[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
Hugo and Nebula Winner

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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 me.

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 Golden Fleece 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 it.

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