Friday, January 11, 2019

Can You Judge a Book by its Cover?

What makes a great book cover? Is it the title or the graphics? Do you have favorites that you think work?

by Paul D. Marks

You can’t judge a book by its cover, but its cover might just be what draws you into it in the first place. The thing that makes you pluck it off the shelf and crack that cover to see if it’s something you might want to read. So, covers are definitely important.

As to what makes a good book cover, the title or graphics, I think it’s both. An intriguing title makes me want to read something as do mysterious or evocative pictures and graphics. It’s a symbiotic thing, each element works in conjunction with the others to create a whole that, if it’s done well, will grab my attention.

I think the best way to explain is to show this is by comparing different covers of the same book. As many of you know, I like classic crime fiction from the 20th century (that sounds really weird) so let’s take some of those covers and look at them. I’m using some of the books I mentioned in my December 14, 2018 post of year-end book recommendations:
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And I will tell you up front that the pictures pretty much go in the order that they attract me. So on single rows the ones towards the right end are the ones I like better. On double rows the bottom (and more to the right side) are the ones I like better. What attracts me to them? It’s hard to say. It’s an image that evokes some kind of reaction in me. Sometimes it could simply be that the cover that I first read the book under is if not the one I like best at least towards that end. But, I’m not a purist. I don’t necessarily have to go for the original cover or the first cover I saw on a book and often don’t as you’ll see.

So, after you’ve checked out my choices, let us know what you think.


I don’t really like any of the covers on the top row. The woman in the second from right pic reminds me of Kim Novak in Vertigo, which isn’t a bad thing if it’s a Vertigo cover. On the bottom row I like them better as they go from left to right. Though the last two on the right are pretty much tied for my faves.



My favorite Ross Macdonald book is The Chill. Here’s a selection of covers from it. Which one/s do you like? Which one/s suck you in and make you want to at least check the book out without knowing anything else about it.


Another book I like a lot is Tapping the Source by Kem Nunn. Here’s a sampling of covers for that. Again, which ones do you like?


The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham is my favorite book of all time. I like the last cover because of its ethereal feel.


L.A. Confidential might be James Ellroy’s best known book, probably because of the movie based on it. I like the original cover and I also like the last shot, which is from the movie.


Down There, a.k.a. Shoot the Piano Player, is my favorite David Goodis book. Goodis has been called the “poet of the losers” by Geoffrey O’Brien. And, while I like the original cover (2nd to last), I really like the Black Lizard cover (last). I do, however, like the original title, Down There, better than Shoot the Piano Player, which came about because that’s the name of the Truffaut movie based on the book. And I have to say I absolutely hate the cover on the left and I don’t much like the movie either.


I don’t read a lot of westerns. But I really like Monte Walsh, the story of a man who’s basically outlived his time. And I really like the last cover here. It’s so evocative of a man alone in the West. A man riding into the sunset.


Except for the last cover, the Black Lizard cover, I don’t like any of these other covers. They’re just so cheesy, but not good cheesy.


The book that introduced Easy Rawlins and I’ve been hooked from day one. I really don’t like any of the covers on the top row, though I can tolerate the last two. But the first two just don’t do it for me. All four on the bottom row are fine, but I like them from left to right, the last being my fave, which also happens to be the original cover.


I really like this book for a lot of different reasons, but that’s for another post as this is about covers. I like all these covers, except the first one. But my two faves would be the last two on the bottom row.


Another favorite book. If you’re into L.A. at all you have to read this – and maybe its sequels. I like all these covers in descending order except for the first, which I don’t like at all. And though the building in the last one is hardly what Bandini would have lived in in Bunker Hill in the 1930s, the whole ambience of it works for me. And I think the palm tree seals the deal.


Okay, I couldn’t resist. And I gotta be honest, I like both of these covers. But ultimately it’s what’s in between them that counts for all of these books.

So, what do you think? What are the ones that speak to you from above? And in general. And why?


And now for the usual BSP:

Dave Congalton of KVEC Radio interviewed me. Check out the podcast here. My part comes in at 20 minutes, 30 seconds into the recording.


And Broken Windows has been getting some great reviews. Here's a small sampling:

Kristin Centorcelli, Criminal Element: 

"Although it’s set in 1994, it’s eerie how timely this story is. There’s an undeniable feeling of unease that threads through the narrative, which virtually oozes with the grit, glitz, and attitude of L.A. in the ‘90s. I’m an ecstatic new fan of Duke’s."

"Duke and company practically beg for their own TV show."

John Dwaine McKenna, Mysterious Book Report:

"This electrifying novel will jolt your sensibilities, stir your conscience and give every reader plenty of ammunition for the next mixed group where the I [immigration] -word is spoken!"

Betty Webb, Mystery Scene Magazine:

"Broken Windows is extraordinary."

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Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi Paul,

Cover art is so important in drawing readers to a book. You've done a wonderful job putting this blog together with so many significant covers.

M.M. Gornell said...

What a fantastic post, Paul. Covers are soooooo important, but with any art, the eye of the beholder wins the day--and hard sometimes to grab. My favorite of all the ones you showed is Monte Walsh with the riding horseman with the sun in the background. Lovely seeing all those covers...very nicely presented. Thanks.

Dietrich Kalteis said...

Well done, Paul. I like the way you showed the new and older versions of the same books.

Terry said...

I learned something from your post--I like a "clean" cover. The LA Confidential cover with the slanted red title is to my eye a perfect cover.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Jacqueline. And I agree, cover art is often the first thing we know about a book so it’s definitely important.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Madeline. As you say, and as with many things, cover art is in the eye of the beholder. What I respond to might not be what the next person responds to. And I also love that Monte Walsh cover.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Dieter. Isn’t it interesting to see the various takes on book covers for the same book. Some of them are just all over the place.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Terry. I like that cover too. It’s very striking.

Susan C Shea said...

I think I'd call the covers you like narrative art, and there it's the particular narrative the cover tells. What do you think?

Anonymous said...

When I'm in a bookstore, a title/cover will draw me to it like a magnet. I did a blog post about this subject---can't remember where)---but not as extensive as yours, Paul (I probably used 5 overs!). I have to get to Ask the Dust and Razor's Edge.

GBPool said...

I don't know which sells the book better: the cover or the title. This is a great look at the different takes a publisher has on any given book. I would like to be in the room when they make the change from one cover to another. They are different enough to make me think whoever was in charge during each cover change saw something different in the book.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks for your comment, Susan. I think narrative art is a good description. But I also think some covers that speak to me just evoke a certain mood or tone that I connect with, without necessarily being narrative or maybe they are in their own way. I was thinking of the Ask the Dust cover I like best, but I guess it has its own narrative going for it.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks Maggie, for your comment. I’m like you in that certain covers will draw me like a moth to a flame. Razor’s Edge is my favorite book of all time and Ask the Dust one of my faves. Can you send a link to the article you did on covers? I’d like to take a look.

Paul D. Marks said...

Good point, Gayle, about which sells the book more the cover or the title. But I think it’s both actually. Some covers and some titles just are more resonant with me and I assume with others. And, as you say, it’s interesting to think what different things different people saw in the book to come up with the different covers.