It’s perhaps one of the most used idioms in the literary industry, the thought that you ‘can’t judge a book by its cover’, and has been around for just over 150 years. The phrase is used on billions of front pages and stayed in everyone’s head since their grandmothers brought it up on that first trip to the library. So why has the publishing business proven it to be such a flawed phrase? Why do book shops continue to sell their novels on long tables displaying the images on their front rather than with the blurb facing out? The reason: the cover does actually sell.
Veteran designer Chip Kidd has made the obvious statement that a good book designer must “put form to content”. By extending the themes of a story out to an artistic visual form, you introduce the reader to an expectation. The process of judging whether this is a true expectation remarks how well the cover has lured you to the book. I would be a liar if I said I didn’t have several dozen volumes of books judged by their covers.
Without covers by illustrators like Quentin Blake, Chip Kidd or Helen Oxenbury, our favourite stories wouldn’t be so immediately recognisable. If I was to bring up ‘Jurassic Park’, ‘Fantastic Mr Fox’, or ‘The Hungry Caterpillar’, any of these books are naturally bonded with their cover images since when a front cover is done perfectly, it can be immortalised in your memory. I still feel amazed by the covers of Arthur Rackham. His style merged with their stories to such an extent that I can’t separate the Grimm Brothers’ tales from his sharp haunting forests and frightening monsters.
But covers aren’t a fair system. New authors can easily find themselves struggling to sell a wonderful story because of an ill-designed cover. Lots of stories can be misconstrued by the time and worth put into their appearance, but at the same time there are many illustrators who find time to put deserved images onto books. A book’s cover can be an insight into what the artist saw, an expression of their reaction to the book. Ultimately, it’s up to you to judge how important book covers are.