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.
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
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.