Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Purpose of a Book Cover

I stumbled across an interesting post by Seth Godin on The Purpose of a Book Cover. This is a question you may not think about (or maybe you do), however, it's something I discuss with colleagues, authors and agents often.

The conversation usually arises around a particular cover, as in, what is the purpose of this specific book cover? Does this design or image achieve the goal we set out for this book? Will this particularly design style appeal to the primary target audience of this book?

This discussion happens regularly and many different opinions inevitably fly around the room.

But I am interested in your opinion—what is the purpose of a book cover? Godin tackles this question generally, offering three options and singling out one as the key purpose of a book cover. His three options are: (1) to sell books, (2) to accurately describe the book, or (3) to, as he says, "tee up the reader so the book has maximum impact." Of course, he says that the purpose of the book cover is #3.

I would argue, however, that the actual purpose of the book cover is #1, to sell books through intriguing design, imagery or placement of information. My reason? I think #3 is cheating first of all (#3 sounds an awful lot like #1 with better words), but also, I think "maximum impact" is determined more by internal design, endorsements, and ultimately, the content of the book itself. Maximum impact has very little to do with the Book Cover in my mind.

After all, if you picked up a book because you loved the cover, read page one and found the book itself to be horribly dull, you would put the book down immediately.

The Book Cover is only responsible for the initial impact a book will have on a potential reader.

However, as we all know, most of us judge our books by their covers and oftentimes a poor cover can result in far less interest in a work that we might otherwise read (I know we're a shallow lot - unless it's just me!). Apparently, the average book buyer spends about eight seconds looking over a potential book purchase in abook store before putting the book down. The cover certainly is important in the final purchase decision!

So this is a question that is certainly up for debate. What do you think?


Steelsmitty said...

Hmmmm.... I always thought the purpose of a book cover was to protect the book's pages from damage over time. Books also used to get a page edge gilding since gold is possibly antimicrobial forming a seal to keep dust, moisture and parasites out of the book as well. Most of what ever gets published is not worth reading so I guess having these books succumb to damage quicker is a good thing. Forget the fru fru covers give me clothbound hardbacks with gilded pages so I can pass great books worth reading on to my great great grandkids and beyond!

Rick Daley said...

I think it should act as a billboard to catch a prospective buyers attention and entice them to pick it up off the shelf. It has a one to two second half-life in the eyes of the person perusing the shelves.

For an established author such as Stephen King, John Grisham, Tom Clancy, et al the author's name is likely to be the initial focal point. There will be more to it, but in a one-second glance, it's what you will notice first.

For a lesser-known author it may be the catchy title, intriguing graphic, or a blurb from a better-known author.

Once it has the prospective buyer's attention, it's up to the jacket copy to hook the reader and tee up the story. Now, whether or not one would consider the jacket copy to be an integral part of the cover may be topic for another discussion.

Jacob R Parker said...

All the cover does for me is get me to take it off the shelf/buy it. It does not affect the overall impact for me at all. Once I've started reading it's as though the cover never existed. It doesn't even matter if the cover displays some of the characters/events in the story. The images I see in my head as I read end up being completely different.

Lady Glamis said...

I'm a packaging girl. I buy things based on packaging all the time. I'm just a sucker for that sort of stuff. Pretty book covers always get me to pick up the book and look at the back.

Like Rick says, and what you say about initial impact, I think the cover is the hook for the fish. Whether or not we stay hooked after picking up the book remains to be seen. That first page has a lot of impact. So does the information on the back or jacket sleeve.

It can go the other way around. I have books on my shelves that are brilliant but their covers stink! The words are what matters the most to me in the end.

And yes, I end up buying a lot of things at the grocery store that aren't as tasty as their packaging is pretty. Go figure. I'm still learning.

Brandon said...

Yeah, I'm with you Alex. From an author/publisher POV, a cover's number one purpose is to get prospective readers interested. A beautiful cover caused me to buy Orson Scott Cards "Ender's Game", and then the Hugo and nebula award logos on the front further sold me (though at that time in my life, I didn't know what they were).

Jared B said...

I think it would be interesting to consider whether the purpose is subtly shifting over time from #1 to #3, especially as the market shifts in the direction of online ordering where you don't actually evaluate a physical copy before making the purchase.

Personally, I find that the Amazon reviews have become much more influential in my purchasing decisions than what may be on the cover, so much so that I would probably check them from my phone if I were in a brick & mortar shop trying to decide on a purchase there. Of course, that is a rare occasion for me now, considering Amazon's lower prices and the addictive free two day shipping for "Prime" members, but that's a bit of a tangent.

I think that if you're buying it online and you have all that other information available to you to help make the sale, I think it does allow for a bit more creativity and expression in the cover that isn't strictly designed to "sell" the book, but rather to frame the reading experience in a certain way (#3).

I agree that it could be considered a bit of a cheat, since most things that would serve the purpose of #3 would also probably help in some way with #1, but I'm also just thinking that it could be an indicator of a reaction / tweak in response to the changing conditions in the world of book purchasing.

Janet said...

For me, a cover serves to categorize a book. Chick lit covers, for instance, have a definable look, and it tells prospective buyers whether or not they're interested. A strikingly beautiful cover will attract my interest, even if the book is not a type that would normally appeal to me. In that case, I would pick it up and take a closer look. But more often a cover tells me: don't bother.

If I've already decided to buy a book on the strength of a recommendation, the cover makes no difference at all.

Robert Treskillard said...


This is a great topic for discussion, and my comment became so long it turned into a blog post!

You can read it at:


Anita said...

I'll pick up a book based on a cover or a title, but I always read the first few pages before purchasing. Recently, I picked up a book after meeting the author, reading good things about the book, and absolutely loving the book's cover. I read two chapters and the sucker was awful. I'll probably never pick up one his books again.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Eight seconds sounds about right! I definitely agree it is #1 - the cover draws the reader in, tempts them to pick it up. HOW this is done (i.e. what makes a cover do this), is slightly more mysterious than the sphinx (to me, at least).