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Judging a book by its cover

Note: some of the covers to which I refer are missing. That’s because the publishers have either changed the url for the images or they’ve removed the covers altogether. As this post is now nearly 3 years old I’m leaving it as is.

There’s an old saying: ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover.’  This can be taken figuratively applied to non-book situations, like when you glance at a person and judge them from first appearances.  In the more literal sense, however, judging a book by its cover is about looking at a cover and judging the words between on the cover alone; fundamentally, it’s a decision to read or not to read based on a picture by an artist who, most likely, has nothing to do with the author and probably hasn’t even read the book.

I am guilty.  Yep, I put my hand up to this most heinous of sins: judging a book by its cover.  I’ve made decisions on what to read and what to delegate to others based primarily on covers.  Some books, whether for good or ill, have been placed on the very pinnacle of my TBR pile because of their covers or even their pre-release never-to-be-released-to-the-public non-covers.  In one particular case the cover definitely influenced my attitude to reading the book, the lightness and speed and level of enjoyment; the suck fairy visited upon a second reading – taking a book that I’d raved about and rated at 5 stars down to 3 stars (not too bad, really).

Whether I receive something in ebook or paper also impacts on the timing of reading.  Additionally, if I receive a mass market paperback, I’m much less likely to read it although, in my defence, that’s usually because the print size is too small (vision impaired, remember!)

What choices have I made?

Pure by Julianna Baggott piqued my curiousity, firstly because it is SF and secondly because of the name coupled with a jet black cover.  This image doesn’t do the cover justice: the cover of my copy has the text the same colour black as the cover, but the text is raised and glossy with a matt black background.  This courageous and apparently contradictory cover – white is symbolic of purity in our culture – got my attention.  The novel itself is more awesome than the cover: in my opinion it’s a must read and stands up there with Brave New World as a potential literature classic.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone cover

Daughter of Smoke and Bone came with a non-release cover and a large yellow feather.  I think the release cover is much more attractive with its dark background and metallic feathers in shades of blue and lavender, but the feather got my attention.

The blurb that accompanied the book talked about how the publisher sent someone a huge distance with a collection of feathers to court and buy Laini Taylor’s novel; this story was intriguing.  I must admit I fell in love with it in the first chapter, when a vampire leapt out on tourists in Prague and….  I won’t spoil it, but it won me over.  Laini’s prose was poetic, inspiring in me a strong desire to visit Prague, a city that, previously, I’d not felt any particular urgency to visit.  I was concerned that the story would be your average YA paranormal romance but it just wasn’t.  I loved it, but I might have missed out if it hadn’t been for the marketing.

The Rivers of London cover stood out upon arrival because it was different, not following the current fashions for fantasy stories.  The blurb also lead me to believe – correctly – that it’s an urban fantasy with humour.  I don’t read enough humorous books, so it went to the top or near the top of my TBR pile.  I really enjoyed reading it and the next two in this series.

Discovery of Witches arrived as an uncorrected proof with a cover that was later embellished to become the release cover (release cover pictured), wrapped in coarse brown paper hand-stamped with the mark of the vampire’s family.  I kept the paper, carefully folding it and putting it ‘somewhere safe’ so now I can’t find it without a huge hunt.

I don’t know what it is about brown paper – especially coarse brown paper – but I find it really appealing.  It’s tactile.  The wrapping enhances rather than detracts from the book inside.  Tied with string makes it complete and, I think, is romantic without implying that the contents are romantic.

Equations of Life pre-release cover

Equations of Life pre-release back cover

I received Equations of Life (front and rear covers pictured) and I loved it.  Initially it was the ‘Mind the Gap’ on the front cover that did it, in the same font as the same message written on Metro train platforms.  The blurb on the back cover sold me completely.  When I read Equations of Life, I was heavily influenced by the cover and my desire for some comedy and SF.  The spoofs in the first novel charmed me: references to Doctor Who, zombies etc, kept me entertained.

