Quite a few years ago now, my nephew Rudy was at a bookstore with his mom (my sister Nell) and he picked up a book and said, “I want this one.” She asked him why, and he said, “I like the cover.” She said, “Ah, but you can’t judge a book by its cover!” and he said seriously, “Why not? How else are you supposed to judge it if you haven’t read it yet?”
She couldn’t answer that, so she bought him the book.
Now, I might argue that while still in the store you can read the first page of a book and have a better sense of whether you’ll like it or not than you’ll get simply from looking at the cover, but–that said–the very fact that you’re holding the book in your hand suggests that the cover and title called out to you.
As a reader, I’ll often browse the front tables at a bookstore, idly picking up a book here or there that strikes my fancy for some reason. I like clean type, an uncluttered cover, an old-fashioned look (but not too fuddy-duddy). I don’t like the covers on the fantasy books I read, but I pick those by recommendation and Amazon reviews, so it doesn’t really matter. But in the bookstore, as at a nightclub, looks matter.
Since I fall sway to a cover’s appeal as a reader, as an author I’m very aware of the importance of having a good cover on my books.
That doesn’t mean I’ve always had one. My first novel, Same as It Never Was, has a pretty garish cover: a Barbie-like doll burdened by a younger Skipper-type doll on her shoulders. It’s kitschy and sort of fun, but it didn’t help sell the book. For one thing, no man would be caught dead reading a book that looked like that, and even though I knew women were the target audience, I’m not sure it was a good idea to make it IMPOSSIBLE for a guy to read it in public. For another, the Barbie dolls just made it too childish. It wasn’t a pretty adult book but no one realized it from the cover.
Still, I was relieved when I saw that cover, because the earlier drafts had been so awful I almost cried when I saw them. The novel’s about an outwardly tough college aged girl who is forced to take guardianship of her much younger half-sister. They’re wealthy and live on the west side of LA. One early jpeg of a cover draft showed what looked like a log cabin in the background, with a girl dressed in what looked like a handknit and ragged sweater walking away from it. Yeah, you know everyone in LA lives in a log cabin, right? Another showed two hands clasping, an older girl’s and a younger girl’s–like something you’d see in a too-earnest-to-be-for-real YA novel. And, if you’ve read any of my books, you know overly sincere isn’t my issue.
Okay, so that was my first experience with book covers. My second was with my non-fiction book Overcoming Autism. The cover was designed before we had even finished writing the book, and it was fine–cheerful but not cloying. So far, so good. Then the editor said to me, “My only problem is that the cover looks crowded because you and Lynn both have three names. We need to cut back.” My co-author and I both published under a combination of our maiden and married names, but I meekly agreed to give up my maiden name and became, from that moment on, Claire LaZebnik instead of Claire Scovell LaZebnik. So much for making any high school or college rivals jealous . . .
A couple of years after that, I sold a novel to 5 Spot, an imprint of Hachette Books. Remembering my past experience with a novel cover, I was extremely nervous and kept asking when I was going to get to see the artwork for Knitting under the Influence. It finally came and I anxiously opened the jpeg attachment–
And it was beautiful. Fantastic. Whimsical and pretty and engaging. It was designed by a woman named Claire Brown (whom I now have a bad habit of referring to in e-mails to my editor as “the other Claire”).
This is how good the cover is: when KUI took off in sales, necessitating multiple printings, I bragged about its success to my father (well, my mother is dead–who else am I going to brag to?). After a thoughtful pause during which he appeared to be digesting the news that my book was selling well, he finally said, “Huh. I guess it’s because of the cover.”
My own father (probably rightfully) ascribed the entire success of my second novel to its cover.
So–bruised ego aside–I was delighted to find out that “the other Claire” was once again designing my cover, this time for The Smart One and the Pretty One (which is released THIS WEEK by 5 spot). And, once again, she did an awesome job. I love the new cover. I may even like it better than the KUI cover.
And, of course, if SOPO sells well, my father will instantly know why.
After all, everyone judges a book by its cover.