Cover Versions

Thursday March 27, 2008 in books | meme

From Booking Through Thursday:

While acknowledging that we can’t judge books by their covers, how much does the design of a book affect your reading enjoyment? Hardcover vs. softcover? Trade paperback vs. mass market paperback? Font? Illustrations? Etc.?

I’m often too swayed by a book design. I’ve bought bad books because they look good, and avoided good books because they look bad. I never read Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh because the cover looked awful. An awful choice in itself, but I couldn’t help it. I’m also tempted – or put off – by too much misleading blurb, which appears to have crept onto the cover of paperbacks in recent years. Even new releases in hardback have blurb these days and sing the praises of an author’s previous work.

So because I am easily tempted by eye-catching design, I like a book cover to catch the essence of a book, without telling me too much about it or misleading me. A good recent example is The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Its cover picturing a row of dying trees told me what to expect and suited the mood of the book perfectly. Both hardback and paperback versions of the book used the same design, so it obviously worked in the eyes of the publisher. Another recent design I found effective was the creepy cover for Darkmans by Nicola Barker, although the subsequent paperback noticeably went for something much lighter. And even though I’d read about the book and wanted to read it I suspect that the paperback would have made my decision harder, presenting me with what looked more comic than sinister.

Bad covers are ones that perplex and only make sense with some knowledge of the book’s content. I’m currently reading Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel. The cover is an illustration of a lady in colourful garb with a vacuum cleaner. This begins to make sense when you discover that the lead character in the novel is a medium. The colourful garb is a reference to tarot cards. The vacuum cleaner is a reference to a passage very early in the novel, which suggests to me that the designer only read a couple of chapters in before sketching out the cover. Am I being hard on the designer?

Probably the best thing about cover design is that it can serve to nicely date a book. Films and tv set in the fifties and sixties ask their props departments to line the bookshelves of their set with the iconic orange covered Penguins of the period. Since book design has become less uniform in later years it’s probably still possible to tell from which decade a book belongs to, whether the cover shows art, typography or actors in ridiculous poses (I’m thinking of mass market horror, romance and detective fiction over the years).

Sometimes though it’s just the quality and packaging of a book that impresses. The hardbacks of Susanna Clarke’s two recent books Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and The Ladies of Grace Adieu, are just beautiful. Quality design, printing and illustration. The writing’s good too. And let’s not forget that this is the most important thing.

This is a fun question. I like your remark about dating a book by its cover, I’m sure you are right about that. It would be fun to test the theory at some point.

verbivore    Thursday March 27, 2008   

I’m also sure there’s a snobbery about cover design. I know people who only appear to have versions of books post 1990 – all very modern looking but somehow charmless. I’m proud of my loud 1970s book jackets (and my loud jackets – but that’s another story).

The Book Tower    Thursday March 27, 2008   

Interesting to think about how a cover’s design reflects its decade. I recently acquired a dozen books from a library cleanout, and noticed how they all had similar, loud designs. I think they were all published in the 70’s, and they stand out from all the others in my collection.

Jeane    Thursday March 27, 2008   

Library clear outs are always good for that sort of thing. You can also tell a reading history from the inside cover of old library books – how often they were checked out – how they were subsequently borrowed less and less and eventually retired and removed from the shelves.

The Book Tower    Thursday March 27, 2008   

A most excellent reply to the question!

chartroose    Thursday March 27, 2008   

Talking of book covers, Neil Gaiman gives a preview of the rather fetching design for his latest:

The Book Tower    Friday March 28, 2008   

I have noticed an increase of blurbs on covers and on inside flaps too. Occasionally the first several pages of a book are even filled with blurbs for the author’s other books. I personally think it’s such a waste of paper and space.

I haven’t yet read The Road, but I do like the cover. And, of course, I love the cover for Susana Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

Literary Feline    Saturday March 29, 2008   

Blurb can irritatingly oversell a book – a case in point will be illustrated in my next post!

The Book Tower    Saturday March 29, 2008   

What do you say?

Use preview and then submit.