Why You Should Totally Judge a Book by Its Cover: The beautiful art of book cover design
“If that manuscript is in the hands of a passionate designer who is good at what they do, knows how to market the book, knows how to position the book truthfully, then you could judge a book by its cover.” — Nicole Caputo, Literary Hub
There’s an independent bookstore in Brooklyn marked by gorgeous vaulted ceilings stacked to the top with stories. If you stroll past it on the street and glance at the window display, you might be surprised to discover a shelf of books wrapped neatly in brown kraft paper. Scrawled atop each parcel is a brief description of the world contained therein, no more than a line or two. Presumably, the intention here is to preemptively enforce the old adage, “Don’t judge a book by its cover” — a noble idea, to be sure. But what of the artistic treasures contained on the cover itself? The aesthetic mysteries, the harmonious compositions? The bookstore’s effort denies one crucial truth: Book covers are so much more than merely an ornamental topping.
This fact is laid bare by the scale of niche appreciation. Spine Magazine and Literary Hub are replete with content about book covers and the people who design them. Certain indie blogs, such as The Casual Optimist, Talking Covers, and The Book Design Review, are devoted almost entirely to the subject. There are museum exhibits, international competitions, and annual reviews in the New York Times. Clearly, there’s a whole industry devoted to the practice of judging books by their covers.
Now, more than ever, we are visual creatures; we all but require some kind of visual stimuli to draw us in. Moreover, we live in a world of burgeoning commercialization. On its face, this is the purpose of a book cover — to attract customers, and thereby sell products. The fact that publishers release different cover designs for readers in the U.S. and the U.K. proves this point. Different markets call for different marketing strategies.
But that’s hardly the whole story. In truth, an outsized focus on the cover’s commercial power can undermine the design. Rodrigo Corral, creative director for FSG, New Directions, and his own studio, puts it this way: “Challenges arise when the decision makers start focusing on the marketing objectives and then start guiding the design, oftentimes compromising it.” At the same time, he says: "We love to land on solutions that reflect the story and also provides the marketing team something they feel works.”
Book covers provide a conduit to something far more impactful than a sales transaction. As W.W. Norton trade design director, Steve Attardo, tells us: “You're very specifically designing a portal. You’re drawing people in, and I'm not talking about from a sales perspective. I'm just talking about from the pure art form of writing.” To Attardo, “books exist to transport you and to educate you and to add to your life, whether it be knowledge or joy or both.” The covers are the entry point where you begin your journey.
This principle holds true regardless of readership or genre. Cassie Gonzales, a middle-grade and YA designer at Macmillan, explains that “the main goal of a book cover is to sort of distill down the purpose of the book into one recognizable rectangle.” It’s different from other forms of design in that “most of the time [she’s] building one static thing for one static purpose.” There’s also something to be said for the discrete experience of holding the tangible object in your hands.
“It's like this really nice way of a designer and an art director being able to speak to one person at a time,” muses Attardo. “It kind of feels like that to me, when I'm holding a book that I know wasn't created for me, but I'm the only one interacting with this right now. So I'm having an experience with this book that is solely my own.” In this way, he argues, book cover design is a “very rich emotional field for people to go into.”
The impact and importance of the cover can’t be overstated. "Unlike a multiple-page book or a website, a book cover only creates a singular visual moment,” explains Linda Huang — associate art director at Vintage & Anchor Books (an imprint of Penguin Random House) — to ARTpublika Magazine. There’s one chance to get it right. Also unique to book design is the “reliance on intuition.” The goal, elaborates Huang, is “getting the gist of a novel and conjuring something to entice the reader — a very different skill set than organizing information in a systematic way for an annual report.”
Of course, the function and style of book covers has evolved over thousands of years (in conjunction with the purpose and content of books themselves). For much of history, book covers merely “functioned as a protective device for usually hand-made or printed pages, as well as keeping the pages together through binding them. The only aesthetical purpose of a book cover was to be a decorative tribute to their cultural authority.”
Tiphaine Guillermou, editor of Graphéine, traces the progression of book covers from the 3rd century to the present day. What began as “hand-engraved or embossed bindings, precious stones, ivory, silk, clasps, embroidery, leather, and gold and silver threads” transformed into books with hard covers in the 16th century, then leather covers, then fabric, to the birth of the modern cover with gold embossed illustrations, chromolithography printing, and the beginnings of graphic design in the 1860s.
Today, books are worlds away from those heavy tomes adorned in silk and ivory. Though still works of art in their own right, some are marked by their own fleeting trends. “The covers of most contemporary books all look disturbingly the same, as if inbred,” writes Tim Kreider in The New Yorker. “There’s clearly some brutally efficient Darwinian process at work here, because certain images — half-faces, napes, piers stretching into the water — spread like successful evolutionary adaptations and quickly become ubiquitous.” Apparently, at some point one could even experiment with a “Malcolm Gladwell Book Generator,” which, sadly, now appears to be defunct. Buzzfeed has compiled lists of other stale tropes, such as “scary silhouette man,” “woman with luggage,” and “bloke with hood.”
