Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Judging Books by Their Covers

     How much does a book’s title affect your decision to pick it up? Or its cover illustration and design? The plot description on the back or flap (which most likely was not written by the book’s author)?
     In an ideal world, every book would be judged not by such superficial matters but by a careful sampling of the text ‑- the first few pages at least ‑- but there are far too many books. Without an eye-catching title or cover, most of us wouldn’t even pick up a book. Even then, if the description sounds bad, boring or too derivative, I put it back down immediately.
     I’ve just started reading a book titled “Midnight Riot” by Ben Aaronovitch. It’s an urban fantasy novel about a policeman who investigates supernatural crimes (a review blurb on the cover says it’s kind of like Harry Potter grows up and goes to work for the police. No, it’s not, and the author would probably cringe at the comparison). The cover shows a silhouette of a male figure, with no indication if it’s the book’s hero, villain or some other character. I would probably not have bothered to pick it up except that I read a review of it under its British title, “The Rivers of London.” That title piqued my interest, and the review made the book sound more interesting than did the blurb on the book. I found the cover illustration of that edition more interesting as well.
Why was the title changed? I suspect either because the publisher was afraid it would have less of an audience if it advertised the fact that it takes place in England (after all, those Harry Potter books barely sold any copies, right?) or because they didn’t think it sounded enough like a fantasy book. In my opinion, “Midnight Riot” sounds even less like one.
     Even more egregious can be cover illustrations, especially on paperback reissues. I have declined to buy or read books based on the cover, even when I know it to be a good book. On occasion, I have manufactured a cover so I can bear to look at a book while I read it. I recall once, when I was in grade school, borrowing a book from the library, and finding myself unable to read it because the library had rebound it in ugly grey material. I returned it unread, and then borrowed the same book from another library where it was bound in orange.
     At least two favorite books of mine, which I bought in hardcover, had such hideous covers on the paperback editions that I could hardly bring myself to recommend them to others. Each sank like a stone and went quickly out of print.
     Then there are the books that poorly, ineptly describe the plot of the book on the dust jacket or cover flap, or, even more irritatingly, DON’T describe the plot at all, instead just wax rhapsodically about the beauty and originality of the author’s work. Maybe, but if it doesn’t tell me what the plot is, I’m unlikely to give it a try.
With “Midnight Riot,” the Harry Potter line upset a couple of Amazon reviewers, who consequently gave it a bad rating. Maybe they still wouldn’t have liked it, but they felt the comparison raised expectations the book failed to meet.
     I haven’t finished the book yet, so I don’t know if I’ll recommend it, but compare the cover and description of “The Rivers of London” ( and the one of “Midnight Riot” ( and see which you prefer. Then let me know.


Blogger Heidi said...

On title shake-ups, remember the first Harry Potter book was sold in England as "Philosopher's Stone," but in the U.S. it became "Sorcerer's Stone." Would "Philosopher's Stone" worked up the religious zealots less, I wonder?

June 29, 2011 at 1:22 PM 

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