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.