Friday, July 31, 2009

A Book by Its Cover

There has been quite the kerfuffle this week over book covers. In particular, the cover of one edition of Justine Larbalestier's novel Liar. Let me summarize: white girl on cover + black girl protagonist in story = NOT COOL.

I'm going somewhere more lighthearted with this post, however. As some of you may have noticed, I have a LibraryThing widget in the right-hand column, that shows six random books from my "library" at any given time. This morning, I noticed that the wrong cover popped up for my copy of A Farewell to Arms. I own this one, not this one, and I assure you that I actively pick the correct cover for my edition of each book the moment I log it into LibraryThing. (Current theory: LT was briefly unable to access my chosen cover online, and defaulted to another cover. I've now fixed it.)

So, why am I so darn attached to my editions? It's the same text inside, right? And this isn't a situation like the Liar cover, where the image on the outside contradicts the content inside. This is just... my copy. And I want to be very clear about which copy I have. But why should I care?

Children's books are different. I actively hunt for older editions of my favorite books to add to my daughter's library because I want her to have the covers that feature the original illustrations, not some new drawings the publishers must have thought would make the book more appealing to modern audiences. In these cases, changing the cover does, to my mind, violate the content inside, because the illustrations are part of that content. (For example, The Great Brain series. Yes. No.)

But what about those adult books with a variety of covers? Do you care which one you buy? If you lose a book, do you try to replace it with the same edition or cover? Is it just about nostalgia -- we want to own the version of the book that reminds us best of when we first read it? Or is there something more to this?

I open the comments for discussion.

And yes, Serious Girl has her own LibraryThing account, and she currently has more books listed than I do.


  1. I feel it's nostalgia. I would prefer to have the editions I first read and fell in love with...but so often it's hard to find those, especially among more popular authors. Publishers just seem to feel this need to update the looks of their books every decade or so.

  2. Covers are funny things. One of my favorite books of all time has a horrible cover (IMO). I tried to ignore the cover because the person on the front doesn't look anything like I imagined the protag to look. So a new edition came out, with a much better cover, and I love that one so much better. But I'm too cheap to buy the same book.

  3. So I must be the complete opposite. Which is probably because I've boughten into our culture's marketing fettish! But I usually think the originals look pretty cheesey and I go for the new glamorous, realistic looking covers!

  4. Katie, there's a book I love that I feel the same way about. I have the hardback edition with a cover that I think is seriously misguided (and I think the author agrees... hi, Felix!), but I'm just not going to spend the money right now to get the paperback, which has a much improved, much truer-to-the-story cover. In both editions the background is cool, but the depiction of the character on the hardcover is just all wrong, IMO.

    Jody, I think there might be situations where I pick the newer cover over the old when first making the book purchase, but once I own it, I'm usually quite loyal!

  5. I with you -- I like *my* covers. In general. And particularly for children's books. Maybe it's because when they involve illustrations of the characters, as a child you use those pictures in your head and new illustrations make it seem like an old favorite story is being performed by imposters. Like the new Footloose remake will be. I'm just sayin'.

    Also, bonus points for using the word "kerfuffle" in a sentence.

    --Lisa P.

  6. Wait, they're remaking Footloose? Oh, no. No no no no no no no.

  7. Hi. I am on your blog for the first time. I think I discovered it through Janna's Something she wrote blog.

    I find this discussion very interesting. I grew up in a world where the best books had bright blue covers with the title printed in white. That was the collection of classical writers printed by the state's publishing house. So I never learned to care. Only now, very late, I began to appreciate a good cover and feel that I couldn't disconnect a certain text from it. It still feels strange.

  8. I've given you an award on my blog today. Come check it out!

  9. I actually make my living (or party of my living anyway) selling books by their covers, and have seen many a decent book get passed up because the cover didn't quite cut-it. So, covers are important. In my own library, I do like a nice and exciting cover, but have never really found old editions to be preferable to new ones, with the exception of classic SF stories, in which the old cheesy paperback covers are much preferable to new reprint editions.

  10. I just got the Portable Dorothy Parker and its cover might be the most beautiful I've ever seen. It's a soft cover but has inside flaps, which have whimsical little cartoons about her short stories. I am, admittedly, more fascinated by the cover right now than what's inside.

    If a book has a crappy cover, it definitely sullies my love for it (assuming I love it). I worked in a book store years and years ago and I remember an advance reader's copy came in for the staff for a young adult book with an incredibly interesting and sweet looking polar bear on the cover. It grabbed me right away and I just loved it...turned out to be Phillip Pullman's The Golden Compass.

    I've gone off a bit here, but yes I am totally swayed by the marketing of covers.

  11. Welcome Lori and Alissa and anyone else new!

    Lori, can I ask where you're from? I kind of like the idea of a series of good books having a single, simple cover pattern. I bought a series of on-sale classics from a single publisher for my daughter when she was only a few months old, and I kind of like that they're all uniformly designed... maybe she'll associate those covers with "best books" as well! (Because I don't think Little Women and The Complete Works of Edgar Allen Poe have much in common other than good writing...)

    Alissa, I'd be interested in any specific examples of "coverfail" that you want to share!

    Sierra, I love that polar bear. And how neat to have gotten an ARC of The Golden Compass! I have a couple ARCs at home, and I think they're so cool, even the ones that just have plain solid-color covers. Makes me feel like an "insider" (even when I just got them at a thrift store...)

  12. I'm from Romania and I grew up during communism. Books were rare and immensely precious. In the last years of the regime, the censorship had become so strict that almost no books were published anymore, except for those with an overt communist/socialist message.

  13. Wow, Lori. Just wow.

    I'm so spoiled...