Judge a Book By Its Cover?

- by Susan Lyons

When it comes to people, you can miss a lot if you judge by that first superficial impression. The same is true with books, and yet we all do it, don’t we? That’s the purpose of a book cover.

It’s release day for Body Heat from Kensington Brava (written under my pen name Susan Fox). I happen to love this cover and think it suits the book perfectly.

Hero Jesse Blue is assigned to do community service at a seniors residential facility. Heroine Maura Mahoney, not wanting to trust him with her precious seniors, puts him to work in the garden – right outside her office window. So I look at this cover as the view from her window. (Sigh…)

In general, I’m not all that big on the semi-naked guy covers, but this one works for me. He does have a lovely body, not one that looks as if he’s on steroids. He’s decently clad and he doesn’t have a hand drifting suggestively below his belt as if he just can’t wait to touch himself. LOL. The skin tones are lovely and the cover is bright and appealing.

The “candy” colors of the lettering add a fun touch, in keeping with the tone of the book. So in this case, I think you can judge the book by its cover.

But that’s not always the case. Last week, I was the guest at a book club. They had just read one of my books (not Body Heat). We had a lively discussion about the book, writing, the publishing process, print versus e-books, and so on and so on. One of the hot-button topics was covers.

Several of them commented that they didn’t like my book’s cover, for two main reasons. First, it wasn’t something they felt comfortable reading on the bus/train to work, or at coffee break at work. Second, they didn’t think it related to the story. The couple on the cover didn’t fit their mental pictures of the heroine and hero, and the scene on the cover never occurred in the story.

They asked how much input authors had on covers, and how covers were chosen. I said that, in most cases, authors have minimal input – unless of course they self-publish their work, in which case they have total control. The reason that authors aren’t given much of a say, I told them, is that publishing houses hire people who are experts in design and marketing, whereas most authors don’t have expertise in those areas. (Mind you, authors are expected to promote their books, and most of us don’t have much expertise in that area…)

The club members referred to a number of books they’d read where, in their not-so-humble opinions, those experts at the publishing houses didn’t hit the mark. They said that, for them, the cover has a huge impact. They can be induced to buy a book because of the cover – and then find the cover has no relation to the story and they feel deceived. Or they resist buying a book because they hate the cover or the cover gives them a message that indicates the book isn’t something they’d enjoy, then someone eventually persuades them to read the book and they discover that they love it.

As a voracious consumer of fiction, I have to agree. I’ve had both of those experiences myself. As for the covers of my own books – well, sometimes I hit it lucky with a cover I adore; other times I get a cover I’m pretty happy with; and other times I just have to grin and bear it because the cover is nothing I’d ever, ever have chosen.

But I have to remind myself, I’m not the expert. If I self-published, then I’d get to test out my own theories about what covers are most effective, but so far I haven’t gone that route.

The intelligent, opinionated book club members had a proposition that, to me, makes a huge amount of sense. Let’s not rely solely on the expertise of the art department, marketing, or the author. Let’s ask the people who really count: consumers.  Put together focus groups of readers, and ask them. This book club, by the way, happily volunteered to do it. They’ll do it for wine – and isn’t that a generous offer?

It’s such a simple concept, isn’t it? Ask the target market what works best for them.

I imagine some publishers do have focus groups, at least for some books (I’m guessing it’s the ones they invest the highest advances on). If they don’t ask for consumer input, they probably have a good reason. That aspect of the business is out of my hands, as long as I contract with traditional publishers. But if I ever self-publish, you bet I’m going to buy a couple of bottles of wine and hit up that book club for their opinions!

What are your thoughts on book covers? What works best for you on a cover? What’s the best cover you’ve ever seen? The worst? Have you ever been in a focus group to provide input on a cover?

(And if you want to learn more about Body Heat, check my website at http://www.susanlyons.ca for an excerpt and behind-the-scenes notes. Publishers Weekly said, “Opposites attract in this sizzling contemporary… In asking whether her two sympathetic leads can overcome their personal issues, Fox will have readers fervently hoping for a happily-ever-after.”)


  1. Great post, Susan, and I have to agree with you. When Wolf Tales first came out in 2006, it wasn’t offered as an ebook, and I had so many readers say they were dying to read the book because of all the hype, but the two naked (and yes, they were definitely naked) people on the cover had kept them from buying it. Not just one person–a lot of readers had that reaction. If 50 Shades of Grey accomplished anything at all (besides selling a bazillion copies!) it was to show publishing houses that erotic books without naked bodies on the cover would sell. That’s huge in my estimation!

    Best of luck on the new release!

  2. Thanks, Kate! I admit, I’m one of the people who feels embarrassed walking around with a “naked bodies” cover, especially an erotic clinch. It’s like saying to the world, “I may very well be reading a highly explicit sex scene this very minute!” One thing I think is interesting with 50 Shades is that surely, by now, everyone in the English-speaking world has a pretty good idea of what that book’s about. And yet people read it totally openly in public. When I attended the NINC conference last month, a woman sitting across me in the airport waiting room was reading it. The new “object” covers (e.g., ties, cuff links, ice cubes, feathers) may not initially be as obvious as the naked ones, but it sure won’t be long before most of the reading world knows what those books contain. So, even if your book has cuff links – or a brown leather belt, like my July release “Dare to be Dirty” will have – won’t people still know what you’re reading? Is it okay to read explicit sex if the cover itself isn’t explicit? It’s all very interesting!

  3. I remember various discussions re: covers, models, or both over the years, and there are readers in many camps. I even recall one test done by a publisher in the late 1990s where they released the same book at the same time with two covers — one clinch, one landscape — to see what the actual buying trend was. Don’t remember hearing the results of that (and can’t remember the author now), but perhaps someone else has that info to share?

