Obviously, a book cover needs to provide structure and protection for the book. But what is the purpose of the design, and what does the design have to say about the story within it? The artwork on the cover could be anything, really.
The cover could have people on it, such as the protagonist, or an abstract figure, or crowd of people who belong in the world of the story. It could have an object that relates to the title or the storyline. It could convey a sense of the story through typography only, choosing a typeface and way of setting the type that conveys the time period or mood of the story. It could depict an environment or building from the story. Or it could have an abstract image or pattern that conveys the mood and general atmosphere of the book, or the cultural setting and traditions.
With so many possibilities out there, the question that we sometimes forget to ask is not what can a book cover be, but what should it be?
To me, book covers are a fascinating art because of the fact that they intrinsically interact with another art—the literature within them. I love thinking about how book cover design complements, enhances, adds intrigue to, or generally plays off of the story. The two disciplines are completely different kinds of art and yet work together in a beautiful, interesting, delicate balance.
Or at least they should. The cover designer has the challenge and responsibility to create the design that the literature deserves. The author has poured all their artistic talent into creating a literary masterpiece. They filled it with a purpose, carefully crafted characters and planned out the plot twists and turns. And when they finally have a complete work, they turn it over to the tender mercies of a cover designer and hope that the design somehow works with their story and helps it become what they had envisioned.
In an interview, book designer David Pearson (who I wrote about in the post For the Love of Books) talks about his philosophy of cover designs. Throughout the interview he offers assessment of general trends in book design, with the French “embrac[ing] quietly suggestive cover designs,” contemporary U.S. designs “increasingly leaning towards more cerebral solutions,” and British designs “embracing a form of pulp realism.” Just the way he talks about these trends gives an insight to the ways he thinks about representing stories, and what a book cover design can do.
His own philosophy on the role of a book cover is that it should intrigue the viewer, but remain vague:
“In many ways I think a book cover should do no more than titillate, leaving the blurb—and reader—to do the rest. I don’t think it should be down to me to reveal what the chief protagonist looks like, nor to imbue a piece of photography with a meaning for which it was never intended. Typographic or pattern-led covers challenge the reader to project meaning onto them, which feels entirely more sympathetic.” —David Pearson
Personally I think that a more abstract approach makes a lot of sense. I love that stories engage the imagination so much and leave the reader to visualize what the characters look like, so I hate it when a cover depicts a protagonist and they don’t look anything like what I imagined (like Harry Potter!).
However, I think the question of what a book cover should be is difficult because there are so many possibilities and no obvious right answer. In relationship to the story, the cover can depict the mood, set a scene, help send a message, or merely illustrate.
For example, here are four very different covers for Anna Karenina, which I loved reading. Does one of them obviously complement Tolstoy’s epic story of love and life and loss better than the others? My copy of the book has the abstract wallpaper pattern (third cover from the left) which I really like, but perhaps the design with the purple flower (second cover from the left) captures the beauty, sensuality, and sense of darkness of the story better. But that design lacks the sense of turmoil and gripping passion of Anna’s story. You would think that depicting Anna herself would be a good solution, but the covers with a female figure on the front feel cliche and uninspired.
Thinking about cover design from the publishers’ perspective, it simply has to attract people’s attention. That is one reason why covers with faces on them can be highly effective, because for evolutionary reasons the human brain is drawn to faces and pays much more attention to them than to other visuals.
Ideally, a book cover design should attract a very specific kind of person—someone who is willing to buy that particular book, and preferably who would actually enjoy reading it and recommend it to others. As readers, we sometimes find it hard to find books we like, but book designs have the opposite challenge of trying to find readers who would like them. And because this is such a difficult task, book covers often settle for merely attracting anyone they can, rather than working more closely with the story to create a design that is appropriate. This can be a big letdown, so when you find a cover that really works with the story it’s a real treasure.
What do you think? Do you know of a cover that is a perfect accompaniment to its story? In your opinion, how should a cover relate to the story?