DO judge a book by its cover…

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Conventional wisdom tells us not to judge anything by its outward appearance. Sound advice, of course, for everyday life, but when it comes to books, my personal philosophy doesn’t quite meet this lofty ideal.

I confess, I am a sucker for a great cover, to the point that I am often swayed into parting with ruinous sums by a beautifully designed book jacket, having made only a cursory pass at the blurb. (Here’s one I bought a while ago. The cover design on the hardback is worked in gold. It’s exquisitely beautiful – and the book is a wonderful read too!)

Do I end up regretting the decision to dive blindly in where more astute book buyers fear to tread? Not as often as you might think. Buying books purely on the basis of an appealing cover isn’t quite the literary Russian roulette one might suppose.

The reason? Subjectivity aside, there is often a tangible correlation between the effort that goes into cover design and the quality of the book contained within those covers. Publishers, more than ever before, are lavishing on favoured books the sort of care one more usually associates with beloved children, seeking to woo those of us amenable to an aesthetically-pleasing offering.

A decade ago, the death knell sounded for physical books. We were told by experts that digital was going to take the hardback/paperback publishing industry out into a meadow and put a bullet between its ears – for its own good, of course. The dinosaurs among us who still professed to loving the feel of a ‘real’ book would be blasted into oblivion by the twin asteroids of e-readers and audiobooks.

Don’t get me wrong. I own a Kindle and find it practical in certain situations, such as when I’m wedged into the armpit of a Canary Wharf day trader on the London Underground. And an audiobook is a wonderful accompaniment to a long drive.

But I grew up in an era where books were to be treasured. To be coddled and re-read and fondled in one’s hands like a small, furry pet or a member of the Osmonds.

What exactly is the function of a book cover?

At its most elemental, a cover must convey, in a single glance, something about the nature and content of a book. This explains why books within sub-genres often have very similar looking covers. (I can’t be the only one who’s seen the same woman-in-a-red-coat a million times over on endless crime novels? Why is she always walking away from us into some windblown semi-distance? When will she get to wherever it is she’s going? More importantly… why doesn’t she just take the bus?)

A cover also has the unenviable task of standing out on busy bookshelves, artfully-curated window displays, and bestseller stands.

Today, book art is more important than ever because of the potential for it to be smeared across social media. As hip modern authors, it’s incumbent upon us to help out overworked and underpaid marketing staff by Instagramming, Tweeting and Tik-Toking the living daylights out of our painstakingly-designed covers. Book selfies are especially popular in terms of attracting eyeballs. The edgier the selfie, the greater the likes. (I tried to get a shot of my latest one while dangling by one leg from the underside of a light aircraft and juggling flaming chainsaws in one hand. Sadly, those party-poopers in Health and Safety poured cold water on the idea.)

The very best book covers impart a genuine sense of individualism to a book; they elevate books to objects of desire in their own right, eliciting an emotional response in the reader, sometimes subliminal, sometimes visceral. From a sales point of view, one hopes the response is positive, though even a negative one gets people talking. There’s no such thing as bad publicity, right?

Some covers, the rare few, go on to become iconic, making their way into pop culture.

We can all think of examples.

Here are some of my favourites, all books that I’ve loved. Jurassic Park. Guards! Guards! and The Godfather.

So where does our poor author fit into this equation?

The truth is that unless you’re successful enough to have management myrmidons scurrying for cover each time you set foot inside your publisher’s offices, you have little say in cover design. That’s not to say you won’t be included in the process. Your advice and thoughts will be elicited, but ultimately you will be asked to defer to the experts. Remember, a cover isn’t only about the designer. It’s primarily about how the sales and marketing team feel it fits in with their strategy for a particular book.

And this is right and proper.

The last thing anyone wants is authors unleashed with their boxes of crayons and fancy art paper, designing their own book jackets.

In my own case, my first series of books were set in modern Mumbai, and all I asked for were covers that reflected the colour and vibrancy of the subcontinent. And once a series design is set, it becomes the template for everything that follows.

My second series has seen a tonal change. Historical crime fiction has a greater sense of ‘gravitas’, and that has to be communicated. Yet I still wanted to see some of the colour of the subcontinent blazing from the covers. Here is the cover for Midnight at Malabar House, a crime novel set in 1950s Bombay. Personally, I think the designer did a great job, arriving at a cover that is both eye-catching and conveys the elements present within the book! (The book went on to win the CWA Historical Dagger 2021. Just saying.)

Covers tend to evolve over a back and forth between the various players.

Here are the various iterations that the cover for the second book in the Malabar House series, The Dying Day, went through.

Again, I was delighted with the end result. And if you haven’t read the book yet, here’s more info and where to buy.

So… the next time you pick up a book based solely on the cover, don’t feel guilty. A gorgeous cover, like the sleek coat of a thoroughbred racehorse, is often a sign of a healthy and vigorous interior. And remember, be gentle with us authors when you see us endlessly posting those book cover selfies – a ridiculous number of person-hours have gone into them and, should you scorn us, you’ll be able to hear, carried on the breeze, the sobs of our designers as they weep gently into their mugs of macha latte.

My quarterly newsletter contains articles, competitions, giveaways, short stories, book news, and recommendations. Simply register here

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