By Diana Arterian
In the contemporary bookstore, the shelves and tables glow with distinct and intriguing spines, yet more than half of the names and titles are a mystery to most store browsers: even to those that take the time to read book reviews and other literary publications. Due to the greater population’s general ignorance concerning the quality of books, shoppers tend to be drawn to a book because of the design, hence falling into the cliché of judging a book by its cover. Yet it is often the cover that prompts that crucial initial interest and piques the browser. It makes the buyer pick up the book and read the back or a portion of its text, and from that point the writing must sell itself.
Although elaborate and calculated-to-sell book cover design is now commonplace, this was not always the case. In the past, publishers did not need to depend on flashy covers and jackets in order to sell a book since those who were educated enough to read knew their authors and subjects; a simple leather or cloth binding was sufficient. Today, the number of books (including republished classics) continues to increase and as a result, book cover art enables the shopper to use his own aesthetic judgment before picking up a book. As books become more accessible (both affordable and lowbrow), and as advertising developments rise, book covers are quickly becoming one of the more important considerations in a publisher’s investment and selling power for a work of literature.
The first important step in book cover evolution began in 1935 with Allen Lane and his British publishing company Penguin Books. In order to make books more accessible to average British readers, Lane decided to print paperback books; he managed to sell these books for the same price and in the same locations (train stations and general stores) as cigarettes throughout Great Britain (www.penguin.com). Lane made sure to publish popular and classic books in order to ensure that the quality and judgments of his publications were greater than those of the other sensationalist paperbacks in circulation at the time. He produced these books with color schemes depending on genre: orange and white implied fiction, green and white for crime fiction, maroon for travel series, and dark blue for biographies thus departing decisively from the commonly cloth-bound, leather-bound and jacketed literature of the time. Veronique Vienne, an author of multiple books on book cover and graphic design, delves into the publishers motivation for plain covers: before paperbacks were popular, designers were concerned with conveying the literary quality of the work. A minimal use of illustration was meant to impart an air of seriousness (Vienne 169). Vienne explains why the idea of illustrations and covers were considered unorthodox at the time and, in turn, justifies why Lane initially printed plain cover schemes.
While Lane was producing unconventional, but quickly successful, paperbacks, book designer Ernst Reichl Peper was also breaking boundaries in his cover for James Joyce’s Ulysses. In its 1934 Random House edition, he used a bizarre, creative font and design that has inspired even the current Random House edition cover as designed by Carin Goldberg (Updike). Reichl took the labyrinth that Joyce’s characters struggle through as inspiration for the cover: he elongated the letters of the title “Ulysses” into a tall and space-consuming font, forcing the viewer to be lost in the name, just as the characters within the book become lost in the figurative labyrinth of Dublin streets.
Despite the great changes that occurred in book covers and paperbacks during the mid-1930s, book covers underwent few changes in the decades that followed, with the exception of children’s books, in which illustrations were commonplace. Vienne writes, “in the mid-1970s, books were sold on the basis of their title and the reputation of their authors” (Vienne 170). This situation resembles that of the pre-paperback publications. There were two significanct differences between Allen Lane’s Penguin and American publishing in the 1970s: 1) there was a greater general availability of books because of lower prices of paperbacks; 2) public education was better and more widespread. Deborah Brandt, an English professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and publisher of many books on literacy writes, “Literacy [in the United States] was irrevocably transformed from a nineteenth-century moral imperative into a twentieth-century production imperative. . . a resource or raw material vital to national security and global competition” (Brandt 486). As literacy rates rose, especially after World War II, so did the production of books. Book buyers were soon finding a large amount of books to choose from, with few signs of the quality of the book itself palpable to the average reader. It is here that the decoration of book covers began to really develop.
In the 1970s when the artist-cum-bookjacket designer Fred Marcellino began designing covers, he inspired many publishers to seek a better quality cover. Marcellino took the time to actually read the books and draw from the piece’s full meaning for his inspiration. Marcellino rejected the common tip sheets that were given to a majority of book cover designers, which summarize the basic plot and provide probable cover design. Instead, he read each novel for which he illustrated the cover, producing beautiful, simple and effective covers for each novel. In Marcellino’s 2001 obituary, Steven Heller of The New York Times describes Fred Marcellino as a freelance designer and illustrator who changed the way book covers and jackets for contemporary fiction are designed.
