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A colorful history of judging books by their covers

20 December 2017

From the Washington Post:

We are cautioned to avoid judging a book by its cover, yet that is precisely what publishers hope we will do. Dust jacket illustration, which came into its own in the 1920s, has long deserved recognition as a serious art form. If any doubt remains, Martin Salisbury’s splendid survey, “The Illustrated Dust Jacket, 1920-1970 ,” should dispel it. In these pages, he describes how utilitarian commercial designs became an “important branch of the applied arts” and gave rise to manuals, guilds and exhibitions by those who saw not only artistic possibilities but also a new avenue of work for illustrators who relied on freelance commissions.

Book jackets are, admittedly,a peculiar art. The most memorable ones usually approach a book indirectly. In fact, Salisbury says that “visual metaphor is often more effective than explicit representation in the distillation of the text into image.” At its best, a classic jacket, joining hand-rendered lettering with traditional portraiture and landscape painting, became an appealing glimpse into a book, welcoming readers inside.

. . . .

Leading art movements wound up on display in bookstore windows. A lively Bloomsbury sensibility can be appreciated in Vanessa Bell’s designs for her sister Virginia Woolf’s books, published by the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press. In the 1920s and ’30s, dynamic Art Deco styles, such as Aubrey Hammond’s, thrived alongside rosy-cheeked knights and pioneers of Brandywine School artist N.C. Wyeth. Editor Maxwell Perkins enlisted Cleonike Damianakes to appeal to female readers when publishing Hemingway and Fitzgerald.

Link to the rest at the Washington Post

Here are three of Vanessa Bell’s covers:






PG took the liberty of experimenting with one of Ms. Bell’s cover designs.



And another:



8 Comments to “A colorful history of judging books by their covers”

  1. Styles have changed, indeed. Those are horrible covers, IMHO. And certainly not ‘colorful.’

    I think we call that style ‘precious.’

  2. We are cautioned to avoid judging a book by its cover, yet that is precisely what publishers hope we will do.

    I’ve done it forever with novels. In my many years buying in bookstores, I’d stand back from the racks of face-out books, and just glance over them. Some attracted my attention, so I read the blurb. If I liked the blurb, I bought it. It was a remarkably successful system judging by how much I subsequently liked the book. Online buying doesn’t offer the same opportunity.

  3. I like your versions better, PG.

  4. Titles attract me more than covers. Unless it’s really, really bad or really, really good I don’t pay much attention to book covers.

  5. I think all of them are terrible, but I’ve never been fond of covers that are primarily text or strange designs. I’ve noticed a strong trend lately among tradpub to text-only or primarily-text covers, which may explain why I’ve had so little interest in reading any recent tradpub books. A quality piece of original art (meaning a digital painting of some kind, usually) or a nice photoshopped piece using three or more separate elements is usually much more appealing to me.

    • Except for the Bell one, which interests me because it looks like something from William Blake or another cool antique book, the covers shown don’t do it for me, either, though I recognize it’s mainly because they’re dated. But it’s interesting how different people are in what attracts them to a book cover. I’m drawn mostly to titles and concepts; coverwise, I’m sometimes drawn to colors, text, and iconic/symbolic designs, sometimes to representative art…but the latter can also strongly repel me if it looks goofy, cheesy, or amateurish in any way. And I really tend to dislike covers with disaparate elements photoshopped together, especially if it’s not done so expertly you can’t tell on casual inspection that it’s a shop (which is REALLY hard to do). That’s probably a significant part of why I don’t read more self-published books.

      • It probably has to do with the fact that characters are by far the most important part of a book for me, so I like the cover to have some representation of the character(s). That’s just what I connect with. A book cover that focuses more on conveying mood or theme is too nebulous and feely to do anything for me. (I mean, obviously a good cover should hit on mood and theme as well, but you can do all that without it needing to be the primary/sole focus.) And yeah, bad photoshops are bad, but bad text is also bad. A bad cover is a bad cover, no matter what style it is attempting. There are lots of very talented and affordable cover artists out there these days. Unless someone is truly flat broke, there’s really no excuse for having a horrible cover. But there are a lot of authors who insist on making their own covers when they absolutely they don’t have the necessary talent for it, for reasons other than being flat broke.

        None of which explains at all why so many tradpub covers are horrible. I’m reading one now that is from 5 years ago or so. Looking at the photoshopped cover, it’s not awful, but I’m like, “I could do that in about half an hour or less, and I’m not even that great at photoshopping.” I think the indie demand for covers has raised the bar on what a good cover should look like, and I think a lot of people in the tradpub arena have maybe failed to recognize that. Or maybe they see that so many indie books are photo/photoshop-based, and that’s precisely why they’re trending toward text/graphics-based covers. Indies can hire someone to do some good photoshopping. Hiring someone to do fully custom graphic design is a bit different, and probably much more expensive.

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