Covers in the Age of Change


I’ve been thinking about covers a lot recently. There are  two main reasons for this: one, I just received permission to unveil the covers for my July release (they’re pretty, you can check them out HERE) and two, I received a kindle touch for Christmas and discovered that it only lists books without showing covers.

As authors, covers are a source of excitement and/or stress, largely because we have little or no say in them and yet covers are the first thing people see. A good cover conveys to the reader the genre of the book (and so what to expect and if it’s something that reader is looking for) while still standing out from other covers in that genre. Not a simple task, but the marketing and art departments are pretty good at what they do and most covers hit their intended target audience. But not all. That’s where the stress comes in. I know more than one author whose cover likely contributed to low sales–either because people didn’t know what to make of it, or (more often) it looked like the wrong genre so the target audience passed over without looking at it and the incorrect audience read the blurb and put it back on the shelf realizing it wasn’t for them. Because that’s how people found books–they browsed and looked for something to jump out at them.

But that is changing. More and more people are buying books online these days (both paper and e-book). And then there is e-ink. The nook shows covers, but of course they are small and in shades of grey. The kindle only shows covers if you hold down on the title, but even then, it doesn’t always show the cover–more than once I’ve had it show just the title on a blank book. If you’re a person who reads e-books and you shop from your e-ink reader, you may never see a cover in all its glory. And publishers know this. Books released only for e-book editions, (such as many novellas either being re-released after being in an anthology  or that are supplemental to a series) often lack intricate covers. Many just have a nice  font–I assume because, being e-editions they don’t require shelf appeal.

It makes me wonder if cover art will one day become obsolete. Of course, everyone is speculating about what will happen to books in the coming years. I personally think the dead tree version isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, but the popularity of e-books can’t be ignored. And the e-market drastically changes the game. I see it in my own buying habits. (I’ve had a nook for about 9 months–the kindle is new.) Despite the ability to read a sample, when shopping through the e-reader device, I rarely notice authors I’ve never heard of before, but stick to tried and true favorites. This is very different from how I shop in a brick and mortar store where I tend to wander, looking for something to POP and grab my attention.

So, I’m curious on your thoughts.  Is a good cover losing its importance, or it it still what initially draws your attention? How do you find new books/authors? Do you use an e-reader device and have you noticed any change in your reading habits or how you find books?


21 comments to Covers in the Age of Change

  • Even if people say “you can’t judge a book by its cover”, I think people usually do anyway. A cover can tell you quite a bit, not least of all how much money the publisher was willing to invest in the design, and the general mood the book is meant to evoke. I have to say that I’m definitely the type of person who looks at covers.

    “Despite the ability to read a sample, when shopping through the e-reader device, I rarely notice authors I’ve never heard of before, but stick to tried and true favorites. This is very different from how I shop in a brick and mortar store where I tend to wander, looking for something to POP and grab my attention.”

    I’m exactly the same. I do, however, occasionally try new authors on

  • This worries me. I am a sucker for a good cover and a lot of time, it is the thing that makes me first want to pick up a book by an author I’ve never read before. This makes me wonder if people will be less likely to explore beyond their favorite all-ready-known authors. Surely they will change this?

  • Mikaela

    When it comes to covers, I am more bothered by the fact that publishers don’t seem to believe that e-books need covers. Honestly, I *hate* seeing that green cover that marks Ballantine, or the orangeish one that Macmillian e-books has.

  • The Mathelete

    Cool post, Kalayna. I can’t speak to the proprietary e-reader (especially monochromatic e-ink devices), but on my Android tablet, I typically do see full color cover art when shopping for e-books, although typically in a small thumbnail image. However, I do notice a stark difference between how I shop at the local B-N and how I procure my e reads.

    In the bookstore, I meander, wandering from section to section waiting for something to jump out at me. I usually linger longest in the sf/f rows, but if the cover doesn’t jump out at me or has any similarity to books that I’ve not enjoyed in the past, I typically pass without picking it up to read the blurb. I missed a whole series (for so long that it went out of print before I realized it) from an author I really liked because of a dramatic change in cover art style. In fact, I’ve passed over many books I later discovered that I enjoyed (David’s for instance) just because of the style of the cover art.

