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How to Judge a Book by its Cover

24 July 2017

From Design Observer:

AIGA and Design Observer’s 50 Books | 50 Covers competition, which reviews and awards the best of book and cover designs published within the past year, has just concluded its 94th cycle. We’re pleased to announce this year’s winning cover and winning book selections, along with a few trends the judges couldn’t help but notice while digging deep into the stacks to pare nearly 700 submissions down to 100 final selections.

. . . .

As popular as the ebook (supposedly) is these days, to our judges—Gail Anderson, designer and professor at the School of Visual Arts in New York City; Michael Carabetta, Creative Director of Chronicle Books; and Jessica Helfand, Co-Founder of this publication—the strongest trends from the hundreds of selections they reviewed were of the tactile variety.

. . . .

Carabetta, who has previously juried the competition, noted after a full day of reviewing entries that the final books selected were excellent “not only in design—[but] in production; in paper, mixing coated and uncoated… People are getting into the real, physical qualities of the book.” He went on, “Maybe it’s because of the screen age we live in that they are appreciating the tactile quality.”

The book, in the mind of the bibliophile, has been threatened for some time now: due to the adoption of radio, or tv, or the direction that the current political wind is blowing. And book designers responded to these influences in the way designers know best—visually. In one particularly symbolic example, author Ray Bradbury ensured his 1953 book, Fahrenheit 451, would avoid the untimely demise experienced by those books of his plotline by binding the second edition in fireproof asbestos to prevent its burning.

With the adoption of ebooks, it seemed book lovers everywhere were not able to shake the fear that the humble object of their affection–a book created by the art of ink on paper (no battery required)–was similarly under fire. But the book has persisted in new forms, designed in even more inventive and delightful ways with each passing year. After reviewing one cover design, Anderson said, “This is one of those covers that I wish I’d done, but can now never attempt because the designer executed it perfectly.” If that’s not a high accolade, I’m not sure what is.

Link to the rest at Design Observer

PG is not an expert on cover design (plus a great many more subjects), but he had a difficult time picking a couple of award winners that he actually thought were well-designed for inclusion at the bottom of this post.

From the photos and descriptions in the OP, PG surmised that the judges of the design competition may have performed their duties entirely with physical books without examining how those covers translated to a computer or smartphone screen.

He has no doubt that the tactile qualities of the paper, etc., were lovely in person. However, a book cover is, first and foremost, a marketing and promotion tool. Tactile qualities only contribute to book sales in physical bookstores.

If the covers are only attractive and attention-getting in their physical forms and fail electronically, PG suggests they have also failed in their principal business purpose. Cover designers can probably have a lot more fun with a physical instantiation of their creations, especially with interesting papers, textures, etc., but if the objective is to enhance sales of the book, the cover will fail if it flops on Amazon.


Some Rain Must Fall and other stories
AUTHOR: Michel Faber
PUBLISHER: Canongate Books
OTHER CREDITS: Illustrator: Yehrin Tong

The Children‘s Home
AUTHOR: Charles Lambert
DESIGNER: Jaya Miceli


Advertising-Promotion-Marketing, Covers

30 Comments to “How to Judge a Book by its Cover”

  1. Sorry guys, you can’t get ‘tactile’ from a webpage. (And I see PG covers that as well.)

    I’d have more faith in their so-called ‘choices’ if they didn’t deliberately pretend that ‘most’ readers still only shop for books in bookstores. (And edge on most people will never bother picking them up to look at the cover …)

  2. Several of those are un-readable in small form on my screen. Their thumb-nails would be impossible. And two probably don’t work on my black-and-white Kindle because of the lack of contrast.

    As you say, PG, the designers and judges focused strictly on print and shelf, not e-edition.

  3. “It never ceases to amaze me how well type-only covers can carry a book cover or (fill in the blank),” said Carabatta of one cover design, with Helfand saying of another: “The type says it all.”

    Isn’t this exactly the sort of thing that works best as an icon on a screen as well?

  4. I would note that a “tactile” cover is also only useful in a bookstore – when the visual appearance actually draws you to pick it up! (Assuming your title gets front-faced in the first place. The big advantage of being on line is that your cover is always front-faced, not just another spine.)

  5. I recently browsed across a book that I bought almost entirely because of the cover…


    • Ooh, that does look like fun. I bought the trade paperback of “The Night Circus” simply because my phone wasn’t getting enough bars for me to look up the cover designer. It had a stepback cover, and I wondered if that type of cover was making inroads into fantasy, instead of only VC Andrews and romance novels.

