Can you judge a book by its cover?

by on August 27, 2007 at 6:08 am in Books | Permalink

I saw this and thought I should buy the book — Kate Christensen’s novel The Great Man — just because I liked the cover.  As an experiment, I deliberately did not scan the contents or read the blurbs on the back.  The title isn’t very descriptive either.  I then bought the book.

My thought was this: presumably the publisher designs the cover to
appeal to people who will spread favorable word of mouth about the
book.  As a sometimes good (but non-reductionist) Bayesian, if I like
the cover I should infer I will praise the book.  Furthermore I should
be especially keen to buy on this basis for a "word of mouth book," and
indeed this author does not have a celebrity name.

If I like the cover *a lot*, can I receive a worse evaluation by
checking out the blurbs and thus skewing or minimizing my gut reaction
to the image?  Surely if someone is able to manipulate me, my optimal
strategy is let just some of the manipulative information through.  The
case for viewing the cover — and only the cover — is simply that many
more people see the cover than evaluate any other part or aspect of the
book.  Might we then not expect the cover to be the strongest and best
thought out signal?

I can now report that the topic of the book interests me greatly,
and I am enjoying the first half of the book.  I fully expect to finish

I will continue this experiment by buying another book just for its cover.

I do understand that this is usually considered the strategy of a relatively stupid person.

Under what conditions should a smart person prefer books with stupid or ugly covers?

Under what conditions should you — for non-superficial reasons — prefer other items, just because of their looks?

1 Tucker August 27, 2007 at 7:41 am

Having spent quite a bit of time working in bookstores, and even more time reading them, I would agree with you completely. Book publishers spend a tremendous amount of effort making sure that the cover conveys the sense of the book, and they are remarkably successful. I have had a great deal of success in finding new authors by simply wandering until I found a book whose cover I loved. As for a time to prefer stupid or ugly covers, I have not had much luck judging philosophy, science, or other such ‘technical’ books by their covers, the good-cover test only works (for me) with fiction and historical titles.

I would think that you could apply this split to other areas to answer your final question. If I am looking for facts I am not looking for an appealing cover, if I want entertainment then I will probably be looking for a more visual cue. The New York Times doesn’t need to pretty itself up for most people to want to read it, but People better have some pretty good graphic designers on hand or its circulation will probably drop.

2 Harald Korneliussen August 27, 2007 at 8:50 am

Why not just use word of mouth and some research? Or the trust networks we have built around ourselves to deal with these sorts of problem? My impression of your book, for instance, improved a lot upon reading a positive review of it in the Guardian. I was worried it might be obnoxious elitist crap, because I initially found marginal revolution through the blog of a certain colleague of yours, who is currently marketing a book as well.

FTR, the last book I read was “Collective decisions and voting: The potential for public choice” by Nicolaus Tideman. It wasn’t easy to get hold of, but I eventually borrowed it in a library at the University of Oslo. I was most interested in the voting bits, but I found the collective decisions bit most interesting.

3 Ted Craig August 27, 2007 at 8:56 am

The other day my wife was reading a book I’d never heard of and I asked her how she chose books. She said she just looks for book titles that use the girliest type. I guess it works.

4 A.M. August 27, 2007 at 9:25 am

When I’m looking for new fiction, I go to Borders and look for interesting covers. I write down the ones that I actually remember enough to look for again after the second lap and go get them from the library. (recent win for this method: Theft by Peter Carey)

I’m very strict about never reading the blurbs on fiction – they seem to either give entirely the wrong impression or give away too much plot.

5 anonymous August 27, 2007 at 9:35 am

You people are all insane.

Substitute “person” for “book”. Based on available photos, you’re not particularly pretty, Tyler, nor fashionably dressed. Are we to judge your worth as a conversational partner on this basis?

Is this the backlash to “overcoming bias”… embracing it instead?

6 Andy August 27, 2007 at 10:13 am

Interesting question and thoughts as usual Tyler. Reviewing the Amazon summaries it does seem like a book I’d enjoy. Would you mind fleshing out *why* you liked this particular cover? Maybe I’m not hip/smart enough to make the necessary connections, but I’m not seeing why a picture of a paintbrush is so appealing and somehow attracts people who would enjoy this particular novel.

7 Billy August 27, 2007 at 10:21 am

Oprah once choose One Hundred Years of Solitude.

8 Billy August 27, 2007 at 10:22 am

Oprah once choose One Hundred Years of Solitude.

