23rd May 2014 - Bruce Bailey
The growth of ebooks has only heightened importance of cover design as publishers focus ever more on making physical books into desirable objects to own. Bruce Bailey, from our Westfield Stratford City branch, looks at some of most recent ways that readers' eyes have been caught.
One of the many things one learns working in bookshops (I've worked in the book trade for the last ten years) is that the oft spoken warning never to judge a book by its cover is not always strictly true. And though I understand this adage applies really more to moral situations and social interactions than actual books, it is interesting to note just how often the opposite is true. Whether for good or bad, a little experience will enable to you to discern more or less what you're going to get when that cover is first flipped over. And this is not always a bad thing.
Many authors (and their publishers) eschew traditional cover design in favour of a uniform look across their oeuvre; and though this more often occurs when paperback editions are published (such as Jon Ronson's books and various science fiction and fantasy series) it is highly effective. Even the novelty covers of the new Pulp! The Classics series, though well executed, still adorn a series of sure-sell certainties. Yet more authors and publishers rely on tried and trusted schemes and fonts, often latching on to a proven design for a specific genre: (woman sitting next to window with book or cat on lap; woman staring out of the cover (though never at the reader); dirt roads; swirly stars; hands and swords and sandals); these all tell the reader that, though appreciation of quality is as subjective as appreciation of its obverse, the book they have in their hands is what they are after. It's a functional and successful system, as increasing sales of bestselling titles tells us. It's not always very interesting though.
Then every now and then a book comes along with a cover that takes you aback, and there have been a few recently. S by JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst for instance, is a beautifully designed item in all respects; its mock library stickers and traditional binding, the slip-case with the fastening sticker all form part of, not just the aesthetic design of the book, but the place the book is to take in the world of fiction, and within the world it tries to create for itself. What it does not do, however, is give us any idea about what treasures lie within, we just know that they're in there.
Other designs, though perhaps just as inspired and individual, are harder to fathom. There has been a minor move recently away from the traditional board and dust-wrapper idea for first editions with many publishers producing some novels and non-fiction titles with rubbery, laminated printed boards, some as oversized paperbacks with French flaps, and yet others taking this further and doing away with spines altogether. This has been common in Art and Design books for a while now, and the hardback edition of Ruth Ozeki's latest novel A Tale For the Time Being was done this way. It works, it sets the novel apart from all others on the same shelf, it makes you want to pick it up and hold it and open it and, yes, read it. So a successful cover can hint at what's within, it can be a beautiful image in it's own right, it can be functional, it can be puzzling, but it must make you look (even if this look is a comedy double-take) and look again.
Which brings us to the perhaps the most striking cover of the year so far. Look Who's Back by Timur Vermes has a startling cover. In stark black on white, it is a masterpiece of simple, effective, captivating design. (It's the image used on the original German-language edition and has been adapated for use with almost every translated version.)
It leaves the reader in no doubt whatsoever about the subject-matter of the novel and its potential tone, but it does so in a way that is both funny and subversive. It plays on the fact that the image on the cover has almost entered our worldwide schema to the point where all that is needed is a stylized sweep of hair, and, a few inches beneath that, cunningly fashioned as the title of the book, probably the most iconic lip-topiary in history. It assumes a narrative and a history and a warning and an invitation all at once, by providing the elements of the face of the most recognisable villain in history using just simple shapes, as one would label the buttons on a remote control, but forces us to construct it for ourselves. It certainly stands out on the shelf.