Judging a book by its cover
Friday, November 4, 2011 at 1:14 AM
Writer's Cramp in headdesk-ery, publishing industry, the book business

The old adage about books and their covers is sage advice when it comes to people or houses or pretty much anything, even books. But wise or not, if we didn’t actually judge books by their covers, the book industry wouldn’t spend a signficant amount of time and treasure trying to concoct the perfect alchemy of design, subject, and layout that will get a potential buyer to actually pick that book off the shelf.

For all that time and treasure, you’d think there were extensive marketing studies to determine what sells and what doesn’t. You’d think that, but you’d be wrong. Every book that makes it as far as a bookstore shelf already faces ridiculous odds actually being sold, so it’s truly mystifying that publishers don’t work harder to help themselves when it comes to the cover art. This recommendation is particularly brilliant, especially since it comes with the authority of someone who has that firsthand experience with book selling.

So here’s what I propose to help save yourselves money: create a group of power-indie handsellers, folks with years of experience who know their business cold and excel at recommending books to readers.

I mean, right? It seems so obvious, yet the idea of consulting the people who actually, you know, sell books is apparently a revolutionary thought in the publishing biz. Which means that for every cover that entices us to pick up a book, there are dozens more that are utterly forgettable in their sameness. Or worse, make us cringe. What gives, publishers? Sure, a good design takes some work, and the design that has that something special can be as elusive as a winning lottery ticket, but surely some missteps are avoidable?

Science fiction and fantasy are some of the worst culprits, by the way. I love sff almost as much as I love my cats, but the cover art for a fair majority of books in this genre seems to wallow in a special hell of awful. I’m not even talking about the pulpy-type of covers, which have a so-bad-it’s-good kind of appeal, but the kind of covers that scream, “I’m a socially-challenged teenage boy who spends way too much time playing WoW and making design schematics of ships on Star Trek.” (Or worse, the kind that scream, “CLEARLY I HAVE BEEN EXPERIMENTING WITH HALLUCINOGENICS SOMEONE TAKE AWAY MY AIR BRUSH.”)

There isn’t anything wrong with socially-challenged teenage boys, of course, nor playing WoW or being a huge Star Trek fan. But not everyone who reads sff falls in the center of that Venn diagram. For me personally, covers with ridiculously muscled men, scantily-clad women, and oddly stylized backgrounds of space ships, futuristic cities, mythological creatures, and alien landscapes, or any combination thereof, are more likely to induce a “DO NOT WANT” than an “Ooooh shiny!”. If a book cover makes a reader embarrassed to read it on a bus, then there’s something seriously broken in the art department.

Article originally appeared on B. Jenne' Hall: writing and other pursuits (http://www.bjennehall.com/).
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