Yes they do. Fancy panties are a signal that you got your game on in a way that long underwear or frowzy cotton drawers are a signal that says to your randy spouse on nights you just want some sleep, "Buyer beware." Panties tell a story as do book covers and since we live in a culture that's obsessed with the visual, the story they tell is instantaneous.
Let's face it, we don't live in a reading culture so getting someone to pick up a book and buy it is an act of God and if that book is a poetry book, good luck. Poetry books need all the help they can get to land in the book buyer's screen loving hands. Surveys vary, but college students are spending far more time on the combination of video games, Facebook, texting and surfing the net than they do reading. So getting someone to pick up a book is moving that person away from what they would normally do.
Book covers matter. If you don't have the right book cover, it's going to be hard to get attention, especially if it's your first book. In the early years of Red Hen Press, we were still figuring out book covers, and we used to sit down with the authors and they would give us their ideas. We would try to work with those ideas as best we could. Mostly, they were ghastly. Paintings that looked like your grandmother's wall paper if your grandmother lived in the Midwest and had strange floral taste. A lot of landscape photography came through. I love landscape photos but unless there is a nude woman lying in the foreground, they are usually boring book covers.
We even got some art work that might have been fabulous hung on somebody's wall especially if you like art that's an abstract expressionist blur of colors. We got a lot of that. And some of that might be cool on your wall when you are in mediation. But I'm not meditating in the bookstore. I'm trying to decide whether to play with my phone, go get a drink or buy that book and if the book is going to win, it needs some energy.
That brings me to the most important element of a good book cover: Energy. An organized design that is aesthetically pleasing is vital. Being able to read the title and the author's name is a must, but the overall feeling of the book needs to be that it exudes energy.
When you are in the room with someone who is very old or very sick, you feel a quiet space over where they are and that quiet space is telling you that they are giving off very little energy. Some older people still have a lot of energy. Enough to tell you off. Enough to be mean. Some mean people just keep on trucking, it's amazing! But that means they still have energy, life force. Which is exactly what a book cover needs to have. It needs to be pulsing with alive energy which connects with the reader and with the work inside the book.
The reason any song or art work or play appeals to us is resonance. Every time I see a Beckett play, I feel the ideas resonating for me. I live in an existential quandary and the play lets me walk around in that soul wilderness and understand it a little better. That's what a good book cover should do. Art, theatre, and dance allow for a passive resonance. You can sit in your chair and the work comes at you in waves.
A book cover sits on its book on the table at a bookstore or worse yet, online where it's even less tactile. In a world of the visual, where I can constantly say, "Entertain me!" and be answered with, "When?" and "Yes!" we need book covers that leap forward, that have energy, that grab you by the collar, that follow you home, that wake you up at night and say, "Read me. Undress me. You won't be disappointed." Books require action on your part. An act of aggression. Opening and opening. Reading is active and in our world of the visual, it takes an act of God, just to get you there. That's why book covers matter. We need book covers that are like Victoria Secret panties. They don't have to be erotic, but they should have energy, and the message should be clear. I don't need to guess. It's a yes. It's a when.