You Can Sell A Book By Its Cover

still stripping - title



(Look closer; the cowboy is knitting!)

(Look closer; the cowboy is knitting!)

Yard sales often offer books for sale. This week at a community yard sale, one little paperback diet book had everyone laughing, and also had several people wanting to buy it just for the novelty of the title: NEVER EAT MORE THAN YOU CAN LIFT.

The two book covers pictured above are also interesting. If you just read the title of Eleanor Burms’ book—STILL STRIPPING AFTER 25 YEARS—your first thought might not be that the book is about knitting and crocheting with strips of fabric. And the cover of Dave Tougner’s book, THE MANLY ART OF KNITTING, speaks for itself. Both books would at least make you look twice.

In a competitive book-selling market, stunning or clever book covers and compelling, surprising, humorous or outrageous titles might be just the nudge that makes someone buy a book rather than put it back on the shelf.

Judge Judy Sheindlin, of the popular  court television program, gave her book this successful title: DON’T PEE ON MY LEG AND TELL ME IT’S RAINING: America’s Toughest Family Court Judge Speaks Out.

Many successful books have one-word titles: IT, JAWS, MIDDLESEX, DIVERGENT, FRANKENSTEIN, and DUNE are just a few examples.   And some VERY LONG titles pretty much summarize the book’s content.   Here are two of my favorites: Christina Tompson’s COME ON SHORE AND WE WILL KILL YOU AND EAT YOU ALL: A New Zealand Story, and David Rakoff’s DON’T GET TOO COMFORTABLE: THE INDIGNITIES OF COACH CLASS, THE TORMENTS OF LOW THREAD COUNT, THE NEVER-ENDING QUEST FOR ARTISANAL OLIVE OIL, AND OTHER FIRST WORLD PROBLEMS.

I love libraries, book stores and yard sales that offer books. I also love surprising and interesting titles and book covers, but what really counts in the long run for me is the quality of the content between the covers.  I love to get lost in good books.

Before the dementia, my mother loved the same things. She still likes to be read to, especially books of poems and prayers for children. But when I was growing up, she had shelves of good books, and two were her special favorites.   Jessamyn West’s EXCEPT FOR ME AND THEE, companion book to THE FRIENDLY PERSUASION, and Helen Doss’ nonfiction book, THE FAMILY NOBODY WANTED.  She bought spare copies of both books.  That way she could  always have her own copies, but still lend the books to others to enjoy, and tell them to pass the books on to others when they were finished.

Yes, you can sell a book by its cover. But it’s what’s between the covers that will make you cherish the book.

The profound, touching and wise story of a couple  in the 1950s who just wanted a child of their own, but had hearts big enough for many that no one wanted.

The profound, touching and wise story of a couple in the 1950s who just wanted a child of their own, but had hearts big enough for many that no one wanted.

A Quaker family practices what they believe with honesty, humor and charm.

A Quaker family practices what they believe with honesty, humor and charm, even during the Civil War.





Filed under art, Books and book titles, Dementia/Alzheimer's, lessons about life

58 responses to “You Can Sell A Book By Its Cover

  1. I’m always drawn to a good cover initially, whether it be an intriguing title or a well designed graphic. I haven’t often been disappointed by choosing like this. I recently read ‘All The Light We Cannot See’ by Anthony Doerr about a young blind French girl and a German soldier growing up and through WW2. Fantastic writing. I was drawn to its title first, and the design on my edition showed a hazy picture of St Malo in Northern France – somewhere I know well. I was hooked!

    • You added a new appreciation for this excellent book, Jenny. I loved the cover, too, and now I also know the hazy picture is of St. Malo. ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE is beautifully written book.

  2. Claudia

    Ah, books…what joys! I love looking at them in yard sales and used book stores and independent book stores. It is an addiction for me. Right now I have ones to read on by table, on my Kindle, on by “new” to read shelf. Then there are always the rereads waiting…those special ones like your mother had on her list, ones that were comforting revisits!

    • We share this addiction, Claudia, including the waiting rereads. I have an entire shelf of books that I will never part with because they are comfort foods for my mind. These are the old friends of my personal library.

  3. I agree that the title can sell books because if the title is not catchy I do not even pick the book up and look at it.

