Does a Book’s Cover Change How You Read the Story?

Khaled Khalifa’s heart-squeezing In Praise of Hatred is scheduled to appear in the US this April. As often happens, the US edition will have a different cover from the UK edition, which came out in 2012. As also often happens, the cover will feature a woman who is covered, only her eyes appearing: 



It’s hardly surprising. As Adam Talib noted in his fall 2013 talk “Translating for Bigots,” the mostly-hidden Arab woman seems a favorite way for publishers to send a “come-hither” call to readers. Hullo, the jacket croons. Take my hand, and I will take you under the veil, beyond where the journalists can tread, where only women and close family members are allowed…

And indeed, love it or hate it, cover design is an important aspect of communicating with a reader. Thus far, the importance of jacket design has not changed with e-books, and the immediate visual presentation of a book influences — at the very least — whether a reader picks up a book or passes on it.

In Re-Covered Rose: A Case Study in Book Cover Design As Intersemiotic Translation (2011), Marco Sonzogni looks at jacket design as an act of “translation.” He argues that “The book cover provides the (potential) reader with a visual summary of the book’s contents.” Sonzongi is interested in how book covers translate the “verbal signs of the text” into a predominantly “non-verbal sign-system of culturally encoded images.”

But, for many books, this is only the very loosest sort of translation. The jacket translates the novel (after a fashion), but oftentimes publishers seem far more interested in triggering a particular gut response from the potential buyer than in communicating anything genuine about the book.

Sonzogni further notes that “Some writers…go as far as to say that covers change how people read books,” adding that such a question was outside the scope of his study.

This doesn’t seem like a particular “far” shore: If the design of a cereal box can influence how we taste what’s within, why wouldn’t a dust jacket influence how we read a book? This is particularly the case when a human face is on the cover, standing in — one might easily suppose — for a particular character in the novel.


  1. That would explain why I had such a hard time tracking down a copy of this in the U.S. last year. (Eventually inter-library loan found a Canadian copy to send me.)

    I thought the original cover was a very good reflection of the book. What I really want to know is, what was the original Arabic ending? The translator’s note says they changed it for the English version. Do you know what the ending was in the original?

  2. Fadia Fakir’s comment on the topic, ‘translation is an act of elimination’ is relevant here.jackets sometimes adds, sometimes substracts, and even multiplies meanings as a dresscode do to an individual..

  3. Absolutely it influences the reader, I love the works of the Turkish writer Elif Shafak and was disappointed by the UK cover of her book Honour which plays to the veiled woman stereotype and stopped me from reading it actually until the US version came out, ironically, the US version uses that other stereotype of an archway, another symbol of invitation to come hither perhaps, but for me, less off-putting.

    What surprised me most, was to then read the authors essay published in the short form by Penguin <i<The Happiness of Blond People, where the author herself speaks about her own dislike of these type of veiled covers, making me realise how little if any influence the author has in terms of the cover of their own book.

    You can read the discussion on this topic and view the covers on my post here Honour by Elif Shafak. Interesting that in this case the US and US tendency are opposite the covers above, suggesting that they are equally as susceptible to stereotype.

    1. Yes, it’s true, UK & US (and many other European countries) feature these sorts of covers, and I can never quite predict where they will pop up and which houses will eschew them. I also remember reading that Chinua Achebe HATED some of the Things Fall Apart covers, but was powerless to get them changed.

      I suppose a JK Rowling probably has sway over her covers, but not most literary authors.

      1. Yes, I read recently that Elizabeth Gilbert wanted to change the US cover of her recent book, the cover she chose not the publishers choice, she won a reprieve by getting them to agree to ask fans/readers to select their preferred cover between the three without indicating which was her own favourite. When I saw the 3 I knew immediately which one was her favourite and which one looked like an Elizabeth Gilbert cover to me. The public voted hugely in favour of her choice, which was indeed the one that was obvious to me and she won the fight – but incredible that she had to push so hard to have a say.

        The variety of covers across countries for the same book is truly amazing, I do get that cultural nuance, but it does seem a somewhat subjective art.

  4. The Elizabeth Gilbert example is a veritable rarity in the publishing industry (which I work in). Authors give up quite a lot of their rights as soon as they hand over the manuscript to the publisher (it’s part of the compromise). I’ve often been told to only show covers to authors right before the publication go to the printers so that they cannot make any major corrections to it (even though some covers I’ve worked on have not properly communicated the content in the book. This is because a lot of final cover decisions are often made by people ( eg in sales and marketing) who have little to no knowledge of the content but of course they know what types of images sell (simple, obvious, plays on stereotypes, provocative etc.) I’m sure that such things will start to change if the popularity and proliferation of self-published material continues.

  5. I have translated a novel that was given a cover design that bore so little relation to the content that I can only assume that no one who had actually read the book had any influence on what the cover was going to look like.

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