    See also the link I shared. AAR began a best/worst cover contest years ago, and it’s since transitioned to its own site at the The Cover Care. There’ve also been some discussion threads at the Amazon Romance Forum.

  4. Thanks for this, Marissa. It would be interesting to do that kind of comparison study every year, with books in different genres/subgenres – and with different types of readers. I’m guessing a 22-year-old might choose a different cover than her mom or grandma, though all three women might enjoy the same book.

  5. Hi Susan – I loved your discussion on book covers! Personally I prefer much more subtle covers – indeed, 50 Shades hit the mark perfectly! The semi-naked guy with at least one finger pointing to his crotch is such a turn-off… and I’m a bit tired of the totally-sleek-no-hair gay-guy covers… or is it just me? A cowboy with his shirt part-undone, sitting on a fence watching a girl watch a horse… hmmm. Two hands looking very gender-specific… There are so many more interesting stand-out-from-the-crowd covers that would be more interesting, I think. Cheers – and congrats on your latest book!

  6. Thanks, Celia. Oh, the debate over chest hair – it’s such a personal preference. I’ve heard that many young women find chest hair a turnoff, so there are a lot of sleek guys on covers. To me, a guy with no hair makes me think he spends way too much time working on his body image. A guy who waxes? Call me old-fashioned, but that doesn’t seem very masculine to me. Now, I’m not all that keen on the bear-pelt type of chest either, but a nice smattering of curls to tangle a gal’s fingers in… Mmm!

    I love your cowboy image. That would be perfect for “Back Home on the Range,” the first novel in my new Caribou Crossing series from Kensington (August 2013). I’d love it if they came up with a cover like that!

  7. great post, susan. i’m one of those who’d prefer not to have naked torsos on covers–and the headless ones seem particularly insulting, as to me the implication is that the guy is only good for one thing… (i know, it’s so you can imagine hero to fit your own taste) i want to know there’s more than just sex in a book. i’m mostly attracted to chick-lit covers that promise a sense of humour inside.
    if yours had a picture of the seniors looking longingly at the motorcycle guy, now that would sell me. ;)
    it sounds like a fun book so i’ll read it from your description but not cover. but probably that’s just me…

  8. Hi Nora,

    It’s true that this cover doesn’t hint at the humor inside. You’re not the only one who noticed. Here’s an excerpt from a review by Brunette Librarian: “Prepare to be entertained because Body Heat is a whole lot funnier than the hot cover would lead us to suspect! Hilarious characters, a motorcycle riding hottie doing community service, a reserved yet longing to be a little wild administrative assistant, leaky pipes and so much round out this very naughty, very fun book by Susan Fox.” I’ll see if I can include a link to the full review. http://brunettelibrarian.blogspot.ca/2012/11/body-heat-by-susan-fox-review.html

  9. Hi Susan, Great post and so, so true about not having a lot of say. Personally, I’ve never liked the naked chest covers or the clinch covers. Not from embarrassment, but from the perspective that it doesn’t tell me a single thing about the story. For example, in what you’ve just described of your book, adding a window frame (even a crooked one) might have suggested something more. To me a single manly chest or a clinch cover says “This book is all about sex.” If that’s true, then great. But most of the time the sex is NOT the core of the story. Important? Yes. The core, No.

    Yes, I understand that marketing and sales departments have more knowledge of what sells. I also know that sex sells. IMO those are old tropes. I also think the marketing departments knowledge is based on one to two year old data. They don’t shift quickly and can’t take advantage of changing tastes.

    Publishers want something new and different, but then they want to market it old and tried and true. In my mind, that’s a disconnect. However, grin and bear it is the mantra unless you are Nora Roberts or some other equally powerful writer who probably gets an actual say in cover design.

  10. Maggie, thanks for sharing your thoughts. Occasionally, all the concepts you’ve mentioned get combined in a cover: sex sells (can’t forget that one!); info about the story – such as setting, characters, tone of writing; something distinctive that grabs the attention and isn’t “same old, same old”; yet something that’s familiar enough that readers will identify what kind of book it is and feel comfortable about buying it; and a cover that doesn’t mislead the reader (e.g., no cartoony stuff on a highly sexy book). And when you get a cover like that, as an author, what a dream come true!

  11. Hi Susan!

    Personally I find the half-naked-people covers to be super useful visual clues as to the heat level of the book. I like hot the best of all the levels, and when I find a half-naked guy I tend to think, “Ooh, this one has potential!” It does make it hard to whip out on a lunch break, though, unless you’re confident about baring your reading preferences in front of your coworkers. And it would be nice if there was a way to emphasize the humor more than just the font. Hm…

  12. Hi Wendy.

    “Baring” your reading preferences is a great pun! I think it’s possible to combine hotness and humor on a cover. For example, here’s a link to the cover of “Unwrap Me,” a holiday anthology from Kensington. Hot guy with great natural fleshtones, and a woman’s hands untying a bow that’s wrapped around… Hee, hee. Of course we don’t know what it’s wrapped around, but we can guess. http://www.amazon.com/Unwrap-Me-Melissa-MacNeal/dp/0758228538/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1354140641&sr=8-2&keywords=unwrap+me#reader_0758228538

  13. I really enjoyed your article, Susan, and found myself nodding agreement all the way through it. I like the sound of your story, too.

    Like Wendy, I use covers to guide me as to content, but they don’t always do that. I have a book of short romance stories which has a purely ‘boys own’ cover of dark yachts on a dark sea. Dark usually means violent or mystery to me. You can see it on this link if you want to join me in a wince:


  14. Thanks, Anna. Hmm, that’s quite the cover. To me, it has a literary “weighty” feel – like this is going to be a book of quite serious stories, not romances. And the cover doesn’t go with the title. I do think it’s an attractive cover, just not for a collection of short romance stories.