Cover Story

U.S. paperback cover for Madman of Venice

The proverb says, Don’t judge a book by its cover, but whoever dreamed that one up can’t have been working in the publishing industry. It might be an indictment of human shallowness, but you can’t help first impressions. You will not judge a book by its cover once you’ve read it, of course; but first you have to be enticed to pick it up in the first place. Always, and not just in modern times, publishers have known this and expended great effort on making their books look attractive at very first glance.

Ideas of what constitute attractive of course have varied over the ages but it is interesting to see some themes are recur again and again. Gold-embossed titles, for instance; we might think of that as a modern phenomenon but in the 19th century every self-respecting book had gold embossing. Fancy typescript’s another. One thing that has changed a lot though, at least in English-speaking countries, is the changing attitudes towards illustration on the cover. Nineteenth-century books are often profusely illustrated inside but the cover is mostly patterns and designs, often sumptuously presented on fine leather binding, with gold embossing and all. But the only covers that were illustrated with actual scenes or people were the cheap throw-away jobs printed on flimsy paper—penny dreadfuls and chapbooks, and the like. In the early to mid twentieth century, illustration on a cover was still often associated with cheap—with pulp fiction, if you like. If you wanted literary, you had to go for fairly plain covers. Elegant, maybe, but plain. This is something that is still quite a common thing in some countries, such as in France, where novels reckoned to be literary are still published in restrained wrappers, on very good stiff paper(not hardback, though) with little decoration, except maybe a border, and the author’s name and title of the book in elegant typescript. But in English-speaking countries, that rule has quite gone out of the window, and bookshop shelves are a push-and-shove gallery of the bold, the beautiful, the soft-focus, the looked-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time and the frankly lurid. Drawings, paintings, photographs, graphics of all kinds jostle for our attention. In fact the restrained unillustrated cover is so rare these days that it’s commented on as though it were a quirky experiment!

For a writer, that first impression readers get when they see your book is of course vitally important too. But there’s another even more important consideration: what does the cover say about your book? Not just its Pick me, Pick me qualities, but whether it expresses what you feel to be the essence of your lovingly-crafted work. There’s nothing worse than being handed a cover which clearly demonstrates that the designer has no idea what your book’s about, or its emotional tone: and if that’s the case, that’s probably because the publisher has either not briefed them properly, or worse still, has completely missed the point about your book. Fights over covers are very common! (As well as secret dismay that isn’t expressed until it’s too late.) For if your prospective reader gets the wrong idea about your book from its cover—even if that cover, as a picture, objectively looks great—then you might have lost that reader for future books. Worse still, you might have lost the reader you really wanted to reach, the kind who would have enjoyed your book if only they’d not been put off by the cover! That’s what authors often think, anyway, whether that’s true or not. It’s hard not to. The cover is the face your book wears to the world, after all. And here’s an interesting conumdrum—no cover on earth is going to save a boring book that readers dislike, that’s for sure. But there’s no such opposite guarantee. A boring cover might sink a good book, because not only will readers not pick it up in the shop, reviewers might also not notice it. That’s why emotions run so high over the issue.

Hardcover edition of Madman of Venice

It’s really interesting too to look at different editions of a book, when different covers are used, because these will often express different aspects of the story, or the atmosphere, as well as the cultural differences of the markets into which the books are released. I’ve had that experience a few times, the most recent being with my historical YA novel, The Madman of Venice. The three covers are above: The first was the original UK and Australian edition, published by Hodder Children’s Books in 2009; the second, the hardback US edition, published by Random House US in 2010; the third, the soon-to-be-released US paperback edition, also by Random House US, which will appear in April this year. The wonderful thing for me is that, very different though they are, these covers have each accurately focussed on a particular aspect of the novel whilst also not losing touch with who that particular edition was aimed at.

So, looking at the UK/Australian cover: this was for a first edition paperback printing (hardback

UK and Australian cover for Madman of Venice

printing is a rarity in children’s publishing in both markets these days) and to me, with its bold, simple graphics, it has chosen to focus on the mystery elements of the novel, with the mask obviously being a reference to Venice. This focus can attract both adult buyers(librarians, teachers) as well as young readers. The hardback US edition, with its elegant reproduction of a 17th century painting of Venice, highlights the historical aspects of the novel, and is definitely aimed at adult buyers—mainly librarians, I suspect. And the new US paperback edition, with its beautiful lush cover, clearly focusses on the romantic, the intriguing and exotic—all of which appeal directly to the hearts of teenage readers.

And if I’m asked to choose my favourite? Well, I know that age 13 or 14, the third is the one that would have made me save up my pocket money till I could buy it. And though I like all three, there’s enough of the teenage girl left in me to be left dreamy in front of that one.


