Judging a Book by Its Cover

I have to admit, even six books into my publishing career, the initial “cover reveal” continues to thrill me.  I’m not talking about the social media practice of revealing our covers to the public, but the private moment when the cover first appears in my email with the thrilling and slightly terrifying discovery of a stranger’s visual interpretation of my book.    Encountering the cover for the first time, I see in living color what the designer has imagined from my words.   If I’ve done my work well, the cover fits.  The mood is right, the tone exactly what I’d hoped for as I wrote.  In a perfect world, the thematic threads that mean the most to me are somehow surprisingly captured by another’s imagination.

And yet, what does it mean to love two covers for the same book—the hardcover and the paperback—to admire the interpretations of two very different designers?  Does one cover have to be better?  Does one cover have to be wrong?  Is it possible for two wildly different covers to capture the heart of the same book?
I had some time to think this through in April, when the paperback of UNTIL TOMORROW, MR. MARSWORTH launched with an entirely new cover.  Sharing the new cover on social media, I immediately heard from readers who preferred one over the other.  There were those who loved the first cover: the color, the peace sign at the center, the way it held the protagonists and hinted at the tale.  And there were others who clearly preferred the second: the simplicity, the absence of character clues, the mystery of the red-haired girl, and unidentified subject.  A novel with letters yes, that much was clear from that new cover, but who was Mr. Marsworth, and what was the book about?  Some readers saw the paperback cover as an invitation, raising questions the other cover may have answered. For my part, I confess I love them both.  I am happy Reenie and Mr. Marsworth starred on that first cover, happy the first cover clearly spoke of peace, but I am equally happy to have that mysterious girl penning a letter. 

In the case of both SPARROW ROAD and UNTIL TOMORROW, MR. MARSWORTH, I’ve loved the experience of having two covers, and I’ve also enjoyed sharing the dual covers during school visits with interested readers.   When I’m sharing both covers with a school, I like to ask the students what they think the images achieve.  If we do indeed judge a book by a cover, what judgment do we reach with each rendition?  Which one would they be most likely to read?  Which one would catch their eye in a library or bookstore.  Like the artists who designed them, every reader has their own opinion, their own aesthetic inclinations that draw them toward a book.  It’s very possible the reader who picked up the book based on one cover, wouldn’t be attracted to the other, wouldn’t read the book, even though both covers held the identical story.

As an unexpected gift, this cover conversation presents an invaluable and immediate classroom lesson on the adage: “Looks can be deceiving.”   Or, “you can’t judge a book by its cover.”  And yet we do.  It’s a lesson on packaging and sales, on how an artist’s vision shapes our expectations for a book.  But perhaps most importantly it’s a lesson on how frequently we judge the inside by the outside, rightly or wrongly; a lesson that often has as much to do with living as it does with choosing books. 


  1. It really is true, the way we judge books. (I gotta say, I love that first cover of UNTIL TOMORROW, with the peace sign.)


Post a Comment