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Friday, July 19, 2013

54

Where Have All the Good Book Covers Gone?

Tim Kreider, an essayist and cartoonist, writes at the New Yorker about the decline of the book cover:

The covers of most contemporary books all look disturbingly the same, as if inbred. It seems as if sixty-five per cent of all novels’ jackets feature an item of female apparel and/or part of the female anatomy and the name of some foodstuff in the title—the book-cover equivalent of the generic tough-guy-with-gun movie poster with title like “2 HARD & 2 FAST.” There’s clearly some brutally efficient Darwinian process at work here, because certain images—half-faces, napes, piers stretching into the water—spread like successful evolutionary adaptations and quickly become ubiquitous.

I have a fascination with book covers that will become more apparent on this website as time goes on, and I've been thinking about them a lot lately because of a recent late-night drunk purchase of the first six Animorphs books (which, disappointingly, now feature a clunky, freaky morph-card on the front rather than the inimitable perfection of the originals) as well as my supercool glow-in-the-dark copy of Robin Sloan's Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore (it's a real delight; more books should glow).

In this piece, Kreider talks about the sense of play visible in both sci-fi covers and the covers of children's books and YA, and laments its absence in today's formulas for "serious" adult literature: the single-object/serif-text/white-background Malcolm Gladwell-esque nonfiction cover, the epidemic of generic female backs. People have convincingly traced the decline of the contemporary book cover to the fact that these objects now have to look good as thumbnails, but even in thumbnail they continue to disappoint; I was window shopping on Amazon the other day and was saddened by how many buzzy works of literary fiction presented as 30-minute Photoshop hack jobs, just spare font over blurred sub-Tumblr image, and I wondered how the authors must feel.

Two irreversible trends are at fault here, neither of which can be altered by even a really persuasive essay. One is that the illustrated book cover, like painted movie posters or newspaper comics, is pretty much dead. Fonts, stock photos, and Photoshop are cheaper than commissioning illustrations. With the imminence of Kindles and e-readers, this is all moot anyway; soon enough, book covers, like album covers before them—like albums themselves, or sheet music for popular songs, or dance cards—will be a quaint, old-timey thing you have to explain to the uninterested young, and there’ll be one fewer excuse to strike up conversations with pretty strangers on the subway.

In another regrettable development, I am no longer thirteen, and apparently won’t be again... My youthful capacity for wonder at any form of art may have been permanently deadened by age, education, and one too many competent, forgettable literary novels. The truth is, I don’t really need book covers to wow and sucker me in me anymore, because I mostly read books that friends or fellow writers or other books have recommended. I’m going to buy Cormac McCarthy’s next novel even if it has a pair of stilettos or cat with a magnifying glass or a single totemic object on a white field on the cover. Still, I wouldn’t mind being seduced by sensuous appeal again every once in a while.

Let's all seduce ourselves with this running archive of book cover excellence.



54 Comments / Post A Comment

petejayhawk

The cowboys took them :(

rianne marie

Those new Animorphs covers are a travesty! The originals were so so so good.

j-i-a

@rianne marie they are really freaky, they're sitting on my desk right now and i'm scared

sunflowers

Oh wow, the Book Cover Archive has entrapped me. What beautiful designs.

Also: I own every single Animorphs book ever published, including a copy of the one I once left at a Golden Corral when I was nine (bought it used a few years ago). Obviously the slow art-morph is better than some 3D doodad. There's also this, because The Internet and my friends: http://24.media.tumblr.com/80b8865925eccd12df24ad784a2daedb/tumblr_mlqapwN97S1sp27wro1_400.jpg

yeah-elle

Yes, those Nabokov covers! A few years back, I took a research seminar on Nabokov and I had to resist buying alllll the books, even the ones we didn't need. The Pale Fire one is one of my favorite book covers ever.

Also, see: This side-by-side comparison of UK and US covers for the same books.

you're a kitty!

@yeah-elle SECONDED, I would have come in here just to mention that series.

Lucienne

@yeah-elle I love side-by-sides of book covers. I think The Millions does it (did it?) every now and then too.

planforamiracle

@yeah-elle cooool! thanks for sharing this, it's really interesting.

yeah-elle

Also, re: Animorphs. Of course my brother and I were hugely into them. I have this really clear memory of being about 9 and 10 respectively, and I was trying to get his attention and he cut me off with, "SHH I'M MORPHING." 15 years later, it's still one of my favorite things to interrupt him mid-conversation with "SHHHHH, I'm MOPRHING."

lucy snowe

I've often joked that I judge books by their covers all the time. Well, covers and opening paragraphs. I like books as objects-- they are comforting, satisfying.

I haven't made the shift to Kindle/some reader because of this, though I can see why kindle has a lot to offer- no worries about a book too big or too nice to shove in a purse, having a whole library of options whenever I get a chance to read. But... I will miss books when they are gone. Not least because of pretty cover art.

rosencrantz

"Things were so much higher quality in the past! The steady march of time that tramples the mediocre underfoot until it disappears has nothing to do with a starry-eyed view of the way things were! Clearly civilization is declining because Photoshop."