9 Chicagoan August 27, 2007 at 10:38 am

I love where Chris’ head is at! My girlfriend and I love to buy cheap bottles of wine based on the look. We both enjoy good, as well as expensive wine (note they are not one in the same in all instances). Anyway, it’s a great way to spend $5-$10 while having a great time arguing whether a particular bottle looks like it will taste beter than Two Buck Chuck!

10 CS August 27, 2007 at 10:42 am


Awesome experiment, I am quite fascinated by your commentary on your feelings regarding ‘judging a book by its cover’ especially with regards to “might we then not expect the cover to be the strongest and best thought out signal?† as it can be expanded directly to everyday life both in how judge and how we are judged.

While everyone I have ever asked claims to be ‘open-minded and attempts to be non-judgmental’ isn’t it a fact that in everyday life we quickly size up objects of all sorts based on very quick perceptions of them (IE Blink, Malcolm Gladwell)? And this severs to benefit us through saving time, keeping us from perilous situations, etc, etc.

Just as you made a split decision on a book , as much as we may try to fight it on a conscious level, we size people up in a very similar fashion. Taking learned perceptions of what we believe certain traits externally appear like and project those characteristics onto the individual portraying them. Is this ‘right’? Certainly it has lead to ‘incorrect’ assumptions, but if you are currently reading this then it has also served to keep you alive, which cannot be all that bad of a thing†¦ Dramatic? Maybe a bit, but also accurate.

Of course it is also necessary to inquire whether you are enjoying the book itself because you entered the process of liking the cover (having a positive feeling on the experience before truly entering it) and if purchasing the same book simply on the premise that you loathed the cover would have given different results.

On an everyday basis don’t we also present ourselves with a ‘cover’ of sorts? What do that cover tell of us? It is easy to say ‘I don’t care what others think of me’ but does this really serve in our best interest?


11 d.cous. August 27, 2007 at 11:02 am


Good point. Even on iTunes though, they show a small (too small, really) picture of the album art. Of course, now you can listen to 30-second samples of each song, either on iTunes or in the bigger book/music stores (Barnes & Noble, Borders). This probably isn’t a bad thing, but you are right, it does diminish the usefulness of visual cues.

12 liberty August 27, 2007 at 11:51 am

I agree with CS – we do this a lot more often than we’d like to admit, and very often it works. But sometimes it is tricky to know whether we are fooling ourselves that it is working, or we filter based on our preconceptions– confirmation bias.

I choose my fun-books based on title only (I can’t do it by cover because I shop online and my fun-books are all second hand and old and they don’t show the covers of those). Title, I think, works better than cover for the kind of books I like. I have about a very high success rate using title only. Probably equal to any other way that I find out about this kind of book, I am not always happy when using footnotes/references either. I can’t compare much to browsing and skimming or to recommendations as I don’t have enough data for comparison.

13 Justin August 27, 2007 at 12:06 pm

As for jazz cd covers matching their content (see comment by d.cous., above), this label (a fave of mine) has done a pretty good job of it:

14 Dennis August 27, 2007 at 12:26 pm

The French like plain white covers.

Tyler likes illustrated covers.

Donc, Tyler is not French.

Merci de votre attention.

15 Alexandra August 27, 2007 at 1:24 pm

I judge books by their covers quite frequently, for different reasons and by different criteria. If seeing it on my bookshelf will make me happy, then that’s a point. If the cover art is tasteful, that’s ten points. I’m a bit wary of covers like the one Tyler posted, because that kind of design is the trend right now and I usually look for hints of the classic. The white covers on the US editions of J.D. Salinger’s books especially attract me. There’s something about that simple rainbow in the corner of the blank cover that represents his style so well, and I enjoy his style immensely.

These aren’t deliberate strategies, just subconscious impulses that I’m pondering now that I’ve read this post. Effort spent on the design does win major points with me.

16 Roger Sweeny August 27, 2007 at 2:39 pm

I also buy wine based on the label, the little one with the numbers on it.

17 #13 August 27, 2007 at 4:37 pm

According to evolutionists, judging the ‘book’ by it’s cover is a useful method in picking a bedmate for far more than just the superficial reasons.

A beautiful mate (or, more specifically, one meeting the physical criteria that has been bred into our brains), is more likely to have preferable genes (ie: fewer mutations) to combine with your own and be passed onto your potential offspring, thus giving your future children/grand-children/great-grand-children etc improved odds of survival to reproductive maturity.

