“Don’t judge a book by it’s cover.” If I had a nickle for every time during my childhood my mother said that, I would have a metric ton of nickles. At the time, I didn’t. To be completely honest, I didn’t judge books at all. If I could get my hands on them, I read them. I distinctly remember the moment that I realized books weren’t always great. I had been binge reading Nancy Drew. This was the point I noticed that in the last 3 books, she had received early birthday presents from her father twice. Both were large, extravagant gifts for her 18th birthday, and the catalyst for her adventure that book. It was at this point I realized all the books were inherently the same. I *saw* the formula.
Needless to say, it *quite* ruined a LARGE number of books for me. I couldn’t read Nancy Drew anymore, because it felt so similar. I couldn’t read Goosebumps, Sweet Valley Twins and Friends, even Boxcar Children, all of my favorite childhood books, fallen to the wayside. I began to gravitate towards books like Goblins in the Castle, The Westing Game, and other such titles that fell outside the realm of serial books.
This was the point where I became a “book snob”. I didn’t just want books that were enjoyable. I wanted books that were worth my time. This didn’t mean the book needed to be academic or even critically acclaimed, but rather that I found the author good and the book had quality writing. It also caused my secondary reading quirk where I want to read something good, but because I don’t trust a book to be good any more, I re-read something I *know* I like already. I get stuck in these cycles of endlessly re-reading books I have already read.
What does one do in this instance? I tried asking friends. Six books worth of Sword of Truth and half of Game of Thrones later, I have discovered this is not necessarily the best course. (To be fair, at least Sword of Truth *started* off well.) I am aware of the cyclical nature of this problem. Every time I try to branch out to a new book, I discover a *terrible* book and am further convinced that the target I am attempting to find is heavily obscured.
So I started judging books by their covers.
Karen Miller, author of the Godspeaker trilogy, has superb covers. The first, called Empress, has dark and sullen looking girl on the front. Reading the blurb on the back identifies this girl as the main character. Born into poverty, sold as a slave, she would eventually become the titular Empress. The other two books in the series were equally lovely. They didn’t fit the high fantasy norm. So I purchased it and read it.
I have never loved and hated a book more. Empress, and the two other books, are among the most wonderfully written books I have ever read. With the absolute worst story. The main character, the sullen girl Hekat, starts off great, but then turns into this arrogant self centered b*tch who makes up her own rules as she goes, and even the jealous “divine” in the book allows to her just do whatever, despite handing down swift and vicious justice to anyone else who even toes the line. By the end of Empress I was completely convinced that this was the worst book I had ever read, if well written. I am known for hating books that kill off characters I like, and yet, I realized that the entire cast could be wiped out and I wouldn’t shed a single tear. Hateful little snots, all of them. But Miller was just good enough to keep me reading. By the end of the series, I had at least found a few characters to like, and read with glee as a few of the more hated characters received their just desserts. The cover had proven true. The story was bleak and arid, with bright spots of color. In addition, the description on the backs were spot on for the books.
To break away from Fantasy a bit, if one looks at Romance books, you will tend to find all the covers are *abysmal*. with few exceptions (just like the books!). Ironically Julia Quinn (previously mentioned) has very nice, very plain covers. (No bare chested men here.) She doesn’t need the titillation to drive readers to her book, she knows she will get them on her own. They pick up one and the next thing you know they have bought them all.
Now, when picking over a book and trying to decide what to read, I try to decide based on friend’s input, in addition to the cover. Does it mention “prophecy” on the back (ie does the writer use a generic convention to make their story “work”)? Does it have one of those poorly drawn fantasy images of a woman in a metal bikini? There is nothing worse than a leftover 80s image of some bad science fiction image to push me away.
This can lead to good finds (Karen Miller) and bad finds (Brent Weeks, I so wanted you to be good) and completely missed finds (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, currently my next possibility for a good book, but man could you *have* a more boring cover???). I also have learned that brand loyalty, while not always positive, can lead to good finds (Brandon Sanderson by virtue of Robert Jordan.) I tend not to trust Amazon reviews (they hate McKiernan, so I ignore them for the most part) and will at least give friend reviews a bit of a look. I find sites that promise to lead one to good fantasy dubious at best (anyone notice how they rant on derivative work but then all their top favorites are *exactly* that?) I find it utterly hilarious that the go to phrase when I ask people why they like Game of Thrones is “No one is safe! He kills off major characters all the time!” Yes, so does Whedon and it ticks me off when does it too. I do understand the “gritty realism” as a logical reason for liking it, but this is the point where I always look at the person and say “So, you read fantasy for it’s realism?” Although, as an interesting point to the topic, Game of Thrones has a very dull cover on the commonly sold copy that is seen in most bookstores now, but even the old one was fairly plain by say Wheel of Time standards (maybe the gritty realism coming back?). I want Tolkien, only with a better editor, more compelling characters, and better action. Call it derivative if you want, but there is a REASON the man spawned an entire genre.
Despite judging a book by it’s cover, it seems to lead to just as many successes as failures. And less hurt feelings when a person says “Read this you’ll LOVE it.” I read. And then I am like, seriously? And you make fun of *my* Wheel of Time?
I know the truth is I am just as unlikely to find a good book based on it’s cover as any other criteria. At least with the cover I can blame clever marketing instead of feeling the depression that a majority of the world has absolutely terrible tastes in books.