Judge A Book By Its Cover

Posted by on August 11, 2010 in polls | 57 comments

In an effort to get some data, to fuel a response to a raging debate on another list I frequent, I present a poll for your voting pleasure! (If you are not a Live Journal member, please feel free to click through to the original poll and respond in comments.)  For purposes of the poll, don’t worry about the cost or availability of an e-reader.)

Feel free to circulate a link to this poll – I’d love to get answers from a wide range of readers!


  1. Seizing an opportunity for a stored rant…..

    I don’t worry about being seen reading sf, but I wish they’d go back to paintings (fat chance).

    I’ve seen a gradual improvement in the photoshop covers in the past 10 years or so. I seem to be more sensitive to lighting and scale errors than most people, and the average quality on those metrics has gone up a lot. Also, artists and/or art directors have come to realize that if you can’t handle color, it’s better to go monochrome, or nearly so.

    The frustrating thing is that I’ve seen brilliant photoshop art online, but that sort of thing doesn’t make it to covers.

  2. I have been ambivalent about my own covers — first two, the artist didn’t seem to set heads on top of bodies correctly . . .

    Last novel, whitewash. She’s supposed to be Wabanaki Indian.

  3. “Tolerate,” is my reaction to most covers, indeed.

    I use an eBook reader anyway, so I haven’t had to think about covers in quite some time. Often it’s titles I’m more worried about than covers — many books that are otherwise good have provocative and/or easily misunderstood titles. Like, I wouldn’t have minded having an eBook copy of Lockpick Pornography for that reason.

    However, the only time when I really think about what other people are going to think of my reading is when I’m either reading erotica or I’m doing something which I think reinforces a stereotype. Being a fat guy, I do worry what assumptions people think if they see me reading role playing manuals or comics, for example.

  4. I’m a regular reader of science fiction and fantasy, but not of romance. In general I am indifferent to cover art, although there are a few exceptions. When the art really illustrates the book, I tend to like it more. When main characters are illustrated wrong (e.g., POC shown as white, brunette as blonde, zaftig becomes thin as a rail) it annoys the hell out of me. Where is the Vorkosigan cover that shows a tiny guy with an oversized head flanked by a couple of massive and strong women? For example. I also dislike any cover which is sexually suggestive, especially if it isn’t pertinent to the content or I’m going to be reading someplace where there might be kids like an airport, airplane or coffee house. So far, however, an e-reader just hasn’t become interesting to me. I have been known to leave the cover of a hardback at home, though.

  5. I think there’s some astonishingly cool genre cover artwork out there. That said, I almost always have books in Mysterious Galaxy logo bookcovers when I’m out and about — partly for their own protection, and often because I’m reading ARCs, and they aren’t generally available for public consumption. Probably not your average reader, in this case.

  6. I like most covers (love yours!) and couldn’t care what people think, most of the time.

    The typical bodice-ripper romances, though…well, I confess I’m not sure I’d want to carry one of those around in public.

  7. I will read just about anything that interests me, and covers dont matter. With a hardback, I might just take the dustjacket off if I dont like it, or if a mmp or a trade, I will slip a cloth book cover over it.

    Every now and then, if I am feeling a bit tricky, I will swap dustjackets on a hardback just to be pretentious.

  8. Book Covers

    I have seen great covers beautiful and I have seen plain ugly ones. It really has varied. I read what I want to read and I am never embarrassed by it. Last time I was embarrassed by a book I was in Middle school and A boy caught me reading “Love is one of the choices”. I got over that quick because I love carrying a book with me. I have noticed lately a lot of covers are starting to look basically the same and that kinda bugs me.

  9. I opted to say “something else” for both science fiction and fantasy covers because I find the covers vary so much, it’s difficult to generalize. The one downer for me with fantasy covers is often dragons. If there’s a dragon in the book, it seems like they’ve run out of fresh ways to show that on the cover. And since I’ve already gone over to the dark side (I just ordered the NEWEST Kindle) it’s mostly an academic interest at this point as far as what I’m “seen” reading.

  10. My comment for romance books is: I do occasionally find them faintly embarrassing, but I love them anyway.

  11. I read anything that catches my interest, and I have no worries about people seeing the covers (unless the cover completely fails to match up to the contents, but that’s more of a false advertising issue). Having said that, most books that would be classed as romance live on my netbook just because I’ve got an eBook backlog right now.

