The English idiom “don’t judge a book by its cover” is a metaphor. It means one should not judge the worth or value of something by its outward appearance alone. The phrase goes back to at least the mid-19th century where it shows up in the newspaper Piqua Democrat, June 1867, “Don’t judge a book by its cover, see a man by his cloth, as there is often a good deal of solid worth and superior skill underneath a jacket and yaller pants.” So don’t judge people on their clothes, dogs on their wagging tails, or books by their covers.
I agree that you shouldn’t judge a book solely by its cover, but please don’t ignore the cover either. The cover is the all-important first impression. Everything on that cover, front and back, is purposefully designed to entice you to buy and read the book. The cover is only part of the book, but it’s an important part.
From the cover you learn the title and author, either of which might be enough to convince you to read it. There’s also a plot summary on the back, and maybe some reviews. The cover picture, colors, and font style all give a prospective reader an idea what the book is about. For example, if you see a woman in a historical era dress standing in a farm field or in front of a medieval castle, you know the book is historical fiction with a female protagonist.
As an author, I recognize the need for a spectacular cover. Two of my books had the covers redone after publication. I am not a design expert or a cover expert, but I know what I like. When I see a cover and say, “Ooooo!” and I pick it up right away, that’s a good cover. My first book, On a Wing and a Dare, was initially published by a small independent press. They chose a dark cover. On the book itself, you can see dark blue or purple streaks in the black part. None of that color shows up in the thumbnail. When I left that publisher, the black and white design remained their property, so I had the cover redesigned. The new cover has more color, more action.
Many years later, I self-published Under the Almond Trees. I asked the cover designer to use an old photograph I had as the model for the cover. I wanted color rather than black and white, though. I was very happy with the result. Later, though, I realized something was missing. I liked the blue sky, the blossoms on the trees, the color of the font, but the feel just didn’t scream, “Pick me up!” I enlisted a different cover designer, one who knew historical fiction, to redo it. I remember telling her that I liked the design, but something was off. Her resulting design was similar. The almond trees were still there, as was the horse and buggy. The colors and font were better. It was nothing I could have described, but the new cover is breathtaking. It was even a finalist in a cover design competition.
So whether you are told to judge a book by its cover or not, I know such judging occurs. A potential reader decides whether to pick up a book or not based on the cover information. I remember telling my sixth grade students that they had to title stories they wrote. “What would happen,” I asked them, “if you went into a bookstore and every book had the same title? How would you choose one?” Covers are the same way. Back in the day, books had solid color leather covers, maybe with some gold trim of some kind. There weren’t as many books then as there are today, but choices were clearly not made based on the cover. If you produced a book today with such a cover, it would languish on the shelf. So go forth and judge book covers!
Linda Ulleseit writes award-winning heritage fiction set in the United States. She is a member of Historical Novel Society, Women’s Fiction Writers Association, and Women Writing the West as well as a founding member of Paper Lantern Writers. Get in touch with her on Instagram (lulleseit) and Facebook (Linda Ulleseit or SHINE with Paper Lantern Writers).