Can you judge a book by its cover?

When moralists tell us “Don’t judge a book by its cover”, we know it’s a proverbial injunction to look beneath superficial appearances, particularly in our dealings with people. A suave demeanour may belie inner unworthiness, while an exterior that’s not prepossessing may mask  valuable qualities. Yes grandma.

However, the publishing industry takes a more literal view. It usually invests great care in cover designs on the assumption that prospective customers can be decisively influenced by what they see on the outside of a book. Consciously or not, one’s choice to buy this book rather than that may often turn on the visual and textual information displayed on front and back. We tend to draw inferences about genre, subject matter and style not only from the descriptive blurb but also from the designer’s selection of images, colours, even the typeface used for the title or author’s name.

In choosing what to read, don’t you tend to judge a book by its cover? Take the following example, from a forthcoming book (release date: July 1st) in which I have a keen interest.

TMOP front cover copy

This front cover gives you (doesn’t it?) an immediate impression of the kind of book this is. Leaving aside for a moment the title, and the possibility that the author’s name will be associated with things previously read or heard, the scene depicted here suggests a story that’s set in the past, apparently in a frontier society and a colonial period. Though fictional (the subtitle says “a novel”), it seems likely to be grounded realistically in a specific time and place.

Having seen an advance copy of this book, a friend comments in an email message to me: “I very much like the choice of cover image – figures occupying distinct frames but situated within the same space – such lovely resonance with your novel’s themes.”

Prospective readers who happen to know something about 19th-century artists in Western Australia may recognise the image of Bunbury’s Rose Hotel. It reproduces part of a picture painted in 1863 by a white-collar convict called Thomas Browne, not long after his transportation. The original, in watercolour and pencil, is in the National Gallery of Australia. A trained draughtsman, architect and engineer, Browne produced other artworks that are held in various public collections. And a fictional version of him is one of the main characters in this novel.

If what’s on the front of a book arouses interest, a potential buyer will then usually glance at the back cover for more information. A particular publisher’s logo can serve as a token of quality. There may be an endorsement in the form of a brief quote from a reviewer. The blurb should indicate whether this is the kind of book that the person now holding it would probably enjoy reading. And the visual appeal of the back cover can be influential, too: often it extends the image on the front cover, as in this case.

The mind's own place_cover[1] copy_3

I’m fortunate that my publisher UWAP has a well-deserved reputation for excellence in book design, and pleased that my idea of reproducing Browne’s painting on the cover (with permission from the National Gallery) was readily accepted.

We did discuss the possibility of using another image, also connected historically to Thomas Browne; here it is.

Old Mill

The eventual decision to put this strange and sombre image inside the book, facing the first page of text, was a clever solution. It’s a photograph from about 1890, showing the Old Mill in South Perth after Browne modified it. The source of the image is the Battye Library.

Being much bleaker than the sunlit 1863 watercolour picture used for the cover, it foreshadows one of the narrative trajectories in this novel.

Oh yes – the novel’s title: The Mind’s Own Place is an odd phrase, and someone looking at the cover may be a bit puzzled by it. I hope it stimulates curiosity. Perhaps it may ring a bell for a person who is well versed in one of the great classics of English poetry. Here’s a clue: the real-lifeThomas Browne was known by the nickname of Satan.

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