    Before they changed the website I used to have fun with the Harlequin free online reads, but now my phone crashes when I try to go there on it.

  12. Book Covers

    On any given day it’s hard to guess what genre I might be reading. I tend to roam the entire book store when looking for a new book. With regard to cover art, I don’t have a definitive like/dislike. I pick a book for a reason and if the cover art attracts someone’s attention, I will give them my reason for choosing the book. It actually gives me a chance to share about a good book with another person. My favorite series has the words “in Death” in every title and honestly, that has drawn more attention than any cover art on books I’ve carried.

  13. Most of the time, even with paranormal romance and urban fantasy, I’m not particularly embarrassed by the covers. However, by around Haunted in Kelley Armstrong’s series, there was so much dorsal nudity I was kind of embarrassed to read it on the subway. Not that such things are limited to paranormal romance/urban fantasy. When I was reading the Robert Van Gulick Judge Dee mysteries in junior high, I had to cover the covers with wrapping paper or paper bags because Van Gulick did his own “floating world” style prints for the books and my mother didn’t think book covers with topless women would go ever well at school, esp. the cover for Judge Dee at Work where the woman was not only topless but being tortured (it was a completely accurate illustration of the courtroom scene btw).

  14. I don’t read much sci-fi – mainly Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books and a few others.

    I DO read a lot of romances. Most covers in general don’t bother me. The only thing I have a problem with is when the artist doesn’t bother to make the cover accurate to the characters. I find this to be especially bad when they are doing covers with military heroes. I had one where the character was in the Air Force, but on the cover he was wearing a Navy uniform. I mean, really? They are nothing alike. Another one, the hero was a Navy SEAL, but the uniform looked like it belonged to the captain of a cruise ship. Yuck.

  15. Huh. Apparently I hate all genre covers and would prefer them to be a blank white cover with black text.

    …actually, that wouldn’t be a bad idea.

  16. Genre Romance Titles

    Here’s another vote for
    “I dislike or am embarrassed by the typical genre covers, and I would prefer not to display them in public, but I would never take any action on that front.” for Genre romance.

    I like Genre SF covers. You didn’t ask about mystery, but I also like genre Mystery covers.

  17. Genre Covers

    Don’t mind displaying most genre covers except romance and erotica. I’d rather not read those in public. Ereaders would be perfect though I’m holding off getting one till everything shakes out.

  18. I refuse to read my “guilty pleasure” romances (Bertrice Small) in public. I wouldn’t mind an e-reader for them, but am waiting for the prices to become more reasonable.

    OTOH, I miss the days when sci-fi and fantasy books had painted, brilliant covers. I actually own a print of Michael Whelan’s “Dragon Prince” cover, because I LOVED it that much.

    • I completely agree re the older SF and fantasy covers.

    • I recall with both fondness and despair the Boskone where I could have bought the original painting for Whelan’s cover for Piper’s Little Fuzzy for $300. Of course, I was a penniless college student at the time…

  19. I am emphatically *not* the target audience for e-readers (or romances of the Harlequin sort), but the cover art varies wildly on sf/fantasy books so I settled for a middle (which is, actually, where the covers of most of what I read reside anyhow).

    The title and cover copy are much more likely to sell or not-sell me on picking up a book than *most* covers, tho I’ve seen a few that got my attention (and I actually like a lot of the much-maligned badass-supernatural heroine-looking-hot paranormal romance covers, but those are so ubiquitous that they’re unlikely to get me to pick up one of the books)

  20. Most book covers for the genres mentioned in the poll are dreadful and embarassing. I’ve found that many times the cover has little or nothing to do with the interior — or if one of the characters/scenes is depicted on the cover the presentation does not match the description given within the book.

  21. I didn’t vote in the poll because all my answers were “Something else, which I’ll tell you in comments.” I just flat-out don’t care. If someone wants to judge me based on the cover of a book that the author probably didn’t have final say (or any say) on, that’s their issue, not mine.

  22. I would have answered all of the above with “I dislike or am embarassed by the typical genre covers and would prefer not to display them in public”, if not for the e-reader corrollary afterward.

    Better covers would be great to avoid my discomfort; e-readers just hide the problem. But I suppose that an e-reader would be a better solution than what I currently use, which is to tuck my genre novels inside a newspaper or something if the cover is especially rancid. Or I just don’t read those in public.

