I can’t stop doing this. I sit on Amazon and I click my way through pages and pages of books and I can’t help how many I dismiss because the drawings are too cartoonish, because I’m so sick of some hot blonde staring at me through sunglasses, because the title is so boring that I just don’t care. And what kills me about the fact that I do this is that if there’s one thing I’ve learned from working in publishing it’s that there are some serious treasures out there buried in bad wrapping. One of my very favorite paranormal romances, the hilariously written HAPPY HOUR AT CASA DRACULA by Marta Acosta, has one of the very worst covers I’ve ever seen. (At least in paperback; the mass-market version, after the jump, is pretty fab.)
The thing is, how much else is there to go by? I mean sure, there are reviews, but so often, particularly when they’re in the single- to low-two digits, they tend to read suspiciously as if they’ve been written by family, friends, maybe even an agent. Goodreads reviews can be helpful, but read enough and you’ll want to bang your head against a wall at how many people gave a book one star because they didn’t like the amount of cursing, or the fact that there was sex. Recently, I read a review which gave a book one star for having a gay character. “I just don’t do gay.” Seriously, that’s what the reviewer said. So is it really all that much better to judge a book by its reviews?
I wish I could say what makes a good cover, but I honestly have no idea. Why did I love the cover of Sloane Crosley’s debut, I WAS TOLD THERE’D BE CAKE, which was a closeup of a mattress, but hate the cover of her followup, HOW’D YOU GET THIS NUMBER, which was, for some reason, a bear? (And don’t get me started on how much I hated that it was released in the world’s tiniest, most expensive hardcover.) Why am I so tired of the bored-looking teen girl cliche but so continuously excited by the officially overused Girl in a Gown styling? Why do I find some teacup covers compelling and some utterly boring? (Hint–whether or not the teacup has a pattern definitely has something to do with it.) Why do certain shades of pink on a cover make me want to throw it against the wall while others seem to promise a fun beach read? And why are some plain covers so boring while others, like Chad Harbach’s THE ART OF FIELDING, or the notorious maroon edition of J.D. Salinger’s CATCHER IN THE RYE, seem so iconic?
As I look through the Under $5 book section of Amazon, as I frequently do, here’s what I’ve learned turns me off: People looking straight at me, anything drawn cartoonishly, titles done to look like they were hand drawn, hot pink, shots of a girl’s legs as she sits on a chair (I think this is my new least favorite trend, and I’ve just come upon three within a minute), anything that suggests I’m about to read about how fat someone thinks she is, neon colors, anything that suggests pets play a huge role in the story (not that I don’t love dogs, but I’m not terribly interested in reading about them), the color combination of red and light blue (I know that’s really specific, but I just saw it on two separate books and it seriously bothered me about both of them. They just send such different messages!), the back of someone’s head, when the title is displayed on a circle of color like the kind of patches I always wanted to sew onto my jeans in high school… stop me when I’m getting too picky.
In fact, as I sift through my beloved YA section, literally the only one that catches my eye is this one, for THE TEMPTRESS FOUR by Gaby Triana–fun but not ditzy, colorful but not dizzying, suggestive of good times in a less-than-typical location, and doesn’t immediately remind me of thirty others I’ve already seen. I may not be terribly interested in the description of the book, but I’m sure I’ll crack and buy it eventually anyway. Another favorite, this one from the Mystery pile, is ROAST MORTEM, the 9th book in Cleo Coyle’s Coffeehouse Mystery Series, which I love for looking so mutedly colorful, cozy, idyllic, and familiar… all centered around an ominous (but still cozy!) pillar of fire.
But I can’t be the only one who judges books by their cover; after all, it’s a whole saying, right? And no one’s making those up just for me, are they? (Although sometimes “Bet you can’t eat just one” certainly feels like it’s speaking directly to me. Lays seriously got my number on that one.) So what about you? What do you love, hate, or love to hate on covers? What are some of your favorites? How exactly do you go about judging a book by its cover? And if you are a rare exception who does not do so, how do you decide to buy a book by an author you’ve never read that hasn’t been directly recommended to you?