We’re not supposed to do it. We are supposed to understand that the literary endeavor contained between two cardboard rectangles (or after clicking/swiping past the cover) cannot possibly be captured and accurately represented by one static image. And yet. Cover art persists and it’s kind of a big deal. The major publishing houses have large art departments composed of book designers, graphic designers, and artists who determine what we see when we are deciding what to read. Cover art decisions really boil down to marketing, and all those decisions—illustration versus photo, people versus objects or designs, minimalist versus lavish—are choices meant to indicate to the reader what to expect within. Want to hear a crazy bit of trivia? Unless authors are a really big deal (think Stephen King or J.K. Rowling) they do not get to have anything to do with their cover art. That’s right, they have no say in what their book will look like. Writers must put their trust in the publisher and hope they like the result, because that’s just how the business works.
Spend enough time looking at book covers (as a librarian inevitably will over time) and you begin to have a type of pavlovian response, likely allowing yourself to be waaayyy too much of an authority on what will be contained within. After all, there are consistent formulas and trends. Looking at a cover will tell you several things: first and foremost, the intended audience as decided by the marketers at the publishing house (it’s worth noting that ‘intended audiences’ equals who-will-this-book-appeal-to-categories which are sadly reductive and often classist, sexist, and ageist, but that is another post for another time). Other obvious cover art indicators include the genre of course, but also attributes like tone and even writing style. Book cover artwork is so pervasive, evocative, and powerful, that jaded readers run the risk of smugly glancing at a book and deciding they know exactly what awaits its reader. It’s good to remember that these types of assumptions can be proven wrong time and time again.
Having said all that, I will confess that recently I chose a book solely by its cover art. Gasp. I promise you this was a serious departure for me. So much so that it inspired this blog post! I do, at times, lean on generalizations and stereotypes regarding cover art, but I put a lot more stock in summaries and book reviews. So it was weird when I was browsing Sora a few weeks back and I kept going back to a book just to look at the cover. It just spoke to me aesthetically. I don’t really know how to explain why? It was cool, exciting, and sumptuous… Anyway. Reader, I read it. And I’m not sorry I did! Did the cover give me an idea of what to expect? Sure it did. Did the cover really have anything to do with my actual reaction to the book? Not one bit. Suffice it to say, I was a moth to a flame, and I didn’t get burned. Without further ado, the book cover artwork in all its (as subjectively judged by me) splendor:
What are your thoughts about book covers? Do you have a favorite? What does the cover art tell you? Let us know in the comments!