"Never judge a book by its cover" - this advice is meant to apply to more than just books and I've had success using it in my daily life. When it comes to books, I stand with it in spirit. In truth, however, I'm completely guilty of looking at a book's cover and moving on without giving its content the time of day. This case of hypocrisy is one I revisit now and then, and try to examine to see why I would proliferate this advice when I'm not entirely willing to follow it for myself. (I guess it's not unlike MOST advice in which we all traffic.)
I'm no expert on the concept of cover design, or what makes things "pretty" - I only know what catches my eye, and what doesn't hurt it. Even when I'm not shopping for anything in particular, some aesthetics demand to be seen. For books, this means their spines need to be legible and attractive. Believe it or not - those plain black spines with plain white san serif fonts have a better chance of getting me to pay attention than the busy ones with script fonts. (A good title doesn't hurt here, either.)
When confronted with the facing cover, I have a soft spot for fantasy inspired art. At the same time, I like a simplistic framing device more often than a full-cover style.
The old Dragonlance novels, for example, had great cover art by Larry Elmore, but also a solid cover framing which allowed the title and the Dragonlance branding to present themselves without interfering with the art or looking too busy. When the publishers wanted to update the look of the books, they went to full cover art. I like those copies distinctively less and will go out of my way to find second-hand Dragonlance novels just for the older covers. Since that time, they did go with a compromise on the two styles, leaving a solid bar across the top and on the bottom, but switching artists (to Matt Stawicki).
Moorcock's Elric of Melniboné series also had a plethora of different cover styles. You can see them: Here. My favorite is the Gould series from 1983, followed closely by Yoshitaka Amano's Japanese covers the following year.
It may sound like I don't enjoy full-art covers, but I do! It's just a little harder to catch my eye with them. Especially in fantasy & science fiction - they all start to look the same after a while.
From My Shelves
First, the plain cover. This book had a dust jacket at some point, but I picked it up in a secondhand shop completely naked. This is Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural, part of The Modern Library published by Random House, Inc. in 1972 (renewing the 1944 copyright, it says). Aside from the content (which is my true love, here), I love a plain cover. Gold lettering? Even better! Wide enough to display the title so I don't have to tip my head to read? We have a winner.
Next, the simplistic cover. Never mind that this is Stephen King (one of my favorite storytellers). I am in love with this cover aesthetic. This reprint of The Eyes of the Dragon was done by Signet Fiction (a part of the Penguin Group (US) Inc.) as part of a massive reprint of King's works, in the early 2000's (there's no reprint date on the copyright page, and different pages provide different reprint dates but most range from 2001-2004). In fact, my first large purchase of King's books came with this reprint line because I loved the covers that much. They are easy to read, they give a kind of coherence to the shelf, and they aren't very distracting - while still being pleasant to the eye.
Finally, the full cover art. I spotted this book in a bargain bin (more like a shelf, and on the bottom no less) in a K-Mart sometime around my 15th birthday. I hadn't read the first books in the series (it would take a few years more for me to have funds of my own with which to hunt them down), but this cover said I had to take it home, and made promises to me. It promised I would love the book, it promised me a struggling protagonist, or a sympathetic antagonist (I got both), and a different world. It delivered.
Promises Made, Promises Broken
Speaking of promises - a cover, to me, is a window into the kind of dedication and care that has been put into the creation of a book. I understand that, by and large, the author doesn't necessarily have any sort of say over their covers (and some shouldn't - writers are writers, not necessarily very good at presenting or designing a visual aesthetic). This decision lies with a publishing company's arts department. In the case of self-publishers and small press, however, the situation rests more with the author than not.
That being said - my criticism rests on both sets of shoulders equally. I've seen big publishing houses put terrible covers on books and I've seen self publishing authors go with amazing covers.
Whatever impression a cover gives, there is a promise that the inside of the book is going to deliver on it. Bad covers promise sloppy stories, pasted together from disjointed ideas, and bound inside a cover that serves as a train-wreck of a metaphor. Good covers promise carefully drawn characters, stories that follow some sort of logic (fiction need only follow its own rules of logic, not the real world's), and care given to - if not every word - the story overall.
While these promises don't always prove true, they are still the messages being sent by the covers.
It's hard NOT to judge a book by its cover, and I think that perhaps we shouldn't always be cover-blind. Despite that, I still try - now and then - to pick up a book with a cover that I don't like, but a title that I do, and give the interior a try. I also appreciate new & different covers that move away from the traditional forms. (Silhouette and semi-abstract styles, for example.)
Do you have book cover pet peeves, preferences, ponderings?