Is it just me, or does it sometimes feel like publishers are trying to trick us into reading certain books?
Picture the scene: it’s been a rough week; a rough year and a half. But it’s Saturday night and you’re determined to escape into a romance novel you’ve seen all over Bookstagram. People have called it hot and fun and perfect for fans of X TV show! That sounds like just what you need after the last year and a half of pandemic, political upheaval, and whatever else life has thrown at you. Maybe you’ve lost someone close to you and you’re still processing that grief, but you just want a few hours away from that. And then, bam! The book turns out to be all about grief, and you’re punched in the gut all over again. Nobody had warned you — not the Bookstagrammers, not the BookTokers, and certainly not the publishers, who were determined to play up the hot and fun and perfect for fans of X TV show of it all in all their marketing, starting with the cover.
Fun, cheerful covers are eye-catching on Instagram and TikTok, and they scream “here is the light relief you’ve been waiting for” to a reading world feeling beaten up by life in general and the pandemic in particular. But sometimes, it feels like trickery.
As Rioter Gia R. says, “whether we like it or not, a cover is often the first thing someone sees when looking at a book. Sure, we’ll often read the synopsis or the blurb, but that usually occurs after we see the cover. I like to think of covers as the start to a conversation that readers engage in.”
In other words, a cover really has one job: to make us curious enough about the book to pick it up. But it’s not just that: a cover, I would argue, is also an implicit promise to the reader, signalling what kind of book they are getting. Interestingly, UK publishing industry insider Bethany Rutter, of the What Page Are You On podcast, has talked about how she finds it difficult to choose books to buy in the U.S., because she can’t “read” the covers. It’s not something we’re ever explicitly taught, but over time we absorb conventions and expectations from the fonts, colours, designs — and yes, those even vary from country to country.
It’s no accident, for example, that the boom in romance sales has coincided with the newish but ubiquitous trend for illustrated covers. I looked through our romance bookcase at East City Bookshop the other day, and other than the mass market paperbacks, only one of the romance novels featured a cover that was in a different style. And don’t get me wrong: I love those covers. They’re quirky and fun and instantly draw me to the characters. But it’s also getting harder and harder to tell which of the books are genuinely light, which are spicier in their content, which are romantic comedies (because, contrary to current branding, not all romances are intended to be hilarious), and which have an edge of darkness.
This essay has been brewing for a long time and started in the form of a rant about a popular book that was a massive bestseller last year. You know the one: it was bright yellow and looked super fun and beachy. It was a good book, maybe even an excellent book, and beloved by many. But it wasn’t for me in March 2020, and here’s why: I wanted what a bright yellow cover suggested — fun and lightness. I’d been having a hard time even before the pandemic and I wanted something to transport me. What I definitely didn’t want — and didn’t expect, based on the cover — was a book that dealt with parental grief and learning of parents’ affairs and a darkish subplot about a cult.
Yes, I know: there are places you can go for content warnings — StoryGraph being an excellent example. But if the cover promises fun, if not only the back copy but nobody I’ve seen online has hinted at the harder stuff, I don’t think to look there.
And, importantly, I think sometimes we forget that many readers aren’t as deep into the book world as we are — we, the people reading and writing for Book Riot. Many readers aren’t listening to book podcasts or pondering whether content warnings should be a thing or discussing StoryGraph versus Goodreads in a thousand different Facebook groups. They just walk into a bookshop looking for something to read that matches their mood, and they start with covers.
And then, when a cover has drawn their attention, they — and I — look at the back. Here’s what I’m begging publishers to do if they are unwilling to have covers match the content more closely: at least please hint at the heavier, or darker, or meatier themes there. I’m not necessarily asking for content warnings; that’s a different discussion for a different day. I’m asking for a few well-placed adjectives that would hint at the general feel of the book. Or even some well-chosen blurbs that don’t only praise the fun romance. The Heart Principle by Helen Hoang is a good example of that, using phrases like “when tragedy strikes Anna’s family” and “the burden of expectations threatens to destroy her.” Ideally, would I have chosen a pink and fun-looking cover for a book that deals with, yes, a love story, but also weighty themes like those? I probably wouldn’t have, and I wish publishers wouldn’t — but at least, once you turn the book over, you can decide for yourself if it’s the right book for you.
If both the cover and the copy yell “pick me! I’m fun!” without hinting that there’s more than just fun there, it’s not just that you risk disappointing readers like me who have come to the shop for a certain kind of book, or who are curled up on the sofa for a comfort read and instead get punched in the gut by the kinds of emotions they were hoping to avoid thinking about for a few hours. It’s also that you risk not reaching the kind of reader who would love the novel if they knew more about its layers.
People You Meet on Vacation by Emily Henry, for example, is a wonderful, emotionally intelligent exploration of friendship, growing up, and reckoning with your past and what home means. I love the cover, its bright orange inviting me to throw it in my beach bag and while away the hours with it. But there are plenty of readers who, were I to hand them the book because, say, they liked One Day by David Nicholls, a beloved British modern classic which similarly explores a friendship with romantic overtones that develops over time, would turn their noses up at a bright cover like that and assume it wasn’t for them. Of course, we can wish people were open minded and ready to read any genre regardless of their gender and what they usually like. But many of them aren’t, and it’s probably easier to change cover trends than it is to change human nature. And for as much as we’d like to think our mood doesn’t affect our reading, I think the last year and a half has proven otherwise.
We can wish people trusted booksellers with recommendations (which, to be fair, they often do) and took a chance on a book they might not pick up otherwise. But that’s assuming that most people talk to booksellers, rather than just browsing and seeing what catches their eye.
And we can wish people looked past covers — but then, what’s the point of covers?
So publishers, here’s what I’m asking. Please trust your books to find the right readers for them. You don’t need to trick us with yellow and pink and crucial omissions in your marketing and back copy. I promise.