A Case for Judging a Book by its Cover / by Neal Auch

A little while back I posted a review of Jack Ketchum's The Girl Next Door, wherein I made the mistaken claim that Ketchum (or his publisher) had intentionally paired this very upsetting and adult story with a cover that made the book look as though it were intended for a YA audience.  I found the incongruence between the goofy cartoonish cover art and the disturbing contents of the novel to be so striking that I imagined it must reflect intentional effort to produce a subversive art piece.  It turns out I was wrong in this interpretation.  Nevertheless, I left my original review largely intact because I think it's a good launching point for an argument I've been wanting to make for a while: the choice of cover art on books (and music albums) matters.

I suspect this is going to be an unpopular opinion; at some level it sounds like I'm literally arguing that one should judge a book by its cover, contrary to what your mother taught you.  Indeed, most of my friends whom I've discussed this with seem to disagree with me, so I'm going to be careful to emphasize that I am absolutely not arguing that cover art is more important than the contents of a novel, nor am I trying to claim that good cover art could salvage a terrible book, nor am I going to claim that terrible cover art ruins a great book.  What I do want to say is that I think cover art matters more than most authors and publishers seem to think it does, it influences the branding of the art piece, and it influences the way a reader approaches the book.  For this reason I think the publishing industry might do well to consider putting a bit more care into the visual aspect of the presentation of their product. 

Before proceeding I should also mention the obvious caveat here that the contents of this blog are just my own personal opinions, these posts are not supposed to be rigorously researched academic arguments, nor are my "reviews" and "critiques" intended to be anything more than just my own personal thoughts and feelings about the work I'm discussing.  (Another caveat: the argument that follows is probably much stronger when we're discussing physical media than when we're talking about mp3 files or e-books.)

With all that being said, let's get a little bit abstract for a moment.  Most people tend to draw a strong distinction between those things that influence the actual value of a commercial product (say the quality of ingredients in a candy bar) and things that influence only the perceived value of the product (like changing the packaging of the candy bar).  And this distinction seems sensible: who cares about the packaging of your food, it's the taste that matters, right?  But, while it may seem counter intuitive, there is actually a pretty sensible argument to be made that the distinction between "real" and "perceived" value is more or less meaningless.  There are loads of examples and studies in advertising and economics to support this view.  To make this position seem more plausible it's useful to consider the extreme example of a restaurant that smells of sewage and has human shit on the tables.  Cleaning the place up only changes the perceived value of the meal, not the actually food quality.  But ask yourself: does it really fucking matter how good the food tastes? 

This kind of thinking is actually fairly well supported by data.  There are lots of different studies out there but let's take, for example, this study where it was found that the same wine tastes better to participants when they are told it's more expensive.  And this isn't just about the participants claiming that the ostensibly more expensive wine tasted better to fake being wine savvy.  MRI measurements of participants' brain activity actually showed more activity in regions associated with reward.  Telling your dinner guests that the wine is more expensive genuinely does make it taste better to them!  Now, to be clear: this isn't magic and this marketing placebo effect has limits.  This kind of placebo effect won't make a shit wine taste amazing, for example, as the researchers noted in their study.  But it will make a good wine taste great.  Rory Sutherland has some fun TED talks on the subject here and here.

The analogy with book cover art (or album cover art, or movie posters, or whatever) is straightforward.  The contents of the book are generally treated as being the "real" value of the product, while the cover art influences only perceived value.  I'm simply arguing that -- like the ambience in a restaurant or the packaging of a candy bar or the price tag on a wine bottle -- the choice of cover art has a subtle but real effect on the reader.  My misreading of The Girl Next Door is an extreme example of this claim.  Given what advertisers and economists know about perceived value, it seems weird to me that there is surprisingly little interest in taking full advantage of the potential for good, thoughtful cover art to influence a reader's impressions.

I bring all this up mostly because I'm endlessly surprised by how lazy a lot of publishers seem to be with cover art; there are lots of great books on my shelf that appear to have more-or-less randomly selected stock photography images as their covers.  I don't want to compile an endless list of covers that I think are shitty, but how about a couple of examples to clarify the argument, shall we?  I've already trash-talked the cover art for The Girl Next Door, so let's move on to a Nobel laureate:

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Behold the cover of Samuel Beckett's More Pricks Than Kicks!  Everything about this "spooky silhouette ghost figure is spooky" image screams "stock photography".  I have no idea how this is this is supposed to be related to the story.  This cover kind of looks like something that should go on a book of ghost stories or zombie stories or something.  Instead, the first story in the book concerns a peculiar young Irish fellow going about his day, reading Dante, buying mouldy cheese, burning toast, and eating lobster for dinner.  Is that really the kind of reading experience that one would expect based on this cover art?

Another example:

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This cover for DeLillo's (wonderful) novel The Names is baffling to me.  This is...  a weirdly cropped part of a shot of a palm tree  on a beach that's been flipped upside down?  I've read this book 3 or 4 times and I don't know what the point of this image is.  I guess this is supposed to be a shot of a beach in Greece, which is where much of the novel takes place.  And I guess maybe the point of the weirdo choice of crop is that the narrator's world gets turned upside down?  Maybe?  But...  The book is fundamentally about language...  So what does this image have to do with that central theme?

DeLillo and Beckett are both very famous writers. Beckett won a fucking Nobel prize!  It seems amazing to me that the publishers couldn't be bothered to put in the effort to make interesting cover art pieces to accompany their work.  Again: I'm not saying these covers ruin the experience of reading those books.  I'm saying that there's a missed opportunity to add some (perceived) value to the reading experience.

For the wine study I cited above, the punch line was that tinkering with the perceived value made a good wine taste even better.  Here's my thing: it takes many many many hours to write and edit a good novel.  If you can make the reader enjoy your book a bit more by simply taking the time to find a good piece of cover art, then why not do that?