    With e-books, I’m actually a much more targeted consumer. Unlike the real book store where I have to actually pick something up, judge it based on 2 paragraphs on the back, decide relatively sight-unseen, and then shell out money, I tend to do a targeted search for exactly what I want to read in e-books. Oh, do I feel like a high fantasy with a gay protagonist that includes no mention of elves or goblins? How about a red-haired female anti-hero space-western? Search on Smashwords/Amazon Market. Typically, one gets the first few chapters for free, so I read them (without weird people staring at me for reading page after page in the book store while blocking the aisle). If I’m not hooked by twenty pages or so, I pass. Otherwise, pay, and enjoy. Cover art plays almost no role for me here, certainly nowhere near the role it plays in selecting in a traditional book store.

    I’ll agree that wading through the e-book universe lets you meet a lot of things that would have (should have?) died on the slush pile somewhere, but because I can target my search to exactly what I’m wanting to read right then, I save enough time from reading back covers that I can actually read three or four opening chapters and still come out ahead. I’ve found some great authors I’d never have seen on the shelves at the B-N.

    In my thinking e-books and brick-and-mortar bookstores play out like this: the one is like a search-and-destroy mission for exactly what I want in a sea of possible horrors. The other is like playing Russian roulette where some editor somewhere has assured me that, worst case scenario, the chamber with the bullet contains a blank. At least if I get the bullet, I can be sure it has a pretty picture on the front 😉

  • Rhonda

    I’ve noticed also that it’s hard to find new authors in online bookstores. Much easier in a physical bookstore, where you just walk along the shelf. If I have an author’s name, on the other hand, it can be easier to find them in an online bookstore — but that requires having the author’s name. Outside of a recommendation, I don’t find new authors in online bookstores.

    Since the majority of books are filed spine out I actually use the title and author, not the cover, to do the initial catching of my eye. That, followed by the blurb on the spine (sometimes I read the back before I look at the front cover) followed by reading the first chapter if the previous two items seem interesting. If I’m suddenly on chapter 3 I buy it, if the first few pages don’t appeal, I put it back.

    (Who says you are only allowed to read the back blurb when you’re in a bookstore? Nobody ever told me that rule. Isn’t the ability to read the first bit in the bookstore a large part of why online bookstores added the preview feature?)

  • K-
    I think we are going to see a turnaround on covers, back to full color, high-concept, covers. Because the makers of the e-readers are edging to high-def color and you can see the covers on them. My Kindle Fire shows gorgeous covers, and you can see them thumbnail, mid-sized, or full screen. I’ll bring mine so you can see it at our talk/signing on the 17th of Feb at B&N in Columbia, SC, at Barnes & Noble Midtown at Forest Acres from 6-8 p.m.
    Back to subject – The full screen covers are so high-def, and the tech is moving so fast, I foresee a total abandonment of the ugly e-covers. And personally, I hope someone at Penguin E-special-readers is paying attention. The white covers are dulldulldull.

  • A. R. Gideon

    The covers are one of my favorite things about looking for books. Sometimes its amazing what jumps out at me. Take the first book in the Night Angel trilogy by Brent Weeks, The Way of Shadows for example. What caught my eye was the contrast in colors. Most of the cover is white, but the guy is wearing all black (looks pretty much like a ninja to me) and there’s something of a purple miasma surrounding him. Now the guy isn’t the most impressive visage I’ve ever seen, but it caught my eye. I read the first chapter and was hooked. Another that comes to mind is the Runelords series by David Farland. I saw the first book in a local library. I passed by a few times looking at the amazing art on the front and finally I had to pick it up. But what finally sealed the deal for me was a quote from Terry Brooks on the front praising the book. I love Terry Brooks and was like “well if Terry Brooks liked it, I guess I’ll give it a try.” And now I own all of the books in the series.

  • I tend to agree with Faith on this one. I think cover art is going to become more important, because more and more people will be e-shopping and will have less to go on in choosing a book. I expect that e-readers that skimp on cover art will vanish sooner than mass market paperbacks.

