Reading a Book by Its Cover

In May, Eda posted an article about the significance of physical possessions in the age of Spotify, e-books and film streaming services. Her writing made me question why I still have such an appetite for physical books even though I’ve given up on DVDs and CDs. Purchasing a novel on an e-reader will never be a match for exploring bookshops and picking out treasures to delve into later on that day. Physical books smell better, feel better and are more engrossing. And honestly, I just love how they look in my home. Packed bookshelves invite a warmness into the room and can be an instrument for sharing and discussion. But this isn’t an article about why kindles suck (because they don’t). Instead, I want to explore the growing necessity for publishers to make physical books enticing; they have to persuade consumers that a physical copy is worth the extra money. Luckily, this has resulted in more and more beautiful and distinctive covers adorning great novels. I also want to look at what can be learnt from analysing book covers. Sometimes, they are reductive and reinforce the limitations of categorising books in genres. 

In modern publishing, well considered book covers are essential. Unless a book has been recommended to me, judging it by its cover is my primary tool when deciding whether or not to pick it up. The resurgence in vinyl records (but not CDs) demonstrates our desire for collectable and decorative physical items that oppose the passiveness of a quick Spotify download. We have so many cheap and easy ways to access music, but vinyl records offer what Spotify can’t: cover art you can hold in your hands and a physical declaration of your appreciation for the music. I love music but not quite in the same way I love novels so, for me, Spotify is enough. It is books that I want to clutter my room, ready to be dipped in to at a moment’s notice. 

One way we can see publishers working hard to entice us to buy physical books is the republication of classics with intricate and textured covers, like these Penguin Clothbound Classics: 

Editions like these are purchased both as decorations and to elevate the reading experience. Although the words are the same, reading a clothbound novel feels more special and romantic than a paperback.  And, if we are honest, people buy expensive editions to make a statement about themselves; they know that books like these stand out on a bookshelf and visitors will notice them. 

Bookshelves became a point of discussion during lockdown, with Zoom interviews and lectures offering viewers a snapshot into the speaker’s home. More often than not, they chose their bookshelves as a backdrop. The Twitter page Bookcase Credibility has over 100,000 followers and reviews the bookcases of celebrities, academics and TV presenters. The account treats audiences to an intimate look into homes that we would otherwise never see. It also inadvertently shows us how the speaker wishes to present themselves. 

Those in the public eye (and my university lecturers) often use their bookshelf to assure viewers of their authority and intelligence. 

Regardless of why or how we chose to display our books, book covers should not be dismissed when analysing literature and its role in society. They signify what kinds of readers the publisher expects to enjoy the novel and how they want it to be interpreted. Trends in cover art help us understand the historical context in which the novel was published. 

Classics are some of the most noteworthy covers to analyse because they have been re-designed so many times and in so many different countries. For example, different publishers have marketed Jane Austen novels as highbrow literary fiction, chick-lit, sentimental love stories, or feminist and sometimes radical texts.

Austen novels are their own industry. With films, experiences, holidays and merchandise, her fiction has been packaged and sold to different types of consumers over and over again. These four examples demonstrate the breadth of marketing potential Austen’s novels have. The first two sickly sweet editions (2006 and 2007) place Austen’s novels in the (questionable) genre of ‘chick-Lit’. These covers assert romance as Austen’s key theme, whereas the second two (from 1965 and 1969) put the female heroines at the forefront of the novel’s marketing. I wouldn’t argue for either being ‘better’ than the other – we should be thankful precisely for the plethora of different marketing strategies applied to these novels as it has one clear result: a more varied readership. 

The second example, which looks like a product straight out of a Flying Tiger Copenhagen store, has an introduction by Meg Cabot, the author of The Princess Diaries. It is odd to see Pride and Prejudice repackaged as teen romance fiction; however, the foreword should allow young readers to see the influence of Austen’s work on modern day fiction and the longevity of her themes. It does make me sad when Pride and Prejudice is reduced to a love story and the satire, social critiques and wittiness present in Austen’s authorial voice are ignored. But, having read neither Cabot’s foreword nor The Princess Diaries, it would show my own prejudices if I was to claim this edition of the novel is made juvenile and trite by her introduction.

examples of chick-lit covers

Nonetheless, I’ve always felt uncomfortable about the way novels written by women and/or for women are marketed. Although there is nothing inherently wrong with pink sparkly covers, the problem is that a diverse range of novels are branded in this way simply because they are targeted towards women. These covers don’t scream ‘take me seriously’ and lots of excellent novels get lost behind this kind of marketing. These covers are almost childlike in their design and infantilise women’s interests and behaviours. 

We also have a significant problem with marketing non-European literature. The example below demonstrates the monotony of the front covers provided to African novels by Western publishing houses.

The front covers designed for novels by African authors offer little individuality and minimal insight into the themes of the text itself. The covers are usually stamped with the silhouette of an acacia tree against a backdrop of a scorching sun and orange tones. This trend points to the wider issue of the relationship white Westerners have with Africa. If these front covers demonstrate anything, it’s that the second largest continent (population size and landmass) exists in the westerner’s eyes as a singular image. 

It is not just African novels that are published in this way. Take this novel by Kamila Shamsie, a British-Pakistani writer:

The narrative weaves its way from Nagasaki to Delhi to Karachi to New York. Yet the orange colour palette reserved for ‘post-colonial’ authors is ever present. 

Much like the chick-lit covers, there would be nothing wrong with a small selection of novels adopting this style, particularly if hot and arid landscapes are important to the story. But the unrelenting repetition of these aesthetic choices means that vastly different texts are marketed under the same banner. 

Regardless, having a sellable category of ‘world literature’ or translated literature is reductive and markets all non-western novels in the same way. World literature has never been a real genre; it is a category that essentialises the diverse and nuanced writing of talented authors and these problems are reflected in their front covers.

Nevertheless, there are always plenty of distinctive and inviting book covers to discover. The best covers are in tune with the moods and themes of the novel it is representing. I am personally not a fan of photographs, especially portraits, on front covers as these will dictate how a reader imagines a character or setting. The most successful covers are suggestive through colours and symbols. They should strive to ignite a curiosity in a shopper that is so potent they cannot resist picking the book up. I had a browse through my bookshelf to pick out some of my favourite book covers to share with you (all of these are great works of fiction that I highly recommend). 

I have a particular fondness for this copy of The Wind-Bird Chronicle. I found it in a second-hand bookshop a few years ago. When I got home, I realised it contained a message handwritten by Murakami.



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