Three Ways of Looking at Book Covers and Their Design

Book covers are a marketing tool.  They are meant to help convince us that of all the books available, this one is right for us.  But is that all they are?  What of the many cover designs that have become iconic, that have wormed their way into our wider culture?  Below are three items that challenge us to examine cover design, and its implications, more closely.

Gender-Free Book Cover Design

Young Adult Literature Author Maureen Johnson brought attention to the problem of gendered book covers by challenging her twitter followers to “take a well-known book, then to imagine the author of that book was of the opposite gender, or was genderqueer, and imagine what that cover might look like.”  Click through to view some of the contributors’ results:

gendered covers

Book Blocs

The New Yorker reports that beginning in 2011, book blocs, large shields built to resemble book covers, have been used by demonstrators in protest of tuition increases at educational institutions in New blocks new yorkFirst appearing in Rome, book blocs have since been utilized by protesters in Sweden, Spain, England, and multiple states of the US.  Culturally charged, the blocs can act as both physical protection for protesters and as symbols for the ideas and knowledge considered at stake.

Book Designer Chip Kidd’s TED Talk

Chip Kidd explains how he created the designs for some of his best known cover projects, including Jurassic Park and Murakami’s 1Q84, proving that “great art can be great business.”

For more on cover design, view our previous post:  Book Covers — a Web Miscellany

Bookish Videos — Part 2

Bookish Spaces

Inside the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum

Inside an Oxford University Press Distribution Centre

One Amazing Private Library

Virginia Woolf’s House and Writing Studio

Literary Short Films

The Last Bookshop

Play by Samuel Beckett

Lady Lazarus–1991 Experimental Film Featuring the Work of Sylvia Plath

For More of the Above, Check Out Bookish Videos — Part 1

Literary News and Bookish Potpourri — March 13, 2013

book as hat

Awards and Honours

Sir James Wallace Awards winners 2013 -- 2book-icon-smallestSir James Wallace Creative Writing Awards Winners

PEN Faulkner 2013

book-icon-smallest2013 PEN/Faulkner Award Finalists

book-icon-smallestHilary Mantel David Cohen PrizeMantel wins 2013 David Cohen Prize 

gecko press logo

book-icon-smallestNZ’s Gecko Press Nominated for Bologna Prize for Year’s Best Children’s Book Publisher

Coffee Shop Ambience + Creativity

book-icon-smallestcoffinityCoffinity — Coffee Shop Sounds to Boost Creativity


book-icon-smallestpalahnuik vs foster wallaceWho Said It — Palahnuik or Foster Wallace?

mental floss logo

book-icon-smallestName the 25 Most Common 3-Letter Words

Bookish Silliness

book-icon-smallestlego hogwartsEight Insane Literary Lego Projects

book-icon-smallestquerty rubix cubeQwerty Rubik’s Cube

Our Favourite Covers of 2010

Anis Shivani of the Huffington Post has recently compiled a list of the 21 Coolest Book Covers of 2010 (  This has gotten the vicbooks team thinking about our favourites.  While many are books we have yet to read (though some, like the new edition of the Alice B. Toklas cookbook, are waiting patiently on shelves at home), these are the covers that have attracted us most this year:

Emulating Woodcuts and Stencils:

The limited colour palette of these covers, when combined with the woodcut-like style draws the eye with a deceptive simplicity.  All three include water as an element.

Cornucopia of Images:

Unlike the collages we made as children, randomly clipped magazines drenched in paste, these covers overlap and combine images in a compelling fashion. Though similar, the leftmost suggests that more is contained than revealed by the clam’s shell while that on the right is a fully riotous explosion.

Utilizing Font and Colour to Emulate Another Decade:

Although all three do so in different ways, these covers seem to prepare the reader for a certain time in history before the pages have been opened.

Exceptional Use of Colour:

There is something to be said for bright colours on book covers.  In a year where blacks, whites, reds, and creams have abounded, these three stand out.

All-out Beauty:

The cover of Lloyd Jones’ new work successfully combines all elements (colour, texture, and font) in a way that is earthy, primal, and mysterious.

This is perhaps the first book cover that has ever utterly compelled me to buy a book.  The beauty and vulnerability depicted in the bear’s embrace just stunned me.  When I opened the flap and discovered that this art was the work of Shaun Tan (The Arrival, The Lost Thing, Tales from Outer Suburbia), I immediately understood its appeal.

