An American Editor

March 9, 2010

On Books: Deciding to Buy or Not Buy (II)

In part I of this 3-part article, I discussed the role reviews play in my decision-making process as to whether or not to buy a particular book. As noted, reviews are rather limited, largely because there are so few credible reviews and so many books published each year.


The next thing that catches my attention is the book cover (cover is used to mean both the printed cover or cover art and the dust jacket). Either a book cover grabs your attention or it turns you away. The cover is what you see before you read the first word of the story. The cover actually conveys a lot of information about a book.

Presumably the book title has been carefully chosen to describe (or at least give a clue as to) the content. For example, I recently bought A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War by Daniel E. Sutherland (2009). What first caught my eye was the title. This title tells me what to expect: I expect to read a book about guerilla warfare during the U.S. Civil War. The cover also tells me who the author is; in this case I recognized the name because he has written several other books about the Civil War. Also on the cover is the publisher’s name. This book was published by the University of North Carolina Press. And there is the dust jacket blurb that tells me something about the book. Finally, there is the cover art itself. In this case, it is a drawing of a raid scene. All of the elements of the cover give credibility to the book.

They don’t assure me that the book is well written, but they do give me some assurance that the content is content I’m interested in; that the author has experience in and knowledge of the area; that the book has been vetted, at least minimally, by a respected academic publisher; that the content fits the title; and that the content is trustworthy. All of these are important assurances, even if they are not consciously perceived by the book buyer.

That’s when I consider the story synopsis. Next to the cover art, the jacket blurb can be, for me, the make or break in the book-buying decision. A well-written blurb summarizes the book. In the case of fiction, as soon as I read “vampire” or “zombie” or “romance” or certain other key words, I know to move on. Those aren’t stories that I care to read. But the right key words drag me further into the book, and so I want to check out the first chapter.

Unfortunately, not all book covers are so reassuring, and the covers become increasingly less reassuring as one moves first to fiction and then to self-published books or books published by presses who devote minimal resources to capturing and/or reassuring buyers via the cover design. This is particularly problematic for me when buying an ebook, which is the form in which I buy nearly all my fiction books.

Many of the fiction ebook “covers” are no better than the crayon drawings my 2-year-old neighbor draws. And covers do matter; they are what first bring a book to one’s visual attention. They are the inducement to open the book and exploring the content. Some covers are so amateurish — childish might be a better description — that I immediately assume the content can’t be any better. Often I go no further in exploring the book, but when I do, I often find that my assumption was correct. Cover art does play a significant role in the book-buying decision.

Even if the cover drawing resembles the content, when it is childishly executed, it casts doubt on the quality of the writing. Poor cover design and art does not give a sense of assurance. The higher the price of the ebook, the greater the risk. On the other hand, because of how ebooks are prepared and sold, I try hard to not base my buying decision solely on the cover art. Sometimes I can’t get past the poor cover design, but most of the time I am able to go beyond the cover and into the content.

Authors and publishers need to keep in mind that a book is much more than just its content. Although content ultimately is the most important part of a book, it is also the last part of the book that is encountered by the book buyer. Consequently, as much care as is paid to the content needs to be paid to the other parts that make up the totality of the book. It does the author no good if the book buyer goes no further than the wrapper; the author and publisher need to make the wrapper as compelling as the content.

Part III, tomorrow’s article, discusses the final legs of the buying decision process: content and pricing.

Subsequent to the posting of this article I came across the following video on the making of a book cover. The 2-minute video compresses the longer process of designing a book’s cover and highlights some of the skill involved.



  1. […] largely because there are so few credible reviews and so many books published each year. In Part II, published yesterday, I discussed the role cover design plays and how good cover design acts as an […]


    Pingback by On Books: Deciding to Buy or Not Buy (III) « An American Editor — March 10, 2010 @ 6:34 am | Reply

  2. Rich,

    As I said elsewhere in regard to the video, it’s a good introduction to the way graphic designers do cover design. What I mean by that is that a book designer (a typographer by training and inclination) tends to put quite a bit of thought and puttering into the typographic aspects of the cover, whereas a graphic designer (a visual artist by training and inclination) tends to treat type as an afterthought and spend a bigger percentage of time with the details of the image. To many, if not most, graphic designers, type is just a graphic element possessing size, shape, and color, to be integrated into an appealing visual design; it does not contain information to be processed linearly by a reader.

    Having learned this over the decades, I now structure my relationship with graphic designers so that I exploit their big-right-brain imagination and their technical prowess with images to get a great visual for the book’s front cover, but then I assemble the final mechanical, including all typographic elements. This lets me, as an experienced editor and typographer, ensure that the blurb copy is well written and well edited, that the front, spine, and back are designed for maximum readability and impact, and that all the niggling bureaucratic details (bar code, shelf category, credits, imprint) are accurate and are properly placed. Giving control of those elements to a graphic designer is just asking for trouble in my experience.


    Comment by Dick Margulis — March 10, 2010 @ 12:23 pm | Reply

    • Dick, my experience has been similar to yours. Unfortunately, increasingly I see fewer resources being devoted to such matters as cover design and editing, with the consequence of both less attractive and less accessible books, both electronic and print.


      Comment by americaneditor — March 10, 2010 @ 1:25 pm | Reply

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