How important is the cover though?

‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’

This classic idiom is both a general caution against placing too much importance on appearance, yet equally a literal warning to prospective readers of the deceptive power a great cover design can hold.

By suggesting that the front cover can influence a choice in reading material that would not otherwise have been made, this saying assigns a pivotal role to the cover and rests on the assumption that this is the first point of contact a reader will have with a text.

However to what extent does this expression reflect the true reality of the publishing industry’s current reliance on strong cover designs to communicate with potential consumers?

While image is focal to a book’s marketability; the front cover in itself is just one of several potential touchpoints of varying significance which can determine how a book is discovered by the target demographic and whether they choose to buy it.

The aesthetic appeal of a book, and especially its cover, is undeniably important. Yet whether the book’s external qualities are the primary influence directing readers to select certain titles over others is a contentious assertion; particularly when one considers the heightened significance of brand identity in a culture that is becoming progressively orientated towards online and social media platforms.

The traditional retail practice of impulsively buying a book in a bricks and mortar bookshop – based on the book’s front cover and the plot summary written on the back cover – is just one means of discovery, and a marketing strategy for any title must be more nuanced than sole dependence on this single book purchasing pattern.

One can even contend that in the current literary landscape, the ‘cover’ that this popular axiom is referring to has expanded and now refers to the whole image carefully cultivated by a title’s unique promotional strategy prior to its release – which includes both the author’s personal brand as well as that of the publishing house.

As each book’s identity is a formation of multiple components – such as genre, author/s, unique selling points (USP), target demographic and purpose – how a title is marketed, and what marking strategies are more likely to be successful, will fluctuate depending on each of these elements.

Furthermore, while a front cover has multiple roles, its ultimate objective is to market the book it is packaging to a specified audience. Thus, the front cover’s significance – as with every marketing device – will also invariably be subject to variation rather than holding an identical level of automatic importance for every book.

Another vital consideration is that a prospective reader’s first impression is arguably more likely to be influenced by promotional efforts prior to the book’s launch rather than the title’s front cover. This is due to the importance that generating awareness of the book prior to its launch has as part of the publishing cycle, with the majority of newly released titles immediately facing heavy competition on top of a short ‘shelf-life’ in bookshops (approximately six to eight weeks).

According to data collated by reader analytics company, Jellybooks, there are eight major motivations for ‘buying a specific book’. Listed below, these include:

  1. ‘Entertain me now’
  2. ‘Entertain me in the future’
  3. ‘Inform me’ – A book which educates/helps fulfil an aspiration.
  4. ‘Obligation’ – Referring to a book one is assigned to read such as for book-clubs, study or alternatively books which are unanimously considered literary classics.
  5. ‘Social Pressure’ – A book one feels compelled to read as ‘everyone else’ is currently reading it.
  6. ‘Make me look smart’ – owning/reading a book for the symbolic status attached to that particular title.
  7. ‘Gift’
  8. ‘Impulse’ – Being in a particular state of mind, or being stimulated by environmental factors such as being inspired to buy a book at a literary event or in a Museum gift shop.

These motivations highlight how diverse and subjective the rationale driving each book purchase decision can be. But while the front and back cover can also act as further attributes bolstering any one of these justifications, the fact that the book’s appearance is not listed as a separate motivation suggests that – at least consciously – the front cover is a secondary interest compared to what the consumer plans to get out of this purchase/reading experience.

Another study examining reading patterns which also indicates the front cover’s general secondary status, is a comparative analysis conducted by book review site, Goodreads, of two similar novels – Gillian Fylnn’s Gone Girl and Erin Morgenstern’s Night Circus.

This extensive survey involved collecting responses from readers who had read one of these titles, and its responses showed that while factors relating to trusted recommendations such as ‘reviews’ or ‘word of mouth’ were the highest ranking motivations amongst readers of both novels, the front cover and blurb ranked last – and only for Night Circus – as a direct motivation for readers.

Parallels shared between these separate studies, offer invaluable insight into what inspires a reader to choose a certain book when faced with an abundance of choice. Furthermore, the affirmed value held by ‘word of mouth’ in both cases is testament to how vital developing an initial awareness is to inspiring subsequent sales of the book.

Interpreting these studies however, as evidence that the book’s appearance is irrelevant would be far too simplistic. Rather, the marginal influence the front cover holds as a motivational tool, reveals that broadly readers are understandably more prompted by content and what a trusted opinion promises the text will deliver.

Developing positive word of mouth is imperative, yet the front cover also plays a meaningful role in this as an extension/representation of established brands – particularly that of the author and publishing house.

Although this function is less obvious than the front cover’s equally crucial role of introducing the book’s plot, tone and own identity; the cover’s ability to immediately visually connect a book to – often a multitude of – recognized brand identities in the mind of the consumer reveals how deeply interconnected motivational touchpoints are, and how difficult it is to analyse the effectiveness of one as a wholly separate entity.

As pointed out by David Pearson in Books as History, a ‘successful design is most effective when the user of the object does not stop to think about what makes it work; it just does’. A reader may not have full awareness of the extent to which the front and back cover’s contents influenced their final decision to buy a book, yet that doesn’t necessarily mean the book’s packaging was not a factor.

A marketing strategy for any title must be nuanced, particularly due to the entrenched presence of online and social media platforms, yet while a book’s cover design is not the focal means of discovery, the various brand identities the cover will embody are pivotal to reaching and connecting with prospective readers.

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