“Don’t judge a book by its cover” is a fair piece of advice when you’re six years old and your parents are teaching you empathy. With actual book covers, though, it’s a little more complicated. The exact same story can be shrouded in a plethora of collector’s, anniversary, international, and revised edition covers, some of which are decided upon without the author’s input.
The input that ultimately matters is unsurprising; publishers will choose the book covers that they anticipate will sell the best based on the demonstrated success of other books. Does the white female market love domestic suspense thrillers (hint: it does)? Plaster a huge, ambiguously feminine title over a darkened image of smoke, a housefront, or a female silhouette, and it becomes instantly recognizable as a member of the excessively saturated genre. This isn’t a bad thing – getting books into the hands of the people most likely to read them and rate them well on Goodreads is actually an effective way to increase general readership. Marketing works, and I’m all for it.
Figure 1: Once you see the visual hallmarks of a genre, you cannot unsee them.
Well, mostly. Marketing a genre and manufacturing a culture around it is one thing. It becomes tricky when the reverse occurs and a culture is marketed until it becomes a genre. Think about the book covers of the last queer books you saw. The vast majority of books featuring a queer romance written in the last five years share two distinct cover features that signal its genre immediately: (a) a pink or light blue base color to signal romance, and (b) the two main characters standing center stage, reveling in their same-sexness.
Figure 2: New date idea – recreate one of these book covers with your partner.
As a queer reader, I can’t help the little flutter in my chest when I see these covers. The signaling is effective, and I am much more likely to pick up the book that seems to say: “I see you, I am you, and these pages will keep you safe.” Books that feature straight romances engage in this signaling practice to a much smaller extent. Sure, the quirky Emily Henry pop-art style isn’t going anywhere, but readers are much more likely to “accidentally” read a straight romance than a queer one.
Figure 3: The “straightest” books on the contemporary market do not require signaling with images of the couples on the covers. Shocking.
The same is true with books by Black and/or Hispanic authors (who I am focusing on here, but I bet further analysis would likely reveal a similar trend among other authors of color). Take a quick glance at any Black History or Hispanic Heritage Month display at your local big-name bookstore. Chances are, the first thing that you will notice will be the colors of the covers, the hardcover and paperback palettes of reds, oranges, yellows, and purples with high-contrast titles. No one has ever accused the Black and Hispanic communities of lacking a striking sense of hue and design, and this is reflected in book covers. Seeing a cover brushed in Mexican marigold or terracotta places it alongside its equally colorful peers, allowing it to build a community of vibrancy and visibility.
Figure 4: Bask in the familiar warmth of these covers.
Additionally, authors of color have found that simply including a representation of their main character’s culture on the cover of their book is a meaningful method of signaling. It is almost like placing a 6×9 mirror right on the bookshelf (with the implied promise that this mirror holds just the right amount of escapism). Something as simple as the familiar silhouette of a traditional protective hairstyle or a hair pick will be enough to let the reader know that they will find an image of themselves within the book’s pages.
Some covers go even further, opting to include an image of the main character themselves front and center. Cover after cover of copper-colored eyes set into rich dark skin surrounded by halos of thick, swirling hair join together to create a thriving community on the shelves. We have learned this lesson time and time again: representation leads to participation. The silent communication between the brown-skinned girl on the cover of a debut novel and a young Mexican girl walking through a bookstore is magical and instantaneous, potentially leading to a lifetime of falling in love with meaningful stories.
Figure 5: These book covers are almost giving “movie/TV show poster.” Foreshadowing?
This is great and all (it definitely makes it easier for me to pick out my next read), but why do the authors of these stories do this? There are two things that queer authors and authors of color cannot afford. First, they cannot afford to be overlooked by their intended audiences, who are absolutely ravenous for stories that reflect their experiences. The possibility of being suffocated under the wave of (statistically, better-promoted) straight white books is too great to promote their stories with subtlety. By taking up such a small but slowly growing corner of the market, it is imperative that their covers declare their stories with pride to reach their intended audiences.
Second, the negative reception from “duped” homophobic or racist readers can be a dangerous force. As queer readers and/or readers of color, we are used to consuming straight white stories – we have been doing it our whole lives with few other options. We have accepted picking up a book about an experience that does not reflect our own because that was all that was available for so long. For straight white readers, this is not the case. If a discriminatory reader picks up a book that they were expecting to be straight and white and finds that it is about a trans Black man and his Japanese-American casual sex partner, they might have something to say about it, à la: “I didn’t need to read about ‘woke’ attacks on gender,” or “Ethnic books just aren’t for me, I just wanted a normal book.”
Figure 6: Oh no, Black (and other marginalized) people exist! And in popular literature too!
While some may argue that all press is good press (personally, comments like those would actually make me more likely to read the offending book), this reception can be damaging to the author’s esteem and image in the wider book market. Marketing the book clearly by using culture signaling on the cover can steer away the readers who would otherwise have been up in arms (what special snowflakes, amirite?).
So, please, judge books by their covers. It will help you connect with the stories that were made just for you.