Is it fair to judge a book by its cover (or its title, even?)

A tremendous amount of effort goes into picking book titles, designing jackets, and crafting back-cover blurbs, and while we come close, no publisher hits the mark 100% of the time. Here is Andrew Gelman at The Browser on the title of his book, Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State:

I regret the title I gave my book. I was too greedy. I wanted it to be an airport bestseller because I figured there were millions of people who are interested in politics and some subset of them are always looking at the statistics. It’s got a very grabby title and as a result people underestimated the content. They thought it was a popularisation of my work, or, at best, an expansion of an article we’d written. But it had tons of original material. If I’d given it a more serious, political science-y title, then all sorts of people would have wanted to read it, because they would have felt they needed to know all the important secrets in it. Instead, I gave it this accessible title which meant that people felt that they didn’t necessarily have to read it. I also regret not putting more about the process of discovery in that book, how we found out what we found out.

As for what other titles might have worked better in hindsight, Gelman has a few ideas:

Maybe something like Voting by the Numbers or The Hidden Patterns or Secret Life of the American Voter, something like that. Or something very dry, that conveyed it was serious, like Demography, Geography and American Voting.

I happen to love the title and the playful cover of Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State, but perhaps I am biased. I have the luxury of already knowing that the book contains unparalleled data and analysis on voting patterns across socioeconomic class, political party affiliation, demographics, religious attendance, gender, state of residence, and countless other useful tidbits. What do you think? Have you ever had the experience of picking up a book because of the cover only to discover it was completely not what you thought after all?


  1. A cover can be a good indicator of whats inside.

  2. Author biogs are the most accurate guide to the tone of what you are about to read. Be wary of any author who tries to be ironic and/or uses exclamation marks: ‘John Mate lives in London and likes windsurfing and playing the guitar – though not at the same time!’