It’s a tale as old as time; or, well, a saying that’s been around at least since 1992 (I’m not wrong): “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” they say. Well, they, you can tell me that until the sun drops out of the sky (that’s how the sun works, right?) or the ocean reclaims Puerto Rico to its womb—I will always judge books by their covers.
Now, before you begin bombarding me with messages about beauty being in the eye of the beholder and whatnot, I do know the counterpoints for this—“it’s like judging a person based on the way they look!” And trust me, I know the receiving end of this. As someone covered with tattoos and adorning two lovely little spikes on my face, I know what it’s like to have assumptions made about me based on the way I look. I’ve had people assume I was easy because I wear tight clothes, and I’ve been blatantly told that I’m surprisingly very sweet because “you look like you don’t like people.”
But here’s the thing—people do judge others on the way they look. Not on purpose, but you’d be a liar if you said that someone dressed in layers of dirty clothes with matted hair didn’t make you avoid eye contact in the hopes they wouldn’t ask you for change, or that when you’re sitting in your car alone and someone walks up to the window you don’t double-check your car locks.
Because it’s a survival instinct—we are programmed to use our senses, especially sight (the most overwhelming of our senses), to assess for dangers. And it’s not just “oh, is that giant toothy monster breathing?!” and run away when we see its chest rise and fall. We check the colors of our bananas and apples, pick favorite colors, have preferences on styles of art; we use our sight for basic desires and needs.
So, what do I do when I don’t want everyone in the vicinity to assume I’m a grumpy, moody ol’ soul? I make sure I smile. When I’m around my very traditional grandfather, I try and cover my tattoos up. When I’m at work, I dress professionally, and make sure I put the extra effort it. It shows I care about how others perceive me not because I think they’re wrong for judging, but because I understand that stigmas and preferences exist. It’s allowing people to get past my initial visual cues just for a long enough moment to realize I’m a sweet, intelligent, and caring person.
And then people forget about it— “Oh hey, yeah, you have snake bites, I forget you weren’t born with them,” “I’m so used to it, I forgot your grandpa doesn’t know about all of them.”
And it’s not that they like a false me—not at all, because furthering the argument, the cover isn’t the entire book. It doesn’t show what’s inside; so if you can appeal to people in a way that makes you more approachable at least at first, what does it matter? Because me hiding a tattoo from my grandpa doesn’t change who I am, nor does taking off my piercings make me instantly a better worker. It just stops people from assuming otherwise.
And that should extend to covers. And I’m not sure why we’re told it shouldn’t.
We are taught when informed how to do interviews to dress to impress—that first impressions can last a lifetime. And the first impression for a book is its cover. Every single time I’ve enjoyed a book I’ve read it’s because I saw the cover and it drew me in—the intelligent wolf eyes on The Sight by David Clement-Davies, Harry flying on a winged creature past a silhouette in a window on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the glowing door with the pentagram behind Bobby on Pendragon: The Merchant of Death by D.J. MacHale.
When I see covers that pull me in like this, to me it registers that there’s something I want to hear within those pages. I realize that someone along the process of making this book a reality has a mind similar to mine—they, too, liked this story and saw the same beauty in it that I would go on to see. The choice of font can show me they understand that sans serif is easier to read on a busy background; the art can either show a detailed, fluid story or a simple elegance that makes me curious. And ultimately? It shows me that they cared enough about their reader, and not just themselves, to put the effort and the research in.
Especially in this age, it’s easy to find tutorials or infographics about fonts and images. You can google similar titles that did well, and see what they had on the covers. You can invest in a cover designer instead of slapping something in paint, to show that you believe that what you’ve written is worth an investment and other people’s times.
And the argument has been made that it’s expensive to hire cover artists as an independent author—and I’d say you’re lying. Not because it’s not true on some level; artists are doing work, and they charge according to what they feel they’re worth. And so should you, as the writer—you should be willing to pay what you think your work is worth. If you can tell me you don’t spend a penny on things for yourself that aren’t necessary—that you don’t buy yourself a cup of coffee in the morning, or a pack of cookies when you do groceries, or your kid a small toy just because they wanted it—then I agree that you don’t have the money to spend.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t exchange services. If you have time to write you have time to barter—you can offer to beta read your friend’s work if they’ll do a free cover design for you, or (like in my case) give a free massage to a graphic designer student and say they can their cover design for you to use it in their portfolio.
Authors need to invest in their books to show they care.
Of course, someone—the publisher or the indie-author—could do all of this and I still could dislike the cover. I read the synopsis, I’ve read the hook, and I still don’t have an interest in the book. In this case, it’s merely preference.
In which case, it’s still okay to judge the book. Because the few times I’ve decided to try to read a book whose cover I didn’t like, I always end up disliking the story within. Perhaps because our brains respond to different triggers—who knows? But judging a book (not a living, breathing person) by its cover is in no way a vice, especially if it works for you. Because at the end of the day, we all have preferences, and that goes, too, with the covers of our books.