In Defence of [Some] Bad Book Covers

Over the past year, I’ve read or referred to over eighty books about books and publishing. The vast majority single out a book’s cover as one of – if not its most – important features. In fact, some even go so far as to say that a bad cover will almost doom a book to failure. Others even suggest that if you have to choose between paying for editing or cover design, you should choose cover design. But why is this? And might there be some instances in which bad book covers are actually… good?

In How to Be a Writer, John Birmingham points to as an example of some of the ‘bad’ covers that exist. And I can’t say after scrolling through several pages that I found any books I was tempted to find out more about, let alone pay money for and read.

But is that necessarily a bad thing?

I think there are at least three kinds of ‘bad’ book covers.

Let’s take a look at two of the most common.

There are books that are aesthetically objectionable (to our own, or to ‘mainstream’ tastes), however true they may be to the content of the book. Let’s call these the ‘UGLY BUT HONEST’ book covers.

Then, there are books whose covers are misleading or deceptive in relation to the book’s content, however aesthetically pleasing they may be. Let’s call these the ‘PRETTY LITTLE LIARS’

‘Ugly but honest’ book covers

The first book cover sin – the ugly-but-honest book cover – is perhaps most often committed by indie authors and small publishers. Usually, we’re told, it’s a result of the author designing the cover themselves, or not spending enough money to have one professionally designed.

I have a slightly more charitable view, however. I don’t think authors necessarily lack design sense – after all, writers are creative people, even if they do generally work with words rather than images. And talent in verbal and visual arts are not mutually exclusive. One of my favourite artists, Joanne Sullivan, the creator of PaintStories AU is also a writer, and her Hope: From Robe to Riches series blends narrative and art. Likewise, Patricia Tiffany Morris creates artworks that illustrate storytelling structures for authors, among others.

Rather, I believe the main reason authors sometimes create covers that aren’t as aesthetically appealing as they could be is because they care more about the cover reflecting the kind of story their book contains.

‘Pretty little liar’ book covers

The second book sin – the pretty-little-liar book cover – is perhaps most often committed by large publishers and those who churn out books not for love but for money. Receiving a cover designed by someone who hasn’t even read the book can be enormously disappointing for most authors, but it is, unfortunately the norm. And this makes sense, for two reasons.

Firstly, economically. If you had to pay a designer to read the book and then to do the actual design work, the time and expense involved in their workload would quickly balloon.

Secondly, creatively. If a designer reads a book, their feelings towards that book may colour the final design in ways that may even slide over into an ugly-but-honest book cover. Their choices may start to rely more upon being true to the story than a design that will attract readers.

Why these book covers are ‘bad’

Most of us understand that an ugly book cover, no matter how honest it may be, is ‘bad’.

If your book cover isn’t attracting – or worse, is repelling – potential readers, nobody will ever read your book and appreciate just how cleverly you hid all those motifs on the cover, or just how accurately your heroine is depicted.

In my previous post, I gave the following example of a ‘bad’ book cover:

Three of the best ‘worst’ covers

Following my last post, I called for authors and artists to send in their best attempts at a ‘worst’ book cover… Here are three of the best. (The middle cover was submitted by @BarrySBrunswick, a children’s author whose books are, in stark contrast to The Fasinating Tale depicted here, colourful, cheerful and full of imagination! The others were submitted under a cloak of anonymity!)

Three purposely bad book covers: An analysis

Let’s start with Cohabiting with Cockroaches: A Quest for Love and Acceptance. At first, I thought this was a how-to guide for those resigned to life with these creepy crawlies, but after discussion with the creator, I was assured the cover is intended for a work of fiction. The font, especially the author’s name, is difficult to read at this scale, and the picture (of a cockroach, with some bins in the background!) is relevant, but unappealing to most people.

The Fasinating Tale of nothing happening at all is a rather wonderful title – and were it not for the uneven capitalisation and spelling error in ‘fascinating’, I might actually really want to read this book! The title and author’s name (‘Buzz Killington’ might want to work on a pen name!) are bold and easy to read, and the background image is, like the first example, presumably relevant to the book’s content, though uninspiring.

