I was having a ponder the other day on life, the universe and all that, and began turning over the subject of book covers. The question I was trying to answer was simple…why do book covers change whilst album covers stay the same?
Odd, isn’t it?
The very thought of changing the album sleeve to, say, Dark Side of the Moon, would fill a graphic designer (and Pink Floyd fans) with horror. I mean, can you imagine Nirvana’s Nevermind being reissued with a goldfish, instead of a baby? Or, taking it further, having the cover completely reimagined as a deodorant can that says ‘Teen Spirit’ on it.
It doesn’t work, does it? Album covers have to stay the same otherwise the world seems wrong.
So why is it different for books?
There is the old adage about never judging a book by its cover. (Although, to be honest, I’ve never understood that saying. Before I could read I was judging books entirely by their covers.) There’s simply too many books out there. You need to look good to get noticed, it’s sad, but true. The look of a book will determine not only how many people pick it up, but exactly who picks it up. Chick Lit books go for cream covers, thin spiral like fonts, lots of pink and maybe an image like a doodle on a paper bag. Mens’ thriller books…HUGE author names like Sid Rifle and Jake Bullet with an exploding something or other and a title like ‘The Illuminati Conspiracy Code Enigma Mystery Puzzle Treasure’ – but making books look similar within genres it becomes easier to draw readers at a glance (they become programmed to pick up a book based on the cover style by instinct).
If you look on sites like Smashwords you’ll see tons of books that have poorly designed covers. This is normally the result of a writer not having any design friends and having to make one themselves – which is a shame because I’m sure they sweated adverbs to get their novel perfect, and yet, they slap a clipart dog on the front with some comic-sans which gives me a feeling inside that this might not be the book for me.
Here’s some book covers that rock my world, and others that make me howl like a banshee whose foot has found a misplaced Lego brick on the living room floor.
Josh Kirby’s Discworld Covers
Some years ago, an absolute buffoon decided that Terry Pratchett’s books needed some ‘alternative’ covers. And lo, a decision as bad as headbutting an unstable nuclear warhead came to pass…and we were given these ‘things’. Now, I’m not a blinkered Pratchett fan (in truth I’ve read very few of his books – he writes them quicker than I read them) but I know a good book cover when I see one, and in my opinion Josh Kirby’s designs are as responsible for the success of Discworld as the stories themselves. Sure, the books have to be good or else nobody reads them, but Kirby’s covers bring them to life even before you’ve read a word. When you see those spines on someone’s bookshelf, things feel right. They are big playful signposts that shout with joy ‘You’re in Fantasy Land. And it’s fun!’ Frankly, seeing a Discworld book in any other sleeve is not only wrong, it’s an affront to common decency.
A book so entrenched in the public consciousness it would be almost impossible to make us notice it any more, or so you’d think. But last week on Brick Lane I saw a new design (above left) that made me smile. It’s subtle. It’s beautiful. It’s a stroke of absolute genius that not only intrigues you into picking the book up, but perfectly wraps up the book’s themes. Hats off to the creative on this one.
Contrast this with the one I read at school (above right). This one stinks. Same book, very different designs that give you a very different feel.
Paul Sample’s work for Tom Sharpe
I remember my dad had lots of Tom Sharpe books. As a kid I would look at his shelf and be drawn to the awesome illustrations of Paul Sample and ask, ‘when could I read them?’ The bawdy, risqué. chaotic and comic covers conjured up the feeling of fun even before I’d read a word. I wanted in. I wanted access to the madness. And eventually at thirteen I read Wilt, which was a mistake because I had no clue what was going on and most of it went completely over my innocent head.
It’s no surprise Sample’s style stuck throughout Sharpe’s career and just like Kirby with the Discworld books, Sharpe undoubtedly benefited from having such immediately identifiable lively covers as these.
Paul Hogarth’s Hamlet
As the singer Morissey once almost said ‘Some covers are better than others’ and on occasion a frankly horrible design can hit the shelf that burns me up. Firstly, as a Graphic Designer (in my real job) I hate seeing people getting paid for substandard ineffectual work. Secondly, I feel the artist has let the book down.
Consider the classics: here is a masterful achievement in literature, something someone spent hours at candlelight scratching into parchment with a quill – and a designer has spent half hour doing a poo on photoshop and thinks that’s acceptable. It…is….not. Take the case above. Penguin’s ‘Green’ classic series, a poor gimmick that I believe has now gone the way of the Betamax. The idea was that they were green, and cheap, and eco-friendly. Nobody could be offended by that, could they? Wrong! I can’t remember what I said when I first saw these monstrosities appearing in bookshops but I remember being asked to leave the shop. They are hideous. Slip one of the greatest works of literature in a bad cover and you are doing nothing but insulting it. It’s like putting the Mona Lisa in a Hello Kitty frame from PoundLand.
Now, contrast this with Paul Hogarth’s 1970s front cover for Hamlet. Simple, clean and striking. Shakespeare in totally over the top swirly font action, then add a nice watercolour of a skull. I might be looking at this with rose-tinted glasses (as I remember this from my youth) but of all the different versions of Hamlet, this front cover remains my favourite by a Danish mile. It oozes character.
Jasper Fforde front covers
I tried to find the name of the artist responsible for these but Google let me down (and I don’t have a physical copy to hand). If you’re unfamiliar with the series you will have seen the covers before. They are immediate and lively, with big fonts and lots of colour. I personally like the attention to detail with the page tears and rips. In a crowded marketplace they stand out and look great…they scream fun and adventure. Contrast this with some of the other designs for the book. Once you’ve seen the above, the others just don’t come close.
BLOG POST UPDATE:
Since posting this there’s been a few developments and updates (people got back to me explaining some of the design choices for the Penguin light green design). You can read more here. Thanks.