Book cover design started as an unknown and uncomplicated field, yet it quickly became what many believe to be a key selling point for publishers. Book cover design continued to be competitive even after artists began to follow Marcellino’s example; the market demanded higher quality and allure. With the work and influence of Marcellino, along with other technological and consumer-based developments in society, an entirely new field of art and design emerged. John Updike, in his New Yorker article Deceptively Conceptual: Books and Their Covers, describes the postwar book designer as having two audiences: other designers (who hope for art), and bookstore browsers (whose hopes are molded by publishers). Pleasing both the specialist and idle, curious browser is a tall order for the cover artist.
These two groups may tug the artist in different directions, but the designer still cherishes an overall goal, which Updike perfectly describes: to be different; a whisper becomes a shout, and the ugly becomes beautiful if it attracts attention. Designers have gone to great lengths to attain such notice while competing with the other books on the shelf. The desire to be different has caused book cover images to stray from the natural (such as photos and images of nature). This desire not only influences the images, but also impacts the method of composition itself, which today rarely involves organic processes such as hand-drawing. Artists rarely go to a drawing board to create pieces of cover art, as Marcellino did, but rather to the computer and programs that enable them to distort subjects until they wear a patina of originality. Designers of covers and jackets have all but ceased to draw. Rather than generate images, designers manipulate them. Despite Updike’s criticism, this style of design produces covers that not only seem contemporary and edgy, but eerily timeless. The goal for designers is always to create a cover that comes as close to universal appeal as possible. There are a few definite biases within the art, such as the use of solid colors and simple images. Such broad, general designs enable those of both genders and all races and ages to identify with the image. The more universal, the more chances more people will like it. This raises the probability of selling the book.
Contemporary covers manage to successfully capture the current trends in our nation, especially as technology evolves; as Eric Bryant with the Library Journal states, “every library contains a myriad of books documenting the impact of technology in the emerging information age and the parallel evolution of a media-saturated culture over the last two decades.” In their efforts to produce cover art that reaches a broad demographic, artists are still producing covers that blatantly convey the consumer’s effect on the progression of technology and the media. Even images associated with nature are doctored in order to produce a surreal, color-saturated or foggy cover. Yet the books sell, and designers’ ideas will continue to evolve along with whatever changes occur in society that affect the preferred aesthetic.
In the time since post-Marcellino developments, artists such as Chip Kidd have become giants in the field. Kidd himself has created something close to 1,500 book covers within the past twenty years. In his profile of Kidd, Patrick Burgoyne, an author and graphic designer, describes Chip’s experience with New York publisher Alfred A. Knopf. Kidd created covers for what he describes as “mainstream trade books”, such as Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park. Kidd’s covers are striking yet straightforward; they draw attention to the author’s name and book title (usually in large bold lettering) while also providing an intriguing image, including the Jurassic Park emblem used for the original film. His books definitely attract attention in the 21st century bookstore, and the authors often do well, whether Kidd’s art pulls them one way or the other is uncertain. But, as Kidd himself said, when publishers ask for a good book cover, “what they are really saying is that they want the book to be a bestseller and they seem to forget that a bestseller can look like anything: it doesn’t have to scream at you or jump off of the shelf.”
Brandt, Deborah. “Drafting U.S. Literacy.” College English May 2004: 485-503.
Bryant, Eric. “Mixing Messages: Graphic Design in Contemporary Culture.” Library Journal 15 March 1997: 60.
Burgoyne, Patrick. “Cover Stories.” Centaur Communications Ltd. 1 Dec. 2005: 50.
Heller, Steven. “Fred Marcellino, 61, Designer of Elegant Best-Seller Covers; [Obituary].” New York Times 15 July 2001: 1.23.
Penguin Books. 2007. Penguin Books Ltd. 20 April 2006 http://www.penguin.co.uk/static/cs/uk/0/aboutus/aboutpenguin_companyhistory.html
Updike, John. “Deceptively Conceptual; Books and Their Covers.” The New Yorker 17 Oct. 2005: 173.
Vienne, V’ronique. “By Its Cover: Modern American Book Cover Design.” Print Sept/Oct 2005: 168-171.
Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. “Fred Marcellino.” 9 Nov. 2005. Wikipedia Foundation, Inc. 31 Jan. 2006 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fred_Marcellino.
Yampbell, Cat. “Judging a Book by Its Cover: Publishing Trends in Young Adult Literature.” The Lion and the Unicorn Sept 2005: 348-373. 20 April 2006 http://joyce.msk.ru/ulysses/info4.htm.
E.L. Doctorow. “Four Characters Under Two Tyrannies” 20 April 2006 http://yanko.lib.ru/books/db/kundera-about.htm.
“Alex Ioshpe’s ‘Jurassic Park’ Site” 20 April 2006 http://www.geocities.com/Hollywood/Studio/3469/jp.html.