Book Covers Tell Too Much

Books Bookshelf Old Volumes

Can you tell a book by its cover?  Sure you can!  Just the same as an individual’s personality and clothing can tell something about them, a book lures the reader with an enticing cover image.  That visual reveal, a hint of what’s hidden within the book is a very important marketing tool.

A contemporary bookcover, no matter what the genre or category, has to be identifiable.  It has to look good on publicity material, it has to create a mood and it has to appeal to its target audience.  The font style, back cover blurb and all-important artwork join together to get you interested enough to part with your money.  Unless you are borrowing the book from your local library.  Nevertheless, you will still be interested in that lurid hardback in your hand because it promises so much…just look at that out-of-context quote from a famous author who said “chilling depth” and “sizzling romance” from a “writer with imagination”.

Today, millions of modern eye-catching bookcovers are perfectly serviceable and practicable and sensible and don’t mislead the intended reader.  It can be argued that bookcover images only hint at a small portion of the entire book.  But, as a person who reads books very closely, I disagree.  I like to make my own assumptions and not be misled by skewed artistry.

Thus I start my LONG bookcover show-and-tell, documenting that which has annoyed me for some time – the all-to-obvious artwork on bookcovers, those illustrations which give the game away.

  • The reveal: I loathe it when the crime bookcover shows the pivotal moment in the book. A dead giveaway!  Is that the graphic artist’s fault for reading the front and back page?  Is it the publisher’s fault for handing out the last chapter?
  • Bookcover clue giveaway: I have just finished a police procedural and the creepy black-and-white cover photo with a rundown house on the hill encircled by barbed wire is actually where the bodies are buried. No kidding, I knew every time the detective went up that hill, he was darn stupid.  Or the one with the sketch of a child on a rocking horse holding a scythe over her shoulder – storyline crumbles before it starts.  Worth mentioning that a rocking horse was not even in the story.
  • Vignettes snipped from a chapter: Like historical fiction “Golden Hill”, where a sketch of the hero is seen on the bookcover leaping across a roof top in true Hollywood style, no doubt aimed at action-loving readers, when the bulk of the story revolves around cruel social hierarchy.
  • A mystery novel: Well, murder actually because several people end up getting killed. This illustration managed to ruin the first three punchlines in the first three chapters.  Not to mention the good guy is seen working in the downstairs office window when his office is upstairs.  Plus the red motorbike heading up the road outside is meant to be him, at the same time.  Lovely drawing but couldn’t they have chosen something more accurate?
  • Overcooked Clones:  There’s the hand frozen in ice (guess how the victim dies) there’s the bridge across the river (guess how the victim dies) there’s the threat (a big dark old building) there’s a corrupt political serial killer millionaire mowing his way through rich widowed neurotic socialites on board his yacht (guess how the victims die) or bones poking out of the earth…black crow…wolf in snow…lonely highway…stark tree…dropped gun…body part…the train racing through the underground station…all overdone crime tropes.
  • To quote Tim Kreider, essayist: “The main principles of design—in books…is your product must be bold and eye-catching and conspicuously different from everyone else’s, but not too much! Which is why the covers of most contemporary books all look disturbingly the same, as if inbred.”  Which leads into––
  • Dark silhouette: I, for one, thoroughly dislike the brooding male or female silhouette in a heavy coat, head down, walking toward a menacing city skyline/bridge on a rain-soaked evening. Boring!  The stock standard photo silhouette has been on countless bookcovers for years.  Think of Lee Child.
  • Expected bookcovers or Clone II:  Why does (1) Romance have the obligatory well-developed over-muscled man and well-developed bust-overflowing woman, and (2) Literary fiction has a sedate, toned, almost elegant layout with a design which purrs good taste?  (3) Non-fiction is so varied it usually has just a colour photo with a word overlay.  (4) Historical fiction will have a woman in period costume gazing at house or hillside.  (5) Children’s books, fantasy and science fiction have a place all their own.  Renegades breaking up the predictable.
  • Flip side: An irrelevant illustration. There are obscure bookcovers like “The Midnight Promise” with two hands shaking as though in agreement when the Promise is nothing like that image.  At least it gave me something to ponder.
  • World-wide: I’m commenting on English language publications and referring to p-books and e-books. I’ve mentioned arbitrary books I have read and tried not to name them.  However, the same book published in different countries gets a different bookcover.  This is where designers and image stock can become tricksy.  I have seen translated children’s books looking very adult, young adult books looking too adult, and adult books looking sugary sweet, e.g. cosy mystery covers with blood-thirsty content between the pages.

Book Sliced Up on Plate with Knife

BONUS:  Terry Pratchett’s bookcovers by artists Josh Kirby and Paul Kidby tell a detailed story.  With fiction, decide how closely you should look.  Decide if you want to undermine the plot.  You may not even notice pictorial clues!  Ask yourself if you are exercising your own freewill, or are you conditioned by a generic bookcover image.

The mass market book illustrators, the image makers, appear to acquire design inspiration from their clinical, perfectly sculptured computer programs.  Perhaps they should visit an art gallery, see what’s shakin’ in the real world; then tell that miserable silhouette model to get lost.

Never stop reading!

Gretchen Bernet-Ward


Postscript : A Tiny Bit of History : Literature has changed in more ways than one over the centuries.  Illuminated manuscripts gave way to smaller volumes with dust covers/jackets in 1820s Regency, then refined in 1920s to make hardback books more attractive.  Before this the majority of bookcovers were a plain single colour with gold embossed wording and little adornment.  Swanky ones did have lithographs or a portrait frontispiece.  It is considered that 1930s paperback printing changed the course of bookcover art.

Lorna Doone by R D Blackmore
Lorna Doone by R D Blackmore