By the Shiny New Books Editors
Never mind the old saw, ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’, how important IS cover design, bearing in mind the recent issues over the ‘over-sexualised’ Penguin cover for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and predominantly white faces on YA novels featuring colored protagonists?
V: Finding the right image to represent a story must be a really tricky thing to do. But I think it’s easy to forget that images always say more than we imagine. I remember getting fed up with a run of covers that cut the heads off of women, only showing their torsos. After a while such pictures do send out a message that suggests women’s identity is negligible – even if the people choosing the pictures never intended that at all. Every piece of art says something about the culture that produced it.
A: I think it’s extremely important. You have to make people pick the book up, and the cover design, whether it’s arresting, clever or even fitting a formula will help to do that.
S: Agreed – there’s a whole industry behind it, so it’s extremely important. Well, important to publishers and booksellers, that is. Perhaps it shouldn’t be so important to the reader. It certainly wouldn’t make or break whether I liked a book after I’d read it. (Also, for my part, I was a bit confused over the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory furore. I didn’t think it looked sexualised until I heard the outcry. It does make me wonder if people are on the look-out for that sort of thing…)
H: Yes indeed, publishers wouldn’t spend so much time and money on covers if they weren’t important. The problem of course is that they have to find the balance between something eye-catching and something that represents what’s in the book. I’m afraid too often the eye-catching bit wins out. As in the Charlie furore – whether or not you think it was sexualised, it really didn’t have anything to do with what’s inside, which I find rather disgarceful.
How much do you think you are swayed by the cover of a book into being interested in the story?
V: I tend to think I’m not bothered at all. Certainly when it comes to genre fiction, where the covers have a tendency to all look alike, I scarcely think about them. But that being said, I’m a sucker for a beautiful cover. It’s an extra pleasure if the book is an aesthetically attractive object too. That being said, I’ve never bought a book for its cover and never will.
A: I’m so shallow – I continually buy books because I fall in love with their covers – I don’t always get around to reading them though. I remember the first time I encountered a fabric textured cover, it was so tactile, I had to have it – the book was very highly thought of, but very outside my comfort zone in writing style at the time. It’s still on my shelf to read.
S: I’m more likely to pick something off the shelf if it’s beautiful, and I think it might make me more predisposed to admire a book, but it’s only a small encouragement. I have bought books for how they look, but that tends to be secondhand beauties. (I also once bought a book for the sound it made when it closed, but that’s another story…)
H: I’m very swayed by covers – I suppose I’m a visual sort of person, and an attractive or intriguing cover really does pull me in. I wouldn’t say I’d exactly buy a book just on the strength of the cover alone, but ugly or offensive covers put me off looking further and lovely covers make me want to at least find out if I’d like to read it. This only happens in bookshops – when I buy online, I take less notice of the covers.
How do you feel about series of books all having similar covers? I’ve seen related covers for all kinds of books – not just crime fiction, but notably classics too, lately: the Jane Austen books spring to mind as having been recovered and ‘rebranded’ lots of times.
V: I accept it’s inevitable when it comes to series like crime fiction – but it sort of annoys me as I can never remember in the bookshop which I’ve read and which I haven’t if they all look the same. I am absolutely not a fan of families of covers for authors like Jane Austen. I understand the marketing impetus behind it, but try to avoid those sorts of covers wherever possible.
A: Do you remember the Twilight-style covers of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre – all black with a single rose or whatever on – very cynical marketing to the teen market, but if it made one more teenager read the classics …? I do dislike, but can understand, the publishers’ tendency to produce often dumbed-down formula covers for supermarket paperbacks. I’m glad the headless ladies seem to have gone for now, but all the thrillers are going b/w with red.
S: Oh, all those covers that copied Joanne Harris, and then those that copied the Ukrainian Tractors books, and then all the Twilight covers… yes, it’s very tiresome. I can see why publishers do it, and presumably it works, but it must be frustrating for cover designers.
H: I think it’s a good idea, actually. Subliminally, if I were in a bookshop, I would certainly have my eye caught by a cover that reminded me of others in the series I had read and enjoyed. Absolutely hate the new girly Jane Austen covers, though.
A small game: have a look at the following covers and tell me a) what kind of a story you think it represents and b) whether it appeals to you or not.
V: I’ve read them, so I’ll comment once you’ve given me your impressions and tell you how close you were! (Sorry, formatting not my forte.)
A – A romance in which the main character overcomes some obstacle.
B – Can’t decide whether it’s a mother and daughter or lesbians. Women’s issues.
C – I like this one, the peeling paint looks like a map and the colours suggest an exotic location.
D – European – Literary – A simple life story of a family’s struggle.
