The Best Kinds of Book Covers and Why We Judge Them

We just can't help it.

blank book cover
  • camera-icon
  • Photo Credit: Unsplash

You know you do it. And it’s ok to admit it. I do it, too. You get drawn to a particular book by the amazing artwork that’s on the outside of it (or you ignore one because it looks kind of meh). I mean, it’s only natural. Imagine being in a store full of hardcover books with no jackets. How would you even begin to choose one?

The saying “don’t judge a book by its cover” has its origins in a phrase from to a 1944 edition of the African Journal American speech: “You can’t judge a book by its binding.” Just two years later, the murder mystery Murder in the Glass Room offered another version of the phrase: “You can never tell a book by its cover.” 

And they do have a point—the topic of book covers is more complex than at first glance. Let’s dive in with some examples.

The Captivating Book Cover

Sweet as Cane, Salty as Tears

Sweet as Cane, Salty as Tears

By Ken Wheaton

A captivating cover makes you do a double take. The cover of this book about coming home again is cozy while disconcerting at the same time. The canned good looks like a familiar friend conjuring up a certain chicken noodle soup that was highly inspirational by a certain Andy Warhol. 

However, upon closer inspection the rhino featured on the can signals that something is a bit off and hence, the interest in what is going on in the book is already piqued before even reading the first sentence.

The International Book Cover

harry potter british, american and italian covers

Most Harry Potter fans know that the title for the first Harry Potter book differed between American and British publishers: it was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in Britain, and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in the U.S. But the title wasn’t the only thing that was different. The cover art was unique, too! 

This is a common thing for book covers in different countries depending on whether there are different publishers or aspects of the book to be emphasized in certain parts of the world. (Fun fact: For reasons unknown, the Italian version has a mouse motif.)

The Photographic Book Cover

The Ten Loves of Nishino

The Ten Loves of Nishino

By Hiromi Kawakami

Cover art isn’t always an illustration. The art here is a photo of actual objects that are representations of fish. The juxtaposition of bright colors with the frowns on the faces of the fish alert the potential reader to the interplay of emotions that will be found in the voices of ten women in this tale. 

The depiction of koi fish, in particular, hints to the origins of the story from a Japanese author and the themes associated with the koi: courage, uniqueness and transformation are all likely to be attributes of the characters we've yet to meet.

The Iconic Book Cover

The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby

By F. Scott Fitzgerald

Sometimes the artwork is so well done that it becomes at least as iconic as the work itself. Those eyes gazing at you from the cover of this required reading in classrooms across the land is very well known. It has even made its way to T-shirts and reusable shopping bags. 

Even people who haven’t read the book are likely to know the title because of its far reach. This is also true for 1984 by George Orwell, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and Catch-22 by Joseph Heller.

The Artistic Book Cover



By Samuel R. Delany

The artwork on the cover often gives a clue to the genre of the book. Can you get any more obvious than two moons over a bridge to signal that what you are about to read is likely science fiction? 

With a nod to Tatooine in Star Wars and the famous scene of Luke viewing a sundown from not one but two fiery balls in the distance, Dhalgren also takes a snapshot from daily life but tweaks it ever so slightly to alert you to the changes the characters will experience in themselves and in the world around them.

The Innovative Book Cover


Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

By Robin Sloan

Covers can be deceiving. They might mislead you into thinking the book is one thing when it’s really another. Or the cover is more than meets the eye. If you happened to read this novel about a mysterious bookstore and its owner set in San Francisco and left it on your nightstand, then you know what I mean. 

I was turning over in the middle of the night and couldn’t help but notice a soft glow coming from the book. It turns out the book cover was made out of glow in the dark ink and once activated by light, glows when the lights go out. But readers have to discover that on their own!

The Well-Known Author Book Cover

mystery books set in new orleans

The Chef

By James Patterson & Max DiLallo

Ok, the deal is that sometimes the cover art doesn’t matter at all. If you have a blockbuster author who could sell the list of ingredients on the back of a box of cake mix just by signing it, then all you have to do is put their name on the front of a book in large letters. Sometimes the author’s name is even bigger than the title! 

Have a favorite book series that you just have to have the newest edition of when it’s released? Check out the cover and see whether the title or the author’s name gets bigger billing.

The Adaptation Book Cover

little fires everywhere, one of the best book covers

Little Fires Everywhere

By Celeste Ng

Full disclosure. Bone to pick. I loved the original cover to this book with the little perfect neighborhood on the front with one of the clone houses on fire. So even though I devoured the tv series based on the book, I was not pleased to see the photo still of the two big stars replacing the quaint original cover. (No offense Kerry and Reese!) 

In fact, I really detest when the movie/tv series cover tie-ins get slapped on top of a book that was clearly selling well enough before it was adapted into a visual form to get picked up in the first place. Let the book retain its original cover art. People are smart enough to figure out the book the movie is based on to pick it up without the blatant advertisement.

The Redesigned Book Cover

The Color Purple

The Color Purple

By Alice Walker

Authors could have been writing for years with many published books already under their belt before they hit it big. When this happens, the publisher wants to signal earlier works as a part of this hot author’s must-read collection. 

For example, Liane Moriarty had a number of books out before The Husband’s Secret took off and set her on a path of blockbuster hits. Instead of asking voracious readers to wait on her next release, the publishers took her previous works like What Alice Forgot and redid the artwork in the same style as Husband to signal that readers would enjoy these previous publications just as much. 

Books can be re-released with new covers for other reasons, too. Perhaps they've just been released on ebooks for the first time, or they're classic books like The Color Purple that the publisher wishes to draw more attention to. Whatever the reason, we always love a gorgeous new treatment for a book cover!

Featured photo via Debby Hudson / Unsplash