Judging a Book By Its Cover


This is an issue we’ve discussed IRL many times, but I was just thinking about it as I did some weeding and I thought I’d bring it to our readers.  Basically, the point that I want to make (and I know you agree) is that despite the oft heard exhortation, we librarians and reader do judge books by their covers, and what’s more, if we do it correctly, we are right to do so.  Let me give you an example:

Stem Cells: Opposing Viewpoints. Ed. Jacqueline Langwith. Greenhaven. 2007.

This is a book that came up on my dusty books list, so I already know that it hasn’t circulated in two years, but I could have guessed that anyway.  Why?  Well – let’s look at the cover:  now, I’m sure these books have a lot of amazing information in them, but the only reason that a teen would ever pick one up is if they were assigned a project on it, and even then it’s a tough call.  The cover is bland, the title is bland, there is no information about what is within the covers.  Why would teen waste their time.  The only thing they know is that it is part of the ubiquitous “Opposing Viewpoints” series from Greenhaven, which means that they’d really probably have to be assigned a project specifically on the “controversial” nature of the topic, not on the facts, because this series doesn’t give you a lot of facts.  Now, I don’t know what’s happening in other schools, but here in Vallejo, I haven’t heard of a teacher assigning one of those Controversial Issues research papers in years.  Out of the collection this one goes.

Let’s look at another book from my dusty books list:

Bausum, Ann. Denied, Detained, Deported: Stories From the Dark Side of American Immigration. National Geographic. 2009.

What do we know about this book?  Well, we’ve got the author this time: Ann Bausum, who has written many many award winning nonfiction titles, and has one of the greatest prose styles around.  We have the publisher: National Geographic, which has been on a tear in terms of high quality nonfiction for children.  And we have that stark, shocking cover: black and white photos of three very innocent, open faces–a teenaged caucasian boy, a preteen Asian girl, and a middle aged caucasian woman, hanging above the bright white words of the title.  Perhaps the cover is a bit too dark and bland for a teen to pick up on their own, but this one should be easy to sell to someone who is at all interested in the topic.  Show them that cover, ask them, why are these three people being denied entrance to the US–instant hook.  So without opening the book we know that this is by a great author of nonfiction, published by a great nonfiction house, and boasts a cover that should make it relatively easy to sell to the right kid.  This one stays on my shelf.

How about fiction?

Hartnett, Sonya.  The Ghost’s Child. Candlewick. 2008

What do we have here?  The top of the cover reads: “By the author of the Michael L. Printz Honor Book Surrender.”  Beneath Hartnett’s name is “Winner of the 2008 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award.”  Now, I actually don’t know what the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award is, but I do, obviously know the Printz Award, and though I haven’t read it, I know about Surrender.  What these things tell me together is that this is a title written by a very good writer, but (given the general thrust of Printz Awardees) probably not a particularly popular one.  Hartnett’s (non)popularity is confirmed for me by two things: 1) the fact that she is identified as an award winner, rather than as a bestseller or something, and 2) her name appears at the very bottom of the cover.  She’s well known enough to have her name in large print, but not popular enough to blast it on the top of the cover.  Now let’s look at the cover art: a very tasteful picture of feathers in close-up (one of them is practically transparent) in front of a monochromatic beach scene. Well, yuck.  Not a good cover–tasteful and pretty, but not designed to grab the reader in.  Probably designed to lure the type of reader who reads thoughtful, award-winning authors.  So to sum up: great author, limited readership.  Hasn’t been circ’d in two years–which doesn’t surprise me at all.  What to do with it?  Well, I’m keeping it, because I believe in having a strong literary collection and handselling these types of books to the right readers.  Another librarian might decide to toss it based on limited appeal and the fact that we have other books by Hartnett that do better.  It’s a toss up.

I’ve been looking at this through the lens of weeding, because that’s how the topic came up for me today, but you can just as easily do this through initial collection development, or even personal readership.  Cover art, author, publisher, general formatting, I didn’t find a good example for this post, but blurbs are always a huge help too.  All of these things actually make at least an initial decision pretty easy just from looking at the cover.  Thoughts?

– Mark



Filed under Books, Teens

3 responses to “Judging a Book By Its Cover

  1. I’ve noticed something somewhat related: I remember books by their covers–even books I haven’t actually read. I absorb a lot of reviews to keep up with the YA industry, so I get pretty familiar with books without having actually digested them. Later, when I hear the title of a book without seeing the cover image, sometimes the association with the synopsis escapes me entirely. I know I know a lot about the book, but I can’t dredge up any stored information without the cover cue. It’s a fascinating commentary on visual learning, maybe.

  2. Pingback: Bad Covers | crossreferencing

  3. Pingback: Well, shoot | crossreferencing

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