The title says it all, folks. But first, a rule and a caveat.

The rule: all the books featured below are ones that I have come across organically in my work as a librarian (i.e. no googling “worst book covers” or cheating with sassy library blogs).

The caveat: I have not read any of the books below and therefore will not make judgments about their narrative or literary values. As any librarian will tell you, you absolutely can judge a book by its cover, but what you are more likely to discover is who the book is marketing itself towards and how, not if that book is good.

Let’s begin!

The Bare Necessities: Iron Master by Jennifer Ashley

book cover with a bear and a bare-chested man flexing

I’m not here to judge anyone for enjoying Harlequin-type romances, but I am here to judge them for their graphic design. While Iron Master’s is pretty standard for a paranormal romance cover, it does look very… arresting when displayed on the “New Fiction” shelf between Why Visit America and Wrath of Poseidon.

Honestly, any of our nicher romances could take this spot (just try searching “highlander” in your local library’s catalog some time), but I picked this one because the bear-man juxtaposition just tickles me. It’s like Animorphs, but sexy!

The 1860s Meets the 1960s: Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz

old timey photo overlayed on a green and red background

Listen, book, your aesthetic can’t be both “lazy Warhol knockoff” and “grandpa forced to take a photo at Ye Olde Wild West Land.” You must choose one.

More is More: The Magic Bicycle by John Bibee

People had to put up with a lot in the ‘80s, you know? Jelly shoes, Reagan, the disembodied heads of local police officers hovering over them while they’re trying to ride a bicycle on top of an eighteen-wheeler. Not to mention that disembodied sea serpent thing and whatever those interlocking sky crowns are supposed to represent. The Trinity? The elven rings of power? Three-fifths of the Olympics?!

My favorite part of this cover is how hodgepodge it is. That and what appears to be five percent of an Amish man in the bottom left corner.

The Fox and the Whatever-the-Hell-That-Is: Out of Hounds by Rita Mae Brown

a fox in a suit leaning against a horse

This list would not be complete without a pun-titled cozy mystery. To Brie or Not to Brie, A Game of Cones, Purl Up and Die, that sort of thing. (And yes, those are all real books and those are their real titles). Most cozies’ covers are algorithmically inoffensive or what I like to call “Kinkade kitsch” depending on the subgenre (animal-related and cookery mysteries tend to fall into the former category while holiday and bookshop murders are more the stuff of the latter).

Out of Hounds is here because it manages to be neither of those things and still undeniably representative of its genre. I guess when you’re book thirteen of a series, you can do what you want. Whatever it is, it’s clearly working.

(After reading several synopses of this book and its prequels, I still don’t know if the characters are anthropomorphic foxes or if that’s just artistic license.)

This Book is By a Person You Like (Kinda): Robert B. Parker’s Grudge Match by Mike Lupica

This one, I admit, is personal.

I don’t have a problem, per se, with a new author picking up a series after its original ones dies, especially when that series has a clear and definitive terminus (e.g. The Wheel of Time). It’s just sanctioned fan fiction, and I usually can’t be bothered to muster much of an emotional response to it.

But maybe if your advertising strategy for a book published in 2020 is to make the name of a man who died ten years ago so large that your target audience has to put on their reading glasses to find the book’s title, it’s time to let Mr. Parker lie.

Using a famous person’s name or image to sell something isn’t novel, but it is more depressing when the thing being sold is a book. It’s still more depressing when it happens when the original author is still alive. On an unrelated note, James Patterson published twenty-four books in 2020 and you best believe he will still be cranking out new ones in 2084. Which is fine, I guess, but also kind of sad.

Patterson books are generally inoffensive to look at, though, so I chose Grudge Match. In addition to being a hilariously egregious example of using a name to sell a book, the color design is baffling and the poorly contained, pastel perfume explosion both looks fake and doesn’t exactly sell the concept of a “grudge match.”

If They Have Bad Eyesight Anyway Maybe They Won’t Notice: Water for Elephants (Large Print Edition) by Sara Gruen

elephant standing on a small ball against a brown background

At last, we come to the book that forced me to compile this list. Because after discovering the disasterpiece that is the cover of Water for Elephants’ large print edition, I could no longer remain silent. Atrocities like this must be named. They must be reconciled with.

Who let this happen. Who allowed this and what are they doing to repent, because it is not enough.

8 Comments

  1. Geneva Langeland

    Sending this to my librarian friend immediately

    Reply
    • Avatar

      I’m sure they’ll have their own to add! My coworkers have been showing me their favorites, and so far the standout is anything by Ginny Dye.

      Feels bad to be slam dunking on a self-published author, but we have them in the library, so…

      Reply
  2. Katie Van Zanen

    I blithely scrolled through the whole list and still found myself very much unprepared for “Water for Elephants.”I don’t even know what to say about it. Just– why? who? why?

    Reply
    • Avatar

      I can’t figure it out. Large print editions are usually published by separate presses and many of them have different (and pretty much unilaterally bad) covers. I guess the large print publisher often gets the rights to the text but not the cover image.

      None of that excuses that cover though. It is shocking.

      Reply
  3. Courtney Zonnefeld

    Thanks for this, Annaka–this is a perfectly horrific collection, and your comments are perfectly hilarious. I’d love to talk to whoever decided that “Christmas” was the perfect aesthetic for a Civil War book. And “Water for Elephants” is disturbing on so many levels…font, colors, clip art choices…

    Reply
    • Avatar

      You’re welcome, Courtney!

      The Horwitz book is currently on our “staff picks” shelf and is apparently quite good, but that cover does not sell itself as such. And the Water for Elephants one… nothing about it is good, which I guess is an achievement.

      Reply
  4. Avatar

    “ disasterpiece”! Great word. I love your wit and crack up when I read your articles. Keep ‘em comin.

    Reply
  5. Kyric Koning

    I’m over here like, “I don’t see anything inherently wrong with these covers.” Guess that’s why I write the books instead of designing art.

    But I do think you have a lot of good to say about the publishing of books (especially in the “Grudge Match” bit). And a host of clever puns and remarks besides.

    Reply

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