyer into turning over to read the blurb on the back, then you’re half way there. It takes, on average, 8 (eight) seconds to either sell or dismiss a book and the cover takes up most of the time. That’s why I’m very happy with the covers of my novels. When people come to my table at a con or at a signing, I do invite them to “please, judge the book by the cover.” If the cover isn’t spectacular to catch the eye then people will not bother to pick it up. Once they pick it up, then you have a greater chance of them buying it (either right then or later). It’s all about marketing.

  5. Domini says:

    Heads up on the Storm Front book covers–I think the reviewer got them turned around. The cover with the lightning on it is the ORIGINAL cover. The cover with the guy on it is the re-done cover by Christian McGrath. You’ll note the one with lightning is reminiscent of the original Anita Blake covers, which is what the Dresden Files was mainly competing with when it first came out, before the urban fantasy genre sort of shifted to girls with tattoos and bare backs for the coverart.

    • Thank you so much. That was actually my mistake and I am thrilled to be corrected!

      The idea of losing the iconic image of Harry Dresden on the cover really bothered me. I did some more digging and you’re right. The cover with the house and moon is the first edition cover. Whew! Although this cover does seem to be targeted at a wider audience, I really don’t think it does a good job of conveying the type of story that a reader will get when she picks up a Dresden Files novel. The new covers, featuring Harry Dresden, do a much better job of setting the tone and feel of the novels.

      Thank you so much for the correction. To avoid confusing people, I’m going to remove that section of the post.

      Thanks again!

  6. I am also dismayed by our propensity to pick up a book because of the cover, but we’re visual animals. C’est la vie. I’d have to agree with the rest of you about the cover for Twilight, and deconstructing why it’s so successful is an interesting exercise and probably gives clues to what makes for a really successful choice in book covers.
    1. A book cover shouldn’t tell you the STORY. It should tell you the THEME of the story.
    as a piece of fiction, I found Twilight very hard to read, nonetheless, the cover focuses on the theme – temptation, innocence and its loss, the forbidden
    2. A picture IS worth a thousand words and semiotically rich images communicate a lot to a potential reader, but it’s worth remembering that semiotics are culturally dependent.
    the young girl’s hands offering the perfect apple is, as you pointed out, semiotically rich, but only to westerners. I’ve had Asians who bought Twilight in translation and remarked – I thought this was going to be a happy novel about prosperity
    3. Covers designs should obey good graphic design practice – ONE STRONG VISUAL MESSAGE. Not many. Too often covers attempt to be the equivalent of a still from a movie or try to get too many visual messages in at once. This is particularly true of a lot of romance, fantasy and science fiction novels. Take a look at the difference in terms of striking, eye-catching imagery:

    Rondezvous with Rama:
    Old cover: http://www.sffaudio.com/images09/BRILRendezvousWithRama500.jpg
    New Cover: http://www.manyebooks.org/data/soft_img/Rama_Series.jpg
    The theme isn’t about alien spaceships – that’s the genre. The THEME is about the revelation that we are not alone in the universe. So the second cover is much more powerful.

    • Wow! The difference between the two Rondezvous with Rama covers is striking. The new one is perfect. Not only does it do an excellent job of conveying the theme, but it stirs my curiosity. I really love the change. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Rosie Lane says:

    I am a sucker for iconic covers. Something with an iconic cover is infinitely more likely to get my attention than people on book covers, particularly if the image is a photo. At the moment I’m reading based on recommendations, which is probably a good thing because very few of them would have made it to the bookshop checkout based on the cover.

    I wouldn’t have touched Under Wraps with a ten foot pole based on the cover, but from the description, it sounds like I would enjoy it. Likewise nothing would possess me to take Perfect Chemistry to the checkout. The only thing that puts me off more than couples on my covers is vampire bites.

    I can’t believe the striking difference between the Possessions covers. Loathe the first one, would pick the book up in a heartbeat based on the second one.

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