About Sophie Masson

Sophie Masson has published more than fifty novels internationally since 1990, mainly for children and young adults. A bilingual French and English speaker, raised mostly in Australia, she has a master’s degree in French and English literature. Sophie's new e-book on authorship, By the Book: Tips of the Trade for Writers, is available at Australian Society of Authors.


  1. says

    Sophie, thanks for sharing your knowledge and wisdom on cover designs. This is an overlooked aspect of the publishing process, but authors need to spend a lot of time on it. As a self published author I am working with a talented designer and we have spent many hours on the cover. A good cover sells a book. The rest is up to the author.

  2. says

    I agree. The focus on covers isn’t shallow at all. As for me, my favorites are those that are beautiful at first glance, but also (on second glance) beg a question. What is that? What is he/she doing? Where are they going? Why so sad? Etc.

    I doubt there are many (or any?) publishers who would let an author design his/her own cover; however, if your agent can negotiate for you to have “meaningful input,” it greatly increases the chance of getting a cover you love.

    P.S. New favorite expression: “penny dreadfuls.” Actually, Penny Dreadful would be a wonderful character name, too.

  3. says

    Great post, Sophie, and apt for me, as I’m currently seeing covers take shape in the US and Australia for my new YA title, Shadowfell. Two very different approaches, both (I hope) effective in marketing the book appropriately.

    I am traditionally published which can be both good and bad where cover art is concerned. The resources of the publishing house are behind the creation of the cover, which means (usually) a professional, high quality result. On the other hand, with certain publishers it can mean the author gets no input at all into the cover. (Some people might think this is a good thing, of course, as authors don’t always understand marketing!)

    Poorly done or inappropriate cover art, layout, typeface etc can be a real weakness in self-published books, as CG says above. As a reader, I find a poorly designed cover with a half-baked amateurish look an immediate turn-off, and sadly there are a lot of these around. It’s an area where it’s surely worth spending a bit of cash to get expert help.

  4. says

    Cover illustrations for e-books do not have the imperitive of the dust cover on a p-book sitting amongst others on a book store shelf, but they still have importance, even if only thumbnail size. I work with a lady in Manitoba that I have never met (I’m in Florida) and have results that have garnered favorable comment. You may view the different approaches that have attended my seventeen (17) works on my web site ( or on Amazon (‘Alex and Barbara Wilson’ on Kindle Books) or Smashwords.

  5. says

    Wow, what different covers! I have the boats version, which I love, but I do see how they would each appeal in their own way to unique audiences. (Girls in pretty dresses = shorthand for YA.)

  6. says

    Not a shallow question at all. I LOVE that my cover designer (the very talented Regina Starace) took the time to actually read my book. I have to say, I kind of like the UK cover. It makes me want to flip the book over and read the description.

  7. Cindy Keeling says

    Interesting post, Sophie. When perusing books at a bookstore or library, I’m always drawn in by a great cover and interesting title.
    (Yours are terrific!)

    Do traditionally-published authors have the opportunity to give designers pertinent information about their book/themes, etc., early in the process?

  8. says

    For my first (and so far only) book, I designed my own cover with custom artwork. (a) I’m poor and don’t have the money to give to a professional artist, and (b) who knows the book better than me? Of course I looked at a lot of covers and trends before sitting down to make it, though I think something simple and colorful will withstand the ups and downs of the times.

    There are a few trends I see /everywhere/ that I can’t stand because in six months they’ll already look outdated. You know the ones I’m talking about: titles superimposed over scenic landscapes of beaches or forests that scream “stock photo,” or teenage models with heavy eye makeup looking despondent under hoodies (Avril Lavigne made that look popular in what, 2002?) Of course if you’ve got a murder mystery or a romance you’re kind of stuck with what everyone else does (knives dripping blood or half-naked couples clinging to each other, respectively), because that’s what your audience expects. I read an interview with Nora Roberts recently where she bemoaned the “breast-feeding mother covers” that the publishers always put on her books :D One of the better perks of self-publishing is that you get free reign over your cover art and don’t have to stick with the message publishers think people want.

  9. Jena Snyder says

    Thinking of myself in grades 6-10 — a kid who read any and all styles and genres — I know I would have been grabbed by the title. But the third cover is the only one that would have made me think “Hey, what’s this about? Looks intriguing, exciting, interesting, mysterious…” To teenage me, the first two covers would have suggested the book was a historical novel aimed at an adult reader, with the first cover suggesting romance as well.

  10. says

    So interesting to read this now after having a conversation with my publishers about the new cover for this year’s book, and as well, having a conversation with someone else about their bookcover angst and worry.

    I love the middle one – the boat one — so rich in color – that would catch my eye – it’s like a little painting.

