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.