Why We Judge Books By Their Covers

A couple weeks ago, I opened an email from the art director of my publisher entitled "Cover Design Introduction."

Ahh ... covers.

You've heard the expression "Don't judge a book by its cover," which means don't judge something by its outward appearance.

But truth be told—don't we do that ALL THE TIME about many things?

Especially with books.

Covers are the ultimate marketing tool for a book.

Does the cover make a potential reader curious about what's inside? Does it turn them on or repel them? Does it make them want to investigate further to find out what the book is really about?

We ask similar questions about titles too.

 Covers—and titles—define the book's concept or "feel"—in seconds. A potential reader will either be turned on or turned off or feel neutral by that first impression, which will play a huge role in whether they pick up the book for a second look.

How does a book cover get designed?

As stated above, your cover AND title define a concept—so they need to be aligned with each other. This means you need to be clear about what you want your book to communicate—what is the story about? What's the big idea? What's the takeaway for the reader? How can that message/point/takeaway be communicated visually?

If you're self-publishing, you're solely responsible for your cover design, which is good news or bad news depending on your perspective! Whether you design the cover yourself or hire a cover designer (strongly recommended in most cases), you'll want to get a feel for what you like, what has sold well, and you'll want to see other covers that the designer has created.

If you're using a hybrid publisher, your publisher provides cover design as part of the services you're paying for. In most cases, your cover design will be a collaborative process, with you sharing ideas and reference materials: things related to the story, other covers you love, and the feeling you'd like conveyed with the cover. The publisher may come back with several designs for you to choose from—and ultimately you get the final say.

If your book is being published by a traditional publisher, as is the case for my memoir The Only Way Through Is Out, the publishing team asks for input from the author, similar to what I shared above about the design process with a hybrid publisher, but the publisher gets the final say on the cover.

Want to learn more about the different publication paths? Check out this informational chart.

Here's what happened in my memoir's cover journey:

  • In Fall 2022, shortly after I signed the publishing contract, the art director reached out to me for ideas of covers I liked, covers I didn't like, favorite and not-so-favorite colors etc.
    • I shared my responses, and then worried about whether my ideas were "too safe." After all I had written a memoir about leaving a life of safe choices ... was I slipping back into my default mode?
  • In March 2023, my title changed from Graveyard of Safe Choices to The Only Way Through Is Out, and I learned that my cover hadn't been designed yet since they weren't happy with my title!
    • Okay, now I see the problem with my original title. 🙂 What kind of cover would you picture with that title??? 👻
  • For the next month, I waited with bated breath for the cover reveal. I had no idea what to expect but I couldn't wait to see it!
  • When the email finally arrived, I sent up a little prayer to the universe that I would love the cover before I opened the attachment.
    • My prayer wasn't answered. My body shook uncontrollably as I stared at the cover design they presented, one that the marketing team thought would be attractive to buyers and would fairly represent my story.
    • I HATED it. ☹️ I didn't get it. It wasn't me. And in my experience, the body doesn't lie.
  • For a couple of days, I was in a funk. A full-blown crisis of confidence about my book, about my ability to sell it, about whether I should trust my own judgment or the judgment of the professionals ... And maybe it didn't even matter because contractually my publisher had the final word on the cover.
  • After a few of my colleagues talked me off the ledge, I sent an email with my concerns. I received a brief response thanking me for my feedback and that they would get back to me "soon." Were they pissed off at me? What was going to happen next?
    • I was too upset at the time to think about what it must have felt like to be on the other side of that exchange. A cover designer and an art director who had worked hard on a design that the whole team had signed off on.
  • We had a few more email exchanges—and a few days later they presented me with an alternative design that was completely different from the first design—and I LOVED it!!!
    • This time, instead of shaking, I nearly cried from relief. Another reminder that the body doesn't lie. This was the book I imagined having out in the world ... That I imagined signing my name on during bookstore events!

I'm so grateful that I spoke up and advocated for myself—and that my publisher listened. To me, this is the ideal partnership—one where I lean on their expertise about what sells and why—and they care enough about my preferences to listen to my concerns.

I'm thrilled to share the FINAL cover of The Only Way Through Is Out with you!

Publication Date: February 13, 2024!


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