    • Oh, and I should add that I consider race, gender, and age in which covers I choose to display. I live in a black neighborhood at the moment (and am black) so I occasionally get the side-eye from people on the train if I read something obviously SF/F, because there’s been the long-term assumption that SF/F are “white people’s stuff”. Not really surprising given how exclusionary SF/F historically has been towards PoC — and it doesn’t help matters if I read something which reinforces this assumption, because it’s got a lurid SF/F cover with white people front and center. (Sometimes I do it anyway, because I don’t care what other people think, but the side-eye still happens.) I’m especially embarassed by this if the book in fact has PoC protagonists and the cover’s just whitewashed — that makes me even more complicit in the industry’s racism. And I’m equally hinky about reading something SF/F with a cover that prominently features women in cheesecake pose or in a way that’s clearly meant to objectify her. That’s probably the biggest reason why I don’t read as much urban fantasy or paranormal romance as I probably could — I find the endless “hot white chick with tattoo, weapon, and ass facing the reader” covers utterly revolting. There has to be a better way to convey a woman’s strength than showing off her glutes, bare skin, and phallic symbolism.

      • Gah. I should drink some coffee.

        To clarify my point about considering race, gender, and age — what I meant was that if I’m in an environment where I think the cover of my book might do some harm (e.g., reinforcing patriarchy, damaging fragile young minds, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria) I’m more hesitant to brandish my problematic genre book covers. So for example, I don’t let my friends’ kids see me reading the more sexually suggestive or objectifying book covers (I do read romance and erotica) — even though I personally think exposing kids to sex is fine and better than exposing them to violence, they’re not my kids so I avoid doing anything that might compromise their parents’ lessons.

        Now for coffee.

        • Thanks for your comments, Nora – coffee first, or not!

          I modify my cover-revealing behavior, too, depending on who is around. If I’m around friends’ kids, I’d be inclined to hide troublesome covers – whether that’s whitewashing or violence or whatever.

  23. I am in general entirely indifferent to cover art and the effect it may have on anyone who may see me reading it. Which is not to say that good cover art will not persuade me to pick up a book that I might otherwise have ignored. But as a rule, the only thing I really care about in a book is the story or stories inside.

    • I totally agree that good art can be an enticement to buy. At heart, I care mostly about the content, but I feel “exposed” sometimes, when I read in public.

  24. Other than a personal recommendation it is often the cover art that will get me to pick the book from the shelf in the first place. I picked up “Stormbringer” by Michael Moorcock and “White Dragon” by Anne McCaffrey just by the cover. I know, I know, “Never just a book by its cover” but, their cover art work just screamed “Buy Me”. Yes, later I learned they belong to a series which I later purchased. And, yes, sometimes the art work has mislead me to books I wish I had not purchased or even checked out from the library! My home if filled with SF and F art. Even my cube at work has SF art! I wish hardback books had the artwork impressed on the book itself because I take off the slip covers so they do not get torn. If its a book I really like I will gladly advertise the book by leaving it cover face up at my desk at work or at the table if I’m eating out.

    • When I read hardcovers, I also remove the slipcovers, to protect them. I sometimes wonder if people think I’m reading hard-core erotica, after I’ve put on my cloth cover!

      (And I love the “recruitment” of new readers by leaving books around for others to see!)

  25. A cover, ideally, should be intriguing and attract the eye, whether on a stand or in an on-line catalog. It annoys me when the cover either has nothing to do with the story, or gets crucial elements wrong. Even if the artist wasn’t given that info in a sample, the editor can say: “The heroine looks like Zoe in Firefly” or something like that, and get a little closer to whom we’re reading about?

    I hate covers that are suggestive in weird ways. For example — Mercy Thompson has one, count it, one tattoo on her body — but because she was a teacher who veered into auto mechanics, she’s shown covered with tattoos, different every cover. Some of those covers are interesting otherwise — some boring.

    I don’t want to have to explain to someone “It’s a great book, ignore the cover.” (People had to do that with my last book from a major publisher — the cover was probably why it was my last book with them.)

