The old saw, you can’t tell a book by its cover, is by-and-large wrong in today’s publishing environment. It’s true that you can’t tell the quality of a book, unless you know the author, but you can tell a lot else about a book by its packaging. A book’s cover can indicate its genre, its story premise, its setting, and its tone. Think of all of the components of a cover: the art, the dust jacket text, the promotional quotes, and even the title. In fact, the type of edition, hardback, trade paperback, mass market or eBook tells us something.
A cover for a Stephen King book is distinctly different from an Alan Furst cover. And authors beware, if your cover sends mixed messages that will confuse the reader and lead to disappointment. Imagine if a Stephen King cover were put on an Alan Furst novel, or vice versa.
Covers change over time, to be sure. Google The Great Gatsby and see how the cover art has evolved, but it’s always appropriate to the story, just updated in style.
I contend that a writer should be just as particular about a book’s packaging as about its contents. But the cover, except for self-published books, is usually the prerogative of the publisher. The conflict between author and publisher over covers, when it does come up, is usually between the publisher’s desire for the cover to make an immediate impact, and the author’s aim to have the cover make an appropriate impact. These are not necessarily conflicting goals, of course. Hopefully, whatever tension arises between author and publisher over a book’s cover is resolved to produce one that serves both ends, catching the buyer’s eye and reflecting the content.
Douglass Seaver, Author
The Fourth Rule