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.