Do judge a book by its cover … and other elements

I have a confession.

Are you ready?

OK. One moment. Let me take a deep breath …

Here goes: I judge a book by its cover.

I know, I know. That “don’t judge a book by its cover” adage is a time-honored favorite. We’re supposed to judge a book by its contents, not by its design.

But I’m going to buck the trend and say it’s OK to judge a book by its cover.

Part of my saying so is the designer in me speaking. Each day in the newsroom, I handle newspaper and magazine design. I believe design is important. How a newspaper article, magazine story or novel is packaged and laid out matters.

As a consumer, when I go book shopping, undoubtedly there are dozens — in fact, probably hundreds — of books worthy of my reading. However, when I go on a book-buying excursion, I can neither afford nor carry hundreds of books. That means the selection process has to be narrowed somehow.

Two weeks ago, I browsed the tables of the Haiti Mission Book Sale in Streator, Ill., an annual used book sale to raise money to assist the people of Haiti. During my browsing, I followed my usual formula to determine which books came home with me and which were left behind for another bibliophile to consider.

Sixteen books ($234.26 worth) for $1. This is why used book sales are awesome.

Sixteen books ($234.26 worth) for $1. This is why used book sales are awesome.

(Side note: Always attend a book sale. The staff started a bag sale at the end: fill one bag for $1. With the help of some Tetris skills, that stack of 15 books fit in one plastic Walgreens bag; $234.26 worth of reading material for $1.)

So, what criteria did these 16 books meet to win my $1 bill?

TITLE. The first thing to catch my eye for any book I buy or borrow from the library is the title. A good title can intrigue me into plucking the book from its brothers on the shelf. (NOTE: Every so often a book will have a mediocre title, but if the design on the spine looks interesting, I still will give it a chance to impress me.)

COVER/JACKET DESIGN. The next thing I evaluate is the cover and/or jacket design. This includes spine and back cover, not just the front cover. Poor design can present the wrong impression about the contents of the book. If I see something ridiculous, like Comic Sans on the cover of a book about a grieving widow, it doesn’t make the cut. Intrigue me with a powerful cover to make it to the next step of evaluation.

BACK COVER COPY. When I flip to the back cover, the book has passed the first two hurdles. Now I’m interested in the content and want to read what the book is about. Now is the time for the plot or character synopsis to make its mark.

FIRST PAGE. Next comes the First Page Test. I read the opening line. On any given book excursion, I read anywhere from 25 to 40 opening lines. I dig through a lot of books. Most of the time, this is where a book loses me. (Yes, writers, your opening line matters immensely.) If a first line hooks me, there is a good chance I’ll buy the book; however, I continue to read the first page. If the book has strong opening paragraphs, it comes home with me.

EXCEPTIONS TO THE RULE. There always are exceptions. If a book was highly recommended by a friend, that gives it a buying boost. If I find a book written by an author I like, that also eliminates steps. During the Haiti Mission Book Sale, Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” and the two Wally Lamb novels beat the system. Many friends who read “The Road” in college gave it positive reviews, and I am a fan of Wally Lamb’s “She’s Come Undone.”

WHAT ABOUT YOU?

Do you have criteria for selecting books? Tell me all about them in the comments.

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1 Response to Do judge a book by its cover … and other elements

  1. trinitygrau says:

    Wow, this was a great and totally true post! My parents tell me this about books (and only books) all the time! I myself find that it’s hard to get interested in something unless it’s nicely packaged.

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