A Cover Is Not A Book…(Part 1)


…so open it up and take a look,’ sings Lin Manuel-Miranda, but in the hands of a good designer a cover can be a powerfully persuasive tool.

In a modern bookshop with limited space covers must communicate a lot to browsers, and I have often been compelled to buy a book by its cover. Natasha Pulley’s ‘The Watchmaker of Filigree Street’ had a neo-baroque hardback cover in green and black that persuaded me to buy it (and I’m glad I did because I loved it). There’s nothing at all wrong with admitting this.

Since the arrival of Kindle, hardback covers have improved immensely in order to compete and hardbacks now present themselves as attractively giftable objects. Hardbacks and paperbacks usually have separate covers, the theory being that their markets are different.

However, my paperback of ‘The Book of Forgotten Authors’ was the same design and size as the hardback, and failed to sell as well as the publishers hoped over Christmas despite having new content – the theory is that people thought it was the exact same book.

Paperback covers can be changed fast, and publishers are still trying to understand why, when they alter online covers for ebooks, sales can jump or fall on the switch of a colour.

They have found that if say, the Sunday Times fashion section recommends red dresses for spring, changing an ebook cover to red on a Monday raises sales. It seems we carry residual memories of what we’ve previously seen or read into our purchasing profiles.

Covers can date books like rock strata, but they really only raised their popular profile in the post-war years. In the fifties and early sixties we had op-art designs that were simple and striking, with just one of two colours dominating to make bold statements – although there were exceptions in the UK, like Ronald Searle’s squirly drawings on children’s books.

The more popular certain books became, the more their covers were redesigned. Both the Agatha Christie novels and the Ian Fleming books were given numerous makeovers, and some sets became highly collectable, although some are very much of their time. Artwork was still hugely popular, and many iconic designs came from a now-lost generation of shockingly underpaid illustrators.

Covers can semiotically transmit all kinds of consumer come-ons from offering nostalgia and warmth to signalling rebelliousness, but many books sell themselves on a fascination with the past. The Bryant & May covers have a touch of design that’s redolent of old railway carriages, but not as much as Martin Edwards’ British Library series covers, which conjure up idealised images of times gone by. Although he’s repackaging old short stories and novels, the kind of books you could find tattered copies of in paperback fairs, Martin has impeccable taste and his selection is to be trusted.

Here’s a (rather dull) book I bought at age ten, shocking my mother somewhat, although she did not remove it from me. I told myself it was the use of colour that attracted, in the same way that schoolboys bought the Bond books with their images of naked golden girls. Covers allow typography to really get noticed, and I like the typeface on the Neville Jackson book, which is elegant and specific to its time.

Inevitably, rereleased novels that return after films have been made from them can trade on key images from their filmic counterparts, although many simply used stills from films on their paperback versions, which never looked good. Cleverly, Tartarus Press used an image of Margaret Rutherford on their edition of Frank Baker’s ‘Miss Hargreave’ because Rutherford was due to star in the filmed role. Unfortunately the film was cancelled when war broke out but the book remains a delight.

Then there are the covers that allow designers to represent ideas – these are my favourites. The ‘Billy Liar’ cover echoes the design of a 1950s packet of Woodbines, a cigarette synonymous with working class trades. The book is not a class polemic but a Northern coming-of-age novel, yet its prose is redolent of forgotten brands like the Woodbine.

This image from ‘Young Adolf’ perfectly catches the subject – author Beryl Bainbridge imagines that as a teenager Hitler ended up working in a Liverpool hotel for a brief time, and the designer has used this idea to suggest his future. The image comes from the last golden era of the illustrated cover, something I hope we’re continuing with the Bryant & May books.

The early noughties were a nadir for book design, the ‘driftwood, dried flowers and seashells’ period of book design. Many decent crime novels are lost behind stock-photo desaturated images of desolate roads and twisted trees. The biggest current cover design cliché is the shouted giant title with the words stacked and a decorative curlicue running behind them – go into a large bookstore and you’l find yourself surrounded by them at the moment.