A – This looks twee and comforting, probably with quite a few platitudes along the way. It might appeal if I were feeling braindead of an evening.
B – This looks self-published… Probably a novel that thinks it’s daringly sexual, while being rather less risqué than novels published 100 years ago.
C – I hate maps, so this is an immediate (and superficial) turn-off for me – but it looks like literary fiction.
D – This one I love. I’m a sucker for domestic interiors, in narratives or images, and the slightly faded tone of this image makes me think the novel wouldn’t be too fey or trite.
A – The sort of book I would not be drawn to. Looks a bit new-age-y, inner development-y, sweety to me. Certainly the title and the cover suggest celebratoriness of some kind, but what or where I can’t say. It’s probably a better book than the cover indicates, at least to me.
B – This cover doesnot appeal to me at all. It could represent anything – mother and child? Two lovers? Sisters? Friends? It has a sort of saccharine sentimental look that really puts me off. The fact that I have read a bit about the novel, which sounds like raher fun, makes me wonder what on earth the publishers were thinking giving it this cover.
C – As the cover speaks of the new age of Caribbean writing, I suppose this must be rather tough, perhaps political (maps). I rather like this cover – it’s strong and powerful, as we must assume to book itself to be. Probably not my sort of book, though.
D – The author’s name, the title and the picture suggest this is set in some central European country – the picture suggests a simple home, plain but not poverty-stricken, and quite attractive to me. I’d like to know what lies nside the covers.
V: Well that was fascinating!
A – is a story about a family of Indian immigrants in America, well-educated artistic people who have to deal in the present with the fatal illness of the father and in consequence with all the leftover wounds of the past. It’s warm-hearted but not at all twee.
B – read to me like a kind of Candide about two sisters trying to make their way in the uncertain America of the 30s and 40s; it’s a sharply-written story with a veneer of adventurousness that imperfectly covers over the tragedies and traumas they go through.
C – is about a revolution on a small Caribbean island Sans Amen and the people who get swept up in it. (See our review here.)
D – you were all pretty much right about.
All four were excellent books, and interestingly much more literary and sophisticated than you imagined them to be. Are covers dumbing down to attract more audience, I wonder?
When I lived in France, it was a surprise to find that almost all the new releases have perfectly plain covers featuring just the title and author’s name. What do you think of this system – would it be better or worse and why?
V: I got used to it in France, but however flawed our covers may be, I do prefer them to nothing at all. That being said, it was really interesting to read books with vastly reduced expectations about them. I think I appreciated a lot of the subtleties of the storytelling more because the belief I knew what kind of book I was reading did not get in my way
A: I’ve not seen this, but I do like the full package. As much as an attractive cover will make me pick a book up, it also means I can instantly discount some books purely by their covers. Are there still blurbs on the backs, or flaps?
S: Like Gollancz, I guess? And the style Persephone adopted. I can see the intellectual reasons behind it – and it works beautifully with Persephones – but I wouldn’t want all publishers to do it. I love cover design.
H: Yes, Persephone is an interesting case in point – but they put a lot of effort into endpapers and other associated visual stuff. I think it’s an interesting idea – I’d love to try it as an experiment to see how I’d respond if I didn’t have a guide to what was likely to be inside.
Can you nominate a favourite cover or two from the reviews in Shiny’s first issues?
A: I adore the cover of Tigerman by Nick Harkaway – the colours and clever shaping of the stripes; the Robert Aickman strange story reprints from Faber just ooze creepy subject matter with a vintage feel too.
S: Now you’re asking! The Daunt Books reprint of Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts is really lovely, I think; striking and colourful and graphic. And then there’s the beautiful series of covers from the British Library crime reprints, which use that old-railway-poster style so well.
H. I spent ages looking through the SNB cover pics and got more and more confused. If I say I love The Goldfinch cover you’ll think I’m prejudiced but I do think it is lovely – simple, stylish. I also rather like All My Puny Sorrows, for its sort of 1930s graphic appearance. And of course I totally agree with Simon about the British Library Crime Classics – gorgeous covers.
V. I actually loved all of the covers printed above. But I did also like The Goldfinch, too, and agree that the British Library crime reprints are irresistible!
Join in the discussion. Our competition to win the Editors’ Picks this quarter revolves around book covers – head back to our homepage, but you also might like to read our review of a new book by a great cover artist here: ‘Peter Mendelsund is clearly an exceptionally talented man, and this book is a joy’
Or read the reviews of the novels whose covers we featured!
The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing by Mira Jacob: ‘the life of a family is strewn with chances for negotiating with the lost and the dead’
House of Ashes by Monique Roffey: ‘a deeply humane and engaging story’
Iza’s Ballad by Magda Szabo: ‘a heartrendingly beautiful novel, full of truth and tenderness’