While I enjoyed all the books in the trilogy, I could see ‘fanfic’ qualities increasingly creeping in over the course of the trilogy.  To give Simon Morden (the author) credit, the protagonist doesn’t have sex with anyone other than his wife but every woman who came into contact with Petrovich, the protagonist, seemed to be in love with him in spite of his complete lack of charisma, his anti-social tendencies and his lack of respect for those around him leading to secrecy and unilateral action instead of team work.

On a second reading of Equations of Life I was much more aware of cringe-worthy aspects of writing, such as love at first sight between Maddy, a nun, and Petrovich leading to Maddy forsaking everything immediately to follow Petrovich and protect him.  Not to mention the dialogue in the early scenes between the two of them – ouch!  Maddy was a lethal killing machine trained to defend her superiors, but she couldn’t drive a car?!  And Petrovich ‘taught’ her? In a manual car in extreme circumstances, all the while talking down to her without equivalent retaliation or smack downs?  Equations of Life is probably a 3 star book, even after a second read through, but my first reading was influenced heavily by the cover, my desire for both comedy and science fiction.

I’m pretty sure I was given the opportunity to review Ash and Huntress by Malinda Lo.  I passed them over because of the covers: they looked like a lot of other YA fantasy covers.  I assumed – incorrectly – that these books would have been similar to a lot of other YA.

Vengeance also arrived wrapped in paper, tied with string and with a personal note from Ian himself.  Again, I put this carefully in a ‘safe place’ and now I’m going to have to hunt through all my safe places to find it.

to spin a darker stair cover

To Spin a Darker Stair arrived gift-wrapped in an envelope.  Because the envelope was intended for letters not books, and the wrapping paper was typical gift-wrapping paper, the envelope and paper were torn and the book cover dented.  Presenting this book as a surprise gift worked in that it created curiousity – I wasn’t expecting this book at all – but the book arriving damaged was a little disappointing.

At the end of the day receiving an unknown book from an unexpected source may not have worked in the book’s favour except for a few other factors.  The book design was excellent.  I liked the artwork: a whimsical pseudo-watercolour image (pictured above).  The print size was good: this was very significant as it seems that most Australian short stories are printed in font sizes so minuscule I struggle to read them with a magnifying glass (so I don’t read them).  People I knew on Twitter were talking about receiving their copies as well; without this, the total absence of a cover letter or accompanying card may well have backfired.  The book was tiny, so I read it very quickly that evening and I enjoyed it.

turn coat cover

I first learnt of the Dresden Files at the Melbourne Science Fiction Club, when they scheduled a night of Dresden Files the TV series.  I purchased the TV series and watched the entire short series, then I went into Dymocks and started purchasing the books.  At that stage, the books were presented with matt covers styled like old-fashioned manilla files with slightly scrap-book-ish touches.  As Harry Dresden, the protagonist, is a wizard who fries electronic equipment with his magic, these covers imbued the paperback novels with an ambience lacking in the more recent covers that have followed the latest fashions in book covers (see below).

Another issue I have with changing the covers part way through a series is it detrimentally impacts on the presentation of the set on my bookshelf; I have a variety of book covers in this series, it doesn’t look like a set at all.

I admit I’m shallow: I judge a book by its cover and its presentation.  It’s not the only factor in my decision to read a book or its order in my TBR pile: research for interviews, previous writing history, personal recommendations and my mood at the time of book selection all factor in as well.  Books that look ordinary, like every other fantasy book on the shelves or like CGI SF games, are less likely to attract me than creativity in presentation.  Instead of following fashion, I recommend that publishers look at current fashions and do something different.

UPDATE:  On twitter, John Birmingham said: Help design my book cover for the UK release of Without Warning. Win yourself The Disappearance Trilogy audiobooks

This is the Australian cover.  Any thoughts? The advertised price sticker is attractive and the 50 books you can’t put down sticker doesn’t get slapped on everything, but the cover doesn’t really grab me apart from that.  I really enjoyed Birmo’s World War 2.0 trilogy, so I’m interested in principle, the cover doesn’t need to grab me.  Thoughts?

Nalini is an award-winning writer and artist as well as managing editor of Dark Matter Zine.


  1. The second Dresden Files cover is the original US design that has been running the whole series. It is just that for the UK editions they have stopped creating original covers:-(


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