Of course covers are difficult to judge, appealing wholly to our subjective tastes. But covers are also a clear indication of genre and intended readership. It’s no coincidence that Penguin modern classics are an attractive but subtle duck-egg blue with reportage style black and white photographs on the front, whilst chick-lit comes in pastel shades with embossed lettering. Publishers have a good idea which visual buttons to press, and given the way that bookstores like to display books face forwards these days, a lot of effort and thought goes into cover design. There have been occasions when I’ve not bought a book because I’ve disliked its cover, and I’ve certainly chosen one book over another on the feeble grounds of aesthetic attractiveness. I’ve been drawn to try new authors because I’ve thought the book appealing, and I’ve also been thoroughly confused by those sets of similar covers (à la Carter) that are designed to indicate the work of one author but whose lack of differentiation means I’ve bought books I already possess. I have to say that I am even more pleased with my purchase, if a book I’ve wanted turns out to be a beautiful object as well. This may sound shallow – it probably is! – but my son is much worse than me, and quite blatant about it; his reading choices are entirely determined by the picture on the front of the book. When you really think about it, the impact of the cover is disproportionately significant, no matter what well-meaning maxims might suggest.
So is "don’t judge a book by its cover" just a nonsense platitude? Seems to be here in Condalmoland; we have been known to favor books based on preferred size (not length in pages, but top-to-bottom, side-to-side), how it feels on the thumb to flip through (despite that the only time this is done is in this initial stage), the print, the color of the paper, the typeset, and of course the cover. I think it makes good sense to republish books with updated covers; some of those covers from the 80’s, ugh. And I’ve made no secret of my frequent distaste for hardcovers.
That said, a bad cover isn’t necessarily a deal breaker. Exhibit A:
Great stories. Really bad cover. Who voted in the little stars?