The Sunday Salon: Judging a Book by its Cover

As we recover from Thanksgiving and Black Friday, it’s time to think about shopping for our loved ones this holiday season. Naturally, book lovers tend to give out books as gifts–it’s thoughtful and usually quite cost-effective, especially if you’re an old hand at sifting through thrift stores and used bookstores.

But there comes that moment when, in a used bookstore or the bargain section of a national chain, you pick up a book and are forced to disobey that old saw; you’ve got to judge a book by its cover. Today, we’re going to look over some fairly general rules that ought to at least lower the odds of picking up a book that truly bombs. These signifiers don’t relate to quality; rather, they relate to the success of a novel and the faith a publishing company has in it.


Where is the book located in the bargain bin? For instance, at most Books-a-Millions stores, there’s a display of discounted books by genre on a shelf and then a table of all the rest. The books on the shelves have been deemed, by the employees, to be more popular and likely to be bought–but these are also the newest additions to the bargain bins. Used bookstores and, to a lesser extent, thrift stores usually display titles that are more likely to sell–while you definitely want to root around in all three cases, if you’re in a hurry, keep an eye out for location.

Cover Design

While I often lament the fact that I’m easily distracted by pretty covers, sometimes bad covers turn up on bad books. Obviously, this isn’t always true–there are fantastic books saddled with awful covers. But avoid covers that use stock images poorly, especially photos of people–especially when they’re very poorly Photoshopped into a historic scene. It can be done well, of course, but it usually tends to reflect a lack of faith in the project by someone on the production team.

Cover Blurbs

But the best indicators you can use to make a quick decision in a bookstore are the cover blurbs–the quotes from reviews and authors dotted strategically. If one of the blurbs is from an author you like, there’s a good chance it’s decent. A decent book trying to get your attention will usually have the choice lines from national reviews, like The New York Times Book Review or Entertainment Weekly, plastered on it, along with one or two author blurbs. But between a book with only review blurbs and a book with only author reviews, go with the one with only review blurbs. Books with only author blurbs, especially authors in the same genre that you haven’t really heard of, have a higher chance of being, well, crap.

Again, these are broad, sweeping generalizations. But they can save you some heartache while you’re contemplating a book you’ve never heard of in a bookstore for a loved one.

This Sunday marks the kick-off of Narnia Week! This week, I’ll be racing through Narnia–I hope you’ll join me. More information is available on the challenge’s actual post. This Salon is a bit rushed; I’m exhausted.

Don’t forget to comment to enter to win my Chronicle Books haul! It’ll close on December 10th. Tor/Forge’s Blog is giving away an Orson Scott Card package until December 2nd, a ridiculous bundle of 25 fantasy books and an equally ridiculous bundle of 25 science fiction books until December 6th, and a steampunk prize package until December 12th, a science fiction set for you and your local library, The Wheel of Time books for you and your library and a set of Patrick Taylor’s books and audiobooks until December 16th–you must register to receive their newsletter to enter all of these US only giveaways. The BBC America Shop is giving away pairs of gift cards ($500, $250, $100) until December 19th. HarperCollins is giving away a copy of the 60th Anniversary Edition of The Chronicles of Narnia until January 1st. You can currently view the first season of BBC’s Sherlock for free on PBS’s website (US only). The Baen Free Library is full of free downloads, including The Shadow of the Lion and On Basilisk Station. Night Shade Books is offering Butcher Bird and Grey as free downloads at the moment. Vertigo Comics is offering free downloads of the first issue of several series, including Fables, The Unwritten, and Y: The Last Man. (And you will go download The Unwritten.) If I’ve missed your giveaway or freebie, drop me a line!

Do you buy books you haven’t read as gifts, or do you only buy books you’ve read for people?

9 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon: Judging a Book by its Cover

  1. I almost never buy books I’ve never read as gifts. I do it occasionally, but only if one of my recipients’ favorite authors has written a new book or something, or if they’ve asked for some book in particular.

    I can’t join in Narnia week! I am so sad! I thought I was going to be in my new apartment by now and have all my books unpacked and everything! But I’m not in my new apartment until this Saturday, and I don’t want to unpack my books, and then repack them, and then unpack them again. *sigh*

  2. I remember several years ago, I read an article written by then CEO of Barnes & Noble, Steve Riggio. He recalled a meeting with an author where the author thanked him for the opportunity and exposure to sell his books to a wide audience. Riggio remarked that it wasn’t his doing; as a Barnes & Noble employee, I thought Riggio’s response was full of crap.

    A lot of bookstores live and breathe on planograms and visual merchandising standards. They are given lists of things to put on display, almost always decided by someone in an enclosed office, not someone talking with a customer on a daily basis.

    It’s not the easiest thing to do this time of year because of how busy things are, but if you don’t know what to get for someone exactly, but have a good idea of what you want, ask a bookseller. We know about cool stuff, new, old, and otherwise.

    And, yes, I’ll buy books for people that I haven’t read. Unless I know of something I’ve read that they would like.

    • That also helps, but I usually find that in independent stores–the last chain bookseller who recommended a book to me was really homophobic and assumed I was straight. (Oh, the heteronormative world!) But independent booksellers really do their homework.

  3. I usually buy gift books I’ve read and enjoyed myself. I want to share the love! I’ve bought the occasional new-to-me gift book, though, if I think the subject matter jives with my giftee’s tastes.

    I’ve also given a few requested books, but I’ve tried to steer clear of those in recent years. I always used to give my mother exactly the books she asked for, and I started to feel kind of boring. Where was the surprise? Now I get her books I know she wants but she hasn’t specifically requested, and tell my father to buy her wishlist books. That way she still gets them, but I get to be the one who surprises her! 🙂

  4. Well, just to take up for me, some booksellers in big stores do know their stuff and aren’t homophobic. You are right about smaller bookstores though, they know their stuff and they can help you find it.

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