In the wise words of Jane Austen, who once found herself stranded in an airport with nothing to do and said, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a reader in possession of a lot of free time and an expendable income must be in want of a new book to read.”
So she hits up the airport bookstore and makes a snap judgment about what book to buy before she boards. But between the endless parade of spy thrillers, romantic escapades, and navel-gazing political tell-alls, how is she supposed to pick quickly? Well, that’s what the book cover is for. To let the reader know that here be brooding anti-heroes, or here be heart-pounding action, or here be the next topic of fighting at your family dinner. So despite the adage of not judging a book by its cover, there is a lot of intent, time, and money involved in the science of persuading you to do just that.
So, how did we even get here? Before the salad days of things like cheap, durable paper, printing presses, and mass literacy, books themselves were a luxury commodity with the covers working double duty as both a protective device and a prestige indicator. Think of those delicate vellum pages ensconced in’ bejeweled leather and bone covers as a 12th-century Irish monks Louis Vuitton bag. Even following the invention of the printing press, books still didn’t have much in the way of covers at the point of sale. It was on the reader’s onus to have their book found in some sort of leather cover. Probably in the same color to bring that private library together.
But by the late 1820s, cloth covers were hot. At the first simple paper, labels were fluted on the front, and then they could be stamped with patterns, titles, and borders but not much else. Dust jackets were a thing, and that they were paper bags used to protect books and stores and transport them home and then thrown away. But with the rise of the Arts and Crafts movement in the 1880s, they focused on aesthetics in a material culture like wallpaper, furniture, and books
Before the internet was even around to be blown up, an illustrative periodical by the name of The Yellow Book was a leading journal when Oscar Wilde was arrested in 1895, reportedly folding a copy of its first edition. While perhaps this was not the best for The Yellow Book sales, it was a turning point in highlighting the cover and its artwork by illustrator Aubrey Beardsley, something new and different from the Victorians.
By the 1920s, dust jackets were back in fashion — and now have the expensive new edition of flaps — . These paper covers could be printed with much more exciting designs at a lower cost. Thus, a new era of creativity is ushered in.
One such publisher that took notable advantage of this was Penguin, founded in 1935. Penguin changed the game when they started a business model that focused on affordable paperbacks of good books with an artistic cover design that could replace hardcover editions’ elegant desirability. As a result, they quickly become one of the era’s most successful publishers thanks in part to a highly stylized and instantly recognizable cover branding which separates them in a wildly competitive market that relies on an inconsistent and graphics-heavy cover.
As time has passed, the book cover story has been a tangle of trends. Some were responding to broader concepts of art and graphic design. It was before you even dive into what’s happening on a genre level. See the 1940s boom in the pulp style cover of women running away or looking terrified everything. Even Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights got this treatment.
For the 80s and 90s celebrity author trend in which author names became the driving imagery on covers, Stephen King, for example, had a font that was so ubiquitous. It is now the inspiration for an equally universal popular TV show title treatment.
Let’s not forget the so-called Chick-lit genre with its ubiquitous brand of stylized “eat, pray, love,” “The Devil Wears Prada,” and “The Nanny Diaries,” and of course, Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series. Say what you will about the books themselves but the deceptively simple but striking cover design created by graphic designer Gail Doobinin who influenced outside genres. Since the author and publisher Lucy Blue,
“I still say Twilight is one of the best books covers ever. It has absolutely nothing to do with the story. Still, it speaks to all of the things the book wanted to plant in the mind of potential readers — the Snow White/fairy tale princess mythology, the danger (the apple poison), gothic true love all that black and red, and temptation. I remain convinced that the series would not have sold so well with any other cover art.”
Like any art form, book covers themselves raise a host of questions that run deeper than what will make this seem sexy. Should a cover indicate what the story is about, to what degree, or should its appeal be merely on what will impact the potential reader the most quickly?
Some examples of authorial intent and how it interacts with what publishers were interested in pushing come from two infamous books from the 20th century. Francis Couhat’s iconic cover for The Great Gatsby was designed before F. Scott Fitzgerald had even completed his manuscript. Still, there is much debate over how much the cover and text influenced each other. Gatsby’s publishers Max Perkins and Fitzgerald, claimed that the art was practically embedded into the text.
“For Christ’s sake, don’t give anyone the jacket you’re saving for me. I’ve written it into the book.” Fitzgerald wrote to his publisher while he liked any good author sat on delivering a late manuscript.
While we’re not sure precisely what Fitzgerald was referring to specifically in this letter, it’s theorized that the haunting eyes from Couhat’s design manifested themselves as the dr. T.J. Ecklenburg billboard that shows up repeatedly in the novel and on your AP American literature exam.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita originally had to be published with a simple green cover. Nabokov deferred to something simple in design in the face of finding something appropriate but was emphatic on one huge creative decision. He said,
“There is one subject which I’m emphatically opposed to: any kind of representation of a little girl .”
Meanwhile, more than 60 years later, we’ve been inundated with reprinting Lolita and featuring. Well, sorry, Nabokov!
One can only speculate on how long-dead authors of now public domain texts might feel about their works’ unlimited fast money republishing. Representation versus text is an ongoing issue. Mainly because of the persistent notion that most authors have significant input into what goes into their book covers.
In the end, book covers like books themselves are the result of a lot of deep thought, artistry, technical business maneuverings, and hard work, not to mention a response to the world in which they are made. Book covers and illustrations play a huge part in shaping our collective imagination, whether in the weeping eyes over the New York City skyline or the fluid walls of a carousel horse, or the bewitchingly bright universe of a Wizarding school.
So the next time your flights have been grounded indefinitely because of weather or treaty airlines overbooking their flights, do not judge a book by its cover, but maybe give the cover a second, more in-depth look.
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