Sunday, May 10, 2009


It's hard to imagine now, but at one time book covers were called "dust covers," and were thrown away as soon as the owner got the book home. People liked the look of leather bound books on their shelves. Some people still do and they'll pay premium prices to have uncovered leather-bound editions of their favorite novels.
Since it was necessary to put the name of the book on the dust cover, publishers would sometimes indulge in mildly fancy lettering or woodcuts.  The rule was that the dust covers had to use course paper, be cheap,  and be monochrome.

What changed all that was the proliferation of posters, especially film posters. Publishers reasoned that if posters could sell films, why couldn't they sell books?

For a while book covers did what film posters did and tried to sell personalities.  That was a mistake. Books and films are different media and have to be sold different ways.

Here's (above) a cover that attempts to sell "Too Much of Water" by fixing a visual image of the heroine in our minds.

Here's (above) an attempt to sell the same book by focusing on the idea of murder on the high seas at night.  Surely this is the cover that really sold the book.

Publishers continued to  put personalities on the covers (above) but it generally didn't work. I say "generally," because it worked for Doc Savage and Harry Potter and a handful of others.

The James Bond books (above) finally settled on a generic handsome man seen at a distance, allowing the reader to fill in his own specifics. The reader was allowed to imagine the specific character.

Large art departments arose at all the major publishers. The people who worked there cultivated an image of mystical seers, who had a mysterious sixth sense for what would sell. The front office cut them a lot of slack and authors were seldom consulted about what would appear on the cover. 

Genre novels (above) were the easiest to make covers for.

It took a while to figure out what kind of covers fit modern literary novels (above). The solution, when it came, was fascinating. Since most new literary books portrayed their characters as victims and anti-heroes, the covers would portray people who were out of focus, as if viewed through tears. The lettering was jagged, as if the book were written by the trembling fingers of a traumatized sufferer.

A variant on this was the deliberately under-stated, thin line style (above) which appealed to New-Age readers. I'm guessing that the idea was to flatter the reader who perceived of himself himself as a delicate thing, a contemplater of nature and not a purveyor of what he considers evil smoke-stack industries. 

Here's (above) an interesting variant on the idea that a cover should sell the mystery, not the personality of the crime solver.

The Dell "Keyhole" symbol (above) on the map covers was a nice touch. They should resurrect it.

Magazines gradually phased out illustration and replaced it with photography. The book cover people tried this too, but to no avail. Buyers of fiction still preferred illustration. I'm glad they did, but I wonder why. 

Of course, there was the occasional photo cover (above), even on paperbacks. Some of them sure pop out!

Photos currently dominate non-fiction covers. The cover designers still attempt to appeal to the  unconscious yearnings of their readers.  Here the reader is flattered by the association of reading with high culture and timeless architecture. The print is low-key and seems to say, "We readers may be quiet and unassuming, but we make the world work, so how about some respect!?"

English book covers (above) were among the worst in publishing. Why that was, I don't know. 

Finding the right cover for a literary novel like "Catcher in the Rye" can be tough. Here's (above) a cover, maybe by Fletcher Stone Martin, in the scratchy sensitive style. 

The first paperbacks attempted lurid realism (above), a style I usually like, but in this case it didn't fit the subject.


Another scratchy cover (above), well executed but it doesn't communicate the feel of the story. 

Finally the book was successfully issued in plain red, the cover of Caulfield's hat. The publisher threw in the towel when he realized that he'd never find a picture that captured the flavor of the novel. 

I'll close with a couple of examples of the eccentric but always interesting cover style of Victor Gollancz. 

Gollancz was a radical left publisher (he published Orwell) who defied the common wisdom by making chatty covers without pictures. Most were yellow because that color read best in railway terminals. Gollancz must have worked closely with his authors because all the books of his company that I've seen have a common author's ethos, that of a friendly, creative, and passionate man who's eager to engage in argument about subjects that most people never think about.

I have a few of his books. One is a  book that gives star ratings to the great classics of English literature. What an odd but wonderful thing to do! Another claims that the 17th century was the greatest of centuries, and yet another is a defense of fascism, which attracted a lot of socialists in its early days. I don't have the slightest sympathy for either fascism or socialism, but Gollancz is high on my list of people I wish I could have had dinner with. 