There is no doubt that the right cover can make the difference in a new book’s (and especially a new author’s) success.  But with the volume of new titles that come out each year, they can also make the difference between boredom and enthralment for the bookseller, as well as the avid browser.  Our thanks go out to the above artists for keeping us captivated in 2010.

Judging a Book by its Cover

And why the hell not.

Usually used as a cautionary moral, don’t judge a book by its cover, has always rankled a little. For many years I harboured a secret guilt that I did just that, judging by veneer, only looking skin deep, ya-da ya-da blah. Then I saw a friend put an inordinate effort into choosing a frame for a painting. When questioned her response was, It has to fit’. I don’t see why the same shouldn’t apply to books.

There’s a striking irony that exists in cover art (though this might say more about me than my argument…): the USA, a place known more for being a giant mall, where neither style nor substance win over marketing, produce the best book designs – not just the covers, but book production. Yet the UK, which has that air of Continental Artistry and intellectual depth, where substance travels hand in hand with design, produces more lacklustre tomes.

That’s painting with pretty broad brushstrokes and, of course, there are many exceptions, but I’ve found it generally holds true. If one takes the same book from each market, and holds them side-by-side, it’s pretty easy to pick the US edition. Unfortunately the commonwealth market follows the UK trend.

As a youth I was a SF geek of the first order. Book covers were an integral part in my selection process, revealing the genre of the book, its subtext and tendency. Many were awful, tacky images involving spaceships and weird aliens, often embossed on a slightly metallic looking cover. But I was often after exactly that sort of book. Hard or literary SF usually had more complex covers, maintaining the futuristic signifiers while conveying an added literary dimension.

On the right is an excellent example of an indulgent, genre-fied SF cover, which tells you pretty much exactly what you’re going to get (dinosaurs and laser cannons!).

On the left, is a counter example, a rich novel of depth and splendour, whose cover reflects its SF subject matter and literary aspirations.

I think one can and should be able to judge a book by its cover. Book design should reflect its content; be it crime, literary fiction or non-fiction (many new books are deliberately designed to closely resemble successful books of the same theme for exactly that reason – the Da Vinci Code and its clones being an obvious example – possibly lazy, but definitely effective, if only for booksellers like myself).

Our brains are wired to make judgements, so the information our eyes feed it should assist that process. A well designed book is a beautiful thing, not to mention an excellent way to catch the public’s eye. You can follow cover designs like bread-crumbs, leading the shelf-perusing reader along paths of visual cues and treats, out of the forest of overwhelming choice to the meadows of historical fiction, through the sleek hallways of SF, and into the dark alleyways of crime noir.

Here are some wonderfully designed books, exemplars of being able to judge a book by its cover, designs that capture something essential of the book while also being beautiful to look at:

All the more meaningful the deeper into the (excellent) novel you get

A brilliant novel about the mental and emotional disintegration of a master chess player
Minimalist genius
The Rorschach image, combined with the flowers, capture the beauty of this heart breaking novel in a way almost all other cover versions have failed

An austere and menacing image ideal for the book
Ridiculous but somehow capturing a note of seriousness. It perfectly captures the tone of this wonderful novel
A superb pun played out in image
One of the simplest and most beautiful covers of all time. Perfect.

So I say judge a book by its cover! You’ll miss out occasionally, sure, and you may also get fooled once in a while, but a book that is sufficiently loved by author and publisher is treated lovingly in design. If you’re American. If you’re from the UK or the Commonwealth it can a bit of a lottery.

Marcus Greville

eBooks on vicbooks (VUP & meBooks & stuff)

We, vicbooks, have started selling eBooks. VUP’s eBooks. And it really is just the beginning.

VUP stands for Victoria University Press.

VUP does not stand for Very Untoward Practices. But it could stand for Virtually Unparalleled Publications. Or we could just stick with Victoria University Press.

VUP is ahead of the NZ publishing curve, having started the conversion of their new releases and some of their backlist into eBooks. They have joined forces with meBooks, an excellent NZ eBook concern that wants to promote the conversion and sales of NZ content in the eBook market.

vicbooks is proud to be able to involve ourselves in promoting VUP titles in this format, and really grateful to meBooks for putting in huge amounts of work for it to be possible.

This is the thin edge of the wedge – soon other independent and spirited NZ publishers will be following suit, making available a wealth of NZ content to the emerging eBook market. As soon as the big publishers catch up with their more nimble colleagues NZ books will be well and truly shooting ahead into the technological future. To see the current VUP collection, plus a few free titles from such luminaries as Katherine Mansfield, Robin Hyde and John Mulgan, that are not only quite juicy, but will soon make you the envy of all your eFriends, just follow the link.