Finally, LIFE: A Sad, Sad Dumpling depicts another relevant yet perhaps unappealing image, of a misshapen dumpling in a sweaty plastic bag. (I previously posted about how food on the cover can be used to increase readers’ appetite for a book, but I’m not sure it works in this case!) Interestingly, all three books (as well as my dino-monstrosity original) use ‘By ___’ when giving the author’s name – something I think I’ve rarely seen on a professionally designed cover.

The other kind of bad book covers

We see much less discussion of those books that have covers which are pretty, but also pretty misleading. In part, I think this is because cover design and layout and marketing and all of those other ancillary aspects of book creation have been fertile ground for those with commercial interests to push.

For big publishers, design support is one of a dwindling set of benefits they offer potential authors. It’s also one of dwindling set of markers that differentiate (some) indies from (some) ‘professionals’.

For those who sell their services as designers and artists, too, it is in their interests for authors to lack confidence in their design skills and to not even attempt to develop them.

Besides, ugly book covers are easier to make fun of. We live in an immensely visual age, and bad design, most of us feel, is something you should be able to readily see. And indeed, when you scroll through the bad cover designs tumblr page, you will come across numerous examples of ugly designs that provoke an immediate reaction. There is no need to read the book to know the cover is ugly. In a two second glance, you know.

Why terrible covers are mistaken for good designs

Pretty-little-liar books benefit from this two-second-glance culture. Books with glorious covers will be featured all over bookstagram and booktube, even by people who have never read a word of the stories they contain. That’s why these ‘bad’ covers fly under the radar.

In fact, that’s why these bad designs often get mistaken for ‘good’ designs.

Forget books. Let’s think about a chair.

I’d like to take a moment here to clarify what I mean by ‘design’, and what I think the purpose of a book cover is, by way of examining a different product altogether. Let’s think about a chair.

Just like a book, a chair can fill many purposes: it might be purchased simply to fill an empty space in a room, it might serve as a bedside table, we might even use it as a stepladder at times, or to build a fort as children. But I think we’d all agree that the primary purpose of a chair is something to sit on.

Browse any furniture catalogue or website, and at a glance, you’ll be able to make some judgements about the design of the chairs depicted. Some might look too hard or too soft. Others might look difficult to clean or to move. You might find some that you like the look of, while others would not suit the décor of the rest of your house, or your tastes more generally.

But it’s not until we actually sit in the chair that we can fully evaluate its design.

That chair that looked too hard may actually be just right. The one that looked too soft surprisingly has a thick metal bar through the middle that makes it uncomfortable. One that looked like it would suit our living room actually looks rather stupid next to the tiny coffee table we already have. The one that looked tricky to move is actually the lightest and easiest to manoeuvre of the lot.

You may find that, once more than just initial aesthetics are considered, the best designed chair is one other than your first impression led you to believe, and that some of the chairs which you thought looked good were actually very poorly thought out, prioritising style over practicality and resulting in zip positions that cut into your legs or armrests that are easily stained.

Now, back to books!

The same is true when it comes to books. We see a book that looks like it will be a fun read. The cover promises ‘hilarity’ and ‘side-splitting laughter’. And yet, when we actually read it, it turns out to be a mildly whimsical, mostly serious treatise on a totally different topic. Or, even more disparately, a tale of violence, abuse, and mental anguish.

When publishers cheat to win, readers and writers lose

When an indie author publishes a book with an ‘ugly-but-honest’ cover, nobody other than the author suffers as a result. Even this – as I’ll explore below – is up for debate.

But when a big publisher releases a book with a ‘pretty-little-liar’ cover, both the reader and writer suffer as a result. Only the publisher gains.

How readers lose

It’s pretty obvious how the reader misses out in this equation – they spend their money on a book expecting one thing, and get something else instead – something they may not even enjoy. If it were food being advertised here, the manufacturer could be sued for mislabeling of ingredients.