BTW: In my opinion the author shouldn't be permitted to chose the cover unless he has exceptionally good taste and market savvy.  Most authors will chose a picture that conveys what the book was trying to say, and this is sometimes a mistake. The art department, if it's a good one, will add to what the book was saying. They're concerned with selling a lifestyle, something most authors don't care about, but which has tremendous reader appeal.  


Niki said...

Uncle Eddy is so cultured! I wish I could find the stuff you talk about, it's always a trip coming here. Do you think that some of the covers would have benefited more if the author had intervened? Because I always imagined that the would ask their client.

Rick Roberts said...

"The James Bond books (above) finally settled on a generic handsome man seen at a distance, allowing the reader to fill in his own specifics. The reader was allowed to imagine the specific character."

And those "generic handsome men" never looked anything like Bond in the books. Fleming based Bond's looks on Hoagy Carmichael and maybe gave him a bit of a rougher image. Oddly, Fleming didn't want such a rough looker in the films. As a matter of fact when Fleming first saw Sean Connery, he said he looked like a "bloody Lory driver" and was digusted that he was to play James Bond. Of course Fleming was won over after Sean's preformance in Dr. No and even gave Bond a scottish ancestry.

Pete Emslie said...

Hey Eddie,

The depiction of James Bond on the Casino Royale paperback cover struck me as looking like actor Richard Conte. A quick image search on Google turned up this film still that seems to back up my hunch. It looks a lot like Conte, right down to the chin dimple!

Phantom Spitter said...

That "Things with Claws" cover is incredible.

By the way, Eddie, I did a post on Polish movie posters on my blog, Spitter's Lair. You don't have to pop by and comment. Just sayin'....

Anonymous said...

You should do a post on the surreal greek statue in space aesthetic of a lot of scifi novels

Kurdt said...

I'm reading a book about Ed Gein right now that has a blurry close up of his face on the cover. It's quite disturbing, which fits the subject matter of the book quite well.

Craig said...

I bought this book - - JACKETS REQUIRED - - when it first came out in 1995, and refer back to it periodically. Let's the mind wander through possbilities. . .

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Phantom: Nice blog! I bookmarked it!

Pete: Richard're right!

Rick: Hoagy Camichael!? Fascinating!

Craig: I have that book. It's an eye=opener!

Niki: The authors probably would have made bad choices in most cases. Even so, I see your point.

Lester Hunt said...


I've written or edited a few scholarly books, and I've always found that the publisher seems to be eager to follow author suggestions. I suppose it's hard to come up with a zillion ideas for covers and if I say "please use this Gustave Dore etching" it makes their work a little easier. On the other hand, I haven't had any experience with covers that have elaborate original art, and that might be difference. People who can actually draw and paint might resent author interference.

pappy d said...

Insightful as usual, Eddie.

I thought James Bond looked more like Frank Langella. It reminds me of a recurring nightmare where I'm at the baccarat table in Monte Carlo in a beige dinner jacket & no pants.

Anonymous said...

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Anon: Hilarious pictures! Thanks!

Lester: In my opinion the author should always be consulted, but he shouldn't have the final say unless he has exceptionally good taste and savy about the market place. The reason is that the author will usually choose a picture that gets across what he was trying to say. The art department, if it's a good one, will try to add to what's in the book. They're attempting to sell a lifestyle, something the author may not have been concerned with, but which has tremendous reader appeal.

justin deremo said...

I've never been able to figure this cover out (a paperback edition of Camus' The Stranger), but somewhere in my heart I know I will recreate it for Halloween one year, preying upon the candy of my existential neighbors:

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Justin: I saw that cover before and I also wondered about it.

Ben said...

The cover to The Great Gatsby is an interesting case study for book covers. As I recall it strongly influenced people's interpretation of the book, even Fitzgerald's! I think my high-school English teacher said Fitzgerald altered late-late drafts of the book to incorporate it somehow. So, the other way around as far as authors influencing their book covers!