    • Sometimes a book cover alone will make me open the book and read the first few pages, Elizabeth. But if the title catches my attention, too, then I’ll sit down somewhere and really give it a close look.

  4. What an excellent idea to buy extra copies of a favourite book. One packaging ‘trick’ which I like at our local second hand bookshop…..a few books with similar content are tied together with a pretty ribbon and are sold as a set. Makes the books look very attractive.

    • Your bookshop has an excellent packaging strategy, Gallivanta. I once stopped at a used bookstore and collectibles shop in a little town in Kansas, and their technique was to include a homemade cookie or brownie with each purchase on Saturdays. The owner’s young daughter was in charge of the treats, waiting hopefully at a card table, and I’m sure Saturday sales were higher because of her.

  5. I love going through books at consignment stores and flea markets. I have found some good reads that way. I think my favorite book to buy extra copies of and give away is Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies; Thoughts on Faith.
    I like your mom’s book choices. I’m going to look for them at my library.
    Have a lovely weekend Marylin!
    xo Joanne

    • Oh, TRAVELING MERCIES is one of my favorite Lamott books, too, Joanne! I was going to get my mother another copy of THE FAMILY NOBODY WANTED last year because hers was 50+ years old and falling apart, and I wanted to trying reading it to her at night whenever I visited.
      It turns out the book is now a non-reissued “collectible” and even on Amazon the cheapest copy I could get was used, and cost almost $40!!!

  6. What great choices you got Marylin though I confess my image of cowboys has dropped a notch if I think of them knitting on horseback instead of chasing rustlers. One of my favourite pastimes is going to car boot sales and going through all the books on sale. My bookshelves often get a restock that way.
    Have a Wonderful Weekend.
    xxx Massive Hugs xxx

    • David, I love your expressions. When you said car boot sales, it took me a moment to realize that had nothing to do with cars and boots, but I think it was the same as our “trunk” sales, where people sell things from the trunks of their cars, often at Flea Markets.
      I’m sorry if a knitting cowboy dropped your image a notch. Maybe it would help if you imagined him as a decoy, ready to stab an opponent with one of the knitting needles! 😉
      Massive Hugs to you, too!

  7. You always delight me with your diverse topics. Some of the titles here are hilarious. My favorite: the one about Stripping!

    I’m struggling now with finding a title for my memoir. “Tomato Girl” has been a working title, but I know it isn’t titillating or wide enough in scope to describe the book. Of course, inspiration will come in due time . . . . !

    Thank you for always surprising us with fresh ideas.

  8. Thanks for a light-hearted post to kick off the day! It’s always great to see books/book titles in my native language, and it would be great to hold those/enjoy reading all of them!

  9. You are always so spot on with your posts, Marylin! A pleasure to sit and read your eloquently written stories, etc. over my Saturday morning cup of coffee. I too, can lose myself in a book store, the library, or even a yard sale with a good spread of books. The covers intrigue me, the titles can lure me, but in the end, the only thing that matters, as you said, is what is in-between the covers. I hope you have a beautiful weekend my friend! XO

  10. The cover of a book can make a big difference when trying to sell it to the reading public. I have been very happy with the covers my publisher and I have created for the Amanda series. The cowboy knitting is hilarious. My cowboy Dad would have enjoyed that!

  11. Nancy Parker Brummett

    Very good, Marylin. I thought the stripping book was about removing wallpaper at first. But then who want to write…or read…that book!

    • Oh, Nancy, I love your take on STRIPPING. You thought of stripping wallpaper, while my first response was wondering how that sweet lady on the cover of the book could have been a stripper in a bar, pole dancing, etc.! 🙂

  12. juliabarrett

    Oh my gosh! I remember The Family Nobody Wanted! I loved that book. I must have read Jessamyn West, but I haven’t heard her name in a long time. Your mother, you and I have so much in common. Finding old paperbacks is the most fun thing about yard sales. The stories we tell and know make us a family.

    • I’ve often wondered if we weren’t somehow related, Julia. You and my mother have many things in common, and it’s always fun to read your comments about the similarities.
      Jessamyn West’s books were combined into one movie, FRIENDLY PERSUASION, about a Quaker family whose daughter falls in love with the neighbor boy just as he’s leaving to fight in the Civil War. It’s a terrific movie, but the books are truly a delight.