Tomorrow I’ll be looking at one specific book jacket across the years.


25 comments on “A Cover Is Not A Book…(Part 1)”

  1. Ian Luck says:

    I love those British Library Crime Classics’ covers – in fact, I only bought my first volume, ‘Murder At The Manor’, as the cover was an old LNER poster showing Christchurch Mansion, which is in my home town, and a place I’m very fond of, having visited, and worked there, and which sits in a surprisingly large and beautiful park, which stretches from the heart of Ipswich, and almost reaches the suburbs. Whatever, the contents of the volume were superb, and I was hooked. A friend of mine, although not a great reader himself, has an uncanny knack of being able to pick a book, solely by the cover, and that book will be a great read. He’s done it dozens of times, and, sickeningly, he’s never been wrong once.

  2. Jason K. says:

    What are your thoughts regarding the American covers of your books? The Bryant and May covers here seem rather plain compared the the British versions. I’ll confess that more than once I’ve paid extra to ship books here because of the cover (and often the paper quality is better too).

  3. Wayne Mook says:

    I’ll admit I’ve bought books just because of their cover.

    I do have a love of some of the over the top horror novels, pulpy beyond belief, especially fun are some of the Lovecraft covers around the world. I feel if he saw them he would be abnormally curdling in his loathsome nameless grave.

    I’m sure I’ve mentioned it before but the John Christopher Avon cover from the 60’s The Little People, has to be seen to be believed, and it’s true to the novel.


  4. I’m pretty sure the book, Rune, it was its anti-cover that made me buy it, ripping good yarn. Funny thing, that.

  5. Richard Burton says:

    Thanks for quick response to my earlier cover musing Admin 🙂 Definitely changing my job title to Shockingly Underpaid Illustrator..
    My art teachers at school were amazingly louche (to me anyway) 60s types who were very, very keen on book jacket and poster design exercises – which I happily absorbed like a sponge. The B&M designs are very satisfying to me as they combine graphics and illustration. Illustration on its own can get a bit busy and distracting – a graphical element keeps the image simple and gives it punch.
    The green and white Penguin covers do that well, whether it’s the recent ones, like The Tiger in the Smoke reissue, or old Maigrets. Some of the latter look like they took about 5 minutes after a long, liquid lunch to design, but they still work because of the layout.
    It’s also interesting how certain artists get associated with book genres, helping book selection along the way. Like, when you see an Ian Miller (there’s a great YouTube interview with him on The Artists Studio channel) cover you know to expect horror, tentacles, disturbing trees and Mervyn Peak as an architect. Or Chris Foss covers that scream Sci-Fi, but turn out to have nothing to do with the book’s actual content (unless it’s his work on The Joy of Sex).
    So, the B&M covers are definitely getting the job done – I can’t imagine a better direction for them that would grab more attention. Although history suggests that some naked people on the cover would increase sales. Would Arthur agree to this?

  6. Rachel Green says:

    I’ve deliberately asked for a cover without a ‘semi-naked figure with their back to the viewer’ before now.

  7. admin says:

    For the naked-people-on-cover issue, see my earlier books Spanky and Psychoville, when my publisher’s designer decided we needed some flesh!

  8. admin says:

    Jason K – I think the US designers never quite got a handle on the books. I wish I could show you some of the covers we rejected (especially the infamous ‘dancing cat’ cover!)

  9. Brooke says:

    Nice title for an Arthur story…dancing cat.

  10. Helen Martin says:

    But not a good cover, Brooke. I have taken to reading the information about the cover illustrations and will never forget the cover of a Spanish set procedural because I’m not sure how much input the illustrator gave. The image was of a distant person running down a narrow street and the copyright info was: image bank (don’t remember which one) for wall decoration, man running, wall. There wasn’t anything else so all the illustrator did was to arrange the images, determine the distance to the runner and set the colours. That’s not nothing, of course, but couldn’t s/he have drawn the caged plant, the running figure and the right hand wall? Why choose an image bank version?

