Category Archives: covers


Is Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder?

You may have read that the reception to the 50th Anniversary cover of Sylvia Plath’s THE BELL JAR has been less than welcoming on account of being more akin to the cover style of the chick-lit genre. Reaction to the cover has moved through the spectrum of anger, derision and even parody. Out of the many critiques, the general feeling seems to be that the cover dilutes or misrepresents the content and dark subject matter of Plath’s writing. What surprised me, perhaps naively, about this whole debate was that those most vociferous in their abhorrence of the cover, were intimately familiar with the text. So much so, that they had assumed a role of custodian over the text, arguing that the cover should reflect what lay beneath and not stray from that path.

Now, the reaction to this redesigned cover was articulated by generations of readers who identified with the work and had personal memories with which the new ‘chick-lit’ like cover had no resonance. What about newly released books, though? Their covers have no history, so to speak–they are there to draw the reader in, tempt them to open the book to the first page, and ultimately purchase that book.

As the Plath incident shows, there is no universal design that can satisfy everybody. Which is why I was curious when I came across the piece in the Millions that examined the difference between US and UK covers.

Being a Brit living in the US, I feel unofficially qualified to pinpoint and understand the difference in covers and offer an explanation. The result: I can’t. In fact, I preferred the majority of the American covers. I’ve racked my brains, and all that I can say is that my judgment is based on purely aesthetic taste, whether it be on the type, composition, colors, or images; rather than national sensibilities that I grew up with “across the pond,” or have picked up while living in America.

What kind of cover draws you in? What’s your favorite cover? And have any redesigns of your favorite book stirred your emotions – good or bad?



A writer’s life

So, it’s December, which means it’s list season—in other words, the blog posts write themselves (I wish)!

Well, rather than look at the best-of-2012 lists (which would end up showcasing how few of the best-of-2102 I’ve actually read), I thought I’d share this little piece from Jason Pinter on the Huffington Post on the great and not-so-great aspects of being a writer. It’s all good fun, though I do find it a little disturbing that so many of the “great” things involve validation from other people—and that so many of the “not-so-great” are external as well. Do you find that to be the case, too? Are there any great/not-so-great things you would add to the list? I’d imagine writer’s block would fit in somewhere…

And for more good fun, DEFINITELY check out the bad book covers link he mentions!



Judging an eBook by its Cover


With an increasingly digital marketplace for books, is cover art no longer a priority? According to Chip Kidd, Associate Art Director for Alfred A. Knopf, cover design is a dying art.

This recent piece from NPR explores the idea that as eBooks increase in popularity, the importance of a great cover is waning. (As a side note, Chip Kidd is responsible for some iconic book covers, including JURASSIC PARK and NAKED.) Kidd says that people often check out a specific eBook because of a great review or a recommendation—not because of the cover design. So in a rapidly digitizing world, a great cover is no longer a priority. (And there are some really, really bad ones out there.)

A bad cover leaves me with a bad impression about the book—if you can’t bother to put the effort into making sure your book looks good then why would I want to read it? And that is something I always emphasize to authors in our eBook program—a bad cover will never help your sales and even turn readers away. So I find Kidd’s words kind of surprising. Do you think eBook covers are still important? How do they influence your ultimate decision to buy (or not)?



Cover talk

“It’s about baseball. A person who likes to play baseball but also takes care of a plane. ”

Obviously, we are talking about the classic novel Catch-22 here. Or, at least, that’s what could be inferred from the iconic cover. Through the eyes of a six-year-old who hasn’t yet gone through an English class or lit course, and so has no frame of reference for well-known works of fiction, the possible subjects and plotlines of various novels were discussed on this post from strollerderby the other day. The inferences the little girl makes based solely on the book covers may seem ridiculous at first, but after taking a step back and forgetting everything you know about the books already, could actually be feasible…for most of them. I’m not entirely sure about the “very hairy eagle who hangs out with fancy ladies” in Steppenwolf, but many of the others could certainly be argued for.

