Saturday, June 5, 2010

Judging a Book By its Cover

Sheila Lowe brings a level of authenticity to her series surrounding handwriting expert, Claudia Rose. Lowe has more than 35 years of experience in the field of handwriting analysis, and is recognized as an expert in the California Court system.

I recently submitted a sample of my own handwriting to Sheila to use (or not use) in an upcoming book. It was rather like allowing someone to peek in my underwear drawer—a personal place where I hide my secrets from the world. I have to admit I was a little relieved that because she'd received so many samples, she didn't do any in-depth sleuthing. Phew!

Her fourth book,
Last Writes, and the subject of this post (sort of) is available for pre-order through Amazon or your local independent book store.

When NAL picked up my first mystery novel, Poison Pen, my editor and I took a walk around the dealer’s room at Malice Domestic. I pointed out covers that I liked and, more important, those that I didn’t, so that she could guide the art department when they were preparing my cover. I write novels of psychological suspense about a forensic handwriting expert whose entry into criminal investigations comes through her clients; I guess you could call them “medium boiled.” Claudia Rose’s cases sometimes end up in court with her presenting testimony as an expert witness, so it seemed logical that my covers should look more like The Firm than The Cat Who....

Eventually, the cover art came for Poison Pen with what I learned was the standard note: “Here’s your new cover, we hope you love it as much as we do.” The artwork suggested a desert locale done in crimson and tan, and featured a magnifying glass and a fountain pen inscribed with the text: “Forensic Handwriting Mysteries.” I’d been thinking a courthouse, or maybe a forensic lab, but was thankful they hadn’t put a quill pen on the cover. After studying it for a couple of hours, I really liked it (hey, I was being published by one of the biggest houses in the world, what’s not to like?!).

Written in Blood, book two, had a blue-hued cover that also offered a clue to one of the locations in the book. It, too, sported a pen and had a similar artistic style to Poison Pen—together, they looked like part of a series. Book three’s cover came in shades of orange and depicted a running woman (no pen this time). To me, she appeared to be fleeing a forest fire in the mountains—a bit of cognitive dissonance—Dead Write is set near Manhattan’s theater district. If you look closely at the cover, you will see a lone taxi on an otherwise empty street. Maybe the artist had never been to Manhattan. Still, the overall style made it part of the series.

And that brings us to book four, set for release on July 6. Some friends who’ve seen the cover think it’s terrific, and it is. But it doesn’t look like part of my series. The cover depicts a stylized modern kitchen with an overturned chair and a cup on the floor, coffee puddling around it. The artwork looks cozy; everyone who’s seen it agrees. Since I write psychological suspense, which is a different sub-genre than cozy and attracts a different set of readers, this cover just didn’t feel like my book.

I’m trying to come up with a way to describe the difference between cozy covers and mystery/suspense covers, but as a non-artist, all I can say is, you just know. Cozies are sometimes described as “fun.” The person who solves the mystery is often an amateur sleuth and the stories usually take place in a small town where everyone knows each other. The bad language is kept to a minimum and the sex and violence take place mostly off the page. Cozy covers seem to reflect traditional values and they tend to either be realistic, depicting people, or done in soft pastels and have drawings of cakes, shops, or flowers, usually portraying the sleuth’s job or the book’s theme.

Like the tales around which they are wrapped, suspense novel covers tend to be darker in hue and in tone. They seem to promise the reader, not lighthearted “fun,” but chills and thrills. There’s less likely to be a human figure on the cover than a location. Or, if there is a figure, it’s most often hazy or ambiguous or menacing.

Cozies are hugely popular, and luckily, there are many crossover readers. But my concern (read that: abject fear) is that readers looking for psychological suspense might overlook the book because they’ll assume from the cover that it’s not their kind of story, and that cozy readers who are attracted by the cover of Last Writes will end up hating it because it’s not what they expect (it’s about a religious cult and the search for a missing three-year-old—not cozy), and they’ll feel ripped off and write rotten reviews. I know, I must have too much time on my hands...

