Judge a book by its cover (literally)

Or why a book’s cover was designed for you

Ricardo Gerstl
5 min readJan 28, 2021

The English idiom «don’t judge a book by its cover» is a metaphorical phrase which means «you shouldn’t prejudge the worth or value of something, by its outward appearance alone».

Remind yourself of your middle school library: pass the entrance, get inside, and tell me what you visually remember. Most probably bookshelf’s of pale colors maybe autumn tones all around.

Now go to your neighborhood trendy-bookshop. You’ll immerse yourself in a jungle of colors; mostly shiny backgrounds, high contrast, big badges showing awards, and bold letters for reviews.

Similar to a candy-shop, you are indulged in a rainbow of colors and visual stimulus designed to spike emotions and well… get you to buy the book.

Yes, you are judging the book by its cover… and booksellers are judging you.

Let’s do a test; below, I’ve illustrated fake 9 book covers with the same title and author. Quickly scan through each (take less than 5 sec per cover) and ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Which genre is each: Romance? Thriller? Classic Literature? University Thesis? Funny? Heart-warming? Crime? History?
  2. Any ideas regarding the story’s plot or book content?
  3. Price: Which book is the most expensive? and which one the least expensive?
  4. Good and Bad: no matter if it is a genre you follow: is this considered a highly acclaimed book or some rubbish on a paper?
  5. Which one would you buy? right now, while reading this article is there a single one that sparks your interest?

Congratulations! you did it:
You judged a book by its cover!

Let’s jump into certain aspects of what just happened so that next time you arrive at a bookshop you know what is going on.


Let’s recap question number 1:
Which genre is each: Romance? Thriller? Classic Literature? University Thesis? Funny? Heart-warming? Crime? History?

Where you able to define the genre just by the cover? If you are a recurrent bookstore-goer; most probably yes. This is due to a similar visual aesthetics that is consistent across books of the same genre. Unconsciously, your brain has been trained with repeated visual content and can help you tell each genre without knowing the exact reason behind each conclusion. Bellow you can find a list of the strongest correlation between specific genres and cover design:

  • Adult literary: text-based design
  • Self-help: bold letters on bright high contrast colors
  • Contemporary: cheerful colors and mostly hand-drawn elements
  • Adult Fantasy: complex illustrations demonstrating the main theme
  • Romance / Thriller: Photography with a cold palette or warm palette with abstract image juxtaposition depending on the book’s plot.


Let’s recap question number 3:
Price: Which book is the most expensive? and which one the least expensive?

This point varies between people. Some believe a more polished book cover design gives the impression of a higher level of content, raising the expectation of what is inside and the price tag. In this case, cover design is less important: Cover material and book dimensions have a higher impact price definition.

PS: Note that the hardcover version will always have a higher price than the softcover. Normally books are sold with both options. Additionally, books could also be printed with bigger fonts, line-height, and padding around the text to increase the overall dimension and increasing therefore the price-tag.


In five years from now, some of the “Patterns” described at the beginning of this article may have slightly modified or completely changed. This is due to the nature of trends; you’ll easily spot them by browsing around a used-books store. The techniques in printing and material-usage evolved across each decade; same as the visual elements displayed on each cover. You could easily identify some of the 60’s melancholy, 70's grooviness, 80’s disco and 90’s punk vs pink.

Mind the fluff

None of the books you find in stores look like the designs at the beginning of this article; all of these designs are missing “the fluff”(or sprinkles on top). Most of the books you’ll find in your store are filled with shiny badges, bold banners, and huge quotes; enticing you to buy based mostly on awards or comments from organizations you have no clue about. This third-party feedback builds trust, moreover when they are associated with organizations you know.

Closing Words

When seeing a book, in less than a second, you’ll create an entire concept of what the book is about. No matter the title, author, or actual content inside. People who design the books-covers know that; now it is time that you know it too. So next time you browse through your local bookshop; know that you are judging books by their cover.

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