Once you’ve clicked through them all, and after the laughter has subsided (meaning, I’ll see you in a couple of hours), there’s really a lot to be said here for the importance of a book’s cover. While, of course, the actual text is what makes a book what it is, the cover is what draws the reader in. So much depends even upon the typeface, color, whether there’s a picture or not. Even if a cover is agreed upon as a “good cover,” in that it’s aesthetically pleasing, gives an idea of what the book might be about, etc., assumptions about the contents as well as the audience for the book will always be made. Genre-specific books tend to have a similar look about them, in order to get people who love romances, sci-fi, Westerns or thrillers to pick them up off the shelf, despite what the flap copy says. If a YA book and an adult book have basically the same storyline, just with the characters at different ages, it’s still almost immediately obvious which book is which, simply by looking at the cover.

Almost universally, unless the book is by an author I’m already familiar with, a book’s cover determines whether or not I even pick it up off the table or shelf. That’s not to say I haven’t read books with unappealing covers, but they always tend to color the way I approach an unfamiliar novel. For example, one of my favorite books, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, has, in my opinion, an absolutely terrible cover. I bought that book along with several others, and it remained at the bottom of the pile until I had no choice but to start in on it. I approached it reluctantly, not even sure why I had purchased it in the first place, and was only half-invested in the words on the page for the first couple chapters—until, of course, I realized how much I was actually enjoying the story and went back to read parts that I know I hadn’t given much attention to.

As much as we’re told not to judge a book by them, covers are important. There’s a reason publishers are constantly putting out their own, updated versions of the classics to appeal to the younger, contemporary market. The text inside is still the same—it’s still Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett, Jane and Mr. Rochester, Dr. Frankenstein and his monster—but each time, it looks like an entirely different book geared towards an entirely different market.

How much are you affected (honestly!) by book covers? Have you ever been tricked into thinking you’d like a book because the cover made it look just so darn good? How about the reverse?


Naughty books

A few weeks ago, someone who saw me reading on my Kindle while my son had his karate class asked me if I’d heard of a book called Fifty Shades of Grey.  As I usually am when anyone asks me if I’ve heard of a book and I haven’t, I was a little embarrassed (never mind that with a gazillion books published every year, it’s not possible to know about every last one of them or that my memory for titles and authors’ names is shockingly poor for someone who, well, works with titles and authors—do I sound a little defensive?).  I asked her what it was about and she told me it was a romance that she was trying to get a copy of without success.  I suggested Amazon and promptly forgot all about the discussion.

Of course, I now know that Fifty Shades of Grey is the latest publishing phenom (an allegedly not very well written kinky sex fest for Twilight fans who thought the vampire saga was too squeaky clean, according to Jezebel) and that Vintage has plopped down a ton of money for the print rights to a book that is currently selling like hotcakes…online.

Which raises a number of interesting questions.

As the Wall Street Journal  points out in a piece about the rise in sales of books that women have traditionally been embarrassed to be seen reading in public, e-readers have made sales of romance and erotica skyrocket precisely because of the privacy they afford.  So, how wise is a seven-figure investment for print rights to a book that people may not want others to see them reading?

And, does all of this mean that books in these categories will go exclusively digital in the near future?  I know lots of smart, professional women with a weakness for what we used to call “bodice rippers” in the good old days (before Kindles and romance branding) who didn’t want to be caught dead on the subway behind a cover of some buxom lass being ravished by a half-naked Fabio type.  I can also imagine all the soccer moms who don’t want their kids to know what kinds of books they’re devouring while they extol the virtues of Moby Dick and The Scarlet Letter.

Personally, I do think that e-readers are liberating in that way.  In my line of work, I occasionally have to read things that may be a little hard to explain to casual acquaintances or even my six-year-old.  What about you guys?  Do you find yourselves sneaking around reading naughty things on your e-readers?  And, do you think this is one of the “intangibles” that publishing people have overlooked when trying to figure out the value of e-books vs. print books?


