"You're so wrong. You CAN tell a book by looking at the cover" (they say)
My mother had a saying, ‘You can’t tell a book by looking at the cover’, which seems like a sensible enough phrase or saying, and something that mothers might quote at regular intervals and hand down to their children. Unfortunately, she was wrong, dead wrong, and there a million people in Britain, for instance, who would stand up and disagree with her totally, (if she was here). How do I know? Because they are the people who go to an on-line book-store like Amazon and choose their ‘next book to read’ by looking at the picture on the front, first. How do I know that? Because Amazon gives people like me - an author and a self-publisher - that very advice: “Make a big effort to design or commission a striking cover or you may struggle to make sales”. That’s pretty clear, isn’t it? You can’t argue with that. However, it begs a question: who are these stupid people, and why do they behave so nonsensically?
You see, I’m not a philosopher, but even I can spot a False Association when I see one. What does ‘great cover’ have to do with ‘great contents’? Are people seriously saying that they believe that the artist who prepares the cover design has some kind of telepathic link with the author of the story that forces them to make a a top-flight product? One inspires the other (or vice versa). What universe does that happen in? Not this one! Most writers produce a manuscript and have it prepared for publication by a traditional publisher (self-publishers are still in the minority). So the reality is that the person who organises the cover designer is not the creator of the written work but the desk-bound organiser of printing and distribution. No, if you’re really interested in what ‘reality’ looks like, then you’ll soon be able to appreciate that the two things - cover and contents - may or may not both be wonderful, and the chances are that one of them is not so good, (and that could be either). So, if you actually look at the books on your shelf for one minute, you will soon find a great cover/poor story combination just as readily as you will find the opposite, poor cover/great novel, and that the winning team - great cover/great novel - are actually quite rare.
Sorry to be such a downer. But then, reading Fiction is all about inhabiting worlds of fantasy, so why not invent an alternate reality where covers and contents have a mystical link that has a causal effect: writing a marvellous manuscript will instantly create the conditions where the artist will move to the top of their game, and come up with the goods, a really nice, thrilling cover. Or maybe, it isn’t either of those two that makes such a miracle happen. Maybe the real Wizard is the publisher. Perhaps the sequence is - publisher discovers absolutely impressive story and goes out of their way to commission the best artist to give that work the launch it truly deserves, with a cover that matches the genius of its printed words?
Yeah, I agree. Unlikely. No, much more possible is the reality of the False Association. You’re given a really nice wine, it has a picture of a cottage on the label, and after that, you assume that all wine with rustic scenes on the bottle will taste good. Sound familiar? Maybe yes, once upon a time, you picked out a book featuring a man with strong arms riding a horse and, surprise, surprise, the story inside swept you off your feet. You seriously think that the next book with a picture of man and horse will be equally as thrilling? Why? Got any logical reason for assuming such a weird combination? No, what we’re really dealing with here is the way that Modern Life works. We watch television and see advertisements where glamorous models put gunk on their faces to make them attractive. We copy them, in the hope we’ll look good too - ignoring the fact they looked good before the make-up. We didn’t. After the mascara, they still look good. We don’t.
Or, we spend our time in the outrageously named ‘Reality Television’, where famous faces pretend to be camping out in the jungle, or pursuing romance with each other in Chelsea and Cheshire. This is actually a new genre, created in the last twenty years, called ‘Semi-Scripted Improvisation’. It certainly isn’t ‘real’, but we choose to believe it. We believe what we SEE. The pictures are there, and we accept - without question - the story they tell. So, it’s no surprise then that a glossy picture on the front of a book should be broadcasting a message that says, ‘This book is in the wonderful world of ‘Excellence’. You like the pic? You’ll love the tale’, and we choose to swallow the sales pitch whole, without question. Just like a pair of jeans wrapped in a celebrity endorsement, it’s much more fun entering into the make-believe existence, than having to walk the streets in plain old trousers. It’s much more exciting to accept that ‘good cover EQUALS good insides’, than having to live in a world where books are random, some good, some bad, and the only way to actually distinguish between them is to try them. That would be too personal. After all, how many people KNOW what they like? It’s simpler - and that’s the bottom line - to have guidance, and a striking cover is just that. It says: ‘Hey, Reader, pick me. I look good, but that’s not all - I taste good too’. Sure you do, Mr Book Cover. Sure you do.