A cynical view of titles and covers

Interestingly titled article at Kill Zone Blog: My Cynical View of Titles and Covers

I imagine the author of this post, John Gilstrap, is going to argue that the title and cover have zero purpose other than to sell the book. I expect that is basically true, though having a cover you like to look at is a plus. I turn physical books with nice covers front-out on my shelves so that I can appreciate the cover whenever I pass the shelves. But sure, let’s see what Gilstrap has to say:

Okay, to summarize, people decide to buy a book in four steps:

a) Know to look for it (which is the kicker, as Gilstrap observes). Then

b) Instant attraction; eg, the cover

c) Plot description

d) First pages, and finally the reader decides whether or not to buy the book.

Sure, the above steps seem perfectly reasonable. Personally, I care less about the plot description, as a rule, and much more about the first pages. In fact, my essential decision to buy a book goes like this:

a) Know to look for it, generally because someone here recommends it, but occasionally because I see a reference to it somewhere else. It’s actually relatively rare these days that I look at a book unless it’s by an author I already know OR someone here recommends it. Because my TBR pile is so enormous, I’m relatively unlikely to visit the blogs of people who review books. I used to do that a lot more and in the unlikely event that I ran low on stuff to read, I’d go back to those blogs to find out about books I might like. Every now and then, someone will say exactly the right thing on Twitter to get me to click over to Amazon and take a good look at the book.

b) —

c) —

d) First pages.

Given a recommendation from someone whose taste matches mine pretty well, neither the cover nor the plot description matters a whit. This is true even though I enjoy a nice cover as much as the next person. Sometimes the plot description does matter. That is the case if I see something on Twitter that brings a book to my notice. More often, unless something about the plot description REALLY turns me off, I’m happy to try a sample. Once the sample is on my Kindle, I’ll try it eventually. Thus, first pages are by far the most important thing after I first hear about the book.

Back to Gilstrap’s cynical view of covers and titles …

The covers and titles needn’t have much to do with the actual plot of the book. They work together to accomplish their jobs in a glance, and then they are forgotten. They work in tandem to convince a potential reader to take a chance, and if you, as the writer, do your job to entertain, no one will notice. 

Yes, I think that is true. Particularly for ebooks, where the cover is not something you see very often or (on my Kindle) in color. I agree that it just does not matter all that much if the cover is faithful to the verbal descriptions within the book, partly because every reader is going to have their own internal image of the characters and figures and scenery and everything.

Having said that … it’s kind of nice when the cover (and, I guess, title) match the story to some reasonable degree. Not crucial. But nice.

Gilstrap adds:

The second book in my Jonathan Grave series is Hostage Zero. It’s the title that broke the series out, and the phrase means nothing. None of the hostages are numbered, and none of them launch a plague, as in “patient zero”. It just sounded cool, and that’s why we went with it.

I do think that’s a bit cynical, and a bit funny too. I don’t think it would have occurred to me to call a book “Hostage Zero” unless the story somehow used the phrase in a way reminiscent of “Patient Zero.” But yes, it’s a good-sounding title. I can see why people might click on the book and read the back cover copy.

The comments on the post are interesting. I notice one commenter agrees with me that almost nothing matters but a recommendation from the right source.

Please Feel Free to Share:


4 thoughts on “A cynical view of titles and covers”

  1. Covers mattered a lot more to me back in the day when I used to browse in a bookstore. Now it’s recommendations all the way… Although a bad cover will make me less likely to buy a hardcopy. And I guess a really lovely cover will catch my eye in a Twitter post etc.

    I often shorten titles for easy reference (WINTER rather than WINTER OF ICE AND IRON) so the title is less important to me, but I guess I would be annoyed if I finished the book and never found a clear connection to title. Wouldn’t impact my buying decision unless, again, the title was really silly and actively off putting!

  2. For me, now I mostly buy my books online, it’s
    1) knowing to look for it (trusted recommendation or reminder that an author I like has something new out).

    2) “The cover attracts me” only really played a part when browsing a physical bookstore; I’d go through all the shelves of the F/SF section, or the English-language bookcase, looking for something that might be to my taste. Online, it only serves as a warning signal when it clearly indicates something belongs in a category I don’t like, such as horror or thrillers or gritty noir dystopia. Online covers are generally not an attractant for me, as the thumbnail-style covers are generally not very attractive to me: I like detailed depictions that give a sense of the story.

    3a) Plot summary can be important, especially if I’m unsure about a new recommendation.
    3b) The title only plays a very small part in me choosing to read/buy a book, in that it sometimes can be signal of “I really would not like this”, e.g. if it signals that it’s a horror story or psychologically tortured literary fiction – mostly the plot summary is a clearer indication. It does play a part in rereading, in helping me remember which book is which when I want to reread a particular story. So those vague titles with no recognisable connection to the story do irritate me, but only after I’ve read them and discovered the irrelevance.

    4) First pages can let me see if I might enjoy the writing style and tone.

    5) Last pages are important to me, more so than first pages, and even more important for books by unknown or not-trusted authors. Especially since everyone has become so spoiler-averse that reviews and plot summaries are not to be trusted to warn me when it’s a gritty, noir, dystopian, negative, thriller or horror, book that ends badly!
    This is why I have come to rely more and more on trusted recommendations, as no way of digital browsing allows one to check the last chapter before buying, which was my standard mode of browsing an unknown author’s book before buying it in a physical bookstore.

  3. Hanneke, great point about the last pages! The decision about whether to buy OTHER books by the author is certainly highly dependent on whether the author ends a novel well. Especially for horror and horror-adjacent novels.

  4. Since my job has me seeing tons of new, physical books all the time, I sometimes wonder if particular title sounds and cover designs are purposely chosen to increase the odds that someone grabs the wrong book. I mean, I guess the less cynical view would be that these titles and covers serve as a signal that you might like this book too, but as far as people asking me for books… Many people remember something vague about the cover, a few hints or an important word in the title. So, the number of World War historical novels released with a lyrical title that mimics “All the Light We Cannot See” (and the number of historicals that have the word “light” in the title…) with cooler toned covers… it would be easy for someone to grab a different blue covered book with a title that has the right cadence. Or, like this year I really enjoyed Ariel Lawhon’s “Code Name Helene” but it’s another one with a similar cover to another section of World War novels — a woman alone, face unseen, often a road, the colors kind of faded but a little extra faded or blurry in a section…

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top