Don't judge a book by its cover...except just for a second, right now.

Lucky me - I just received a copy of The Photography of Modernist Cuisine - the art-book sibling of last year's Modernist Cuisine at Home and the previous year's Modernist Cuisine.  It's impressive in every way, especially its cover - 14" x 18" and featuring the top of a tomato, blown up to something like 50 times life-size.  It's a striking image, and it made me think about the purpose of cover art, in cookbooks.

The very earliest dust jackets were plain, and merely served to protect the outer surface of a bound book.  But  today's book covers and jackets are considered essential advertising space, and therefore answer almost exclusively to the publisher's marketing department.  (When I was an editor, many of my authors were surprised to learn how little say they had in their jacket design.)  It makes sense, when you think about it.

But cookbooks are an interesting case.  As I see it, there are basically 3 kinds of cookbook covers: finished food, raw ingredients, and what I'll call "character covers" (though there's probably a technical name for them I just don't know).  A "character cover" gets used most often when the book is a tie-in - to a TV chef, say, or a restaurant.  If you're buying this kind of book, the primary reason is its connection with the person or place featured on the cover.  That's why you will never see a Paula Deen, Rachael Ray or Nigella Lawson book that doesn't have its author on the cover.

Raw ingredients on a cover, I think, serve a different purpose.  Like the tomato on the cover above, they turn the reader's attention back on herself.  Yes, I *am* the kind of person who enjoys fresh asparagus!  I *am* the sort of person who enjoys cooking from scratch!  You can almost feel yourself getting started at your cutting board.  In this case, what you see reinforces your own sense of identity, making you feel good about purchasing a book that is, at some level, "like" you.

And as for finished dishes, these are the bread-and-butter (if you'll pardon the expression) of the industry.  If your mouth starts to water when you look at the cover, then you're more than halfway to a sale, right?  I have a theory they're particularly popular and successful among baking books, just because baked goods are almost always photogenic - as opposed to say, a fabulous-tasting but slightly brown and dumpy-looking boeuf bourgignon. (Of course, not even the most beautiful photography can guarantee you'll cook from a given book, as all of our sagging shelves attest.)

Now, let's not fool ourselves.  Of course, "What does the cover look like?" is not one of the first, or the best questions to ask yourself when buying a cookbook.  But there's no harm in acknowledging that a well-designed cover does have a certain effect.

What covers can't you resist when you're buying a cookbook?

8 Comments

  • ellabee  on  10/7/2013 at 4:51 PM

    The cover of Rosetta Constantino's (My Calabria) new book on Southern Italian desserts is so appealing that I continue to want it despite not being much of a dessert eater, much less a dessert cook, and very rarely baking. The cover features a sliced-into dessert I would certainly never make: watermelon jam/paste (!?) in a sugared crust. So lovely. I'm determined to read this book, but almost equally determined not to buy it.

  • ellabee  on  10/7/2013 at 4:57 PM

    Judge for yourself: [misspelled author's name, sb Costantino] http://www.eatyourbooks.com/library/129155/southern-italian-desserts-rediscovering-the

  • Jane  on  10/7/2013 at 6:04 PM

    That does look amazing. And for someone who loves to make (and eat!) desserts, this one may be compulsory.

  • tsusan  on  10/8/2013 at 8:56 AM

    >drooool< That's all I have to say about *that* book cover.

  • nicolepellegrini  on  10/8/2013 at 9:50 AM

    I love a cookbook cover that not just presents finished food I want to devour, but evoke a time or place that have a connection to me. For example: http://www.eatyourbooks.com/library/124899/cicchetti-and-other-small-italian - I had to buy that book as soon as I saw it because it made me feel like I was back in Venice enjoying a plate of Cicchetti at a rustic osteria. I also couldn't resist "Odd Bits" when I saw the cover, sure to repulse as many as it probably inspires: http://www.eatyourbooks.com/library/89398/odd-bits-how-to-cook Now that's about as "raw ingredient" as you can get - and no mistaking what will be at the focus of the book.

  • tsusan  on  10/10/2013 at 6:54 PM

    I love the Odd Bits cover! (though truthfully, that's one I don't cook from that much). Glad I'm not the only one.

  • nicolepellegrini  on  10/11/2013 at 6:45 PM

    tsusan - I have only tried a few recipes from it so far myself (which came out excellent), but I plan to try a lot more this winter as I have a lot of pork offal to experiment with. Having a mother who's been raising her own pigs has helped with that...I end up with all the "odd bits" in my freezer that no one else is brave enough to want to cook...

  • ellabee  on  10/11/2013 at 7:22 PM

    :: Photography of Modernist Cuisine ... 14" x 18" and featuring the top of a tomato, blown up to something like 50 times life-size :: That's not a coffee-table book, that's a coffee table! It inspires the idea of a "book coffee table", one with a clear surface over a shallow display area into which you slide a big beautiful book, changeable at will. Surely these already exist...

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