  13. This is so funny, Marylin! Especially the one about stripping!

  14. I spend ages trawling book shops for things that appeal to my special interests. That is a key difference between a real book and an e book. E covers are meaningless. I once ordered a first edition with a beautiful cover – quite old. It arrived in the office whilst I was out and my secretary, full of good intent, opened the package with a pair of scissors and cut right through my dust jacket. It was a tense afternoon 😦

    • A tense “afternoon” is a generous response, Andrew. Wow.
      First edition, too. Yikes.
      But I agree with you; give me the touch and feel and terrific cover of a real book over an e book any time.

  15. I love a good title and cover, but you’re right, it’s what’s inside that really counts – sometimes a great book belied by an awful cover, or sometimes a book that’s a bit of a let-down after a great one 🙂

    • Even with fascinating covers and great titles, Andrea, I still read the first few pages before I buy a book. Usually I can either want to read more…or can close the book and put it back on the shelf at that point. And I do the same for books with so-so titles and covers; I give them a chance, too.

  16. I love the cover for “The Manly Art of Knitting “, that is priceless . I would buy it just for the cover. These days I download a sample on my IPad and if I like it I buy the book. However, I still love real books and bookstores.

  17. THE MANLY ART OF KNITTING book cover makes me laugh every time I think of it, Gerlinde. The only thing that would make it better would be if John Wayne, the “Duke,” would be sitting in the saddle concentrating on his knitting project! 😉

  18. Don

    I remember once Marylin doing a course in Dream therapy and the guy who led the course said that one of the first principles in dream interpretation was to give the dream a title. The very meaning of the dream could be discovered in the the title you gave it. I struggled a little with this but I could see what he was getting at. Titles have power. Loved those titles in your images of the books. But, in the end it is as you say, it’s what’s between the cover that counts. I suppose to that end Titles can also be misleading.

    • I’d never heard that about giving dreams a title, Don, but it makes sense. A friend who studied dreams told me that basically, the dream is about the dreamer and not the others in the dream. If that’s so, the titles we give our dreams would reveal an interesting slant.
      In writing courses, the professors always said that titles can’t be copyrighted, only the words after the title can be. In which case, if I write a memoir I could title it GONE WITH THE WIND. At this point it wouldn’t take more than a burst of wind to make me forget. 😉

  19. calvin

    Titles are nice, perfectly placed stepping stones. A necessary bridge to the other side, though one time decades ago I thought the opposite. And I can’t agree more with your Mother and yourself; the potatoes is always under the gravy. Which leads me to say, ‘is it not mind blowing how many different ways potatoes can be prepared and taste’, with and without the gravy. Seasoning? Thank you for this!

    • I’m still considering the potatoes and gravy…and the seasonings. And maybe what else is on the plate and how hungry the writer, editor, and reader might be…
      Actually, I’ve had several friends moan about the new titles their agents or editors gave their books, so maybe the publishing end of books is going for the perfectly placed stepping stones.

  20. I think it’s a brilliant idea to buy two books of your favorite in case you borrow one out – what a wonderful woman your mother is. I’ve lost many good books that people don’t return to me 😦 I must get me hands on that Judge Judy book one day 🙂

    • I actually read the opening chapter and it was so good, very up front, practical, no-nonsense but still with edges of humor. Now I’m going to order my own copy, I think. The legal reasons she gave were very good.

      Like my mom, if I have a book I love and also want others to enjoy as well, I buy a second or even third copy to share with others and let them pass on to others, Dianne. I only lost one favorite book before I made that my practice! 🙂

  21. Oh Marylin, these two books say so much about your dear mom and her values and those things in life that were so important to her. How thoughtful of her to make sure to have extra copies to give to others – I say ‘give’, because how many times have so many of us, I’m sure, lent books to others (or dvd’s, videos etc.) only to never see them again? But in your mom’s case, it seems it was her passion to share the messages of her favourite books that took prime importance.
    Did I ever tell you that my grandfather (mother’s father) was a Quaker? He practised quietly, meeting with his fellow believers on his own for years. I wish I knew more about it. He was a troubled man, apparantely, but not to me. To me, he was the best grandfather ever and I adored him 🙂
    Love the book titles too…definitely eye-catching! But I agree, it is definitely the content between the covers that is the most important. And speaking of book titles my dear friend, I haven’t forgotten about brainstorming with you about a title for my memoir down the line. Even as I write on, still no title jumps out. But I know it’s there, awaiting excavation at just the right time… 🙂