  • Half the time when I go into a brick and mortar store, I forget the name of the author I’m going in there for, so I end up scanning all the names and titles hoping the name will jump out at me. As a result, I end up finding a number of books I wouldn’t have found if I’d immediately remembered what I was looking for. 😉 My problem going anywhere for a book is that I have sort of specific tastes for certain genres. It might be interesting to go online and put in my tag preferences to find what I’m looking for, but I also really prefer paper books to e-books. I still don’t have an e-reader because I can’t afford one. I don’t like to read much off the computer screen or take my laptop to bed. And I couldn’t take an e-reader or my laptop to read in the tub, for obvious reasons.

    I am one of those, judge a book by its cover, guys. If I’m just scanning books, looking for something new, I’ll usually catch an interesting name first, because that’s usually what’s sticking out, though if a cover is visible it usually catches my attention first. If the cover isn’t all that catching or doesn’t show me what the book could possibly be, I’ll maybe be 50/50 on whether I stick it back on the shelf or not. If the cover’s on point, I’ll read the back, then the inside flap, then usually the first page or so before I buy. Problem with a lot of the covers I see at Amazon, they’re kinda generic, which doesn’t give me much incentive to buy a book.

    Funny thing and sort of an aside, there was one book where the negative reviews at Amazon actually got me to buy it, because I realized that the very things they were harping on were the exact things that made that genre for me. Evidently, they were looking for a certain kind of sci-fi, I was looking for another. One of the few times negative bashing actually got the author a purchase. 😉

  • Thanks for all the feedback everyone! I think this is a fascinating discussion and I’m so glad so many of you are joining in.

    I’m happy to see so many people saying that cover art is still very important (and Mikaela and Faith, I agree, I hate the bland covers and I hope you and David are right about the increase in color tablet type e-readers bringing a focus back on covers).

    I’m also seeing a lot of you mentioning that I’m not alone in doing more targeted type searches when shopping online. Brick & Mortar stores are still where I find my new authors, and it sounds like that is true for most of you as well. (Rhonda, I agree, you can read more than back blurb in the store!)

    (Daniel, don’t tell anyone, but I have, in fact, taken my e-reader in the tub. Most likely an expensive gamble, but sometimes a girl wants warm water and the book she already started. LOL)

  • sagablessed

    I agree with Faith in that people LIKE art, and want it. Sometimes when I don’t know what I am in the mood for, I let my mind go blank and scan my books until a cover pops at me. E-books are going to have to adapt due to consumer demands. I know a number of people who have complained to Amazon and other companies for lack of cover art. What is sad is I know what I want as cover art for my book, but doubt I will get any say in it.

    Kalayna, as to the expensive gamble: hun, you are so right. XD Sometimes a gurl (spelled appropriately) wants bubbles, book, and the “ahhh” factor. Just be careful. A paper book can be dried: e-reader…not so much.

    (Daniel: any progress? *hinthint* FB me.)

  • I’m naively hopeful that the trend won’t just be back towards pretty covers. Imagine a trend towards illustration between the covers. You know, like in the old days. Now that’d be cool.

  • I’m going to agree with the sentiment of Faith and David… Plain white/gray covers with a splash of text looks amateurish to me. And like it or lump it, that sends a signal about the content of the book. That’s just the way people perceive things.

    I think even in the case of e-ink readers, the technology will improve sufficiently that good art and splashy covers will be the norm. (I foresee the possible combination of full-color screens and e-ink screens… where the screens can switch between the two modes depending on user activity, so you get a nice, crisp non-stressing e-ink display when in ebook reading mode and the classy, jazzy, full-color bonanza when doing anything else. I’m not sure if the combination of techs is technically feasible… but then smart engineers can do some amazing things sometimes, and sometimes do things nobody thought was possible before.)

  • I’m with David and Faith too. I thinkcolor e-readers like the new Nook and Kindle Fire which are more like tablets will re-invest in the visuals of cover art and maybe of illustrations too. I just got a glimpse of the Macbeth cover, and I have to say (biased though I am) that I think it’s both glorious and right. Check it out:


  • There was an old hardware store I used to frequent, and it was, frankly, a mess. Most of its wares were used, gathered from who knows where. The interior was long and narrow with the only clear light coming through the smudged windows at the front; the low-wattage overhead lamps kept the back of the shop overpowered by cave-like shadows. Walking through the narrow aisles, you were likely to encounter anything. Any given bin might contain a 20-mm Allen wrench, a set of O-rings, a screwdriver with a broken tip, a porcelain doll’s head, a Selectric typing ball, or a microscope slide of iodine crystals. Every time I went in there, looking for, say, X-acto diagonal pliers or some faucet washers, I would find half a dozen other treasures that I never would have thought to look for.

