Judging a book [by its] cover

The printed book cover is a relatively recent addition, dating from the early 19th Century. Books weren’t readily accessible objects in the 1800s, but as literacy rates rose, paper prices fell, and printing techniques improved in efficiency, books proliferated into affordability. The traditional muted leather bindings which spoke of wealth, longevity and musty private libraries, fell away as publishers and booksellers began to exploit the possibilities of the cover. [ii]

Today, the book cover has various functions, but before we consider them, let's think about what makes up a modern book cover. On the front: the cover art, a title, author’s name, publisher’s logo, sometimes the name of an illustrator, editor or translator and any awards the book has won or been shortlisted for. On the back: a blurb, recommendations (The Times ‘A 21st Century Classic’, Vogue ‘A truly authentic portrayal of a modern woman!’), barcode and image credits. The spine: a repeat of the author name (first), title, publisher's logo and sometimes the cover art - often a space for the publisher to indicate the book is part of a particular series like Penguin Classics.

The purpose of all this is twofold: firstly, to attract attention[i] - most immediately through the cover art itself - and secondly, to give the potential reader context which will encourage them to make a purchase. If we trust The Guardian's taste, we may buy this book, if we liked Jane Eyre, we might like Vilette, if you think the Man Booker tends to promote good writing, you might consider a shortlisted title. The cover is a three-sided advertisement, that tells us how great this particular book is, but also what it is like relative to other things you have read.

Publishers have long been wise to the realisation that it's possible to totally alter the audience or understanding of a text through its aesthetic presentation. For example, realising that Jane Austen’s works could be rewrapped to appeal to a generation of YA chic-lit readers, or that Frankenstein and Dracula can be romanticised to sit beside Twilight. Of course, there’s nothing inherently bad about this – the ability to rebrand a classic by changing its clothing is part of what keeps these books alive to new generations, but there can be something very reductive about these efforts.

Bad book design:

An article featured by Quartz with the title ‘Acacia Fatigue’, focuses upon the example of novels which have some link to Africa – whether they were written by an African author, or they are set in Africa. Quartz posted this collage – taken from the blog Africa is a Country – of 36 book covers:

To quote Peter Medelsund (art director at Knopf) we are ‘in the age of the tree […] that vast continent, in all its diversity, [is reduced to] that one fucking tree.’ The fiery colours and ‘that one fucking tree’ would suggest that these books were perhaps cheap spin-offs of the Lion King. Alas, they are not, some are written by Nobel Prize winning authors, some, such as Haggard and Conrad, present questionable depictions of Africa, while others furiously react against this.

These books are examples of a lazy approach to both aesthetics and marketing. Designers resort to visual clichés that tell a buyer something about the book they are perusing. But these clichés do damage to the works themselves, perpetuating the very stereotype many of them are attempting to complicate or undermine. As Ishaan Tharoor puts it, ‘A decade and a half into the 21st Century, it seems that the spectre of ‘Orientalism’ still hovers over the Western publishing world’. Irrespective of plot, characterisation, narrative style or tone, these covers say: ‘you like books set in Africa, you’ll like this one.’ This kind of marketing encourages readers to be stupid. They are the equivalent of Amazon’s algorithm: ‘other people who bought this also bought…’

Novels written by women also seem to share a similar fate. It seems, that somewhere down the line, there was a collective decision that a novel written between 1850 and 1960, by a woman, should be identifiable by a rather sad but glamourous looking female on its front cover.

A quick glance at A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas and you might think this is a tale of Fitzgeraldian wealth and debauchery in the roaring 20s, while in fact these are two of Virginia Woolf’s most polemical and socially engaged works. The fact that publishers feel the need to sell their literature by morbidly invoking the authors’ own biography – Woolf with rocks in her pockets, or Jean Rhys drunk by the Seine – suggests that the books have no worth other than offering a ghoulish insight into these mentally fragile women. These are books about war, politics, the depths of human emotion and profound relationships, about gender and societal position; they are also genius and technical works of literature, but these covers suggest nothing more than ‘you like books about women, you’ll like this one’.

Bad book design can reduce heterogeneous works of art and their creators down to a clumsy glut of ‘woman’, ‘African’, ‘Oriental’, consequently encouraging a simplistic approach to literature in general. So while it's desperately important to judge book covers, maybe don't judge a book by its cover.


[i] This is something which becomes more and more difficult in both the physical and digital book-buying realms. While bookshops are so crammed full of books of every colour and size - you go in wanting Dickens and come out with Delia Smith - online vendors (Amazon & Abe) are not suited to slow browsing - to buy a book via Amazon is, to my mind, to know exactly what you want and to know you want it tomorrow. [ii] Pedants would remind me that the first sight of a book is often the cover’s clothing: the dust jacket (or wrapper). Detachable and therefore constitutively ephemeral, their original purpose was to keep a book clean and undamaged (or to stop browsers reading books pre-purchase), they have however become a valuable addition to the collector’s item, to find a Hogarth Press first edition with its dust jacket intact is near impossible and to demarcate a book as slightly more valuable (i.e. hardback over paperback). However, for now, let’s amalgamate the two and consider the jacket and cover as one and the same.

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