    Some single category romance covers, like a lot of Pat Rice’s covers in the past ten years, are more landscape or mysterious. Those, no problem being seen reading. When they are embarrassing clutches or overwhelming hunks, my foam paperback cover from the lamented Mysterious Book Store in Tucson comes into play.

    • Harlequin has a great “Art Fact Sheet” for authors to tell the designers things like “She looks like Zoe in Firefly.” They encourage writers to send in photos that resemble characters. Of course, there are still design decisions that override the good sense of the system…

      • Leave it to Harlequin to streamline and otherwise get a fast, efficient way to do this. As you say, the override button can still cause havoc! If I can pull together my art folio (somewhere in this office…) before my next cover, I will definitely do that!

        Harlequin has a great “Art Fact Sheet” for authors to tell the designers things like “She looks like Zoe in Firefly.” They encourage writers to send in photos that resemble characters. Of course, there are still design decisions that override the good sense of the system…

  26. tabulated without comment (as of 8/22/10, 14:40):

    fantasy: 8.3% dislike or are embarrassed by genre covers
    SF: 5.0%
    single-title romance: 52.2%
    category romance: 58.1%

    i’d love to see the breakdown on those last two by location and socioeconomic class…

    • What do you think such a breakdown would show?

      (I know that my LiveJournal friends – and most of the folks who were referred here by SFNovelists friends – are primarily fantasy and SF readers, so I suspect that accounts for *some* of the discrepancy. I also think that romance titles tend to be more objectionable – IMHO…)

  27. I’m unclear on the purpose of this poll… are you after whether we’re embarrassed by *cover art*, or embarrassed by what people might think of the genres we choose to read? Generally, I don’t give a toss what people think about the genres I read, although I do admit regarding my occasional flirtation with Single Title Romances as a guilty pleasure. I tend to be a little circumspect about showing those covers:-)

    As for cover art, I’m not sure what “typical” is in F&SF… If by “typical” you mean “generic, derivative and/or badly executed”, then I tolerate them, provided the story is a good one. But there are some damn fine artists, and some damn fine cover art (I liked the original painting for Gael Baudino’s “Gossamer Axe” so much that I bought it from the artist, back when I had disposable income :-).

    So I guess what I’m saying is that the book’s contents are what’s important to me. A good cover is a bonus, but some of my very favorite books have lousy cover art, and I don’t care.

    • I wasn’t trying to pinpoint “embarrassment” per se.

      The poll arose out of a conversation on another list, where a romance author expressed astonishment that any romance reader would ever be adverse to carrying a romance novel around in public.

      In my experience, a *lot* of romance readers hide their reading, either by using book covers or by leaving their romance novels at home when they commute or are otherwise in public – much as you good-naturedly suggest with regard to reading Single Titles.

      I was trying to test that hypothesis – in a very unscientific way. I tossed in the other genres to get a feeling for comparisons between and across genres.

  28. SF and Fantasy cover illustrations are somewhat varied–sometimes a portrait of the main protagonist, sometimes a picture of some kind of action from the novel, sometimes something else.

    Romance novels seem to have a rule that a bare male chest must be half of the illo, some kind of semi-clothed female the other. I suppose women won’t buy them if that’s not what they are like.

    • I think that you’re right, in general – there’s a greater variety in Fantasy and SF covers than in romance covers. There is *some* more variation, though, than you might imagine.

      Historicals, for example, often have fully-clothed, headless women. Special Edition category romances often have “happy families” – the hero, heroine, and a smiling child.

  29. When I first started buying books in the US I was more embarrassed by the cover art — particularly for fantasy — than I am now, mostly because it looked garish and childish to my eye. I grew up with UK cover designs, which tend to be much more restrained (more subdued colors, less foil) and much more abstract or landscape-focused rather than attempting representations of characters or action scenes.

    I adore the Kinuko Craft covers on Patricia McKillip’s books, though, and I had a fondness for the old Josh Kirby designs on the UK Pratchett editions. Books that show a naked, tattooed female back are clearly signaling that they’re not for me, which is at least useful information.

    • I haven’t studied a lot of international “trends” in design, but I was surprised by my German Glasswrights covers – very moody and evocative. I didn’t think they matched my novels at all, but I find that they resemble the German covers to the Twilight series a great deal! I suspect that there’s a “teen reader” design factor that is just – quite literally – foreign to me!

