This is a guest post by Halli Lilburn

“Reading the cheerful titles of some of my books… having seen, without having to look any harder, that their outer image is usually received with mocking laughter and jokes. But it’s wrong to be so superficial when you’re weighing men’s work in the balance… That’s why you have to actually open a book and carefully weigh what’s written there.”
– Francois Rabelais, 1589

In Shakespearian times, a playwright who needed 20 copies of a script would give little thought of the salability of the book’s binding. The covers were cheaply done or non-existent: the font a child’s scrawl, the binding a loosely sewn thread. The tangled mess of paper in the hands of a humble actor in no way reflected the treasured contents within. The metaphor behind the idiom “don’t judge a person until you get to know them” still stands as a wise word of advice. But the literal meaning no longer holds as much clout in the literary world.

What does this mean? As a librarian, I will judge our books by their covers. When making purchases for myself or for my library, I am greatly influenced by the cover in a number of ways:


This component is subtle but revealing.

4 1/8” by 6 ¾” is an old measurement used in the 1990s that screams ‘cheap paper-back’. These are the books that fall apart before the reader is finished and end up in a garage sale.

5 3/8” by 8 1/8” for a novel is very attention getting. It makes the text stand out and gives much more room for graphics. The spine is less likely to break. However, this size may be heavy or awkward for readers with weak or arthritic hands. It also takes up more room on the shelf. A standard paper-back book self is 8 1/8”, so this book will just barely fit.

A standard picture-book self size is 12” by 12”, so anything bigger would have to go onto the over-sized self, thus out of cataloguing order. Many librarians would rather not purchase over-sized books because it is too much hassle.


Many librarians shop for books online, where thumbnails for book covers can be pretty small. The title needs to be big enough to be legible on the computer screen.

Color/ Image

Bloomsberry printed two versions for the cover image of Harry Potter: one to cater to the mid-grade reader, and one to cater to adults. Because of the popularity of these books, I have both cover styles in my library; one catalogued in each age group.

Advertisers can get caught using dangerously over-used stereotypes on book covers. These include images of beautiful Caucasian girls, or a young couple in love. As a librarian I try to keep a diversity of cultures in my books.

After I have scanned the cover, the next thing I look for is added study material such as an afterword, index, or discussion questions. These help students analyze a piece of writing, promoting self-education and further understanding of the literary process.

Malinda Lo, author of Ash and Huntress said this:
“The only job of a book cover, in my opinion, is to get someone to pick up a book and read the flap copy or the first page. Hopefully then the words will complete the sale. And that is the important thing: the words. The most important part of a book is ALWAYS the words of the story; never the cover. Even if a book cover doesn’t echo the diversity (quality*) within the book, that doesn’t erase the diversity (quality*). It hides it a little, yes, but the cover is not the story. The cover is an advertisement. And in most cases, it’s removable.”

(*added for emphasis)


About this post's author:

Halli Lilburn lives in southern Alberta, Canada with her husband and three children. She is an artist, gardener and librarian as well as writer and poet. She has poetry and short stories published in various literary journals such as Grey Sparrow, Canada's History, Canadian Stories and Leap Books. At present her Alternate Parent Series is being aired on under her pen name Phyllis Sweetwater. Her first YA speculative fiction novel “Shifters” will be released later in 2012 through Imajin Publishing. You can find her blog at

About the Author

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