I love Science Friday on NPR. I’ve never listened to a show that didn’t cover something fascinating. Over the past couple of months they’ve been doing a series on wine and the factors that affect its chemistry and flavor. In the third wine-related SciFri video from February 7, 2014, Dr. Brian Wansink, director of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell, talks about wine psychology and how much our expectations about a bottle influence how we actually experience the wine when we drink it. What he and his colleagues found is that all sorts of clues influence our perceptions. The quality of the glass, whether there’s a tablecloth and candles… all the elements of the physical setup contribute to what we experience when we take that first sip. And not only that. What they found was that drinkers’ perceptions could actually be guided. The most striking experiment they did was to take the exact same wine and put it into two different bottles. One had a label that said it was from a California wine-growing region. The other said it was from North Dakota—not as well known for wine production as it is for oil and gas extraction. I’m sure you can guess what their subjects reported when they were asked how each of the pourings tasted to them. The “California” wine was delightful; from North Dakota—not so much. The exact same wine. The only difference was their expectations. What the labels led them to believe about the contents directly influenced what they experienced.
I couldn’t help thinking that this is exactly what happens with book covers. When a potential reader is seeing the front of a book for the very first time, scores of judgments about what lies within are being made. Most of them are probably without the reader even knowing it consciously. All they might report if you asked them is whether the book appealed to them or not. But they have already made a decision about whether it will be fun or a chore, have sophisticated writing or be rather mundane, be the kind of book people like them would like or not, will they buy it or not, and on and on.
And readers’ judgments don’t stop there. Just like the wine label influenced drinkers’ actual perceptions of what they sipped, once people get into the book, their experience of what they are reading is directly affected by the ideas they have already formed about it. In other words, how well-written your book is judged to be will actually be predetermined by your readers’ encounter with its cover and the expectations they unconsciously create. They have judged your book by its cover and, in most cases, they haven’t even realized it.