  11. Arthur Pearson says:

    A jazzed up title can help as much as a striking cover illo. For instance, to pick a nit, in one of the early books Arthur is said to have a battered old copy of Henry Mayhew’s ‘London Characters and Crooks’. The only book with that title is a Folio Society deluxe hardbound collector’s edition published fairly recently, in 1996, which I happen to have. Previous editions were titled ‘London Labor and the London Poor’, not nearly so grabby. It does cantain a few addenda. Charles Dickens made considerable use of Mayhew’s writings, although he did in fact start out as one of the London poor himself.

  12. Arthur Pearson says:

    This was one of Folio Society’s most handsome editions. Quality is uneven. Then there was the time I ordered a ‘replica’ edition of the Arthur Ransome set of Swallows and Amazons books, which turned out to be exactly that, with the same cheap paper and binding. The paper in my old copies had browned, but the replicas will meet the same fate.

  13. snowy says:

    The quality of book jacket illustrations, esp. Thiller/Crime has been very variable, but in the recent decades they have become more and more generic/dull.

    Now the tools to produce what at best could be described as a ‘functional’ cover are available on every home/office computer, I suspect less and less artwork is being passed out to professional SUI, [see above], with the talent to construct a cover with ‘grab’.

    The current trend seems to be to throw the task at one of the new breed of corporate serfs, the Shockingly Unpaid Intern. Who being ‘digital natives’ all seem to follow the same recipe:

    How to create a book jacket.

    Read blurb – pick out 3 words
    Open image search – search using each word seperately
    Open clipboard – copy image elements
    Open Photoshop – paste images into the company template
    Fiddle about with images – until boss announces “that’s good enough!”
    Repeat until you have no more books/it’s time to fetch coffee/refill toner/collect dry cleaning/unblock toilet.

    [There is more likelyhood of creating something with real artistic merit by flicking your dinner at the wall.]

  14. Roger says:

    There’ve been stories written to match illustrations and books to go with titles, but has anyone commissioned a book to go with a cover?

  15. Arthur Pearson says:

    I remember an issue of a science fiction magazine with a story written to go with the cover. Can’t remember the specifics, though. Maybe somebody can jump in with that.

  16. Arthur Pearson says:

    Once a letter to the editor of Astounding Science Fiction dated a year in the future talked about the stories in an issue a year out, giving the titles and authors. John W. Campbell got them all to write those stories and they appeared in that issue. One was by Robert W. Heinlein.

  17. Glasgow1975 says:

    Ah Spanky. I wouldn’t be here today without him.

  18. snowy says:

    Publishers of pulp fiction would buy job lots of cover art and then get stories written, how well they were written and how much they lived up to the promise of the cover, was very variable.

    John Spencer and Co, had an imprint called Badger Books which would publish about 4 books a month. Usually one each of Western, War story, Sci-Fi and Supernatural. There were no pretentions to literary quality, it was a factory to churn out an affordable diversion at 2/6 a copy.

    They employed a stable of writers, if two can be called a stable? And between them they produced something like 500 books. The best documented is Rev. Lionel Fanthorpe. He would be sent a stack of covers and asked to provide a blurb and a list of possible titles for each. Once these were agreed the creative process could really begin. To craft his prose the Reverend would cover himself with a blanket and begin dictating the story into a reel to reel tape recorder. Completed tapes were sent off to be turned into text by a transcription agency.

    Things didn’t always run smoothly, the books had to conform to a strict page limit. And this had unfortunate effects on the way stories were told. The scene may have been set for an epic climax, involving vast fleets of vessels scything through space, only to receive a message from the transcribers that there were only 3 pages left and things need to be brought to a very swift conclusion. Abrupt changes of plot are commonplace, characters meet grizly fates in an early chapter only to reappear completely unharmed later on. [The ability to shrug off being beheaded is quite a feat, though rather tempting fate.]

