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27 May 2017 12:00 (South Africa)
Opinionista Timothy Maurice Webster

We’ve got news – you do judge books by their covers

  • Timothy Maurice Webster
    timothy maurice webster
    Timothy Maurice Webster

    Timothy Maurice Webster is the author of three brand leadership books and columnist who consults & speaks at the intersection of three key leadership pillars; Values formation, Style Manifestation and Brand Position. Timothy’s background in branding, design and psychology is inspired by his graduate studies at the Image Institute and his undergraduate work at Brookstone College in the United States.

When is the decision to identify with a specific target market by laying bare your own personal identity on a book cover a good strategic move – and when is it limiting? When does consumer bias force a writer to downplay their identity, and when is it wise to challenge the status quo? These are important questions for both authors and publishers to consider.

Ever wondered why international best-selling female authors continue using male pen names? Precisely for the same reason I convinced my publisher to redesign the cover for the second print run of my third book, Soul to Sole. Originally published in 2013, the book will fare better minus my mug. We do judge a book by the image and names on the cover, and for as long as books are being written, we'll continue doing so.

If you're one of the few people who continue to buy books, whether in store or on some sort of tablet, you're probably unaware of just how much the cover influences your purchasing decisions.

The tri-facto relationship between the cover, content and consumer has always been a precarious one. Even before the mid-1400s, when Johannes Gutenberg enabled book printing with his pioneering Gutenberg press, authors have used pen names. From journalists writing about espionage to the earliest women writers in the 1600s, pen names have allowed writers to conceal and disassociate their identity from the content and the public.

Everything on the cover – the images, names, colours and even the size of the book speaks directly to the buyer's subconscious. Naomi Blackburn, a top book reviewer from GoodReads opines, "If the cover seems to be nothing more than block lettering, I bypass it." Every day people are bypassing books they don't know they would actually like because the cover is a barrier. According to author, founder of Smashwords and book cover designer Mark Coker – who has been able to demonstrate a clear connection between book sales and better covers – "people make lasting impressions [relating to] the content when looking at the cover without realising it."

While the public has been largely blind to the psychological maneuvering of covers and, specifically, names, publishers have understood public bias for centuries. Stephen King was advised by his publishers early in his prolific writing career to use different names simply because they didn't believe the public would have an appetite for more than one book from him per year. Many consistently write in different genres and therefore, in order to not confuse readers, authors such as Samuel Langhorne Clemens used the aliases ‘Mark Twain’ and ‘Sieur Louis de Conte’.

With the internet providing unprecedented access to an author's background, you would think this practice would be obsolete and moreover, unnecessary. However, the world's most successful commercial authors such as J.K. Rowling continue to do so. You would think Joanne Rowling, affectionately known as Jo by her friends, would be able to leverage the success of her Harry Potter series and come out of the gender-oppressed closet and let her femininity shine. Ms. Rowling even has an additional pseudonym – Robert Galbraith – which she's used to publish the popular works The Silkworm and The Cuckoo's Calling. Those in denial of the impact of this pressing bias like to channel attention to successful authors such as Jane Austin. However, the opposite end of the debating table will quickly counter with just how rare she was and even develop a case for how much more successful she would have been had she used a male pen name.

Women have borne the brunt of consumer and even publisher bias. In the mid-1800's, a 20-year-old Charlotte Brontë sent her poetry to England's poet laureate Robert Southey and he replied bluntly, "Literature cannot be the business of a woman's life." Brontë ignored the laureate and penned Jane Eyre and, along with her sisters Emily and Anne, they adopted pen names: 'Charlotte Currer-Bell', 'Anne Acton-Bell' and 'Emily Ellis-Bell'.

In a 2012 Wall Street Journal article ‘Why women writers still take men's names’, Stefanie Cohen highlights the case of authors Christina Lynch and Meg Howrey. Ms. Lynch and Ms. Howrey published The City of Dark Magic, a fantasy novel about a murder mystery in Prague under the name Magnus Flyte – pitched as an international man of mystery. Lynch and Howrey made the decision to use a man's name after reading studies about how women will buy female and male authors at a fairly unbiased rate, but male purchases are far more biased, skewed in favor of male writers. Cohen share's Lynch's eagerness not to lose a single potential sale because of this bias, saying, "Why would we want to exclude anyone?"

It was with Lynch's spirit that I wrestled with my publisher, Jacana, about taking my face off the cover of Soul to Sole. Initially, the publisher felt my face would identify with a distinct readership. Despite all efforts to explain what I believed to be the broad, universal appeal of the content, my request was overriden and my face was splashed on the cover. Understandably, few are buying books and the publishers wanted to reduce risks and make sure those familiar with my work would recognise it immediately.

As an author who speaks in a variety of public spaces and amongst a wide demographic, I often sell books after my talks. Over the years I've witnessed fascinating patterns. My previous book, Personovation, originally published by Pan Macmillan, which I obtained the rights of to publish myself for the speaker's circuit, has several print runs, of which a couple have my face and others don't. This is not uncommon. A quick google of Malcolm Gladwell's books will reveal one title coming up with up to five covers.

At a business conference in 2012, where the audience was 95% white, I assumed my usual position after the talk, behind a table with books, eagerly awaiting a queue for purchases where I have the privilege to engage and sign books. There were two stacks of books. Unknown to the audience, both books had the exact same content, but different covers. The cover without my face sold out and the one with me remained untouched, stacked like a pyramid. Initially, after feeling deeply insecure about just how funny I must look, I begin studying the psychology of book covers and realised that by changing the contents of a cover, book sales can skyrocket by 500% in a span of a few days – with literally no additional marketing effort. Conversely, I've spoken at conferences where the majority are people of colour and my face sells well – not because I look any better – but because they see something of themselves on the cover.

Owing to historical limitations, I had to come to terms with the fact that publishing a book with my face doesn't align with the content and narrows the appeal to a market not consisting of traditionally strong book buyers. Additionally, my work on the science of values, branding and identity is so universal that I consider it to be race-neutral and because the market hasn't been exposed to a plethora of authors who look like me – my face is an unnecessary hurdle buried in the basement of colour bias. This is, however, not racism. Understanding that people may not buy my book because they see colour first and instinctively associate me with many other heuristics beyond the neuroscience of marketing actually inspires me to think more strategically about the relationship between my African American heritage and what I write about.

For many, having your face and actual name on the cover is a really smart, strategic move. Unfortunately for me and others, when shelved in a bookstore, in a narrow market, our basic biology triggers biases which may send the consumer to another shelf. Fortunately, when I speak to any audience, the content coming out of my mouth becomes more important than my skin – the difference between a Shelf and a Life. DM

  • Timothy Maurice Webster
    timothy maurice webster
    Timothy Maurice Webster

    Timothy Maurice Webster is the author of three brand leadership books and columnist who consults & speaks at the intersection of three key leadership pillars; Values formation, Style Manifestation and Brand Position. Timothy’s background in branding, design and psychology is inspired by his graduate studies at the Image Institute and his undergraduate work at Brookstone College in the United States.

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