Photograph of the books of The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Readers always judge a book by its cover

You might feel bad choosing which book to read based on its cover, but the reality is, your decision is likely well-founded. In 2020, over 186,000 books were published or re-released in the UK alone: that’s approximately 510 per day. If each book was a white sheet except for the title and name of the author, the reader’s job would be impossible. We would spend hours reading books that we weren’t going to enjoy because there wouldn’t be any indicator of quality other than the text itself. 

So, in a world full of choice, where Blackwell’s Bookshop in Oxford has 160,000 volumes in its Norrington Room alone, how do we pick what to read?

Well, some books can be quickly discounted. One quick look at the book with a cheap, outdated movie cover leaves you wondering why you don’t watch the ‘MAJOR MOTION PICTURE’ the cover is shouting about instead. That’s assuming you’re lucky enough to be able to make out the title in between the myriad of conflicting colours, Times New Roman font and character faces which are ever-so-slightly too vivid. 

With the motion picture covers glossed over, staring from the shelf is a “Big Brother” style face, invading the cover and glaring at passers-by. This token feature of biographies makes for a simple determining factor — do you like the face? Whether it’s a beaming Miriam Margolyes or a hawk-eyed Donald Trump, the character on the cover has obvious sway over whether or not readers pick it up. So, from all the swathes of faces, people immediately gravitate to the ones they like, before they have even considered if it’s a raving memoir or damning biography. 

And yet, amongst the masses, a few books always call out. Take one of the latest editions of The Lord of the Rings which is masterfully designed with golden images of mountains, towers, and runes against a solid black background. Slicing over all of them is the perfect ring around the centre, a clear band (each book with a different colour) which catches the reader’s eye before they have even recognised the title. 

This cover is representative of the ongoing process behind the shelves in publishing offices up and down the country. Google The Lord of the Rings first edition, published in 1954, and you’ll see a white dust jacket, with the clear imprint of a title, a small, simple image and Tolkien’s name. As the books blew into popular culture — and the best-sellers list — more and more editions were produced with higher budgets and evolving covers. Today, the focus of the cover is simply the coloured ring. It has become immediately recognisable, so much so that the actual name of what is technically one book in three parts is the smallest font on the page.

Thus, The Lord of the Rings becomes a prime example of publishers naturally filtering the huge quantities of books going on sale every day. They read the drafts, give the most time and resources to the production of their favourites and make the covers as appealing as possible, rather than giving them the slap-dash photorealistic image which makes it onto an enormous number of new books. 

To judge a book by its cover, therefore, is not to fall into a pit of ignorance as the maxim might suggest but is instead to trust the publisher. Ultimately, readers must select from the multitude put before them on the opinions of those who have read it before. So, whilst a bold quote saying ‘publisher approved’ may seem underhand, a carefully crafted cover can catch the reader’s eye and give them the wink from the person who read it first. There is no shame in judging a book by its cover.

Image Credit: Photo by mninha, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 DEED, via Flickr. Cropped from original.