But how does the author lose – especially if the publisher is winning? After all, aren’t their fates tied? Doesn’t money for the publisher also mean money for the writer?

The answer is yes – up to a point. Big publishers keep the vast majority of profits for themselves. And authors increasingly have to share their portion of the proceeds with others – agents, and perhaps even social media advisors and marketing specialists and other professionals whose services are no longer – or were never – covered by publishers.

How writers lose

Writers lose out in terms of reputation – in two ways. One is shared by the authors of ‘ugly but honest’ books, and the other is specific to those authors whose books are given ‘pretty little liar’ covers.

A book advertised to the wrong audience is unlikely to be well received by that audience.

A reader looking for a historical novel who instead gets a romance rife with historical inaccuracies is unlikely to be happy. (Meanwhile, a reader looking for a sweet romance and who doesn’t mind a bit of creative license misses out on discovering a new favourite author).

A reader looking for an action-packed thriller who instead gets a sci-fi dealing with the minutia of forensic investigation in 500 years’ time is unlikely to be impressed. (Meanwhile, a reader interested in futurism and crime, and doesn’t mind a slower pace, misses out on discovering a new favourite author, too).

Connecting with real fans

Just like the author of the ‘ugly but honest’ book which turned everybody off, the author of the book with a ‘pretty-little-liar’ cover misses out on connecting with true fans who might have gone on and purchased more of their books, and who would appreciate their work.

But there is one way in which the author of the ugly book has an advantage over the author of the pretty but dishonest book.

How ugly covers can be good

If any copies of an ugly book sell, it is likely to be for other reasons. Buyers might be a friend or relative of the author. They might be existing fans of the author. They might be dedicated fans of the genre, voracious readers of anything in that particular niche.

Assuming the book’s content is interesting, well written and well edited, these readers are likely to enjoy the book – despite its ugly cover.

A reader truly interested in a novel about cockroaches (like Cohabitating with Cockroaches or Kafka’s The Metamorphosis) will not be put off by a cover with a cockroach on it.

On the other hand, when covers and marketing strategies are designed for mass appeal – or worse, to target readers of a currently ‘hot’ genre or author, regardless of relevance to the book in question – it is inevitable that some – or even most – readers will be very disappointed by the book they receive. (Imagine if Cohabitating with Cockroaches was rebranded to look like City of Girls, The Fascinating Tale to look like a Stephen King, or LIFE to look like The Unhoneymooners).

Anyone who picked up these books expecting heartwarming hilarity or a fast-paced plot, free of cockroaches, would likely be disappointed. And this would show, in reviews and ratings.

Reviewing patterns

Consider for a moment your own reviewing behaviour. And again, let’s think of a non-book example (since, if you’re reading this blog post, you’re probably at least as obsessed with books as I am). Most people don’t bother to leave reviews on sites like TripAdvisor or Google Maps. Especially for such ‘everyday’ places as McDonald’s, or your local grocer. But say you went to McDonald’s and saw an employee come out of the bathroom without washing their hands, and then found a dead fly in your fries. At a minimum, you’d probably leave a bad review. On the other hand, if you visited your local McDonald’s and, crossing the street on your way out, tripped over, and a staff member not only helped you up but also gave you a fresh tray of ice cream cones to replace those you’d dropped, you’d probably leave an outstanding review.

In both cases, you left a review because you received something other than what you expected – in one case, much worse, in the other, much better.

What we don’t do, however, is leave reviews when we expect something and get what we expected. How many reviews do you see that say ‘I ordered a cheeseburger and I got a cheeseburger’?

Publishers vs. authors and readers

The majority of authors and publishers would seem to be fundamentally at odds when it comes to book covers.

Publishers are businesses. And they’re gambling ones at that, rather than long-term investors.

Most publishers want their authors’ books to sell – and to sell rapidly enough that they achieve the velocity required to gain further exposure on online and bricks-and-mortar stores’ bestseller lists, which, they hope, will in turn increase the total number of books sold.

