October 2002

Jessa Crispin


How to Choose a Book by Its Cover

I rarely go into bookstores knowing what I’m looking for. I browse a lot of book covers, looking for certain things, and then walk out with a stack of books I have never heard of before. Strangely, I rarely pick books that I end up disliking.

I decided to try to write down what it is that I find in these books that makes me have to buy them. I went to Borders (I picked it because it’s three minutes from my apartment) and randomly selected ten books off of the shelves. I would judge the books on their covers and compare them to books I have read. Out of the ten, I ended up buying two. We’ll see if my good luck streak continues.

1. Cover Artwork
The cover artwork of a book can tell you a lot about the contents. It can also tell you what section of the bookstore you’re in. Cheesy floral design, or perhaps a shirtless Fabio character? Get your ass out of the Romance section.

There are several images that graphic designers like to use over and over again. A smoking gun: a murder mystery, naturally. An empty bed with rumpled sheets: romance novels are rarely this obvious, so it’s probably a literary novel with lots of sex. (Literally means no “quivering bossom.”) The naked woman (from the back or perhaps just a section of her) can either mean sexist crap or completely harmless. They throw naked women on every book these days. If there’s an impressionist or earlier era painting on the cover, it’s either a “classic” or a historic novel. If the date of the publication and a year on the back description are more than 100 years apart, put it down. Historical novels are tricky things and done so poorly most of the time. You’ll have to find a good author to get to a good one.

Some images to avoid are laughing children (demented looking children are okay), birds, pictures of ranch land, and angels. You should be okay with most other animals (especially fish for some reason) except for horses. If there are high heels on the cover, it’s chick lit. And almost all chick lit books have high heels on them. Or clothing racks. Inventive, aren’t they? A good image is shadowy male figures out of focus. Don’t ask me why.

2. Cover Font
Another important aspect of the cover is the font used for the title and author. Flowery, script font means either historical fiction or a romance. A clean sans serif font with minimalist cover art equals “hipster”, trendy fiction. If the author is much larger than the title of the book, it’s probably written by someone who writes the same book over and over again, such as John Grisham, Tom Clancy or Stephen King. The publisher has decided all you need to know is the author’s name because you sure as hell are not getting anything new from the book itself.

3. Back Blurbs
It’s not as much what the blurbs say as who wrote them. Publisher’s Weekly blurbs every goddamn book, so disregard them. Authors of stature you can usually trust. One the two books that I bought, Jean-Paul Sartre blurbed one (you don’t see that too much, do you?) and Neil Gaiman blurbed the other. Other authors I have trusted have been Thomas Pynchon, Salman Rushdie, and Jeanette Winterson. What I would not trust, however, is a blurb by a completely unrelated writer, like Leonard Cohen blurbing an SF book. I received a review book, a memoir about growing up black in a white family. On the flap was a blurb by Mark Kurlansky who writes books about the history of salt and the history of codfish. God only knows who thought of him. Todd Oldham, a fashion designer, also blurbed a chick lit book in my stack. I’m pretty sure I would not trust his taste in books.

The blurbs should not take up more space than the description. The blurbs should definitely not take the place of the description. I don’t trust books that have no synopsis on the back.

4. Description
Book descriptions read a lot like ad copy. So here is a little glossary of commonly used words:

“twenty-something” – boring character who frets about dates and clothing
“frothy” – insubstantial
“a homecoming” – melodrama
“saga” or “epic” – not edited properly
“hilarious” – will make you smirk once or twice
“dazzling” – it’s hard to tell. It’s in every book’s description

I’m a sucker, though, for words like “eerie,” “delicious,” “sexy,” and “devious.” All of these words, of course, appeared on the backs of the two I bought.

5. Author Photo
There are some great author photos. My current favorite is Salman Rushdie with his heavy eyes, looking at something just to the side of the camera like he wants to devour whatever woman, food or book is in his line of vision. Neil Gaiman’s current photo suits him well, also. Jacket collar turned up, smoky background, another intense gaze.

There are, however, unfortunate author photos. A book that I am currently reading, and loving, by the way, has one of them. The guy looks like Tiny Tim. There is no way around it. He writes beautifully, so this is a hole in my criteria. I would say that the author photo is the least important of all of these elements, but if I turn the book over and see a middle-aged woman standing in front of a flowering shrub of some kind, I rarely buy it.

6. The Spine
The only interesting information on the spine is the publisher. If it’s Random House, Vintage, HarperCollins, Doubleday, Scriber, Simon & Schuster, or Little, Brown, this information will tell you nothing. They’re too big and they publish too much for any theme or level of quality to be implied. Small, thoughtful publishers are what you want to look for. If you like literary fiction, try New York Review Books or Farrar, Straus & Girroux. If you’re looking for something edgy, you can go with anything published by Soft Skull or Grove Press. Feminist? Seal Press and Milkweed. The huge conglomerates may have destroyed any allegiance readers had with them, but good publishers that seem to actually like what they produce are still out there. They deserve your devotion as much as a good writer does.