But the fact is, a book is not always what its cover suggests. So even if a cover doesn’t immediately draw you, look inside anyway. Read the first paragraph or the first page and see if the writing grabs you. Give it a chance. My first published book was The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Handwriting Analysis. I got emails from people who said they would never buy a book whose title called them an idiot. I asked them then not to judge the book by its cover, and I do the same here, not just for my books, but as a general reading rule.

So the question I leave you with is this; how does cover art affect your reading choices? Let me know what you think.

Like her character, Claudia Rose, Sheila Lowe is a forensic handwriting expert. She’s also an award-winning author of fiction and non-fiction. and

CR: The Neighbor by Lisa Gardner

It's all better with friends.


  1. Robert Carraher sent me a message on FB regarding Sheila's post:

    Nice article, and yes, to an extent I judge a book by its cover. If nothing else (art, etc.), if the right name is on that cover, I'll buy it.

  2. Personally, a cover can engage me or disuade me. I know what type of story I'm interested in reading, and (shame on me) I usually rely on the cover to tell me whether or not I want to explore further. I'll flip to the blurb, check out endorsements (I know, I know . . . another post), and if I'm still curious, I'll look at the first paragraph. That's when the book is either sold or shelved.

  3. Shoot. Sorry. Just thought of this. For an author brand new to me, I adore downloading a sample on my Kindle. The only problem is that at the moment, I have a boatload of samples to read. I have, however, bought at least two books recently based on sample chapters from the author's website.

  4. Great article, and I, too, judge a book by its cover. I like the cover of your new book, though. The title alone attracts me, and since most writers write at home--and I would imagine a handwriting expert would work at home--the kitchen didn't bother me. This book sounds intriguing, and I will definitely put it on my To Read list.

  5. Thanks, Carol! Claudia does have a home office, but the kitchen scene is actually at a mountain cabin, where a character found a note about her missing child.

  6. Hi Shiela,

    I also judge a new book by its cover. Since I enjoyed your first book, have the next two in my To Be Read pile, the cover on your fourth book won't matter to me. You've made my 'must have author' list. Needless to say, book for is on my purchase list.

    Pat Marinelli

  7. I also think a cover does a great deal more than hold the pages together. An attractive, intriguing cover can get me to pick up a book and read the back cover or wherever the blurb is hanging out. An unattractive cover can make me pass by a book that might really be a great read.

    Right now I'm working with my artist to design my own cover (one of the benefits of coming out with a small press). It's an involved process and I appreciate all that goes into getting all the elements to come together to make a prospective reader take notice.

  8. From a DorothyL member:

    I find I don't look at cover art any more because if I do I may not buy the book. For instance, I don't care for some of the "cute", primary color, popular cartoonish art, that it used on the covers of a lot of work now and I've put books down without opening them (until I hear my mother's voice in my head saying "you can't judge a book by its cover.) You can't judge a book by its cover but I do think the cover can prejudice you one way or the other.

    Cynthia E. Noyes, JD
    Associate Professor Sociology/Anthropology
    Olivet College

  9. I never purchase a book because of its cover art. I buy because I like the author's work, because of the book's notoriety or its blurb. I think this may be because I'm oriented more to words than I am to art. I love Stephanie Meyer's TWILIGHT and Charlaine Harris's Sookie Stackhouse series, but the cover designs leave me cold.

    Recently, I had two so-called reviewers find fault with the covers of two of my books. One said a design supposedly "gave away" the story, the other claimed a cover promised what the story didn't deliver. To me this indicates ignorance about the publishing industry. Authors have very little input on covers. Designers are professionals with their own ideas and they're hired by the publisher, not the author.