Some of this simply involves the demands of genre fiction — fans of romance, thrillers, or sci-fi have all come to expect a certain aesthetic that delineates one genre from another (and from literary fiction more broadly). Laywan Kwan, associate art director for Simon and Schuster’s Atria and Gallery Books imprints, notes that “parameters are set [by] the genre, especially when it comes to commercial books.” If you stroll through the aisles at your local bookstore, some of these conventions become fairly obvious: “Is it a women's fiction beach read? It will most likely feature water and a woman in a swimsuit. Is it a thriller? It will most likely be dark or something off-kilter. Is it historical? I will most likely have to do some research on the area and fashion of that time period.”
The goal with genre fiction, she explains, “is almost always to look ‘similar but different.’” In other words: “How do you signal to the market that this book belongs in this genre, but still stands out amongst the others on the shelf?” Importantly, Kwan points out that she is seeing “an effort in trying to display diversity of culture and race on covers. But hopefully, this isn't so much of a trend [as] something that is here to stay.”
Indeed, some of the biggest controversies the book design world has been embroiled in involve the whitewashing of cover design. Bloomsbury garnered notoriety twice in 2010 alone for depicting white women on the cover of books about Black protagonists. Both covers were pulled and redesigned. Kwan herself was part of an effort, in collaboration with Attardo, to design a recent cover that was sensitive to these issues of race and ethnicity. Rion Amilcar Scott’s The World Doesn’t Require You (2019) is a collection of stories set in the fictional Cross River, Maryland, exploring “the African American male's experience of living in America,” according to Kwan.
“That’s one of my favorite projects that I've ever been a part of,” confesses Attardo. “I also felt like I'm not the person to put pen to paper here… It can't come from my mind. It just didn't feel right to me.” So, he brought Kwan onto the project and “made it clear that the team wanted to find art that was created by an African American artist.” Kwan said after much research and back-and-forth, they decided on “this particular piece by Fahamu Pecou — of an African American man trapped in an invisible box.” The result is a compelling cover that serves several functions: it captures the essence of the story, it elevates the work of artists of color, and it accurately represents the narrative’s undercurrent of race instead of whitewashing it.
Of course, The World Doesn’t Require You is a piece of literary fiction, and literary fiction generally allows for more flexibility and abstraction in cover design. But both literary and genre fiction covers should eschew explicitly literal depictions. Corral puts it this way: “Book jackets should avoid explaining away the story. You want to allow the reader to have room for interpretation. Jacket art is often more concept based with layers to the design so that the reader can discover new ideas as they look at it.” Effective cover design, he continues, “provides the reader the opportunity to see their own version of the cover and how it relates to the overall story, [so] they can make it their own.”
Book cover designers profess a certain sense of obligation — to draw in readers, certainly, but also to accurately and powerfully capture the essence of a book, especially when they truly believe in the material. “We [at Norton] have a lot of books on social justice, [which are] very popular right now,” remarks Attardo, but “we've been publishing this stuff for a while now, and it's always been really important to all of us.” One of his favorite covers to work on was for the book Color of Law (2017), which tracks the history of segregation policies in the U.S. Reading it left him both “dumbfounded” and feeling a responsibility to “make sure people want to pick this book up because [it’s so] important.”
Attardo notes that he feels a similar sense of responsibility when he’s redesigning a classic book. “How can someone come to this, who’s never read Faulkner, or Henry Miller, or Joyce Carol Oates, and feel excited to pick this up?” he asks himself. “There's an energy that you're trying to telegraph — that this book has prominence, yet it has also relevance to today…[and] that this has stood the course of time for a reason.”
As for the future, predictions naturally fall in line with most other industries. Huang observes: “We have been heading towards designs that are more graphic, bold, and ‘Instagrammable’ due to social media.” And, in an interview with The Casual Optimist, designer Jennifer Heuer noted that she's hearing more and more about making the book an object of desire — something that will be coveted and gift-worthy.”
Despite the oft-repeated warnings that books are a dying industry, they don’t seem to be disappearing anytime soon — especially if cover designers have anything to say about the matter. “With books,” Attardo says, “there's everything from people who want to read this in one sitting to people who want to have it on their shelves and pass it on to their kids. You've got all of those things packed into what a book itself is.” For this reason, “when you design the cover…in many ways, you're carrying that weight.” If one’s responsibility is constructing a portal into another world, that’s a heavy job, indeed.