    Sometimes a tale might run its full course all loose ends neatly tied, the powers of Good triumph, but it was 10 pages short! A call would be made and the good Reverend would furnish some more lines. This call for additions might come days or weeks after the book had been completed. But Rev. Fanthorpe was a consumate professional and if words were needed he would do his best, even if his recollection of what he had written 2 weeks ago was a little hazy.

    The extra pages would arrive, they might not be a quite seamless fit, but the reader might enjoy a brief diversion into the question of the theologicaly position of androids, 6 pages of travelogue or a musing on the life cycle of envelopes.

    “What was the purpose of it all? What was the significance of it? The life of the envelope, she thought, was a strange, rather sad thing. It guarded its letter from A to B. It was collected, sorted, done up in a bundle or a sack, thrown into a train, and carried for miles, re-sorted, delivered, and then, having finished the course, fought the good fight and run the straight race, it was crumpled and thrown into a waste paper basket, from where it might be salvaged and re-pulped to make a fresh envelope; re-incarnation, she thought? Or it might be burnt. But, according to Newtonian physics, its matter could neither be carried nor destroyed, it would pass, like a paper gnostic, back to the great ocean of all things, its carbon and hydrogen forming strange new gaseous products.”

    [Extract from ‘The Girl from Tomorrow’ by Lionel Fanthorpe]

  19. Ian Luck says:

    A good tip when picking a book is to read the quotes from readers. Should the following appear, put the book down, and step away from it.: “It’s like the (insert name of something staid and boring here) on acid!” The online horror forum, ‘Vault Of Evil’ has an entire section on rubbish book covers – stupid, badly drawn, or simply ditchwater dull. It’s well worth a look. Oh, and I started a thread on B&M there a year or so ago, by the way.

  20. Roger says:

    When did Rev. Lionel Fanthorpe do his revving, Snowy? Or was he defrocked? It sounds as if he should have been, for sins against literature, if not against morality.

  21. snowy says:

    Writing fiction was just a way to make a few extra bob, he didn’t start walking into his shirts backward for another two decades.

    He had a bit of a come back later as a TV personality, talking about the paranormal/Forteana, [bits and pieces of him are on a certain video sharing website.]

  22. gkbowood says:

    I have always thought British books had better covers than the American version. I don’t know anything about the publishing process, but how much extra does does it cost for more attractive covers?

    I may not ‘ judge a book by it’s cover’ but I sure do choose them that way: the cover catches my eye first and
    the title is a close second, followed by a quick glance at the DJ teaser. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t.

    The B&M covers in America with a pastel background covered with curly script around a few relevant objects was
    so uninspired, thankfully, the synopsis got me hooked!

  23. Ian Luck says:

    The only James Bond paperback covers I like, are the beautifully minimal ones published by ‘Pan’ from the mid to late 1960’s – the ones with ‘JAMES BOND’ in bold capitals, and the title underneath. There will be an illustration that ties in to the story – or not, but they all look superb. My favourite is ‘Moonraker’, with it’s illustration of the titular rocket flying upwards.

  24. Ian Luck says:

    ‘Woodbine’. A good name for a dog with no legs. You can’t take it for a walk, but you can take it for a drag round the park… A very old, low quality joke, that only makes sense if you know that ‘Woodbine’ were, at one time, the snouts of choice for yer actual working man. Record covers have been based on consumer items – for instance, some of the best were by the band ‘Scritti Politti’, in the early 1980’s, before they became popular. ‘The Sweetest Girl’ had a sleeve that resembled a pack of Dunhill cigarettes; ‘Faithless’, a bottle of good Brandy, and ‘Asylums In Jerusalem’ echoed the design on a particular brand of stupidly expensive handbags. A bit too closely. A gap of a year or so, and their record sleeves would not be strangers to fans of the artist Joseph Beuys.

  25. ANDREA says:

    I purchase most of the Sir Terry [Pratchett] books from the UK because many of them have Kilby or Kidby covers.

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