Why “Don’t Judge A Book By Its Cover” Is Bad Advice

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Gia R.

Staff Writer

Gia R. is from Phoenix, Arizona. She graduated with two business degrees. While studying, her short nonfiction story was published in 2018 in Write On, Downtown, an ASU journal. Since then, she taught preschool students abroad. Now back in AZ, you’ll find her writing, reading, and adoring digital art.

It’s a Saturday morning and you’re looking for a nice way to relax from your hectic week. You’re tired, but you still want to get out of the house. You decide to go to one of your happy places. For most of us bookworms, it’s a library or bookstore. With a coffee in hand, tote bag, and earbuds, you peruse the shelves. You stop when you see little notes left by the staff that catalogue some of their favorite books. You may stop a few times to check a book that you’ve heard about or take a look at a new book by an esteemed author.

As you take this trip, your eyes dance along the covers. They waltz from bright hues to muted tones. Your eyes tango over some bestsellers and linger on a few modern classics. They finally settle on a gold cover packed with images of a dragon and rose. Everything from the font to the coloring resembles a fairytale. You decide to pick it up and read the inside blurb. It’s about a young woman who must leave her small village to serve the wizard that protects them. It reminds you of one of the many Grimm’s fairytales you read growing up. There’s drama, adventure, intrigue, and a dark magical force that lives deep in the forest. You are delighted by the magical images on the cover. You decide to purchase it and make your way to the cash register.

Sounds like a normal buying experience, right? You wander, find something that catches your eye, and look a little further.

But…isn’t that what we’ve been told not to do? You know, judge a book by its cover? How does this philosophy fit into your book buying experience?

Well, before we get there, let’s take a look at what goes into a book cover.

What’s in a book cover?

It’s pretty standard. Most book covers include a title, author name, design, and tagline. Others may include a few quotes by critics or other authors. When we talk about judging a book by its cover, we could get into a long list of items like the author name or the title. These are important, but they steer the conversation into another direction. Judging a book based on an author, centers the ideas, reputation, and opinion of the author, rather than the design of the cover. For the purpose of this post, I’ll be focusing on the art, design, illustrations, etc. that appear on book covers.

What does the phrase even mean, anyway?

Well, simply put, this phrase focuses on not judging something’s value solely on its physical appearance. Seems simple and straightforward, right? Doesn’t it also seem a bit obvious? With most things, do we only base our judgement on one thing? There’s a multitude of factors involved when judging anything. The appearance is just one of them. Of course, over time, the phrase has been used to discourage people from valuing someone’s appearance over their personality. For books, there’s this notion that selecting a book based on the cover is a negative or simple minded action. The phrase has become more than a reminder to consider multiple factors when choosing a book. Now, it can be used to potentially disregard the imagery, illustrations, and designs that wrap up a book. This can often operate under the assumption that the cover isn’t a legitimate reason to select, purchase, and read a book. 

This assumption is one of the reasons why I think “don’t judge a book by its cover” is bad advice, but that’s not all. Read on to find out my other reasons.

Why is “don’t judge a book by its cover” bad advice?

First, the cover of any book operates as a conversation starter that a prospective reader responds to. To be honest, whether we like it or not, a cover is often the first thing someone sees when looking at a book. Sure, we’ll often read the synopsis or the blurb, but that usually occurs after we see the cover. I like to think of covers as the start to a conversation that readers engage in. Some covers may invite a friendly glance, a touch to the binding, a flip through its pages, or a trip to the back cover. Other covers may be very enticing to certain readers, but not to everyone.

The House In the Cerulean Sea cover, sadly with no cats on it

When readers pick up a book or put it back down, they are merely responding to a given set of data. They are making judgements, but these judgements are based on a variety of information provided by the cover. In its simplest form, a cover will often convey what is in the book. If there’s a crow on the cover, then you probably think this book will include something about the bird, be it literally or figuratively. The visual aspect of a book cover is not to be ignored. The cover has specific details that give us more information about a text. I mean, consider the The House in the Cerulean Sea, which was designed by Peter Lutjen and illustrated by Chris Sickels. The cover matches the title which also matches the contents of the book. The House in the Cerulean Sea is not just a place, it’s a home with a certain level of mystery, magic, and adventure.