  30. I am an owner of an ebook publishing company. We publish romance in multiple sub-genres with the exclusion of erotica. One of the numerous reasons we opened our publishing company was because of cover art. At the time we first began discussing opening the company, I was a published author with another house. I had just received a cover for one of my books, and I was destroyed by it. I hated it.

    One of our goals at Desert Breeze is to create attractive, appropriate and well-crafted covers that no one would ever be ashamed of displaying. This poll really drives home the need for that goal.

    Gail Delaney
    Desert Breeze Publishing

    • Gail – this poll grew out of a conversation on a romance loop. I was very surprised at the number of people who insisted that *no* romance readers are ever discomforted by romance covers.

      I suspect that the growth of ereaders is going to expand dramatically the number of romance readers in the next few years!

  31. I am really tired of romance (at least) covers in which the heads are missing. Drives me nuts. I also dislike historical romance covers in which the behavior or attire (off the shoulders) is NOT appropriate to the time. Forgetting the underpinnings of the women’s upperbody clothing is the usual sin.

    • The clothing errors don’t bother me that much (but I don’t have any background in costuming.)

      The headless women disturb me – although I actually noticed them first in science fiction, where most active women lose their heads.

  32. Not really much of a romance reader. I don’t really notice covers much. Partially because I read a lot on my phone, and partially because I’m just oblivious.

    • ::grin::

      I’m oblivious a lot of the time, too. I think, though, that your reading on your phone gets to the heart of what I originally thought when I posted this poll – people who read ebooks are less attuned to (and, in some cases, less turned off by) bad cover art.

  33. long time SF&F reader. I never worry too much about the covers, except that I got angry when someone defaced my copy of Eight Keys to Eden, which had a naked male figure walking up a hill — apparently someone felt that the buttocks were objectionable. Otherwise, I have to admit to not being particularly sensitive about them either way.

    I do use an ereader, but it has nothing to do with covers. Just enjoy the ability to carry several books around without the weight, and read whenever.

    • I still remember reading LeGuin’s THE WORD FOR WORLD IS FOREST when I was in middle school. There was a naked woman (seen from a distance, but still obviously naked) on the front, and the word “rape” on the back. I could not figure out *how* to hide that one from classmates…

      • That’s when the old “grocery bag” book covers come in handy. Brown paper bags are just brown paper bags, no matter what people imagine is inside.

  34. It’s variable, but in general I don’t get very excited about book covers either way. It’s been quite a time since I had a book I was embarassed to display in public, and that was more because I was embarassed to be seen reading “that sort of thing” (i.e. that genre) rather than by the cover itself (and yes, as a male, that was the ‘romance’ genre; it was also when I was a lot younger and “boys aren’t supposed to like that sort of thing”).

    On the other hand I do sometimes get annoyed that the cover doesn’t reflect the contents at all (a ‘fantasy’ cover on a hard SF book for instance), but that’s because I suspect a number of people will not recognise the correct genre and either will not pick up the book or will be disappointed because it’s not what they expect.

    • I think that there’s a *huge* market for romances-with-covers-that-somewhat-to-relatively-insecure-men-aren’t-ashamed-to-be-seen-reading.

      I’m fascinated by the clues we genre readers immediately parse when we classify books into the various sub spaces of speculative fiction!

  35. Polls

    Don’t mind the cover art. Didn’t like the poll. Too long. But very useful I’m sure for book publishers.

    • Re: Polls

      Sorry. Thanks for comment.

  36. I have yet to buy a book because of its cover, but I have bought quite a few books despite their cover, because I knew the author and/or had read about the book, often online, where the cover isn’t shown or is very small, easier to ignore.
    Generally, I don’t mind science fiction covers. I don’t particularly like fantasy covers (like urban fantasy less than straight fantasy), but don’t find them embarrassing either. Romance covers/titles can come in a wide range. Some are tolerable, others I am embarrassed to take out in public.
    I have bought e-books and read them on my laptop/ Palm, but it’s just not the same reading experience as with a paper book. I prefer mass market PB. They are light, small, and if you lose one, it’s not a big deal. I think I’d get a slip-on book cover before buying an e-reader to avoid embarrassing covers. Or read at home.

    • Yep – at some point, I might try to patch together a poll on *where* people read. I used to do almost all of my reading in public (on my commute), but now I work from home, and almost all of my reading is done in private.