I judge books by their covers. I shouldn’t, but I do. Like every other first impression– of a new house, a university, other people – we have an inevitable yet regrettable tendency to judge almost exclusively on appearance. As much as we tell ourselves that ‘it’s what’s inside that counts’, we still make a beeline for that person in the group who looks relatively sane, and in the bookshop, we still pick up that book with the polished cover.
It seems undeniable that the cult of appearance that has infiltrated modern capitalist life, is also now firmly embedded in our bookshops. The cover of a book is the perfect tool to hook a reader and make a quick sell in an age of overwhelming choice. When all the reader wants is a paperback to leaf through on the bus, this does not seem all too bad. But it can also endanger the place that books should hold in the market; they should not merely be consumed, but enjoyed and preserved for others.
The cover of a book is the perfect tool to hook a reader
This dilemma is deepened by the fact that design is not used only as a tool to boost sales; in recent years, they have become vital in sustaining the industry itself. The twenty-first century e-book boom casts a shadow over a publishing industry that seemed doomed to be ground down by the inevitable march of technology. But, in 2015, that all began to change – sales of e-books plateaued and Waterstone’s reported a profit surge, thanks to the first increase in book sales since 2012. The secret behind this monumental turnaround? Appearance.
Publishing companies quickly cottoned onto the fact that their very existence was threatened by digitalisation, and they responded with a renaissance in book artwork. Examples that stand out from the 2017 bestseller lists include the minimalism of Rupi Kaur’s The Sun and Her Flowers, through the rich details of Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads and Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, to Ali Smith’s Autumn, which literally transposes a piece of artwork to its front cover.
A book can have the most eye-catching cover in the world and still leave you feeling numb after fifty pages
Similarly, design has recently been used to revive classic works. Penguin introduced their new ‘Clothbound Classics’ collection, which treats us to the likes of Oliver Twist and Tess of the d’Urbervilles with distinctly new (and yet timeless) artworks. These designs are clearly not a mere sales device, but a method of self-preservation which extends the overall artistic purpose of the story to its outward appearance.
Nevertheless, as important as covers are to the sales and approachability of books, it does not diminish the importance of the pages within. A book can have the most eye-catching cover in the world and still leave you feeling numb after fifty pages. This is common for books that fit neatly into a genre; crime, stereotypically, seems to a have a stock list of cover photos. These can be as appealingly moody as you like, but if the plot of the book is just another murder mystery, the reader will be left disappointed. This obsession with covers – whilst it has some advantages – can be counterproductive if the reader forgets the value of content. The book cover is often bound up with the personal experience of reading it. The cover becomes the book; it represents it, and all the memories and emotions that it inspired.
We shouldn’t be afraid to delve deeper and take a gamble on an unassuming book
Oscar Wilde wrote that you love a person not for their appearance, but because “they sing a song only you can hear.” Similarly, the best stories are those that sing about something unique. The value of books isn’t as instant satisfaction through an eye-catching cover, it is in those passages and phrases that can stay with you forever; that sense of uncovering a nugget of eternal wisdom that only you have found.
So, it doesn’t hurt to judge a book by its cover – it’s easy, and allows you to pick up a book that is likely to be half-decent. But we shouldn’t be afraid to delve deeper and take a gamble on an unassuming book that simply sounds different – even if it’s something only you can hear. Give it a go. It might just change your whole perspective on things.