Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Can You Judge a Book By Its Cover?

Hello Meltingpot Readers,

I'm asking for your opinions here today. As many of you know, the countdown has officially begun on the release of my first novel, Substitute Me. To be honest, I am equal parts thrilled and terrified thinking about the release. Thrilled that my first work of fiction will see the light of day, terrified that people will hate it. Not hate it, more like think it's a waste of ink on paper.

In the meantime, I'm looking at the manuscript for the last time, making last minute edits and praying that the story I wanted to tell comes across clearly on the page. Also, as every author has to do these days, I'm thinking about how to spread the word about the book and convince booksellers to stock it and readers to buy it. Of course one of the many tools used to sell a book is the cover. An attractive or provocative cover at the very least makes people stop and consider.

So, of course, I'm conflicted about the cover being chosen for my book. If you recall, Substitute Me is about the complicated relationship between a professional White woman, Kate, and the Black woman, Zora, she hires to care for her infant son. In alternating chapters, Zora and Kate tell their version of the story.

So the cover drama. Originally the publisher wanted to put a giant Black woman's face on the cover. I said no. First of all, the story isn't just about Zora, it's Kate's story too. But second of all, I still believe that a Black woman on the cover of a book makes White people think the story isn't for them. Am I right? After several variations on the theme, the final cover is pretty much a night shot of the Brooklyn Bridge. No people in sight. And yes, the story takes place in Brownstone Brooklyn.

So we've gone from too much information, to maybe not enough. Now I'm worried that my target audience, which is mostly women (of any ethnic, socioeconomic background) might walk on by because the book looks like a Walter Mosely detective novel, with no hint of what's inside.

My editor says not to worry. She claims that as long as the cover is attractive, people read their own ideas into it. She offered up the example of the book, The Help. "What's on the cover?" she asked me. I own that book and all I could recall was yellow and some spot of purple. "You see," she said, "that book is a number one bestseller and it has the stupidest cover ever that has nothing to do with the story." I started to see her point. But then I thought about my own process for selecting books. I often stroll through the bookstore or the library looking for covers that speak to me in some kind of way. It doesn't always work out, but that's how come I picked up the book Wench, for example. Because I was intrigued by the picture of a Black woman in period dress sitting under a parasol.

So tell me people. What do you think? Can you tell a book by its cover? How important is the cover art to you in deciding what to read? Please share so I can share with my publisher before it's too late.



Emerson Zora said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Emerson Zora said...

Hey, Lori

I must say that I am glad you went with the Brooklyn Bridge cover. I love covers that don't try to tell too much of the story or appeal to a particular audience (aside: I almost never by the movie cover of a book after it has been made into a film).

Books with characters on the cover often interfere with how the characters reveal themselves to me, and I am a bit bothered by that. Case in point, I just finished Marlon James's The Book of Night Women, which is wonderful, and although there is only one beautiful black woman on the cover, I gazed at the cover often wondering which character she was. I finally decided that I was being silly, and I stopped fretting over the woman on the cover.

An abstract cover tells the reader that you respect his/her imagination, and it puts you, the writer, in a position to have to produce work that will speak for itself. People will buy the book because it is good, and word of the quality of writing will travel. I will certainly sing its praises, if it is a good read (and sure it will be).

With that said, I don't have a rule against reading books with pictures people on the cover.

Thanks for allowing us to weigh in on this.


PS: Check out the cover of Victor LaValle's Big Machine. Big Machine is getting all kinds of attention. Have you read it?

toni said...

I'm not sure that The Help is a good example to use. As a bookseller, I've noticed that the sales of that book are due to the word of mouth factor and marketing, rather than it looking like an interesting book. I do share your misgivings about a night shot on the cover of a book whose audience is primarily female, because similar styles almost always appear on mysteries and some may walk on by. However, any good and creative marketing program backed by great writing can certainly counteract that.

nyc/caribbean ragazza said...

hmmmm good question.

The cover with the photo of the bridge tells me it's set in Brooklyn/NYC.

The bridge can be symbolic...bridging two cultures?

I assume this book will also be shelved in the African-American section.

LT said...


Thanks for the insight. I appreciate it.

Point well taken. I hope I can generate half as much buzz as The Help!

Thanks for asking. I'm not sure where it will be shelved, but I'm going to work hard to make sure it lands prominently displayed in the Great New Fiction section. Fingers crossed!!!!

Shuggie said...

This is just my idea as I was thinking about the topic of the book - but maybe a white hand/arm and a black hand/arm holding onto the same baby carriage/stroller? (shot from the back) No bodies nor faces, just 1 of the women's arms each holding onto the carriage/stroller handle (in between the two women) and they can be facing the Brooklyn Bridge (in the background)

Shuggie said...

Now that I re-read the concept - I guess the women's bodies showing is okay (in their respective professional/work attire) - but still shot from the back.

Stephanie said...

I too don't care for covers with characters depicted, particularly actor types after the movie comes out. The cleaner/plainer the cover, the more likely I will pick it up.

Visiting from TWC, best of luck to you and congratulations.

LT said...


I love your idea for the cover and I had a similar one too, but it was nixed.

Thanks for visiting. Please come back. And the stories about your son on your blog had me rolling on the floor. I can totally relate.

Anonymous said...

I think you are right that a cover with an image of a black woman's face would stop a lot (not all) of white or other non-black browsers from opening up the book. The cover on The Help would certainly deter me from opening it if I was browsing through a store - it looks really boring.
You can sort of tell the genre of a book from its cover, for example the "chick lit" novels all have the same look. You want a more trade kind of look than a summer light reading kind of look.