It’ll be just like Star Trek. Just with more comprehensive footnotes.

Just so we’re clear:


Everyone is playing the speculation game over possible fates of the publishing industry, scrying the interweb for ebook and readership trends. Such divination is varied and seems full of either melancholic nostalgia or a barely suppressed Schadenfreude. It can get tiring reading about the iPad vs. the Kindle (like they’re Godzilla and Mothra biffing it out in downtown Tokyo) but it leads to an interesting substrate of literary reportage on smaller trends and how they may affect technology and readership habits. These trends, against the wishes of many looking at them, promise nothing of the future but may be able to teach the astute something about it.

A current favourite in the field of micro-trends is the erotica market. Its growth over the last year has been pretty phenomenal, rocketing upwards at a rate around 60% per annum, fast enough that blood would drain right out of your head for entirely appropriate reasons. It’s quite noticeable in the industry due to the proliferation of erotica imprints amongst the big boy publishers like Penguin, Hachette, Random House and HarperCollins, etc (identifiable by fractionally risqué names like Forever, Delacorte or the anti-eponymous Virgin) established in order to cash in on the escalating sales – sales one might very well call engorged.

On the bookshelves at your local store you’ll find various forms of erotica, the thin edge of the blade being ‘Paranormal Romance’ (though many prefer euphemisms like Vampire Porn or Bite & Bonk), which come in varied temperatures, from the angst-laden but fairly chaste Twilight novels to the Wolf Tales series, 8 volumes and counting, which is completely wanton and unquotably explicit.

But these are add-on sales; the true demographic growth in the erotica industry comes straight from no-fuss, get-on-down, purist erotica – the sales of which are huge and predominantly driven by women aged 25 to 40 with their blogs putting in the hard yards in terms of promotion. Their selections, be they Urban Fantasy, B&D, Paranormal Romance or more mainstream erotica, tend to have two things in common: 1. You won’t readily find them on your bookshop shelves, because almost everyone is too publicly embarrassed to buy them, bookshops and readers, and, 2. Good writing. That’s good writing, competent and engaging, not brilliant. A pastiche of sweaty encounters, described with florid prose, pounded out on a word processor isn’t going to cut it. Rather, well structured, engaging stories with believable characters that can be related to are the form that attracts attention. And, if done well, there is a lot of attention to be attracted. Erotic fantasies, after all, need to have characters, regardless of their fantastical situations, that one can place oneself in. But it is the genre as a whole that is worth paying attention to, rather than focussing on individual authors – mainstream authors like J.K. Rowling and John Grisham may sell squillions, but they are the aberrations that sustain a larger, barely profitable market. But the erotica market makes crazy money. The difference is the appetite. Feel free to read into that word.

Many erotica readers are moving from the pulp romance genre, your average Mills & Boons, to the more explicit, complex and intelligent erotica options (like the aforementioned Wolf Tales series) as readers become more sophisticated and less easy to please. The difference is greater depth of emotion, situation and exploration, layered, in this case, with more dynamic (or, at the very least, athletic) sex and relationships.

The really comforting thing for the smaller publishers who specialise in erotica is that their readers are quickly and efficiently embracing eBook technology, whose portability and pricing is a huge draw card, as well as the ability to read some pretty intense prose in public without anything other than a slight flush to give you away. No one can look at the cover and wonder what on earth that strange man is doing to that woman with his sword. (We must give honourable mention, at this point, to the recent audiobook formating of none-other than The Kama Sutra – put on tape so the blind or prudish can comfortably – or uncomfortably – experience it in the dark).

So, as people look to the future of great literature in the digital age, or even mass market authors like Jodi Picoult and Dan Brown, it may prove astute to pay attention to what genres people are reading more of now when trying to read the tea-leaves of publishing’s future, as that is where the interesting stuff is happening. For instance, the bizarre success of spin-off books from genre series – and I don’t mean Deidre’s Karma Sutra, I mean Debbie Macomber’s Cedar Cove Cookbook. Seriously, an imaginary cookbook from a romance novel. Take that expected demographics.

What lesson might an industry learn from the all this?

Books, in whatever format, are always about readership. You can feed and profit off readership, you can try to respond and predict readership. But before that you have to notice readership, because readership is hungry.

Another lesson, a little more abstract, yet all the more meaningful for it, is that if publishers don’t try and generate readership, in whatever genre, they’ll be all carrot and no whip. And vegetables only tempt so much.


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