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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Judging a book by its cover

I’ve been so jealous of friends who that their hands on ARC’s, and I recently won a copy of The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer. I won’t do a full review here, though I’m trying to put one together for Goodreads.  My head is still swimming a bit. This morning, I sit here staring at the cover, and I can’t help think about the old phrase, “You can’t judge a book by its cover.” I wonder what prompts me to buy a book.  Not when friends have recommended or it’s a choice for a book club, but when I’m browsing, and I just can’t stop myself from clicking buy. I am slightly embarrassed to admit that I fall for a great hook and a good cover every time. 

Here’s the copy from the back of the book:

Mara Dyer doesn’t think life can get any stranger than waking up in a hospital with no memory of how she got there.  It can.

She believes there must be more the accident she can’t remember that killed her friends and left her mysteriously unharmed. There is.

She doesn’t believe that after everything she’s been through, she can fall in love. She’s wrong.

And the cover … it’s really lovely with amazing subtext.  

The only problem in this case is that I’m not 100% sure that the cover and hook quite prepared me for what was to come. That isn’t to say I didn’t like the book; it drew me in enough that I read all 450 pages in one night, but it didn’t exactly match expectations in terms of genre or outcome.

I considered other books I’d purchased because of cover/hook. One that stands out for me is Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver. I hesitated a long time on that even though every time I browsed at a bookstore in person or online, it called to me.


What if you had only one day to live? What would you do? Who would you kiss? And how far would you go to save your own life? 

Samantha Kingston has it all: the world's most crush-worthy boyfriend, three amazing best friends, and first pick of everything at Thomas Jefferson High—from the best table in the cafeteria to the choicest parking spot. Friday, February 12, should be just another day in her charmed life.
Instead, it turns out to be her last. 

Then she gets a second chance. Seven chances, in fact. Reliving her last day during one miraculous week, she will untangle the mystery surrounding her death—and discover the true value of everything she is in danger of losing. 

The difference between the two examples for me is that with Before I Fall, the hook/cover steered my expectations exactly where they needed to be.

It got me thinking about the notion of a pitch and how easy it might be to snag reader. The challenge, however, is keeping the reader invested. 

Back to the original concept, we often judge a book by its cover.  We can be surprised both positively and negatively by what’s inside.  Not a new lesson at all, and clearly one that is relevant to more than just book reading. There is nothing inherently wrong with a shocking fa├žade meant to capture attention, unless, of course, it’s attention you don’t want.

I talk about this in Intercultural Communication, and I alluded to it earlier on the blog when I discussed identity. I hear people complain all the time about being judged. Yet, they dress as a walking stereotype.  Should people be able to get past appearance?  Of course, but if you KNOW that wearing an outfit or driving a particular car or talking a certain way carries a consistent meaning, don’t be surprised when others react to you based on that stereotype. You are setting up an expectation, and if you don't meet it, people face cognitive dissonance. It's not always easy to move someone past that.

When selling anything, including yourself (not like that), being conscious about how your message conveys your intention helps establish better expectations for the receiver. Unless you sole goal is shock, you're more likely to have a satisfied customer (reader, listener, friend, partner, co-worker, viewer, etc).

Now, I'm curious.  Think about something that hooked you. Doesn't have to be a book. What about it worked? Did the underlying message line up with expectations?


  1. This is a great post! And I am disappointed when a cover/hook doesn't live up to expectations. Avoiding that for the reader is tough, but important. I think about "I am Number Four" which seemed so amazing in the trailer/concept and then fell flat for me in the actual movie - I expected something different but it was very much the same as others in the genre.

    Thanks for the food for thought!

  2. How funny you mentioned that book because I was *thisclose* to using it as an example of a hook. Total impulse buy based on the book's tag line, but I couldn't find the original pitch that drew me in.