SFWRITER.COM > Nonfiction > Random Musings > Judging a Book by its Cover
Judging a Book by its Cover
by Robert J. Sawyer
Copyright © 1991 and 1994 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.
We all do it to one extent or another: judge books by their
covers. Having seen the covers of my own novels, it's become
clear to me that most publishers have no idea what package
elements attract readers. So, for what it's worth, here's my own
idiosyncratic analysis of what makes a book jump off the store
shelf and into my hands.
The first thing I look at is author names.
(1) Authors whose works I like get considered.
(2) Authors whose names I know but haven't yet read get
considered: for this, presence of the author on the Internet,
GEnie, or CompuServe is a real asset.
(3) Unknown authors get more consideration if the publisher has
prominently positioned their names. A large byline above the
title always grabs my eye; a smaller byline beneath the title
telegraphs to me that the publisher doesn't care to push or
introduce the author. Worst recent example: Bantam's Next
Wave series with author names in minuscule 14-point type (yes, I
measured it: I couldn't believe how small it was) positioned in
the bottom half-inch of the cover. Best recent example: Into
the Dark Lands, a first novel from Del Rey by Toronto's Michelle
Sagara. Her name is in big, bright type above the title; Del Rey
is saying you may not have heard of this author, but we think
she's something special (Michelle's first book was not a part
of the Del Rey "Discoveries" program, and I think that's turned
out to be a good thing for her).
(4) Instant turn-off: franchise fiction a big-time author
lending his/her name to a work apparently written predominantly
by someone else. Any book that says, "Isaac Asimov and . . .,"
"Arthur C. Clarke and . . .," or "In the Universe of Larry
Niven . . ." is immediately eliminated from consideration.
(In fact, I'm pretty dubious about collaborations in general.)
Next I look at cover art. I'm an SF reader, not a fantasy
reader. Anything that looks like a fantasy is immediately
eliminated from my consideration. The worst mistake a publisher
can make: using a fantasy artist or a painting with a fantasy
feel to illustrate a science-fiction book. If a book has a cover
by Bob Eggleton, Vincent DiFate, Michael Whelan (in his SF mode),
Stephen Hickman, or another SF artist, it stands a much better
chance with me. Also, if I recognize the cover from advertising
in Locus or SF Chronicle or elsewhere, I'm more likely to
give the book some attention.
After that, I look for any indication that this is a book in a
series. I vastly prefer standalone novels. I won't buy book two
or later in a series for which I've missed the first volume. If
it says, "Book One of . . . " or "Beginning an Exciting New
Series . . . ," that's usually enough to get the book eliminated
from consideration. I don't mind books set in a coherent
universe, but books by Niven and Heinlein and White work for me
precisely because they weren't presented with titles such as
"World of Ptavvs: Book One of Known Space," or "Sector
General #3: Star Surgeon."
Next, I get to the title. If it's got a nonsense or made-up word
in it, that's almost always a turn-off. If the title consists of
a forced or cutesy pun, such as Phule's Company, that's almost
always a turn-off, too. It's irrelevant to me if the title
sounds science-fictional. In fact, I prefer a title that is
clever or has some literary allusion to a title that contains the
term "Star" or "Tech" or "Cyber."
If the book hasn't yet been eliminated, I now pick it up. The
first thing I look at once I've got the book in my hands is the
spine. How thick is this sucker? My reading time is at an
extraordinary premium, and I've rarely read a fat book that
wouldn't have been tighter and more enjoyable in a trimmer form.
A thin book is much more likely to get bought by me.
Price-per-page is completely irrelevant; the amount of my limited
reading time that this story is going to demand is very
significant to me.
Next, I check out the blurbs from other writers or review
publications. If I admire the other writer, all that matters is
his or her name; what they actually say is pretty irrelevant. If
I don't know the other writer, or if it's a blurb lifted from a
review, then I will read the entire blurb. The phrase
"A Selection of the Science Fiction Book Club" carries a lot
of weight with me, too, as does "Award-Winning Author."
After that, I look for things such as "About the Author," an
author photo (rare, but very impressive, on a paperback), the
list of books by this same author, and so on: anything that
elevates the book from being just interchangeable product to
being the work of a specific artist.
I then look for any indication that this isn't a "real" book.
If it's a packaged book (one commissioned as work-for-hire), if
the back cover says "A Byron Preiss Book" or "A Bill Fawcett
Book," or if the copyright page says the name of a packager or a
publisher rather than the author, that's a complete turn-off for
Finally, I check the price conversion from US to Canadian
dollars. I don't care what the base US price is, but if the
conversion is a rip-off, I'll put the book back. My own
from Warner was published at US $4.50 / CDN$5.95, which
was way too much then in Canadian dollars. US$4.50 / CDN$5.50
a combo used on many other books from that and other publishers
would have been much more appropriate (although still
overcharging at the time the book was published).
Perhaps just as important are the things I don't use in
evaluating books: I almost never read the lengthy back-cover
blurb. I've had the suspense in far too many books spoiled by a
blurb that revealed too much. I also never read the first inside
page if it's an excerpt from the book for the same reason. (I
will read it if it's more review clips or advance-praise author
blurbs). A one-line indication of the theme or contents on the
front cover, or as the headline to the back-cover blurb, is
enough to tell me if the writer is working in an area that
intrigues me. Beyond that, I want the writer to unfold the story
in his or her own way, without having upcoming events foretold or
telegraphed by marketing material.
I realize the foregoing is highly personal, and, yes, I probably
miss a lot of good books. Still, if I'm doomed to judge a book
by its cover, at least I'm aware of exactly how it is that I do
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