    Carolina Valdez


    I was interested to see this post as I've been discussing the same thing on Facebook and on my blog (
    Last week I was sent the first cover design for next year's Molly book, and I'm in a dilemma. It's gorgeous, a lovely cover, but it doesn't quite go with the gritty part of the story. So I asked how much a cover matters and whether readers feel cheated if it doesn't completely match the story. I'm reluctant to suggest people go to a blog, but if you'd like to chime in, please do.

    Rhys Bowen

  11. I try not to be influenced by covers because I know they don't always accurately reflect the tone or subject of the book. Sometimes (often, maybe?) they're created by artists who have read no more than a short summary of the book. Some covers are baffling. Look at THE SINNER by Tess Gerritsen. The cover shows a naked woman sprawled dead on a stone floor. No such scene is in the book -- in fact, the woman killed at the start of the book is a nun in full habit!

    A beautiful or intriguing cover can make me pick up a book by a writer I'm not familiar with. Beyond that, covers are irrelevant to me as a reader. As a writer, of course, they matter tremendously!

  12. I guess Last Writes is going to be a test case for me. I had a rotten review on one of the earlier books because the reader said she was expecting a cozy (why, I don't know), and she publicly--on Amazon--discouraged her friends from reading it. Ouch! I know that loyal readers will pick it up regardless, and I love them for it. It's those potential new readers I'm concerned about.

    Interesting, the range of responses here. Keep 'em coming!

  13. I know that ehe cover art affects me strongly. And I agree, Sheila, that it's very easy to tell a cozy from a medium-boiled by the cover. It makes a big difference in my interest in the book.

    If the cover is not intriguing, fitting the title, I don't pick it up. If I don't pick it up, I will likely never buy it. However, once in my hand, I'll read the jacket/back cover. That is the final decider. I don't read the review comments. I don't read the first page.

  14. Thank you, Sheila, for a very thought provoking and revealing post. It is no doubt that covers play an important role in the book-buying process. Is it a good thing? I think the jury will be deadlocked on this issue indefinitely.

    I have purchased books because of the cover. I may have NOT purchased some books because of the cover. Now I make it a point to open the book and read a couple of pages before I make my final decision.

    In the case of Last Writes, I am sad to admit that if I were at the bookstore browsing and saw it on the shelf with this cover, I would probably pass it by. I am not a fan of cozies, and the cover DOES suggest cozy, so I would move on. That is, if I didn't crack open the cover and read a couple of pages. Thankfully I like to let titles influence me more than covers, and Last Writes is an intriguing title. So, after I read a couple of pages and realized that it was a very well written, compelling story, I would buy it and hurry home to start reading it.

    Oh, and like an earlier comment suggested, I have also read the previous Claudia Rose books, and Sheila Lowe and her books are always at the top of my To Be Read pile. They don't even need to HAVE a cover.

  15. Cover art either pulls me in or pushes me away. I'm not a cozy reader, so cozy or cute art usually doesn't work for me. Blood on the cover has become a turn-off too. Your cover are great, Sheila. Thanks for a good post too.

  16. From MMA (Murder Must Advertise):

    Just a coincidence????
    At the very same time I rec'd this from MMA: re: Sheila Lowe raises the question to readers in general as to whether or not their buying/reading decisions are predicated on the book cover.

    I received this e-mail from a fan regarding my DD McGil Literati Mystery, A Cadger's Curse:
    Love your vocabulary and story line.
    Cover is wretched -good thing I read prologue before setting your book down!
    Keep up great work! and Thank you!
    Port Ludlow WA

    My conclusion: I've had nothing but compliments on that cover before I received this e-mail. Everyone has a different taste. To readers who like the cover, it may be an incentive. To readers who don't like the cover, it may be a deterrent. So much of it is expectation. Sheila's article says it well.
    Diane Gilbert Madsen
    The DD McGil Literati Mysteries
    "A Cadger's Curse"
    "Hunting for Hemingway"
    "The Conan Doyle Notes"