    • I was a beta reader on that book!

  6. There are great covers (I covet the cover of The Goldfinch). But a great many covers are created by designers who leave me utterly mystified (and many authors have preceded me in being totally unimpressed by the covers their publishers have foisted on them).

    At least we indies make our own decisions.

    This reminds me of Mexico City, my home town, where the epitome of being middle class is to have your house designed by an architect, one of a kind. The ratio of monstrosities of marble, glass, and chrome to houses I might buy and live in is enormous – what’s the point of having a house designed for you if it doesn’t stand out?

    Rank after rank of horrible and horribly mismatched ‘creations’ line the streets of the Lomas, a swanky area, each one more expensive than the next older one.

  7. If you think Jackson Pollock was a better artist than was, say, Caravaggio, you might think many of these 50 covers are top-flight.

    I think Pollock was chiefly a poseur. Likewise for most of these covers. They not only fail in terms of marketing, but they fail as art.

    Take the cover for “Everywhen”. The book is about indigenous art in Australia. You’d never guess from the cover, which is stark white except for large black letters of only the middle of the title, giving “very,” followed by a partial “w”. There is no subtitle, no tag line, no author name, nothing but a partial word.

    At best one could say this cover uses clever lettering, but it’s too clever by half, since it gives the prospective buyer no sense at all of the book’s genre (unless typography has been part of indigenous art in Australia).

    “Everywhen” works as a cover–if it works at all as a cover–only if you find it odd enough to induce you to pick up the physical book, open it, and discover that it’s on a topic you really want to read about.

    One positive point: the four-and-a-half large letters stand out against the white background, so this cover is easy to read at thumbnail size.

  8. I like the “Accidence Will Happen” cover because it neatly demonstrates what it’s about, as does the “Brevity” book. But most of the text-based covers were hard to decipher.

    I’ve never liked the Charlie Jane Anders cover because it never conveyed science fantasy — and I love science fantasy and want more of it. Instead it looked like the bad literary that masquerades as sci-fi/fantasy while being a ponderous bore. One day I’ll investigate the book just in case I’m missing something, but the cover did not sell it.

    The Angelus trilogy book looked like something I’d pick up just to see what it’s about. Did its job.

  9. I was … not impressed. And as I perused the gallery of winners, I tried to click on a book, to see if I wanted to buy.

    No dice. The gallery is for informational purposes only – helping the authors (and designers) actually *sell* books seems to be beneath them. The designers get all this recognition, and the recognition helps to … sell books? Actually achieve the purpose of designing a book cover? *Snort.* Not on your life. They want only to swell their egos and CVs.

    I’d rather hire a designer that was intent on selling the book. I think that the publishers just proved that hiring one of these designers was a wasted investment – anyone trying to win an award isn’t paying attention to their first responsibility.

    • I tried to click on one of the illegible covers to get a bigger image to view. As you know, that didn’t work either. Apparently, you need to visit a well-stocked physical bookstore to get any further information, something I’m not likely to do.

      • A web page documenting artwork that doesn’t use the features of the medium to let the viewer view the art.

        That’s some kind of MetaDesignFail tm right there.

  10. All too many of these just make me say “They don’t want me to know what the book is called. I guess they don’t want me to read it, either.”

  11. I’m usually at a loss as to why some people seem to like some truly atrocious covers. I guess trad pub can do no wrong? But then, I see some cover designers that people are just gaga over, and I don’t get it. Must be why I think my covers are pretty good! lol

  12. With a few exceptions, more examples of the Emperor walking about in the Full Monty. Elitism probably does sell some books, but I’d suggest it’s to a rather small target market.

  13. Too many are the designer being self-congratulatory with a visual joke at the expense of aiding the reader in finding the book they want. One book, “Redskins”, is designed with a serious disregard of the needs of the bookseller — the cover shocks with racial epithets. Sure, that’s an artistic statement, but it’s going to keep it out of the windows of Barnes & Noble.

    The Penguin science fiction and fantasy line is especially disappointing to me as a genre reader. Here’s a genre of imagination, of vision, of bringing to the reader alien sights both grand and intimate, and the covers are blah san serif letters on a solid cover background. There’s no wonder, no honoring the authors’ unique visions, no indication the cover designer or publisher cares about the content at all. Spreadsheet entries rearranged on a page. Not a volume I’d want to give as a gift to new readers. Not something I’d fondly remember growing up.

