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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 producer.

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 well.

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 inside.

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
phone: 1-608-835-7937

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