    But cover art does play a big role in marketing. The hardcover of my first
    in the series, Veil of Lies, was rather ordinary I thought (of course at the
    time, it was my first book so it was naturally great!), but it was a bit
    literal: a key, blood drops, a veil. St. Martin's paperback division hated
    it and said they wouldn't put forth the trade paperback unless the cover was
    changed, so my editor asked for input from me. I wanted a figure on some
    dark streets because it's so character driven and so noir and it would
    be very different for a medieval mystery. I'm very pleased with what they
    came up with and I'm constantly asked when the movie is coming out. But I
    know that some people are put off because they think it looks like another
    vampire book. So whadya gonna do? (You can see the covers on my
    website ).



    Supposedly, Five Star/Gale does allow for input on the cover art. I was contacted by the artist who did the cover art for THE INFERNO COLLECTION. We collaborated. And I liked what she ended up doing with it. As for the second mystery in this series, THE DROWNING POOL, I thought the cover art was okay, but my daughter-in-law who is more artistic than I am insisted that the cover was cartoonish and wrong for the novel. The second book did not sell as well. Perhaps cover art does have an effect. My next Five Star novel will be out in August. There were problems with the cover art but this time, I responded quickly and some changes were made.

    Jacqueline Seewald

  17. A related point--Last Writes was originally (and always) titled UNHOLY WRIT, which seemed perfect to me because the book is about a fundamentalist religious cult. My editor said Unholy Writ sounded like a historical or religious mystery, to which I responded, That's like calling the DaVinci Code and art book. Anyway, we finally compromised on Last Writes (and here I am, still griping about it), but the cover really doesn't have much to do with the story.
    Here's how I'm promo'ing it: What does an old stuffed bunny have to do with a religious cult?

  18. And from another DLer:

    I'm extremely influenced by cover art, to the point that I will occasionally
    buy a book that doesn't appeal to me at all otherwise and that I have no
    intention of reading if the cover art blows me away.

    Bad cover art won't keep me from buying a book by an author whose work I
    know I like, but it would probably keeps me from picking up one by an author
    I didn't know--unless there were some other reason, like a knock-out title
    or a recommendation from someone.

    Anybody else?


  19. And yet another DLer:
    My daughter, Annie Sperling, an art director in Hollywood, has done all eight of my covers, via three different publishers. Her cover for my book Grape Noir in 2002 was a best cover art nominee for Bouchercon that year. We lost. Her cousin is the cover artist for the Stieg Larsson books from Knopf. He won this year. I wonder what the odds are that two people in the same nuclear family would both be nominated, and each for the Bouchercon best book cover art award.

    We're all terribly proud of each of them. And I can't wait to unveil the new cover Annie has done for the eighth in the series, The Magicians, due out this fall.

    Does cover art count? To a lot of us it does and to my loyal readers who look forward to each new cover I say, wow, wait till you see the new one!


    the Margot O'Banion & Max Skull mystery series
    "A terrific read, complete with sexy, slightly larger-than-life characters and lots of L.A. action." Library Journal

  20. I hate it when covers contain elements that have nothing to do with the book. I don't like it as an author; don't like it as a reader! Even though I know better, I can't help but have an instinctive reaction when I see a cover I don't care for.

  21. I think it's a beautiful cover, Shelia, although I agree--more cozy than literary/psychological suspense. But that log line about the 3 year old would make me pick up the novel alone--no matter what the cover looked like--and I imagine something akin to it will be featured in the form of a blurb or flap copy? You might lose cozy readers who pick up the book and are startled by the flap copy, but I'd be surprised is suspense readers don't get what it is out of other material on the cover...

    Anyway--I will look for it on the the 6th!

  22. Jenny,
    Too bad they didn't use my log line on the cover! But the cover does have something going for it--blurbs from Deborah Crombie, Christopher Rice, and Robin Burcell.
    I'll be giving away little stuffed bunnies at book signings (just posted a long list all over the country on my site: