It’s such a well-known saying, it’s cliche.
Never judge a book by its cover.
Yet we all do it. Even authors. Even avid readers. Perhaps those avid readers are especially prone to doing it.
Why does this judgment of a book’s cover matter?
Book covers, especially genre book covers, are formulaic. They follow a pattern. This means they are also symbolic, conveying unspoken (unwritten) information directly to the reader through the use of cultural norms and socialization.
An appropriate book cover can convey the story’s genre, setting, period, mood, and more. Get the cover wrong and your reviews will likely reflect the dissatisfaction of readers.
Take this book I recently read for instance.
The cover immediately conveys that the story belongs in the horror genre. I can deduce this based on reading thousands of books and seeing hundreds of thousands of covers over my lifetime.
In my mind, Elze’s cover is reminiscent of many of Stephen King’s covers.
The jagged red lettering looking like bloody wounds, the glowing, red eyes, and the singular object featured on the cover all speak to the dark places within us.
In addition, the words “Terrors” in the tagline at the top and “suspense” in the blurb at the bottom (which you probably can’t see from my little thumbnail), reinforce the idea that the story enclosed within said cover will be a gruesome, spine-chilling tale that will keep you from sleep.
You’d be wrong.
That’s right. Here, Kitty, Kitty should not be classified as horror at all.
I’m pretty picky about reading horror because my imagination tends to get the best of me. 🙂 And even I would not classify this in any way as horror. I was never, ever terrified. I wasn’t even a little frightened. Those “terrors from the past” the tagline talks about? They’re just animals. Not even crazy, mad, man-eating animals. Just normal animals doing what they have to do to survive or protect themselves. (The cat is the good guy in this story also, not an evil creature as implied by the cover.)
To say I was annoyed and, in some ways, disappointed is an understatement. I felt misled and deceived. I had picked up this book from my overflowing bookshelves because I was looking for the shivering delight of scaring myself at that particular point in time.
Don’t get me wrong – I did enjoy the book. The plot was interesting, the characters were unique, and the writing style was good. But none of that alleviated my annoyance. It’s like expecting to bite into a sweet dessert and finding your mouth full of potatoes instead.
My message for you from this post is just this:
Authors – please carefully research the book covers in your market and make sure your story matches the expectations given by your cover.
Readers – try not to jump into a book with too many expectations in spite of our human tendency to do just that.
I won’t leave you wondering. Here, Kitty, Kitty is a soft sci-fi, time-travel story. Definitely not horror.