Cover Design

One of the pleasures of working with books is the opportunity to see how different publishing houses and language markets package the same project. Last week, I was admiring the German cover design of a young adult novel that Stacey represents. The US and UK covers were attractive and effective, but the fairytale/art nouveau/Aubrey Beardsley influenced jacket that the German publisher put together was exquisite. Wunderbar. I was ready to learn German just to dig in.

Further to this, the online journal the Millions again features a handy (albeit too brief) side-by-side comparison of US and UK covers for finalists in this year’s Tournament of Books.   Predictably, I find myself gravitating to the American aesthetic. Call me parochial, but cover designs can be more culturally specific than their contents. When I was an editor, the awfulness of UK covers was something of a running joke.   But perhaps that schadenfreude was misplaced. Here, the British designs for The Cat’s Table and the 1Q84 are (I think) far stronger than their American counterparts.

What say you? For those inclined to see even more examples of cross-cultural cover design on display, have a look at:


Fine art and books

Hope everyone saw the great piece by Geoff Dyer in the Times Book Review this past Sunday by on the use of Victorian paintings for the jackets of the Penguin Classics back in the 1970s. Yes, it’s quite a stroll down memory lane, but I was really struck by Dyer’s point that the paintings featured on the jackets not only did their job of getting him to read the books, but that they afforded Dyer an introduction to fine art and art history as well. And I love the idea of him joyfully stumbling upon his favorite book jacket images in art galleries and museums!

Coincidentally, I’d been kicking around a blog post on the intersection of books and fine art for a while now, though at a slightly younger level. Through the generosity of my children’s book editorial friends (and my raiding the shelves at Penguin before I left), we’ve got a number of picture books at home that feature fine art—James Warhola’s Uncle Andy’s, Babar’s Museum of Art, and the first Olivia, to name a few. And one of the proudest (and cutest) moments of fatherhood for me so far was when we took our son to MOMA and he recognized not only Warhol’s Marilyn from Uncle Andy’s, but the Jackson Pollock painting that Olivia could do “in about five minutes”—luckily, our boy didn’t pull an Olivia and try it at home!

More seriously, I’m hopeful these book/art connections will instill a lifelong interest in fine art as much as reading. And like Dyer, I’m counting on the Penguin Classics to further this interest for my son as he gets older. Moreover, in this age of eBooks, where book covers have the potential to go the way of record jackets in the CD age, I think it’s a strong argument for publishers to continue producing intelligent and intellectual book packaging.

Okay, let’s have some fun—if you were picking a fine art masterpiece for your book jacket, what would it be?


Clearly this book has a Christian Slater/Minnie Driver vibe

One of the myriad joys of foreign rights (beyond the mixed blessing that many of the people I want/need to contact right now are spending the month on vacation) is getting to spend time perusing foreign book covers.  The ones I love most are the ones that emerge from their packaging to a chorus of “Whaaaat?”s.  So I was pleased to stumble across this delightful piece by Sam Kean in Slate about his efforts to understand how his book on the periodic table of elements wound up with a cover in China that features smiling anime sperm.  Instead of just sharing the joy and confusion with others, as I usually do, he actually tracked down the designer and asked her to explain.  In the end, it actually makes much more sense than I’d have guessed it ever could, and her explanation sums up quite clearly what foreign book covers try to do: “I have to build a bridge to connect our culture to your book!”

But while most publishers are admirably bridging a gap, some make choices that are strangely, impenetrably delightful.  My first experience with this was years ago when Michael handed me a foreign edition of a thriller we represent to send to the client.  Then I noticed something odd.  Christian Slater was on the cover.  With Minnie Driver.  The publisher had, inexplicably, used a totally unrelated movie still as their book cover.  Leaving aside the questionable legality of doing so, it’s a very dubious choice.  Unless Slater and Driver are some kind of cult heroes in Russia, I’m not sure why that was supposed to be a selling point for the novel.  In Holland, one author’s books are stunningly gorgeous, designed just for that market.  Her publisher always asks her opinion before finalizing the cover, which is actually quite unusual in foreign publishing.  The author’s reaction to the latest cover draft was something along the lines of: “I love it, it’s beautiful.  I really don’t understand why they keep putting wolves on the covers, since there’s nothing remotely wolf-like in the books.  But don’t tell them, because I think the covers are great anyway.”

