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The Importance Of Book Covers
The Midwest Book Review receives an average of 1500 titles a month for review. We currently
have 76 reviewers to cope with these submissions. This necessitates a kind of literary triage.
Every morning those 50+ new arrivals are arranged into three separate stacks:
Stack #1 are those titles that I immediately decide will be reviewed -- either because of their
physical appearance combined with their publicity release materials, or I have a particular
reviewer in mind.
Stack #2 are those titles that are physically presentable and for whom I might be able to persuade
one of our volunteer reviewers to accept as their assignment within the next 10 to 16 weeks.
Stack #3 are those titles that are immediately rejected -- not for their subject matter; not for being
written by a first time author; and not for their self-published, POD-published, or small press
published status, but because they are poorly designed or defectively produced in terms of
presenting substandard, inadequate, or otherwise unattractive covers. They are rejected for having
cover art that looked like the product of a high-school drawing class assignment for beginners.
Cover art that was so avant garde that it left all mainstream sensibilities bewildered in its wake.
Cover art that looked cheap, felt cheap, was cheap.
There are two categories of book review publications:
For pre-publication reviewers, the quality of cover art is of minimal consideration (if at all)
because galleys and uncorrected proofs often don't include cover art. Even advanced reading
copies (ARC) will have their cover art stamped over with such banner notations as "Uncorrected
Proof" or publication date announcements.
For pre-publication reviewers, what is most important is what's on the inside of a book, and not
what's on the outside. And by inside I mean the writing that composes the book itself -- with
maybe a nod to such interior design considerations as type of font used, font size, paper stock,
margin widths, etc.
For the post-publication reviewer, the cover is the gateway decision that decides if a book will be
summarily rejected, or if the reviewer will invest additional time and energy into a further
exploration of the book's desirability for being reviewed. Book reviewers must prioritize
submitted books in a manner that would equitably utilize their time and energy to best effect for
their audience or readership.
Think of it as going shopping in your favorite bookstore to buy an armload of books as gifts for
yourself, your friends, and your family. You want to pick the books that you are going to provide
as gifts which will be as appropriate to the intended recipient, as attractive to the recipient, and as
reflective of your own good taste in the recipient's behalf, as possible.
That's why, for the post-publication book reviewer, one of the key selection elements is how the
book will "sell" to it's intended readership based upon its physical appearance.
This literary triage selection process is not a review. Rather it is decision process on whether of
not to accept or refuse a book for review. It is not a critique of the literary content, but as an
assessment of the book's viability in the competitive context of the book selling marketplace. It is
passing judgement (or reviewing) the book-as-product and the publisher as that product's
The most common problem associated with self-published authors is their lack of expertise as
publishers, thereby dooming their work to commercial failure essentially because of their book's
flawed or uncompetitive packaging. When self-publishing authors turn their manuscripts over to
PODs, any lack of editorial or cover art production standards in order to see print is as common
as dandelions in the spring -- and just as noticeable.
I had an interesting response from an author whose book I had turned down because of
amateurish cover art. He was very unhappy with me. Even to the point of exclaiming that perhaps
what he should have done instead of investing his time and money into writing the best novel he
could, would have been to invest his time and money into the making of a spectacular cover --
and then just banged out a mediocre "quicky" to go inside.
That response misses the point.
Having a wonderful packaging of your written work is only how you cross the reviewer's
threshold. How you are treated once inside depends entirely on how well you write, and how well
what you've written comes across in the subjective evaluation of the reviewer.
A literary triage selection process rejection is not a negative review of the literary work inside the
book. It is a negative review on the work with respect to the appearance and presentation the
book to the reading public. When it comes to the success of a particular book in competition with
all the other books clamoring for the attention of a reviewer (or the general reading public), what
is on the outside is just as important and every bit as vital as what is on the inside.
There are those who would suggest that it is incumbent upon reviewers to at least read the first
sentence (or even paragraph) of a book before dismissing it from consideration. But the real
world situation in a book review publication that routinely receives hundreds and thousands of
submissions is that those books with flawed or substandard covers are simply outnumbered by
books with acceptable to outstanding covers. So there is no compelling necessity to spend time
and resources on the substandardly packaged book hoping for a true literary gem within, when
there are so many others which are attractively packaged and seek the reviewer's attention as
If an author or publisher simply can't afford top quality artwork for the cover, artwork that would
hold its own against all the competition its niche or category, then try to use a thematically
appropriate photograph instead. Failing that, try for a font-based design and color combination
that will visually attract interest and persuade a browser to open the book up to see what's
It is that cover that will entice a reviewer, bookseller, distributor, librarian, or customer to at least
pick it up long enough to open it up, and then cast eye tracks on the interior where (hopefully) the
really good stuff is waiting for them.
James A. Cox
Midwest Book Review
James A. Cox
Midwest Book Review
278 Orchard Drive
Oregon, WI 53575-1129
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