Judge a Book by Its Cover: Because Book Design Matters

I judge books by their covers.

I know. I know. It’s the content, the story inside, that matters. As I tell my kids, we shouldn’t dismiss new books, people, ideas, or foods with a glance.


However, I’m reading Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernières—a used copy I got at a library book sale. I’m enjoying the novel, except that every time I pick it up to see what happens next on a Greek island during WWII, I am faced with a swooning Nicolas Cage about to kiss Penélope Cruz. Frankly, I don’t see it.

I considered making my own book cover out of a paper bag, but figured people would assume I was reading something dirty, not avoiding a romantic Cage.

I want to say that book covers don’t matter. But often they do. Face it; if you haven’t read the reviews or heard any word of mouth, you only have so much info to go on before selecting a book out of a pile at the library or bookstore. Title, author, jacket description, blurbs, and cover art set tone and expectations.

Ever held up books to a kid to choose at the library? “How about this one?” Covers influence us.

For me, seeing real people, particularly famous ones, in cover photos can be distracting. Unless they’re actually in the book it invites random questions and comparisons between the person and a well-drawn character: Oh, is she supposed to be so-and-so? Is he the right choice? Do they change the mental image I’ve created from the author’s words?

When I needed a new copy of The Great Gatsby I deliberately bought one without Leonardo DiCaprio. Jay Gatsby is interesting enough on his own.

It’s not just actors and movie tie-ins.

After reading Tatiana and Alexander by Paullina Simons (another used book sale find, this one leading me to a trilogy) I had a pang of regret and envy to see an edition with a cover I vastly preferred.


Gone was the dreamy, female visage amid roses. Instead there was a stark Russian winter scene, which was not just more visually appealing to me (we’ve all got our biases), but was far more accurate to the story and its characters.

That second cover (and the Greek, Italian, and Turkish versions) looked like the book I’d just read. The first cover made me wonder if the designer had even read the book, let alone understood the title characters. Together the two look like completely different books.

Which leads me to Chip Kidd’s funny and interesting 2012 TEDTalk, “Designing books is no laughing matter. OK, it is.” 

Kidd creates covers that embody the book for publisher Alfred A. Knopf. My only regret after watching this is that I have the paperback (not hardcover) of Naked by David Sedaris.

Good and great books live within all types of covers and jacket art: stark, sensual, visual, schmaltzy, mysterious, literal, funny. And you won’t truly know what you’ve got until you start reading.

A well-designed cover won’t redeem a bad book. Still, it’s always nice to start out with a good first impression. And that comes thanks to a talented book designer.