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This question comes from a conversation that I had with my brother recently when we were discussing the books on my reading list.
So I looked through my collection which is an assortment of genres. I started with the basic categories. Fiction, nonfiction, hard covers, soft covers, and digital.
I tried to remember what I liked and didn’t like. I checked out the comment sections of Amazon and Goodreads on books I have yet to read.
Majority of books with people on them were memoirs and autobiographies, many of which were written by famous people, in addition to self-improvement and personal development.
Could it be true that books featuring people on the cover of them, no matter the genre, whether fiction, nonfiction, fantasy, scientific, thriller, romance, mystery, action… are… boring?
Sure enough, and I have mixed feelings in saying this, but I see the correlation and I think it may be so.
… I see the correlation and I think it may be so.
Now I’m not just pointing out books with depictions of silhouettes of people, animations like those seen on children’s books, highly stylized conceptual portraits, or the ones with the only photo of a historical figure known to exist. Most often it’s in reference to those with studio quality self-promoting portraits on the front of them. The traditional focus on the face, heavily posed, “look into the lens” or “act like you’re in a deep thought,” type of photo, whether it’s a head-shot or full body framing, a single person or multiple people.
And of course the question and answer is very subjective to the reader and evidence to support this claim is anecdotal to say the least.
I’ve met plenty of authors who have strategically placed pictures of themselves on the front cover of their book. And I have to say there are some talented people that are definitely interesting in person and tell amazing stories, just not in writing. I don’t want to offend anyone by calling them out by name; nonetheless, I can safely say that after looking over my collection, not one of these types of books are among my most favorite and it’s strictly because of the “boring” factor.
It’s widely known that people sell. However could the intentional or unintentional display of people on the cover of a book also be an ineffective attempt to compensate for the lack of content that’s actually inside or is it just coincidence? Looking back at when I purchased these books, did I fail to heed to the warning signs of advertising tactics that led to the over-promise and under-delivery of my reading experience? Certainly they weren’t always the most horrible books I’ve ever read, but low-ranking and just plain boring, as in the very definition of tiresome, persistently slow, and dull.
Association techniques have been used in the visual marketing industry for years. You only get a couple of seconds to capture an onlooker’s attention with a single image cover design and title. It’s a great way of showcasing your work and gain publicity among those who already know your face. It works really well in a lot of types of media.
On the contrary are books with people on the cover a good indication of a poorly closed gap between the cover and the content, akin to modern-day clickbait, leaving you feeling deceived and robbed of your investment of time, money, and joy? What I’d like to know is how a writer and publisher decide that a glamour pose from a moderately famous person should be used instead of a really cool graphic, outdoor scene, or animal?
If it’s about the money that can be made on book sales, then where is the line drawn to include or not include a self-portrait so they can cash in on their appearance? Oh the conscience of a publisher, to be torn in the moment of decision-making. How can I tell this well-known, enthusiastic person that their book is like a lullaby, but if we put their photo on it, front and center, we’ll be golden?
As an optimistic approach, a self-portrait could simply help observers know that the book is likely written in first person, includes real stories based off their personal experience and values, and is possibly more opinion oriented than the others on the shelves. I can understand the desire to send a friendly message connecting the reader to the author by reaching out in a humanly way, and faces can easily do that. On the other hand, I’ve read books without people displayed on the cover that have been incredibly boring, but in exploring this concept, it’s definitely the exception.
If you’ve seen a really neat graphic on what looks like an amazing novel, but then see a person on the front, does it change your perception and drive you away or draw you closer? And in any case, have book covers with people on them created a false expectation of a personal connection and good entertainment only to leave you disappointed?
Or even worse, did their serial publications resulting in your serial purchases really help build the literary collection you were hoping for? Successions of repetitive themes like a broken record, drawn out sentences without any substantiative, usable information. Like random ideas written down on paper, torn into pieces, tossed in the air, collected, slightly embellished, and cleverly repackaged just in time for the top selling season. They go on and on and I can go on and on because I have a lot of experience reading them. Rigid, chronological details of every personal encounter and conversation. Book fillers. Vague hints at half-formulated concepts coupled with overly descriptive character traits. Life lessons learned, but they leave me asking “What’s the point?” and “What time is it?”
It’s a very different approach compared to the reasons behind using pen names. The vulnerability of known authorship goes both ways and there’s no hiding from it. Even if a book cover leads to a better sale, the ratings tell the truth of the story from cover to cover. Some ratings even go above and beyond by including details about the “delivery.” Reading one-star reviews (“because no stars wasn’t a choice”) on books that had pictures of people on the cover was hilarious. I typically don’t read them because I’m afraid they’ll give the ending away. It’s pure reading entertainment though in itself and just like other product reviews on Amazon, a collection of them would make a great coffee table book.
Take a look at your own books. You don’t have to perform a comprehensive book review or become an expert literary critic. Just ask yourself, “Have the books you read with people on the cover fall on the boring side of the spectrum compared to other books you’ve read?”
Did they tell a super compelling story or contain interesting information? Were they insightful and influential? Were they engaging to the point that you found yourself pondering over it or did they change your life in an amazing way? Apart from emotional appeal, did you like the writing styles? Were they dynamic and intriguing or mostly gibberish? And ultimately, did you find yourself feeling like you’ve wasted your time, dredging through to the end even though you didn’t really want to continue reading, then glanced at the cover, only to feel conflicted and even more sorry?
I’m really curious to see if you’ve ever looked through your books, saw the correlation, and can relate. Maybe you disagree and have read several books that fall completely outside of the proposed question.
I recently finished John Green’s latest book Turtles All the Way Down. Much like the rest of his books, I enjoyed reading it. I won’t go into details about the plot because I’ll end up giving everything away. It’s very different from his usual style and I appreciated his writing expression for purposes of the story.
Take notice that it doesn’t have people on the cover of it, yet it’s a very personal story. It’s been ranked #1 New York Times Bestseller, #1 Wall Street Journal Bestseller, and #1 International Bestseller, amongst other positive recognitions. I highly recommend it and I also think it should get double the stars for the little gem of a tuatara debossing on the main cover of the book.
Let me know what books you most and least enjoyed and your thoughts about them in relation to the question “Why is it that books that have pictures of people on the front so boring?”
“Perhaps in the future I’ll be better discerning about not judging a book by its cover.”
I look forward to seeing if you noticed some of these things or gained insight into the question and what your answer is. I know I can’t be bitter or read too much into it. I’m just sorely disappointed that I never made the connection before and used my energy and time pushing through books that had an obvious clue of boredom attached to them. Perhaps in the future I’ll be better discerning about not judging a book by its cover. Tell me what do you think. After all, it’s just a thought for a rainy day! If anything this post was a fun opportunity to practice my newly developed image editing skills and post in response to A Face in the Crowd and I hope you enjoyed it!
Check out Turtles All the Way Down by John Green (left) and An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green (right) which will be coming out Fall 2018 and is available for preorder. It actually doesn’t have a cover yet, so the anticipation is real in more ways than one.
Also don’t forget to support your local library and local bookstore, you might find some treasures there you can’t find in big box brick and mortar and online retail stores. Subscribe so you don’t miss out on upcoming adventures! Have a great day and happy reading!