I can't even bathe in my love for those Nabokov covers because of how ridiculous Tim Kreider apparently is. There were design trends in the past. Just because it's happening to you now doesn't mean it's new or scary or bad.

Also, is this missing a link to the article? Or am I missing it?

blue_canary

@rosencrantz Yeah, he's not feeling nostalgic for these book covers. These kind of trend pieces always pick and choose from the best of the past--holding the 10% that's great up against the 90% of now that's crap. Maybe trend writers need remedial maths?

karenb

@rosencrantz this reminds me of music discussions with my dad, when i was a teenager and desperately into everything from the '50s/'60s. when i complained that so much of 'modern' music was awful, dad just laughed and said that plenty from his teen years was awful, too, but they don't play it on the radio anymore.

Away Laughing

@rosencrantz I kind of feel like the mediocre covers of today are better than the mediocre book covers of fifty years ago, you know? I'd rather have a vaguely interesting stock photo and a nice font than an illustrated book where you can't actually figure out what kind of animal the illustrator was going for.

rosencrantz

@blue_canary Haha! Excellent link. Trend writers need remedial maths, and also to stop writing about trends. Maybe I just need to spot a trend piece faster so I can avoid them.

@karenb I legit had a discussion with someone once where they insisted that there was no bad music in the past, like in the 1960s/70s. None.

@Away Laughing Oh, that's a good point! I agree with that, but I wonder if it's partly because it's what we're used to. I wonder that with clothes and colors popular in eras that I don't find aesthetically appealing, too. Certain tastes win out in certain eras, and I don't mind the graphic design aesthetics that are trendy right now.

meetapossum

Uh, I would buy any book with a cat with a magnifying glass on the cover.

planforamiracle

I have always loved going into French-language bookstores because the books so often have better-looking covers, frequently without images at all:just white, with text in a colour. I don't know if it's just certain publishers (éditions de minuit is a particular favourite of mine) but I like how it lets the book speak for itself and also lends a certain timelessness to the edition. I get that certain book covers are classic, like the illustrated Great Gastby cover, but that one especially I find really dated and tacky and it makes me not want to pick up the book.

Anyway, I guess what I'm saying is that if it's so expensive to make a nice illustration or design for the cover, why not leave it basically blank and let people use their imaginations instead of having the experience of a character ruined by terrible stock photography?

That said, I really liked a lot of the covers in the linked archive. Clearly book cover design is an art in its own right!

Pound of Salt

@planforamiracle I read an interview with John Waters where he said that publishers don't like white book covers because they get dirty really easily. So of course Waters insisted on a white cover for his book.

planforamiracle

@Pound of Salt That's a good point. But a solid colour would be just as nice.. Penguin Classics, anyone?

Pound of Salt

@planforamiracle Those are great!

karenb

penguin classics covers for ever, really. (although i enjoy the money being spent on re-covering public domain stuff, there's beautiful copies of Sherlock Holmes in the bookstore right now).

Pound of Salt

It's interesting to look at how book cover trends vary from the UK to the US. The UK seems to come up with even more egregious ones.

Tafadhali

A favorite pastime of my sister and I is to go into bookstores and just critique all the covers (usually in the Young Adult section) for an hour or so, or until we fall into reading something.

If I had limitless funds, I would replace every book I own with the most beautiful edition of it that I could find, but, alas. It's even worse at work -- I'm a librarian -- because we always get the cheapest copy and then it looks how it looks when it arrives. We just bought a new copy of Anna Karenina and it is the most hideous thing I have ever seen.

Keck

For another good glow-in-the-dark cover, check out Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk. I didn't realize my (paperback) cover glowed until I woke up in the middle of the night and saw an unearthly light emanating from my nightstand. Freaked the hell out of me - as if I wasn't already freaked out enough from reading Haunted late into the night.

The 80's were a good time to grow up, book cover-wise. I still love the paintings on the fronts of the Black Stallion books. There was something about the color-coordination of The Gymnasts covers that really appealed to me as well. Oh Jim Kjelgaard - those gorgeous Irish Setters with the hearts of champions! And don't even get me started on Micheal Whelan. He knew how to feed my pre-teen dragon obsession like no one else.

bill.marks

The 80's were a good time to grow up, book cover-wise. I still love the paintings on the fronts of the Black Stallion books. There was something about the color-coordination of The Gymnasts covers that really appealed to me as well. Oh Jim Kjelgaard - those gorgeous Irish Setters with the hearts of champions! And don't even get me started on Micheal Whelan. He knew how to feed my pre-teen dragon obsession like no one else. reviews on garcinia cambogia

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jimmyrapper

It's interesting to look at how book cover trends vary from the UK to the US. The UK seems to come up with even more egregious ones.
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