Book covers are, if nothing else, a glimpse into what the publisher has decided the book can be successfully marketed as.  In foreign publishing, sometimes things get lost in translation, but at times others are gained.  Like a wolfish Minnie Driver subtext the author could never have imagined.


As the saying goes.

Jane’s post earlier this week about how book covers come into existence, got me thinking. We know we’re not supposed to, but I know that I, at least, will almost always judge a book, and my willingness to read it, by its cover. Its cover, spine, type face, page layout, even its binding. The simpler, the better. I’m drawn to plain, unassuming books; preferably paperbacks with French flaps and those roughly cut, thick, and slightly uneven pages. That’s just me being really particular, though. If I had it my way, almost all covers would be extremely sparse, perhaps designed, but without actual pictures or photographs if these can be avoided. The words on the front don’t have to be a specific size or font, but the text inside does—preferably with serifs and not too spaced out. I sound picky, I know, but we’re talking ideals here! Book cover utopia!

Obviously, there are exceptions, and there are covers that feature people or animals or what have you, that I fall in love with, too (I’m thinking the applicable covers of Lolita, The Virgin Suicides and this series of Evelyn Waugh’s oeuvre, for example), so maybe it’s not that easy to classify. All I know is that when I’m drawn to a book initially, it’s on the spine or cover alone—aided in part by the title, I suppose—and I am always surprised when I find myself really enjoying a book whose cover I dislike and am more disappointed when a book with a great cover turns out to be less than satisfying.

In any case, the merit obviously lies in the writing itself, no matter the form in which it is presented, but I thought I’d indulge a little in the most famous literary taboo. What are your preferences? Are there any book covers that stand out in your mind as the pinnacle of perfection?


The myth of the right book cover

Several times over the past months we have written blog entries about book jacket art and design—what we like, what we don’t, and why.  But because this is such an important part of the publishing process I thought I would take this opportunity to discuss the thinking behind the cover of your book.

Contrary to what most authors think, the main purpose of a book’s cover is to sell the book.  It should undoubtedly reflect the book’s contents as much as possible but, more than anything else, it has to attract a buyer very quickly.  In fact, it is common knowledge that when a consumer walks into a bookstore he or she views each title for no more than five seconds, so it’s the cover’s job to make the consumer want to pick up the book.

If the book is on a serious topic, the cover might be all type with an attractive background color.  Or, for general non-reference non-fiction and fiction, pieces of well known (public domain) art might be used, or a photograph or illustration that is not only reflective of the book’s content but also seductive to the book buyer.

The author almost always should have “consultation” on the book cover.  This means varying things to various publishing houses.  Sometimes, the publisher makes significant changes when an author objects to what they have originally suggested.  This happens a lot when the agent gets involved, as it did recently with my client Mary Ann Esposito’s new book Ciao Italia Family Classics—we are very excited to see the new cover for this book.  Sometimes, unfortunately, publishers do not take the term “consultation” very seriously and simply show the author the cover after it is virtually a done deal and nothing can be done to change it.  This is really unfortunate because by giving the author serious consultation (authors almost never gets “approval”), the author and the publisher become partners—and publication process is much more congenial.

Once the publisher has a cover that everyone likes, they show it to the account buyers—especially at the bigger accounts—if these folks don’t like the cover and the publisher is unwilling to change it, the account will order fewer books, so publishers generally listen to book buyers very carefully.

Over the years, even though I have had some “unusual” experiences with the process of cover creation, generally my clients have achieved what they wanted and this has made the publishing experience much more enjoyable all around.

I would love to hear what your experiences have been with the development of your book covers so please tell us your feelings about covers you’ve especially loved (or hated).