18 Elliot Reed August 27, 2007 at 8:17 pm

Not that I’ve done a study, exactly, but I just bought a copy of Le Guin’s The Dispossessed with the cover done in all black except for a scrawled red anarchist circle-A. It makes it look like some kind of revolutionary tract—not a very accurate description of the book’s contents at all.

The cover I linked to on Amazon is also not terribly accurate; it makes the book look like an ordinary science fiction novel rather than a meditation on leftist politics.

19 David Zetland August 28, 2007 at 12:29 am
20 Steve Lieber August 28, 2007 at 2:39 am

I don’t think any discussion of book-covers can be complete without a look at this post by science-fiction author Ted Chiang, in which he describes his struggles to get a cover he didn’t loathe.

(I’m an illustrator myself, and I’m inclined to agree with Chiang’s evaluations. The book was a collection of absolutely brilliant stories, but you’d never guess it from the covers. The first was professional but a mismatch; the second would’ve embarrassed a subsidy house.)

21 Decline and Fall August 28, 2007 at 4:37 am

I’m in Iraq and I spend a lot of time traveling from base to base. This gives me a lot of reading time (long waits for helicopters) and a fair amount of time to browse the free libraries at MWR facilities. My preference is generally for literary fiction, you know, the serious stuff that gets described in reviews as “poignant” or “important.”

Generally, the only thing I have to go on (prior to reading the back cover blurbs) is the cover art, which is a pretty good indicator of whether the book fits my literary preferences. The seriouser stuff tends to have a sober, more artsy cover. I tend to respond if my unconscious assumes that there’s some sort of deep symbolism in the cryptic cover (I don’t assume, for instance, that The Great Man is about painting, but I do assume that painting plays a role in the novel. Either that or the cover refers to a phallus.) I would probably pick up this one, even though I’ve never heard of the author or the book.

So yes, I certainly judge books by their covers, but I’m not currently plunking down $12 or so for paperbacks, so there’s less risk in it for me.

I do recall buying The Remains of the Day because of the cover, and that turned out to be one of the best novels I’ve ever read, so I was doing this before I was getting my books for free. I know I wouldn’t have bought it if it had featured Emma Thompson on the cover.

22 miz August 28, 2007 at 9:29 am

I guess that now is the time for me to tell you how much I dislike the cover (but only the cover!) of Discover Your Inner Economist.

It seems to me utterly derivative of Freakonomics, but much more boring and less punchy. I cringe a little every time I think about it.

Why couldn’t you have put the picture of a person on the cover? Perhaps looking down to see a little man in a suit (trying to escape, natch) where a baby would normally go? Inner Economist? Get it?

Judging books by their covers is silly. You got lucky. You are not smarter than the collective wisdom of that ancient cliche.

23 FrankTheTank August 28, 2007 at 12:25 pm

“I guess that now is the time for me to tell you how much I dislike the cover (but only the cover!) of Discover Your Inner Economist.

It seems to me utterly derivative of Freakonomics, but much more boring and less punchy. I cringe a little every time I think about it.”

Doesn’t this prove Tyler’s point?
The cover of his book tells you all you need to know about it.

It’s similar to Freakonomics, but clearly different.

I’m sure people have looked at his book and said “Oh, like Freakonomics”, which would be a solid, if overly simply assessment, and one that would lead to satisfaction.

24 miz August 29, 2007 at 3:52 pm

Frank, I see your point. But I think you’re too clever by a half.

You wouldn’t want the (large number of) people who have already read Freakonomics to think that they have already “read” this book, too. Why exclude most of your audience prior to their picking this up?

Moreover, Freakonomics notwithstanding, people like people. They like looking at pictures of people.

Their should have been a person on the cover of Discover Your Inner Economist.

25 Andy September 23, 2007 at 5:35 am

What is are the relationships between author; people who have read the book and (a) enjoyed and (b) not enjoyed it; and the folk who design the cover? I can see how this could be set up so that the cover conveys useful information, but can a cover really repel people who will dislike a book and appeal to other who will like it? If yes, then I’d really love to read the research on it!

26 Lukas September 23, 2007 at 8:52 pm

Reading a book takes a lot of time. The amount you like a book’s cover might be correlated with the amount that you like a book, but surely there are more highly correlated indicators, such as friend’s recommendations or Amazon’s recommendations. Or even a random blog’s recommendation. There are so many books I want to read that I haven’t had time to yet, it seems completely crazy to me to just buy a book based on its cover.

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