by Ed Masessa
Senior Manager, Product Development, Scholastic Book Fairs
Member, ReadKiddoRead Board
Over the years, the idiom "Don't judge a book by its cover" has been used more as a metaphor than a literal translation. The outward appearance of something or someone does not necessarily convey the beauty of what lies beneath – be it words in a book, or the heart, soul, and personality of a person.
There was a time when we operated at a slower pace, and books had a fighting chance! In the 50s and 60s, we had twelve stations on TV to choose from, and for the most part, they were tailored to adults. It was a very big deal when PBS appeared in 1970. Then, suddenly, we entered the age of cable TV. Television occupied more of our time – and our kids' time — because there was so much variety from which to choose. Add a few components like VCRs and game consoles, and more free time was sucked into the vacuum. When all those things became mobile… fuggedaboutit.
Now a book's competition is formidable and intimidating. Reading a book takes more time and may seem much less glamorous than the flashy alternatives. Yet without reading we have no future. I don't have to cite the myriad of studies from the multitude of institutes that point to the deterioration of our children's ability to read and comprehend. And I won't go into the political and social complexities that stymie the educational system.
Instead, I will focus on one of the few weapons a book has at its disposal to capture the attention of a prospective reader: the COVER!
Just as everyone has an opinion on what constitutes art, many of the decision makers in the publishing field have differing opinions on what makes a good cover. The in-house experts in marketing, sales, and publicity, as well as editorial staffs all weigh in on the vision that art departments have created. In my day job at Scholastic Book Fairs, I select many of the books that will be part of your child's school book fair. These once- or twice-a-year events showcase between 600-1200 titles in shiny metal cases that roll into schools like portable book stores. For many children, especially with the decline of brick-and-mortar stores, this might be the only exposure they have to seeing the vast variety that the children's publishing world has to offer. And, while I firmly believe that what my company does plays a significant role in fostering good reading habits, this is not an advertisement.
Anyone who thinks that the act of bringing books into schools creates a captive audience is sorely mistaken. We can bring books to children, but we can't make them read. The first challenge is getting their attention. Every one of the titles on a book fair is displayed with the full cover facing the child, who then has a short period of time to scan the entire selection before having to make a choice. Many of them will zero in on what they are familiar with – long-standing series, and media-related properties. But there are hundreds of other books that they are just seeing for the first time – books that are begging to be read. We have to get them to notice. This is why covers are so blasted important!
What constitutes a good cover might change week to week, month to month, decade to decade. There was a time when publishers would start with a very stylized cover for the jacketed hardcover edition, and later give the book something with more mass appeal for the paperback edition. While we still might be able to get away with this practice in certain genres, the tide has shifted. Greater attention is being given to grabbing a child's attention right out of the gate. The advent of ebooks will continue to drive this strategy.
Children might not know who Carl Hiaasen is, but show them the cover of Hoot and they really won't care. What child can resist a book with such a simple design that still sets a hook into their imagination? The initial cover of The Wanderer by Sharon Creech was drop-dead gorgeous and certainly got my attention as well as that of thousands of librarians. But the paperback design appealed directly to a child's instincts and emphasized the level of drama contained in the story. Who can resist the comical Doberman on the cover of Gordon Korman's Swindle series? Or the creepy-kooky covers on David Lubar's Weenies books that have made them our best-selling books of short stories of all time. And the iconic genius of covers like Matched by Ally Condie, Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and Cinder by Marissa Meyer.
Inevitably, a good book will find its audience. But we have to get a child to pick it up. Is there a magic formula for covers? No. Do some color combinations work better than others? Yes. Will a dog on a cover attract attention? You betcha. Will a title that a child can barely pronounce influence their choice? Undoubtedly. Am I upset when a book that has a dynamite cover fails to live up to its sales potential? You can usually find me crying at my desk.
Over time, we can identify trends — what's working and what isn't. But by the time we figure out why, the market has shifted. Still we owe it to the authors to give their babies a fighting chance, and we owe it to the kids to make them interested enough to want to read those marvelous books.
We can't afford NOT to judge a book by its cover. Our children need to read more, and we need to figure out how to make that happen. Our first line of offense is to make them pick a book up. Because until they have it in their hands, they are not going to open it.