  11. says

    So interesting to read about this complex issue of book covers!
    I can think of a few titles that drew me to them because of the cover; Lunch in Paris, was one of them.
    I agree with with the comment that ebook covers are still important too even though one cannot feel the texture of the paper edition.
    Thanks for the detailed overview!

  12. says

    Such an important post!! And very timely for me, because I’ve just been putting the final touches on the cover of my first, soon-to-be-published ebook. I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to work very, very closely with the artist who did my cover, so it’s just about perfect! Thanks so much for your thoughts on this. (And I love your covers!)

  13. says

    Book covers are advertisements for the content inside, and it makes sense to me that in consumer-driven America, they’re made bold and beautiful or shocking or, in simple words, eye-catching to try to attract the reader’s attention.

    Thanks for sharing your three covers. It really is fascinating to see how cover artists focus on different aspects of the book and create different feelings to appeal to various audiences. You’re lucky in that all three are interesting and beautiful!

  14. Robin Yaklin says

    I wonder if the cover importance of the cover is about to change. My local bookstores, both by the same large chain, pack as many titles with the spine out onto the shelves as possible. The recent arrivals (mostly established authors) are displayed face up and the bestsellers are stacked face out on shelves by the front door. That makes the spine become an important part of marketing.

    Usually I find a new author because a friend makes a recommendation or I’ve read a review. Rarely does the cover influence me.

    Has anyone address the hidden cover issue and do we know what generates most sales?

  15. Bernadette Phipps Lincke says

    Nowadays most people get their story fixes from television, movies and even music videos. It’s the reason the book trailer has come about. “Every picture tells a story.” Your cover with the girl unequivocally covers (no pun intended), the story-telling-picture and cinematic bases– and I’d bet money — on the basis of cover only–that one–will be the cover that lures the most readers in.

  16. says

    Love this post. And I’d have gone for the middle one myself. The British one is not my cup of tea at all and the back of the girl would have appealed to me as a teenager I think. Though as an adult I am SICK of backs of girls! But you’re quite right ! Nothing as important as a cover….no one will pick up a book with a wrong one.

  17. says

    I have to agree Sophie, the third is definitely what would have appealed to my teenage self (though it is bordering on too youthful to be honest, as the bright colors and mask made me think at first it was for a younger audience.) But of the three it seems to be the closest to your target market.

    I’ve always taught that it was the first paragraph of a book that really sells it, but your discussion on covers has made me give some consideration to that thought. The old proverb says we shouldn’t be judging books by their covers, but if no one judged a book by its cover I suppose we’d have to read everything.

  18. says

    Robin wondered if covers are losing their importance because of the way books are displayed in a bookstore. I think that covers are more important than ever because of Internet bookstores such as Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo. When I design covers, Internet usage is at the top of my mind–recently a modest author expressed the thought that her name was too large. I sent her a version the size that appears on the Amazon search page. She replied that she saw my point (because she could still see her name at that tiny size).

    I also make every effort to ask the author about the book–I don’t really have the time to read it all, but a summary and a synopsis and any input the author wants to give is huge to me. I explore a number of designs, which gives both the author and me time to hone in on the mood and tone of the final cover. I have to say that I really, really enjoy working with authors in crafting a cover that communicates something about the story that connects with potential readers. I think my years in advertising are a help in that department. So, say I, the cover is even more important than ever, especially with the way we all scan a web page rather than read it.

  19. says

    With the trend toward one-word titles, cover art imagery seems critical to establish tone, genre, and subject matter. Neat to see three different covers for one book.

  20. says

    Wonderful look at the power of covers to compel and repel with visceral reactions and how important they have become to maketing.

    The three disparate covers are all attractive, but so completely different from one another I would love to see all three covers in one market as a sales barometer!

  21. says

    Cover #1: For me, it shows there is a beautiful woman looking out over the canal of Venice, contemplating something and the title implies some kind of connection with a man who takes insane chances. It leans toward a relationship between a man and a woman in some way. Lots of questions & curiosity. This cover would make me read the blub on the back, and the first page, a page in the middle.
    cover #2: Shows a beautiful picture of Venice, and promises a story that takes place in that city. The title supplies a reader question, like how mad? What kind of madman? I might read the cover blurb, and if it grabbed me, move on to the first pate.

    Cover #3: Doesn’t appeal to me at all.

  22. says

    Its funny how a cover can translate into a “sale” or not. I read a lot of amazon ebooks, and this field is just packed with self publishers, and usually the cover will give it away, but once in a while you come across one where everything is just right.

    Personally I like to judge some books by the cover. If an author hasnt gone through the process of getting someone to make a cover nicely, then how much effort did they put into the content?

    Anyone can get a fiverr artist to make something nice, and even something that “tells the story” without telling the story ;)