  14. Good grief!!! … my eyes! They bleed!

  15. What’s the standard for judging? Did it include achieving the purposes of a cover? Like selling books?

    Was one of the purposes an expression of tactile qualities?

  16. Most of these are so aggressively awful I feel like the designer was just trolling in order to prove how meaningless competitions like this are. (I’m looking at you, “Everywhen”.)

  17. A book cover has to be easy to read for me, whether it’s physical or electronic. If I have to spend more than a few seconds trying to figure out what a title says, they have lost me. I doubt that the interior is much more coherent. A great many of the titles featured on the OP are indecipherable, at least to me.

  18. The big difference is that these covers are meant to be art, and TPV is focused on commerce.
    We can each learn from the other.
    For example, there is no good reason that some of these covers make the title and/or author unclear. Meanwhile, commercial writers should also appreciate the aesthetic.

    • TPV may be focused on commerce, but these are book covers. If the designers want to create art for art’s sake without any commercial contemplations, they should be creating art they put in galleries. If they want to do it in book covers, they can join the ranks of those who are re-imagining old books with different covers (it’s a standard art school exercise.)

      But to be paid for advertising and marketing someone else’s work for sale, and then to create an “art for art’s sake” cover for it without any thought to how that will help or hinder connecting the book with its audience of readers…

      That’s fundamentally dishonest. It’s trashing somebody else’s work in order to parade your own. It’s like taking a city’s money to build a bridge and giving them a peace sculpture of doves flying out of exploded guns. Whether or not it is good art, the artist broke the trust of the buyer and any observers by neither giving them what they wanted, nor what they needed, and for what? So they could gratify their own ego?

      And, as we’re noting here, when an artist and a designer ignored the very foundation of how their work will affect others, it’s usually terrible art, too.

      • God Bless common sense, for it’s been wandering about for a while.

      • Agree. Aesthetic and commercial value are orthogonal. You can care about one or the other or both. Your choice.

        A commercially effective cover may have zero aesthetics, a aesthetically fantastic cover may discourage sales. The problem is that aesthetics do not have objective criteria. My wonderful Jackson Pollock is your paint rag, but sales numbers are sales numbers.

        Authors should ask for what they want and get it. If you don’t specify what you want, it’s a crap shoot.

        • I’d argue that aethetically pleasing is crucial to commercial effectiveness, in anything other than short-lived gimmickry. Humans like Truth and Beauty – so to give them something that is both true (this is what’s inside) and beautiful is far more likely to sell.

          The number of books that have been sold on the strength of a Michael Whelan painting, or a Dan Dos Santos, or Larry Elmore, or Frank Franzetta, or even Damonza let loose with his awesome design skills on unsuspecting stock art…

          And even when we get to typography, we can evaluate based on symmetry, related font families between author and title, whether the font conveys genre, and the “fit” with the background image. Done well, it’s pleasing to the eyes. Done badly, and it looks wrong, clumsy, or amateur. And what is aesthetics if not being pleasing to the eye?

          Granted, to the finest minds in New York who’ve been so maleducated that they can honestly believe chaining yourself naked to a bridge and flinging green jello at the passersby while screaming epithets is “performance””art” on par with Monet doing en plein air or Shakespeare’s company, creating useless partial-word book covers that convey neither truth nor beauty may be high art. To those of us in flyover country who want to make a living selling our art to the public (and needing a book cover to do so), though, that’s just crazy. And less than worthless, it’s actively harmful to our art.

          • I quite agree. Aesthetics and commercial value can and most often do work together. The problem is that commercial value is easily measured, but we can never be sure how commercial value is influenced by aesthetics. Personally, I hate intentionally ugly covers that garner clicks because they are ugly. It’s hard not to like covers that get clicks because they are beautiful, but don’t accurately convey the book they represent. However, eventually after I click and purchase, I resent being seduced by beauty that does not reflect content.
            I wish it were easier, but it seems like we have to strive for a pleasing cover that accurately depicts the book we have to offer.
            What’s not hard in this endeavor?

          • I quite agree. Aesthetics and commercial value can and most often do work together. The problem is that commercial value is easily measured, but we can never be sure how commercial value is influenced by aesthetics.
            Personally, I hate ugly covers that garner clicks because they are ugly. It’s hard not to like covers that get clicks because they are beautiful, but I cringe when they don’t accurately convey the book they represent. Eventually after I click and purchase, I resent being seduced by beauty that does not reflect content.
            I wish it were easier, but it seems like we have to strive for a pleasing cover that accurately depicts the book we have to offer.
            What’s not hard in this endeavor?

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