What’s in a cover?

Drawn from ParadiseWhat’s in a cover? Whether you are author, publisher, bookseller or reader, the answer is ‘an awful lot’. A cover is the first thing a browser sees on Amazon; it’s the first thing a customer sees in a bookshop. And that’s assuming the book makes it to the bookshop shelf in the first place. As a buyer perusing a two-inch thick wodge of advance information sheets from a publisher, if the cover doesn’t catch my eye and the author is unknown, then I move on. If the cover doesn’t interest me, why on earth would I think it would interest one of my customers?

We’re all judging books by their covers, all the time. The old aphorism may be true, but that doesn’t mean anyone ever abides by it. I judge books by their covers in bookshops and in libraries. If I feature a book as my beautiful book of the week, you can be sure that I have picked it up and read the blurb, and very probably at least toyed with the idea of buying it.

The good news is that many books have more than one cover, and so multiply their chances of catching our attention. The most obvious instance of this is film tie-in covers. I’m not normally a fan of these – pretty as he is, I don’t want Brad Pitt looking out at me from the book cover and influencing my view of a character whose description in the text may not match Brad Pitt in the slightest. Some film tie-ins get a free pass for just being so gorgeous it hurts (Life of Pi being the one that springs to mind) but mostly I say no. Still, they give more choice on the shelf and do the job they are intended to do – a gentle ‘here I am’ for people looking for the book on the strength of the film they have just seen.

Children's and adults' covers for Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

Children’s and adults’ covers for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

Other times a publisher will release a children’s cover and and adults’ cover, usually when a young adult book proves to be a hit among those who commute to work, and don’t want to be seen on the train reading a children’s book. Only pity the poor booksellers who have to spend immense amounts of time explaining that yes, these two books are exactly the same inside, no, this one with the cartoon on the front does not have the gory bits taken out, and for goodness sake, just choose which one you think looks nicer because there is no difference.

And sometimes a publisher will put a new cover on a book… just because. Allow me to distract you for a moment with a handful of covers all for one book – Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb. This is the first book in Hobb’s massively successful (and brilliant) Farseer trilogy, which leads on to the Liveship Traders trilogy, the Tawny Man trilogy, and the Rain Wild Chronicles. Were you to have your eye caught by Assassin’s Apprentice and enjoy it, there would be a further eleven (soon to be twelve) books that you would want to move on to, without even counting Hobbs’ unrelated books and her work as Megan Lindholm. Put another way, Harper Collins really want you to look at Assassin’s Apprentice.

Assassin's Apprentice


This is the cover for the edition of Assassin’s Apprentice that I own. It screams ‘high fantasy’, as it should. The illustration by John Howe suggests action and excitement. The cover makes a promise on which the book delivers, and delivers in bucketloads.

Assassin's Apprentice


A few years ago, Harper Collins re-covered all of Hobbs’ books in this style. Taken on its own, it’s OK. It’s minimalist and elegant. Put the entire series together on a shelf, though, and you have an all-singing, all-dancing, ‘look at me’ display of shiny and bright. It’s bookshop marketing genius.

Assassin's Apprentice


Perhaps this is cheating a bit, because this is a cover from the USA and would therefore not overlap the market of the others I have chosen. That doesn’t mean it’s any less of an example of how not to do a book cover. There’s nothing objectively wrong with it, and the illustration is perfectly fine. But it’s boring. Dull. Who cares about this book? Not me.


Now Harper Collins are releasing a handful of titles as collectable hardbacks, all with modern eye-catching illustrations on the front, and Assassin’s Apprentice is one of those selected. This is not a stereotypically ‘fantasy’ cover, and so might attract a new readership who may not have thought of picking it up previously.

What’s in a cover? When it comes to choosing books, everything.

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