    • When you’re in need of the title, it will pop out at you, Sherri. Or if it doesn’t, we’ll brainstorm until it does pop! 😉
      If you grandfather was Quaker, you really must read either THE FRIENDLY PERSUASION or EXCEPT FOR ME AND THEE. They are both gentle, well written stories of a Quaker family during the Civil War, and the mother, a Quaker minister, is unflappable until soldiers try to kill her pet goose for a meal. I think either book will give you joy.
      Hugs to you, dear Sherri, and remember, when the time comes, if the title hasn’t crossed the ocean to you yet, we’ll make it happen! 🙂

  22. I agree — titles and covers can tweak my interest. But only good writing will keep me reading!

    I went through 6 or 7 different titles for the novel I’m working on, until I found the right one. But it’s a secret, until the book is finished and I start letting the word out, about it’s existence. I like it, my husband likes it. But is it a good title?

    The readers will have to judge that for me.

    I’m putting the Quaker stories on my list. We should start a list of good, gentle stories. There seem to be too few of them out there, or they’re hard to find. But they’re my favorite kind of reading. Thanks for the tips.

    • Years ago, I met an older lady at a writing conference who had several published books, Tracy. During coffee break, she swore by this technique for choosing the perfect title for each one: first, she came up with several possible titles; then she typed them out and added a blank line for an additional title idea, and mailed this to five friends who didn’t know each other and lived in various parts of the country. (This was before email; she did this via snail mail.) They were to circle the title they liked best and add one more.
      The lady gave herself time to choose from their replies. When she selected the ones she liked best, she wrote them out on a new sheet of paper, said a prayer over them, and put them under her pillow before she went to sleep. She said that the next morning she was absolutely certain of the right one.
      Then she winked at me and said that was one way to select the best title; the other way was to choose two and flip a coin. 🙂
      Just had to share that with you, Tracy.

  23. I always have fun coming up with titles, Marylin. Typically they come to me early on in the process. What a great name for a diet book. 🙂 I love that the title “Go Set a Watchman is based on Isaiah 21:6. It’s perfect.

    • I love any title that comes from scripture, Jill, or from another piece of literature, like THE SOUND AND THE FURY. I recently read one of Jennifer Weiner’s books–GOODNIGHT NOBODY–and I couldn’t figure out the title. Then, in the perfect scene, her young daughter says it as part of a nursery rhyme, and it’s terrific!
      But I was very disappointed and upset in the Atticus Finch “change of character”–and no title would make that better.

  24. Marylin … I have picked up a book based on its cover. But, I agree, if I wasn’t engaged within the first few pages, I would not buy it. “Into the Wild” by Jon Krakhauer was one book where the cover was intriguing enough to hook me. The contents did not disappoint.

    Your comments about “Go Set a Watchman” only increase my concerns about reading the book. I’ve bought it, but I sure regret that Atticus Finch’s character has changed. I did read an article that explained how this could be. But he’s such a beloved character that I’m not sure I want to see another side.

  25. I so wanted Atticus Finch to evolve beyond the character presented in GO SET A WATCHMEN, Judy, and become the Atticus I loved for so many years. But I didn’t read to the end of the book. I moved on to another book that probably wouldn’t be as upsetting.

  26. I look at so many different aspects of a book and like older book covers more than new ones, Marylin. I like some classics and “near classics” and only chose less than 20 books to save for myself. When I moved to small one bedroom apt where youngest daughter and I had twin beds, I learned quality over quantity. I like many of same books as your mother. My few favorites that I recommend still are “Great Expectations,” “The Keys to the Kingdom,” “Magnificent Obsession” and “The Once and Future King.” Mom’s were “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”, “Mama’s Bank Account”, “Don Quixote (de la Mancha)”and “The Count of Monte Cristo.”

  27. When you have mentioned nursery rhymes, poetry books and children’s books, these are the ones I was referring to you that Mom and your mother enjoy. Maybe should have been more clear in my comment, Marylin. I am sure my mother would like the Quaker books because she enjoys the Hallmark stories which included faith, good work ethic and perseverance. 🙂

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