Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover (or its Title)

Yes, I know the old saying ‘Never judge a book by its cover’, but in this day and age of Photoshop and various other graphics editing programs, it’s becoming a pet peeve of mine.

When I wander round a bookstore, I am usually drawn to a book first, by its cover art and then by the write-up on the fly-leaf or back, and I have to say this new fad of using actual photographs for book covers is not giving me a warm and fuzzy feeling.  Plus, for self-publishing Authors this opens up a whole new can of worms of copyrighted material, they can’t just pull any old image off the internet because they think it will make a good cover.

Malinda Lo, author of Ash and Huntress said this:
“The only job of a book cover, in my opinion, is to get someone to pick up a book and read the flap copy or the first page. Hopefully then the words will complete the sale. And that is the important thing: the words. The most important part of a book is ALWAYS the words of the story; never the cover. Even if a book cover doesn’t echo the diversity (quality*) within the book, that doesn’t erase the diversity (quality*). It hides it a little, yes, but the cover is not the story. The cover is an advertisement. And in most cases, it’s removable.”

(*added for emphasis)

So why are Authors either choosing or allowing publishers to choose such horrendous covers for their pieces of hard work? And why do Publishers feel the need to change, not only the cover art, but the titles of the novels depending on the audience they are trying to reach?

Let us look at Bloomsbury.  Bloomsbury printed two versions for the cover image of Harry Potter: one to cater to the mid-grade reader, and one to cater to adult readers.


(mid-grade reader covers, courtesy of Bloomsbury)

The Harry Potter novels were originally intended for children, and the fact that they happened to become popular with adults was a happy accident.

To explain: the first book was published by a children’s publisher, provided to school libraries and had a cover clearly aimed at children. It also won the Smarties’ Children’s Book Award. When it got a wider release, and the second book was also published, it became clear that adults were also enjoying it, and they brought out editions with more sophisticated covers so that adults weren’t embarrassed to read it in public, but they are aimed, first and foremost, at children. Not even teenagers – children. Regardless of how ‘dark’ they get.

In English bookshops, they’re always mostly shelved in the section labelled ‘Ages 8-12’, never in the teen section. They might put editions with the adult-style covers in the adult fiction section or the fantasy section, but they are children’s books with child characters and the language and style used throughout is conducive to them being children’s fiction.

So with this in mind, I found the above covers to be suitably appropriate, and actually made me want to read the series.  I don’t care that others might see a book in my hands that the cover indicated was aimed at children.  Bloomsbury, however, decided that some adult readers may be embarrassed by being seen with these covers and so released them for adults with the following covers:


(adult reader covers, courtesy of Bloomsbury)

Now don’t get me wrong, I like these covers too, but if I had seen these before the children’s editions I may have questioned the suitability of the content for children to read, never mind go to the movies to watch, without actually opening the book;  as Malinda Lo said  ‘The cover is an advertisement’.

Now onto my next peeve, changing a book title.  We’ll stick with Harry Potter to illustrate this.  The initial major publishers of the books were Bloomsbury in the United Kingdom and Scholastic Press in the United States.

When the first of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books was published in the UK on 26 June 1997 , it was titled ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’.  In April 1997, Scholastic Corporation bought the U.S. rights at the Bologna Book Fair.  They thought that a child would not want to read a book with the word “philosopher” in the title and, after some discussion, the American edition was published in October 1998 under the title Rowling suggested, ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’.

Rowling claimed that she regretted this change and would have fought it if she had been in a stronger position at the time.  Philip Nel, an American scholar of children’s literature and Professor of English at Kansas State University, pointed out that the change lost the connection with alchemy, and the meaning of some other terms changed in translation, for example from UK English “crumpets” to US English “muffin”, which believe me as I’m English, really bear no resemblance to one another.

So why do they do it?  Surely the whole purpose of a book is to broaden the reader’s knowledge, imagination and vocabulary.  To take them to places they may not, otherwise, imagine going without leaving the comfort of their favourite reading spot.

You can call me a fool, or whatever expletive you like, but when our printed words are being threatened by the e-book, surely more care and time would be taken over the presentation of these precious pieces of work, and not a rushed push to get them out to the reading public without too much thought as to what it may be that actually drives a person to buy a book in a book store.