What Happens When We Judge a Book by Its Cover?

Neverwhere and Enclave Rankings.PNG

People usually respond in one of two ways to the phenomenon of judging a book by its cover; they mourn man’s shallowness, or they consider a book’s marketing potential. But how much does the look of a book matter? How do people feel about book covers? And how do those feelings relate to the scores that books receive on review sites like Goodreads? Several digital technology people went on a mission to find out.

A year and a half ago Dean Casalena and Nate Gagnon launched Judgey, an online game that let people rank book covers. The covers used were all modern editions of books, and all (or nearly all) of them were released by a major publishing house. The covers chosen did not belong to a single genre. Books by Ernest Hemingway and Harper Lee appeared alongside Twilight and The Hunger Games. Ultimately players of Judgey evaluated over 3 million book covers.

Once they collected data, Casalena and Gagnon began to look at the numbers, and they discovered some interesting patterns.

  • The politics of the book mattered. Some people assessed the cover of the book based on its assumed contents, which resulted in 5’s and 0’s regardless of book design.
  • People ranked books that appeared early in the game more harshly than books that appeared later. (Perhaps that was a side effect of the name. “Judgey” seems to embrace judgement.)
  • People almost inevitably ranked covers lower than the Goodreads ratings for books. This may be because the people who played the game were not necessarily readers or the audience for a particular book.

Though the Judgey is no longer functional, Casalena wrote a great article over on Medium that you can check out. You can also peruse a visualization that Casalena and Gagnon created of the Judgey cover ranking vs a book’s Goodreads score below. The chart has some fascinating information.

Books by Cover vs Goodreads Ranking.jpeg

27 thoughts on “What Happens When We Judge a Book by Its Cover?

  1. I never judge a book by it’s cover. I open the book to read some of the content if that’s not possible then I have no opinion at all. In life, with people, it is the same you never know what a person is like by just judging them by the outside of their being, you have to be able to look inside and see what their soul is like.
    Great post. ☺

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I have to confess, I’m big on romance novels. If you’re not going to put an attractive couple on the front, don’t put a picture of a couple at all. I have skipped over books because I didn’t feel the heroine was pretty enough for the role. That picture on the cover takes away our ability to imagine the character. It becomes the image of the character in our mind and it can’t be changed.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve always been straightforward about the fact that looks matter when it comes to books. If it hasn’t been recommended by someone I trust, if it isn’t written by an author I know, then the cover matters, particularly if I’m in the bookstore making impulse purchases. In a bookstore, the cover is the first thing I see, and when I have limited time and limited funds, I’m a lot more likely to pick up and read the jacket of a book with an appealing cover. I realize this means that sometimes I’m missing out on some great books (but I also assume if they are that great, someone will start talking about them), but the truth is…I can’t read everything, which means I’m going to miss out on some great books no matter what criteria I use. 😉

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That is perfectly fair. There is something wonderful about holding a beautiful book.

      Tangentially related, I used to have a lot of science fiction and fantasy books from the 1980’s and 1990’s, and some of those covers made me cringe. So bad. I appreciate that aesthetics have changed so much since then.


  4. As I have all the depth of a pavement puddle, I’ll freely admit to being very excited by a lovely, well craft cover. It doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll definitely buy the book but I’ll remember it with excitement and pleasure – and make me more inclined to want to like it. But if it’s a dud – the cover won’t induce me to finish it.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi Kristen
    Before I became an author, I read more than I do now. I had a short list of authors that no matter what they wrote, I read. So the cover mattered not. Then when selecting other books, I usually went to the NY Times Best Seller List. There, cover, review, and ranking (in this order) determined my selection. So cover did carry weight in my determination.
    When I was working with the graphic artist for my cover, I could not convey to her what I wanted. She kept sending me covers that looked like romance novels. I kept rejecting them. I finally sent her a picture of the US Air Force Pararescue Flash, and she used it in an unimaginary way. Rather than reject it again (I think I had ran out of rejection options), I accepted it.
    Excuse me, I know it is a long way to make a point, I strongly believe that for author’s without a strong following, book cover can mean success or failure.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. No need to apologize! I think that you are right about the importance of covers for lesser known writers.

      I’m sorry to hear that you had such an unfortunate experience with your designer. Finding a good person to work with can be a surprisingly large struggle.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I do go by covers quite a lot, especially with authors unknown to me. But it is a very initial and quite visceral reaction really, an attraction that makes me stop and look. After that I do settle down and read the blurb and sometimes a sample. I do think covers are important though, for throwing out a snare to the reader… come look further!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. It’s an interesting challenge. On the one hand, we don’t want to make snap decisions, but on the other hand, there is such a high volume of books to choose from, to some extent we have to start somewhere. My go to is usually the blurb on the back cover, but every element matters.
    Personally I prefer book covers that are more concrete, with an image of a significant scene from the story, in contrast with a more abstract image, though I don’t think that’s ever stopped me from reading a story.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The design process for book covers is endlessly fascinating to me. Like you, I prefer when cover art reflects something about the plot, but I also like it when the art steps away from the design tropes for a given genre. For example, urban fantasy has a lot of covers featuring women with their backs turned who are holding a weapon. I like to reward cover art that tries something a little different…even if it doesn’t always work out.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. True. I’m also rather fond of covers that have objects or a setting meant to stand in for characters, though I think it’s tricky. Of course a good cover is like frosting on a cake, while nice, it shouldn’t make or break it.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. This awesome. But I do agree for a fact that cover has an impact to thw readers but what makes the book stands out is the story. Or maybe the plot first.

    Liked by 1 person

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