Judging a Book by its Cover

Posted: August 24, 2007 in Books & Authors

A recent article in the Guardian discusses the importance of cover art in making book sales.

The publisher Penguin is in the process of reissuing selected classics with blank covers, counting on the fact everyone knows enough about these titles not to need any sort of visual cues as to what’s inside. Well, maybe. Maybe that IS enough, when you’re talking classics. But for other books, cover art can be very important.

I confess I’ve bought books based on the cover art and titles alone. Though I always read the cover blurbs, to get more of an idea what the book’s about, I have picked up books I’ve ultimately bought because the cover art struck me before I knew a thing about the story. Am I sometimes disappointed by the book? Well, sure. But I’m just as often disappointed after I’ve read half a dozen positive reviews of a book, and find it didn’t match my tastes at all. So I’ll go ahead and defend my affection for good cover art. At least it looks pretty on the shelf, even if the book itself does stink.

I collect older editions of Modern Library hardback books based solely on the beauty of the cover art. The dustjackets feature really lovely line drawings that have a retro look to them I really like. A lot of those are classics, too, and many of them I own in other editions. Modern Library editions are really durable. That’s one good thing about them. Not all of them have the cool illustrations, so you really have to look. The illustrated dustjackets are generally more valuable collectors items, unsurprisingly, but you can sometimes luck onto them at book sales.

Another publisher I really love is the now-defunct First Edition Library. They published facsimiles of first editions of major 20th century classics, books like The Grapes of Wrath and The Sound and the Fury. Everything in the book was identical to the original first edition copy, down to every little mistake that got edited out in subsequent editions. Not only do the books have the lovely, pristine facsimile jackets, but they put them in cardboard slipcases, too. I used to belong to this subscription-only club, but gave it up when it started to seem like too expensive an indulgence, so I never did get the full set. But those can probably be found at the used book sites, too, like most everything can these days.

Pulp paperbacks are another group of books collected for their cool covers. Most of those feature art that’s lurid and overly melodramatic, which adds to their enduring appeal. I don’t personally own too many of these, since they can be prohibitively expensive. I’ve procured those only very sparingly. When I learned that a brother of William Faulkner had written a book only available in a pulp edition I had to have that, but paying $ 40ish for a small mass paperback book, no matter how lurid the cover or rare the item, definitely felt like an extravagance. Still, I can’t say I’m sorry to have spent the money, even if it does seem a little nutty. I very much believe in the maxim “It’s only the books you don’t buy that you regret.”

That’s pretty much my philsophy, too.

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