Judging a Book by its Cover

by Charlotte Smalley

               It’s a well-known idiom ‘you can’t judge a book by the cover’. Yet that is precisely how consumerist marketing strategies can seize our attention when it comes to literature. With advances in printing technology and graphic design, the courtship of a book has never been easier. Moreover, the multiplicity of design releases is set to ensnare and enrapture its readers – are you as hypocritical as I am when it comes to the acceptance of special editions, but the rejection of film adaptation covers? Are there any particular trends you adore or abhor? Read on to uncover the development of cover designs and the innovations that keep us wandering out of Waterstones with more than we went in for.

The Design Selection

In my wide-eyed naivety of three years ago, I was shocked (and dismayed) to hear that authors usually have no or very minimal input to their own book cover design. Naturally, this is a different story for self-publishers, but in represented publishing, it’s considered more of a courtesy than creative right.

Penguin Books explains their process as a deeply collaborative one that does give their author some input:

“The author is of course consulted towards the end of the process when a cover has been developed, and their opinion is hugely valuable but ultimately the art department will make the final decision.”

 The art department is given briefs for upcoming titles by the editors, who ensure the designer has sufficient information for beginning. However, whether the designer chooses to read the manuscript or merely develop from the brief is up to them (and may yield interesting results either way). The art director at VINTAGE states her practice:

“I always read all of the manuscript – you really need to know the book, I don’t like to think that I’m missing anything. After that comes the key part, research. If the book is a classic title, I’ll start by looking at any of the previous covers, as I don’t want to repeat anything someone has done before me. I make notes in the margins of the novel, and from there I go to my creative notes.”

Keeping the idea of audience at the forefront, a selection of initial visuals are sketched and presented in a cover meeting with the editorial team. This team will be acutely familiar with the manuscript and thus garner a strong sense of audience, working with the sales team’s input for marketing concepts. Several cover meetings will take place, nitpicking and fine-tuning the final design – it is towards the end of this process when the author may be consulted. When this is settled, the subject moves to the rest of the book external: back cover and spine. Finally, the production team translates this digital rendering into the physical product. The process of which may be viewed here: How to turn a manuscript into a book – YouTube

All in all, perhaps it is appropriate that the author has minimal input to the design – I wouldn’t expect an artist to write the descriptions for their work. Practically, it puts faith in the marketing strategies of the complete team – the author may be surprised and delighted by how the designer chooses to interpret their work!

A re-design and release is often necessary to refresh a text and share its prowess with a new audience (I will express my derision on when this is overdone in couple of sections). However, in this respect, Penguin makes a positive effort by their re-design of book covers in honour of a 2021 Black History Month campaign where ‘hard to find’ books can be rediscovered anew – read the article here: ‘Design has the power to encourage people to start reading’: behind the book covers of Black Britain: Writing Back (penguin.co.uk). Take a look at the collection: something might catch your eye!

A Psychological Interpretation

An interesting application from psychology I would like to apply to this cover concept is the Halo Effect. A phenomenon first publicly empiricised by psychologist, Edward Thorndike in 1920 (A Constant Error in Psychological Ratings), the Halo Effect is a cognitive bias where our perception is positively influenced by a single characteristic. The most common example of this is the automatic assumption of positive attributes assigned to a physically attractive person (a stereotype certainly not helped by fairytales). This is particularly relevant to courtroom psychology and the presentation of a defendant and victim (more on this if you’re interested: The “halo effect”: The effects of criminal offenders’ physical attractiveness – the SAFIA Blog).

More simply in the current circumstance, a reader may assume the quality of a book by its cover – yes, judging it. Naturally, you want your book to be appealing and the most straightforward method of inciting someone to pick it up in the bookshop is by making it visually attractive. However, an article from Psychology Today suggests that it is not necessarily an unattractive book cover that repels us, but an amateur one (Judging a Book By Its Cover | Psychology Today United Kingdom). So consider: what makes a cover unattractive or amateurish to you? What design features immediately turn you off?

Conversely, the Horn Effect purports an undue negative bias based on a single unlikeable factor. Mine is definitely those ‘NOW AN ORIGINAL NETFLIX SERIES’ stickers plastered over a beautiful design.

International Covers, Special Editions and Film Adaptations

               And now we move on to the controversial world of a single book having multiple designs. If you’re a ‘BookTube’ frequenter, I’m sure you’ll be susceptible to the plethora of ‘UK versus US Book Cover’ debates. The simple reason for different international designs is that they are often produced by separate publishers who will define their regional market in different ways and thus inform the creative decisions from this. It positions the book culturally for mass-marketing. However (at least between the UK and US), this gap may be narrowing in recent years.

On the evolution of book covers in the US, Stuart Bache states “It’s a complicated [market], so the design becomes simpler and focuses on broader appeal. However, things have shifted in the last few years. There are a lot more similarities now [in comparison to UK], particularly in literary novels where the luxury of creating much more elegant, beautiful covers has been afforded to the books.”

Now, I’m sure we all gaze longingly at the ‘special edition’ section in Waterstones. Halo Effect: check. Logistically, the printing of a special or anniversary edition works mutually: for the author and publisher, it is a means of generating greater revenue from a book’s success. For the reader, it’s an indulgence in a beloved tale. I don’t have much to add on this subject: if you’re a book lover, I’m sure you’re familiar with this veneration of beautiful books. I find the only issue with this is when the book encasing is so beautiful you dare not read it for fear of blemishment. This reverence does not extend to film editions, I’m afraid.