Second, we all judge books based on a set of criteria. Some judge a book by the title, author, plot, tagline, author bio, blurb, and so on. I think many of us agree that most things should not be judged solely on one factor. For most decisions, one must consider multiple perspectives. In this case, the cover is just one of the many factors considered in a book buying decision. But if a reader wanted to, couldn’t they center their decision around the cover? If a reader thinks that the cover art is a major factor for their consideration, shouldn’t they be allowed to use that information for their decision?

And if we’re not judging a book by its cover, what is the point of the cover in the first place? Why have a cover if people insist that you shouldn’t take it into account when assessing a book? Good books are planned out well. They pay special attention to major elements like the plot, characters, and central conflict, but they don’t forget about the details. This includes the cover, artwork, design, and so on. Everything is put in place for a reason. We should respect that. This leads me to my next point.

Third, disregarding the cover also disregards the hard work of the artist, author, and other personnel involved in creating and publishing the book. Each cover takes a certain amount of skill to complete. There are so many dazzling, charming, and clever book covers. Some covers may look like they were easily put together, but many are exceptional. Wouldn’t this advice disregard the skills, time, and money spent creating the cover? There’s the time spent developing the concept, creating the design, and fine tuning the details. Creating a cover to represent a completed story is hard work! That’s a lot of effort and work for readers to simply glance over. Shouldn’t we be happy that people are using the cover to form an opinion? 

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Fourth, book covers provide a certain amount of information about the book itself. They are used to indicate the genre and other relevant information to potential readers. Many genres abide by their own set of cover designs. From a YA fantasy series to adult romance, the distinction is clear. These two things are not like the other. That’s a fair judgement. Let’s go back to the book I described in the beginning. The one that reminded the reader of a Grimm fairytale. Uprooted is a magical, dark, and adventurous story with clear fairytale tropes. This cover of Uprooted, which was designed by David G. Stevenson and Scott McKowen and also illustrated by Scott McKowen, conveyed elements that tied to the content in the book. In this case, the cover isn’t simply decoration, but a messenger that delivers essential information to prospective readers.

We can see this in other genres too. Take a cozy mystery for example. These books often include a pun in the title and cute images on the cover. For the most part, we all expect to see certain things on covers of particular books. For regency romance books, don’t we need a cover that features a grand estate and dresses with a high waisted bodice? Many genres abide by this idea, focusing on imagery that resonates with the story and audience. In this way, covers give us a taste of what will be in between the pages. It can serve as an appetizer or the entrance of a restaurant. The cover shows you what you could enjoy from the book. It helps the reader decide if this book is what they are looking for.

Of course, many covers can be misleading. They can evoke images of fun in the sun or a summer fling while also hiding the intense depressive state of the main character. To this, all I can say is a cover like that is also a choice. Maybe the author, publisher, or other personnel wanted to reel in a particular demographic that wouldn’t necessarily try this book. Plus, even when a book turns out different than expected, the overall experience can still be positive. 

How does this apply to authors?

I’m sure it can be disheartening for an author’s work to be judged on something that may have been totally out of their control. And for that, I feel for you. If that’s the case, more likely than not, the readers that you want to reach, the readers that your book was geared towards, would hopefully look beneath the surface.

On another note, if you’re not reaching the readers that you are targeting because of something like the cover, then that’s more of a publishing or marketing problem. A cover can be used to fit a book into a certain category and make it appeal to a particular audience. Whether the cover fits the content of the book or not isn’t truly the reader’s problem. They’re merely enjoying the fruits of this industry. Many of them are not privy to what happens behind the scenes. 

Final Thoughts

Readers are going to keep on reading and judging based on a whole host of criteria. The cover is just one of the many factors that are taken into account. Like other aspects of a book, it holds valuable information about the story kept inside. Disregarding it is bad advice. Instead, why not try judging a book by its cover? Maybe next time you peruse the shelves of your neighborhood bookstore or scroll through the numerous titles listed online, you can select books purely based on the cover. You never know, that could tell you everything you need to give that book a chance.

Like this topic? Check out these other articles:

The Value of the Book Cover: My Favorite Way to Discover Books in Libraries

I’ll Take a Side of Illustration With That

It’s Okay to be an Adventurous Reader