What do these spines say to you?

I think the saying not to judge a book by its cover is a nice sentiment but ultimately misguided. I think it should be amended to, “You shouldn’t judge a book only by its cover.” Because let’s face it, folks, we judge books by their covers.

I think we all want to be judged on the content of our character, and we want people to look beyond our appearances, that our appearances don’t really matter. It’s just skin deep and shallow; it’s not what really matters. But frankly, years of book shopping and What Not to Wear – not to mention my own experience just walking along a street or on a campus or at work – have taught me that things are more complicated than “what’s on the outside doesn’t matter.”

In the marketing business, you learn quickly that you need a hook, and that hook can’t take a minute, five minutes, five hours, or five days. When you’re looking for a hook, you want something that will attract people’s attention in a few seconds or less. If they spend more time on you after that, that’s a bonus. You’re lucky if you get twenty seconds of their time before they move on. If the hook catches, you’ve got a potential customer who will remember you. And you’ve got to sum up the basic premise of your product in maybe ten words or less (or fewer, if you’re being technical). Or no words. Sometimes, your hook is a picture.

And more than just words, it’s usually the design or the visual of those words that catches your eye first. Based on those few seconds, the potential customer will have an impression of your product. If the hook is good, they’ll do a little research – they’ll look it up on the Web or they’ll walk into your store or restaurant. That’s the point at which they look underneath the surface and check out the content of your product. That’s when they get to the meat. But first you gotta show ’em a little skin.

This, friends, is why first impressions matter. Before I even check out a book, I’ll look at the cover. If the cover or the title is intriguing, I’ll check out the blurb. If the blurb is intriguing, I’ll check out the book. But if the cover or the title is uninteresting, I’ll move on. I may have passed by the best book of the year, but it doesn’t matter if I’m not hooked in, if the first impression is a bad one. I judge books by their covers – from the cover and the title, I can determine genre and atmosphere. I have a fondness for the minimalist but lush, gothic Twilight covers. I like collage covers like the ones for Annette Curtis Klause’s books (at least certain editions of them). Sometimes it’s the title that gets me more than the graphic, a certain style of type coupled with the words themselves. Unless I have a recommendation from someone I trust, I simply will not notice a poorly jacketed book.

You want to be judged on the content of your character? Present yourself in the way you want people to think you are. This is not a call to dress conservatively, avoid religious costume, and speak like a Harvard graduate. Just realize that about 99.9% of your interactions with people will involve them never speaking a word to you. When you pass by them in the street, they will get their first impression of you, and they will make their judgment. Perhaps they will move on; perhaps they will be intrigued.

It’s the way we work. It’s not perfect. It’s the kind of thinking that leads to racism and sexism and agism and other forms of stereotyping, and we should always fight our natural impulse to do this. It’s an unreliable mechanism, given how often we are deceived by what we see. But it’s also the way we tend to work as human beings. We pigeonhole people according to what we know about them.

If all we know is what they look like and that’s all we’re likely ever going to know, the content of your character means jack squat, and you may be overlooked or dismissed or targeted unduly because of it. Human beings are a lot of things, but we aren’t psychic. We won’t know the content of your character unless we are invited in by how you present yourself, or unless the way you present yourself is a reflection of that character.

If we’re lucky, we’ll get to know you more than the fraction of the second we notice most people, and that will give us an opportunity to see your character in the context of your words and actions. Just like, if we’re lucky, we’ll stumble across a book, look at the jacket blurb on a whim, and we get hooked on that instead of a mediocre cover. But a book stands a much better chance of its contents being read if the cover or the title draws people in.

Don’t knock a good book cover. Those things are gold.

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2 Responses to Covers

  1. Delft says:

    If you are browsing in a bookshop without a clue of what you want to read, I’m sure the cover is important to you. If you’ve already read a few books, it’s much more likely you’ll check out the books by authors you already know and like, or the books on a particular shelf, by genre or subject. I suppose you get what you shop for.

    • This is true. The same way that once you find a friend, you spend more time with them, and you sometimes end up spending time with their friends, who you assume you’re more likely to like because they share your first friend in common. You’re more likely to dive into certain genres if you’ve been introduced to it.

      I’m one of the people who is easily overwhelmed by the sheer number of books within any given genre, and I base my reading almost exclusively on recommendation. When I went to the library, however, I used to browse the New Book section and depend first on the title, then on the cover, then on the blurb. I encountered a lot of different things that way.

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