Authors are [generally] creatives

Authors are creatives. They are, generally, individuals who invest time and energy in their work, rather than taking a crapshoot. Most authors want their books to be read and discussed and loved and recommended.

Of course, there are some authors who would prioritise commercial success over intellectual or artistic integrity if it comes to that question (and it doesn’t have to). And, there are some publishers who would prioritise the intellectual and artistic integrity of publishing (which, when done right, is undoubtedly an artform itself) over commercial concerns – though this was perhaps more frequently the case in the days of independently wealthy ‘gentlemen publishers’ who didn’t need to satisfy their shareholders with beefy returns. (Naturally, this results in a whole set of other problems regarding representation, when the only way to get published is to tickle some rich man’s fancy).

Bad book covers

In summary, when it comes to bad covers, I would count both the ugly but largely honest covers produced by indie authors which make their way onto sites like Kindle Cover Disasters, and these misleading but largely attractive covers produced by profit-hungry publishers. The sad thing is, when readers (rightly) voice their disappointment about books that fail to live up to the promise of their covers, it is the author’s name attached to the reviews, not the designer’s or publisher’s.

Sick-sad-truth and Ugly-and-misleading

But there’s another (sub)category of books that we see frequently on Kindle Cover Disasters, and that is covers for those books whose content we find objectionable, and whose covers accurately reflect this content, even if they aren’t badly designed. We’ll call these the ‘SICK SAD TRUTH’ book covers.

There is also the possibility of book covers which are both ugly and misleading, but I suspect we don’t hear much about these, because they’re so ugly people don’t bother to read them and discover they’re misleading in the first place.

Good book covers

So, now we know some of the (many) ways in which a book cover can be ‘bad’, what counts as a good book cover?

The best book covers are, of course, those which balance both style and substance. Which attract the right audience with an honest depiction of the book’s content. These covers are both visually appealing and truthful, and will appeal to most or all potential fans of the book’s genre or topic, or the author’s writing style, and as a result, those who buy the book are likely to enjoy it.

A matrix of book covers

TRUTHFUL ‘ugly-but-honest’ covers, largely produced by indie authors substance over style Diagnosis: may only appeal to a narrow subset of potential fans, but they are likely to love it.The best book covers – attracts the right audience with an honest depiction of the content style and substance Diagnosis: will appeal to most or all potential fans, and they are likely to love it.
MISLEADING The worst book covers – ugly cover that both alienates and misleads potential audiences. substance nor style Diagnosis: may only appeal to a small number of people, who will be disappointed in the content.‘pretty little liar’ covers, largely produced by designers commissioned by big publishers style over substance Diagnosis: will appeal to fans of a different kind of book, who will be disappointed as a result.

Following the style and substance cover, the next best cover depends on your point of view and your goals.

Different goals, different covers

If your main goal is a long-term desire to connect with readers who enjoy your book, who may even be pleasantly surprised by the quality of its contents, and who may go on to buy other books from you, and or share your book with their friends, a cover that reflects your book’s content even if it isn’t trendy or award-winning is your best bet. That’s an ‘ugly-but-honest’ cover.

If your main goal is a short-term desire to sell books, that is, to get velocity for your book, a cover that is on trend or which appeals to an under served yet eager market is your best bet. That’s a ‘pretty little liar’.

In defense of [some] bad book covers

Needless to say, in either case, the quality of your book as an overall package should be high. Readers will rightly be unimpressed with any book, regardless of its cover, if the contents are poorly written, boring, and full of errors – no matter how slick and professional the cover might look. Note that I’m not referring here to whether the cover matches the book’s content in terms of genre, target audience, writing style, or other descriptors, but rather, in terms of quality. A poorly produced book hiding behind an attractive, accurate cover will disappoint readers, too. (Which is why I wouldn’t spend money on cover design over editing).

A cover should reflect both the book’s content and the professionalism of its production.

And therein lies my defense of some ‘bad’ book covers. I’d prefer a good book with a bad cover any day over a bad book with even the best cover.

A good cover, in my book, is one which attracts the right audience to a book and gives them the right expectations of it in both terms of quality and content.

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