In the wise words of Jane Austen, who once found herself stranded an airport with nothing to do, “'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 you hit up the airport bookstore and make a snap judgement about what book to buy before you board.
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’s clearly 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?
Well, back before the salad days of things like cheap, durable paper, printing presses, and mass literacy, books, nay the pages themselves, were a luxury commodity, with the covers themselves 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 monk’s Louis Vuitton bag.
But even following the invention of the printing press, books still didn’t have much in the way of covers at the point of sale, and often it was on the onus of the reader to have his or her book bound in some sort of leather cover, and probably in the same color to really bring that private library together.
But by the late 1820’s, cloth covers were HOT--god get with it, Karen.
At first, simple paper labels were glued on the front, and they could be stamped with patterns and titles and borders, but not much else.
Dust jackets were a Thing...in that they were basically paper bags used to protect books in stores and transport them home and then thrown away.
But with the rise of the Arts and Crafts movement in the 1880s and its focus on aesthetics in material culture like wallpaper, furniture, and, yes, books, an interest in zhushing up the common tome was in the air.
And before the Internet was even around to be blown up, an illustrated periodical by the name of The Yellow Book blew up because It wasn’t invented when Oscar Wilde was arrested in 1895 purportedly holding a copy of its first edition.
While perhaps this wasn’t best for The Yellow Book’s sales, it was a turning point in highlighting “the cover”--and its artwork, by illustrator Aubrey Beardsley, which was something new and different to the Victorians.
By the 1920s, dust jackets were back in vogue and now had the swanky new addition of flaps.
These paper covers could be printed with much more interesting designs at a lower cost, and thus a new era of creativity is ushered in.
One such publisher that took notable advantage of this was Penguin Publishing, founded in in 1935; Penguin basically changed the game when they leaned into a business model that focused on “affordable paperbacks of good books with the artistic cover design that could replace the elegant desirability of hard-covered editions”.
As a result, they quickly became one of the era’s most successful publishers, thanks in part to a highly stylized and instantly recognizable cover branding, which separated them in a wildly competitive market that relied on inconsistent and graphic-heavy cover.
As time has passed, the book cover story has been a tangle of trends, some responding to wider concepts in art and graphic design, and this is before you even dive into this happening on a genre level.
See the 1940s boon in the “pulp” style cover of women running away or looking terrified of everything--even Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights got this treatment.
Or the 80s/90s celebrity-author trend in which author names literally became the driving imagery on covers - Stephen King’s font is so ubiquitous, it is the inspiration for an equally ubiquitous and modern popular title treatment.
And let’s not forget the so-called chicklit genre, with its own ubiquitous brand of stylized twee, a la Eat, Pray, Love, The Devil Wears Prada, and the Nanny Diaries.
And yet again in this series, we’re brought to Stephenie Meyers Twilight series--say what you will about the books themselves, but the deceptively simple but striking book covers (created by graphic designer Gail Doobinin) influenced not only the way YA novels were presented, but outside genres as well.
Says indie author and publisher Lucy Blue: “I still say [Twilight] is one of the best book covers ever.
It has absolutely nothing to do with the story, but 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 (is the apple poison?
), gothic true love (all that black and red and temptation).... And I remain convinced that the series would not have sold so well with any other cover art” Like any art form, however, book covers themselves raise a host of questions that run deeper than “what will make this seem sexy?” Should a cover be indicative of what the story is about?
To what degree?
Or should its appeal lie simply in what will impact the potential reader the quickest?
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 now-iconic cover for The Great Gatsby was designed before F. Scott Fitzgerald had even completed his manuscript, and there is much debate over how much the cover and text influenced each other, with Couhat supposedly inspired by conversations with Gatsby publisher Max Perkins and Fitzgerald all-out proclaiming that the art was practically embedded into the text.
“For Christ’s sake don’t give anyone that jacket you’re saving for me,” Fitzgerald wrote to his publisher while he, like any good author, sat on delivering a late manuscript, “I’ve written it into the book.” While we’re not sure exactly what Fitzgerald was referring to specifically in his letter, it’s theorized that the haunting eyes from Couhat’s design manifested themselves as the the Dr. T.J. Eckleburg billboard that shows up repeatedly in the novel and on your AP American Literature exam.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Vladmir Nabkov’s Lolita, originally had to be published with a simple green cover, because Nabokov and his publishers butted heads over how to best illustrate the controversial material within.
Nabokov deferred to something simple in design in the face of finding something appropriate, but was emphatic on one huge creative decision.
Said Nabokov: “There is one subject which I am emphatically opposed to: any kind of representation of a little girl."
Meanwhile, more than 60 years later, we’ve been inundated with reprintings of Lolita featuring… well… Sorry, Nabokov.
One can only wonder how long-dead authors of now public domain texts feel about the endless, fast money republishing of works.
And lest you think this was an issue for your books of yesteryear, representation vs. text is an ongoing issue--especially because of the persistent notion that most authors have major input in what goes into a book cover.
From Ursula K. LeGuin’s EarthSea series and Octavia E. Butler’s Dawn, to the recent and high profile case in which the US edition of Justine Larbalestier’s Liar featured a white face on the cover of book with a black protagonist.
White washing and book covers remains an on going controversy.
In the end, book covers, like books themselves, are the end result of a lot of deep thought, artistry, tactical business maneuvering, 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 whorls of a carousel horse or the bewitchingly bright universe of a wizarding school.
So, the next time your flight’s been grounded indefinitely because of weather, greedy airlines overbooking their flights don’t judge a book by its cover; but maybe give it a second, deeper look.
The Great American Read is a series on PBS about our love of books.
Stream the episodes on-demand or head to pbs.org/greatamericanread for more info.