    Back in the old days, if you wanted to find a book in the library, you had to consult the card catalog, a set of cabinets with rows of small, long drawers filled with card stock, the details of each volume hand-typed and often with penciled notes or corrections. It was very personal. In trying to find your particular book, you flipped through the cards alphabetically, and in the process, you would see dozens of other titles. Some would catch your eye, and some would be intriguing enough to divert you from your initial search.

    In both these examples, I invariably found things I was not looking for.

    That old hardware store still exists, but a few years back it was modernized and organized. The aisles are wider and well-lit, the shelves stocked with logically sorted parts and pieces. I can go in there now, quickly find what I wanted, pay for it, and leave with only what I came in to get.

    Computer terminals have of course replaced the card catalogs in the libraries. I can enter a title, author, or other keyword and quickly find the book I want. Very efficient. And as aesthetically satisfying as a sheet of plate glass.

    Bookstores are the same way. Nothing can match the holistic experience of being surrounded by shelves of bound words, bound worlds, in physical form, something I can touch and hold in my hands. I can read the same words in an e-book, but the experience is sterile. I can find what I am looking for online, but I find what I want by glancing over titles and cover art.

    “Smell is the most powerful trigger to the memory there is. A certain flower or a whiff of smoke can bring up experiences long forgotten. Books smell. Musty and, and, and, and rich. The knowledge gained from a computer, is, it has no texture, no context. It’s there and then it’s gone. If it’s to last, then the getting of knowledge should be tangible, it should be, um… smelly.”
    —Rupert Giles, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

  • Razziecat

    Yes. The smell of books. Intoxicating. Always. And there’s nothing like a gorgeous cover. I have a Kindle, but not the Fire, and I miss the covers. I’m still buying my favorite authors in book form so I can have the gorgeous covers. When I’m in a bookstore, I wander, and it’s the titles and covers that pique my interest. I do the same thing in the library. I also find new authors through Amazon’s recommendations, but the best books, the ones I cannot live without, I found by wandering among the shelves.

    Books are actually a tactile experience. They engage all the senses except taste (at least I haven’t chewed on any myself!). Beautiful cover art is part of that experience and I truly hope it doesn’t disappear. And I don’t think it will, because e-readers are becoming better able to display color.

  • Rhonda

    AJ: Macbeth in paperback! fantastic. I’m going to pre-order. (I don’t do well with audiobooks, otherwise I’d have bought that version.)

  • I think Wolf’s post and Mathelete’s post both highlight how different people’s book selection process is. I rarely go to a bookstore looking for something specific, though I tend to head straight for the fantasy/sci-fi section. I miss the old card catalogues too. Serendipity and the ability to take a book off the shelf and interact with it matters to my ability to connect with a book as a real thing I want to spend time and money on. Most of my book purchases are impulse buys – the only exception is when I want something by a specific author or a specific title I’ve had recommended to me. Then and only then, I bargain shop, using the web to find the cheapest edition of something. I never give a book twenty pages to hook me and I rarely read blurbs either. In fact, I tend to automatically ignore publisher’s text as, at best, puffery and at worst, totally unrelated to the book’s content. If a title / art catches my eye, I just flip open the book and start reading. If I make it to twenty pages, I’m already walking toward the cash register.

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  • akeeperofkeys

    I think plenty of people look at a book’s cover first, and if it catches their interest they would then proceed to read the blurb, furthering their interest. I definitely follow that route, as for ebooks, covers would still be needed to grab a reader’s attention.

  • I have so many books, now, that I tend to limit my dead-tree book buying to reference, research, and titles written by friends. Pleasure reads are almost always e-books. If I really love the book, or meet the author, or if they mentioned me in the dedications 😉 I’ll buy the dead-tree version, preferably in hardbound.

    As for shopping online vs browsing through the aisles of a book store, well… the online route is much less dangerous for me. I can’t limit myself to the SF/F shelves at a B&N. There are history books. Botany books. Herbals. Art books. Doctoral publications on too many topics to list. And. I. Want. Them. All.