(Forgive me in advance; this section turns into a small rant). If, like me, you enjoy the petty smugness of “Well, in the book…” upon viewing a film adaptation, you may understand the same feeling of besmirchment when a book is redistributed with a film tie-in cover. It makes natural sense for the same reasons as special edition distributions: selling successful material with a refreshed advertising image. However, this flavour of reincarnation tastes more overtly of exploitation to this cynical (and hypocritical) palette.

This is demonstrated most effectively for film franchises, where a new edition may be released each time the next in the series makes its introduction to cinemas. Target: a fresh audience wondering what all the hype is about. For example, within around a decade of its existence, The Hunger Games has spawned (at least) seven recognisable covers – surely more internationally also. Allow me to analyse these uncovered covers, completely subjectively. Feel free to draw your own conclusions alongside me – I’m curious to know how we may differ! We’ll start with the first edition, moving from left to right chronologically.





October, 2014

May, 2014


The hardback first edition (published by Scholastic UK, 2008) is appealing because the book jacket was reversible, with its protagonists, Katniss pictured on one side and Peeta on the other – its premise being ‘pick a winner’ and to hold appeal for female and male readers. Despite this, I utterly despise the blunt graphics of this version and also its probably most recognisable cover (2009), which shifted to target an older market. I love the elegance of its makeover when the film adaptation was announced (2011). I can tolerate the film cover, mostly because the actors aren’t pictured – formulated so the film would focus on an emblematic image of the pivotal Mockingjay pin (2012). The foil edition released upon the next book, Catching Fire’s film circulation is impressively shiny but easily marred; more a collector’s trophy than a readable canvas (May, 2014). The final Mockingjay film release heralded a Sex Pistols-inspired ‘rebel edition’ – its punk roots I appreciate, its unnecessary ‘reimagination’ I am weary of (October, 2014). And worst of all, I am simply bored by the four-book-collection re-release (2021).

I won’t even mention the colouring books.

Moreover, in this example of cover design multiplicity, The Hunger Games even harbours extremely similar designs. This may simply denote franchise recognition and book numeration – being part of a trilogy, it makes sense for a central image to dominate each volume of the series – yet, the sheer number of new editions in only thirteen years feels excessive and uninspired in nature.

I admit my cynicism and personal distaste of the designs render me biased. Do you appreciate the subtle shift of a motif, or do you enjoy complete creative overhaul?

Trends in 2020s

Much as in current fashion trends, a minimalism vs. maximalism mêlée is afoot for book designs also, it appears. Or often a convergence of both: simple design with elaborate production (to be visited in a few paragraphs). In particular, I find increasingly that contemporary re-releases have a propensity for minimalist designs, particularly in franchised series. This seems to be afforded where motifs are recognisable for fans, such as house sigils in A Song of Ice and Fire(or my earlier example of the Mockingjay emblem). However, I think this is more elegantly achieved for editions of stand-alone books, such as this permutation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, where its simplicity is haunting rather than assumptive.

Similarly, a slew of block-colouring and bold simple patterns can be observed on many a storefront this decade. This isn’t surprising where marketing is informed by what may stand out on social media: bright and bold is a safe means of ensuring that. For example: compare Octavia Butler’s Dawn in its pre-2000s obviously science-fiction marketing versus its 2022 Instagram –friendly evolution.

A few more traditional trends are the surge of silhouettes in designs: unsurprisingly mostly for mystery novels; and of course, the bold rounded font and dark house/forest illustrations of a thriller novel are here to stay.

Another notation on innovation in design is the choice of releasing the same literary material simultaneously in different colours/variations of the same design. Is this a quirky delight of individualising your reading experience further? Or a completionist’s cash-grab, reminiscent of the promise of ‘exclusive content’ for different editions for different bookstores? I think the answer is entirely context-dependent.

For example, Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman was released in the UK with a selection of colour choices. I view this instance as a whimsical choice designed to redirect the intimacy of holding and choosing a book physically in the store, a parallel to the book’s themes of finding a sense of personality amongst consumerist culture.

By contrast, we simply do not need every single Harry Potter book released yet again but this time with four covers at once in house colours (even if the editions are gorgeous). I find that pure pandering to devout fans who feel compelled to collect them all.

On a final and related note, with printing advancements, hardback editions books are becoming more elaborate. Graphic artist, Neil Gower proposes that designers are responding to the popularity of digital books: “I think ebooks and the internet have definitely focused publishers’ attention on making books beautiful, covetable objects again… to justify the cost of a hardback, a book needs to be more than a container of words. It has to be an object of beauty in its own right.”

A trend that appeals to me in this respect is the sprayed edges of the book. Often, it’s a colour block that just adds visual attraction complementarily, but particularly this year, I’ve seen a fanciful approach to pattern. One example I must mention is Bonnie Garmus’s Lessons In Chemistry, which boasts a sprayed periodic table on the page edges – this utterly charmed me.

Have you any cover design loves or pet peeves? Does it ire you to see the author’s name printed larger than the title? Are you tickled by the built-in ribbon bookmark? Is there a particular font that enrages or beguiles you? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!

(And in case you’re wondering: yes, I did have The Stypes’s ‘You Can’t Judge A Book By The Cover’ stuck in my head the whole time I was writing this).


Bache and Gower interviews from Cover versions: why are UK and US book jackets often so different? | Publishing | The Guardian

Halo Effect in Psychology: Definition and Examples (simplypsychology.org)

How book covers are designed (penguin.co.uk)

Judging a Book By Its Cover | Psychology Today United Kingdom


Born and raised in Southampton, Charlotte Smalley is currently undertaking her doctorate in Creative Writing at the University of Surrey. Her earliest prose piece, Polly’s Surprise Party, written at the wise age of six, has been heralded as a masterpiece by her mother. Since such success, she wanders and wonders the realm of poetry and its hybridised possibilities, morphing psychoanalytic theory with experimental form.

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