by their covers

by |February 19, 2010

I know I shouldn’t and yet I do.

I judge books by their covers!

I can’t help it, they are so… so… well… manipulative!

The best covers know exactly how to attract the eye, they know how to express themselves – some are warm and cuddly, some dark and mysterious, some are just beautiful and make you fall in love with them. I could almost marry some covers.

The ones that get me most often are the ones that suggest there’s a better life just within reach. These covers reach right into me and press the ‘green with envy button’.

I want it. All of it. Now. Gimmie!

What do I want?

It. That indefinable other which can never be had.

Book covers. The provocative, the enticing, the deceitful and the delicious. They play havoc with my emotions.

A picture of a woman on a jetty – it’s just a suggestion, a splash of light and colour –  my brain does the rest, it creates a world around this cover.  For a moment I capture the ease and beauty of a better world… and then it goes. Poof!

But now I own the book and must go beyond its cover to see whether the cover designer was honest, to see whether I receive what was promised. Sometimes I discover that the designer cannot have read the book and I have been tricked. Other times, the designer has failed for other reasons.

I used to know a grumpy bookseller who used to say that the only Art left in modern book publishing was to be found in the cover design. He would then add, ’cause there certainly isn’t any Art in the writing!

I can’t agree with him. I find that cover art is racing to keep up with modern writing, and that the books inspire the design, by and large.

For too many years book covers were uninspired, dull, dark, or uniformly garish.

I believe modern writing has, in a way, broken free of the book, as it was.

And these new covers, these delicious things, still barely do the writing justice.

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About the Contributor

While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. ​Now, as the Director of Books at, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection. His novel, The Girl on the Page, will be published by HarperCollins Australia in October, 2018.

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  • Kylie L

    February 19, 2010 at 8:50 pm

    I’m noticing lately that lots of covers feature women without heads- including my own! Am reading “Love in mid-air” at present (to be realeased by A&U soon) and that has a superb cover- but it’s another headless woman. Hmm. My all time favourite cover has to go to Ondaatje’s “The English Patient”: the version shot in sepia through a mosquito net looking out over the desert. Perfect. Mind you, that is also my favourite book, so I may be biased…

    • February 22, 2010 at 10:44 am

      Thank you for your comments. (and your tweeting, retweeting and replies!)
      I suppose the missing head epidemic is caused by a Cover Designers Inc. belief that we will want to place our own heads atop the headless figures as we become the hero, heroine of the novel…? But I’m reaching… It is probably just something sexist.
      I will have to give The English Patient another go…
      Thanks again.

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