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Book Cover Art

A book’s cover is as important as the writing within it.  I am aware that this is an offensive statement to many authors who have toiled for years on their books and believe their words are the only thing that matters. But if publishers want to sell books (as opposed to e-books) the cover art must indeed be art, otherwise those of us who still love the actual paper and glue object will become fewer and fewer until one day the last of us will have died, and the soulless Kindle lovers will have taken over the world.

A great cover provides the potential reader with an idea of the book’s contents, while at the same time delighting us with a clever, original, or beautiful design.  A bad cover is one that we’ve seen a hundred times before, that bores us, or that confuses us.  A book of literary fiction, for example, should not have the sort of cover that causes us to assume the book is a police procedural.  If the police procedural fan purchases such a book, he is sure to be disappointed.  And I, the lover of literary fiction, won’t even pick up the book because the cover tells me I would hate it.  I then miss out on a book I might have loved.

When cover art matches the tone of a book perfectly, speaks to the reader about what can be found inside, and does it in a way that is new, the result is simply magical.  Compare, for example, the following covers of The Book Thief:

bookthiefus bookthiefukteenage bookthiefaustralia bookthiefukadult

The first cover, with the dominoes, is from the U.S.  It tells me nothing whatsoever about the contents of the book (Nazi Germany, a nine-year-old girl, and Death as the sardonic narrator) and suggests instead a mystery or thriller of some kind.  The second cover is the UK teenage version.  It tells me that the book has to do with reading and is probably set at least fifty years ago—which is accurate—but this particular photograph is far too literal to really intrigue me.  The third cover is from Australia.  I am led to believe that the plot involves blood and death (true), that it is set in a cold climate (also true) and that the main character is perhaps a monk (false).  The problem with this cover, in my mind, is that the blood drops are, again, much too literal and make me think this is some kind of medieval murder mystery—which I have no interest in reading.

The last cover, which is the UK adult version—is nothing short of a revelation.  Death is dancing with a little girl, perfectly capturing the plot and the tone, and the paper appears to be dirty, maybe even burnt (which is just as it should be, given the events that take place inside the book).  This is a cover that makes me wish I could order a poster-size copy so I could frame it and mount it on my wall.  It does absolutely everything a cover should do.  I could weep with gratitude that such a cover exists.

Though we don’t make a point of discussing each book’s cover art in our reviews, we do at times feel compelled to mention a particularly perfect or particularly disastrous cover.  The books below all have covers we feel strongly about.  To read the review, click on the cover.

strawberry littlehousenew a million chickens2 snakehead houseofcards    PG tb-cover-993x1500

  1. Most times, the author doesn’t have a say in the design of the book cover art. If you want to hold someone accountable for the book cover, blame the publisher.

  2. Dear RKN,

    Excellent point. I have changed the word “authors” in the first paragraph to “publishers” as it is, of course, not the fault of the authors at all. I’m sure many authors are horrified by the cover art disgracing the book they worked so long and hard to create.

  3. I have no plans to review Helen Oyeyemi’s Mr. Fox, because I am unlikely ever to read it: I can’t get past the first few pages. (But I very much enjoyed—and can heartily recommend—Oyeyemi’s first book, 2006’s The Icarus Girl.) The Fox hardcover is screaming to be addressed, though, and this seems like the appropriate place to address it. What wonderfully charming little fox illustrations! The book is everywhere, and I’ve probably picked it up twenty times in the last month, because the art is absolutely irresistible. Cindy writes (above) about cover art that could be mounted on the wall; this is in that category. It has the look of a book that I would gently carry everywhere and study the cover endlessly until I’ve finished it, then would cherish forever. This is a sad case, however, in which the less attractive cover art (the paperback version, below) actually suits the tone of the book much, much better. (Granted, I’ve only read a few pages, but that’s enough to see that the paperback art is a significantly better match with the story in both tone and style.) This page has many examples of bad art with great books, but I’m not sure we’ve ever complained before about exceptional art for a boring book. The tragedy, of course, is that this art could have been paired with an award winner, but has instead been wasted. I wished they had saved the foxes in a file labeled “Extraordinary art waiting for extraordinary writing,” and realized that staying true to the spirit of the book is more important than catching our eye with outstanding art that doesn’t match.

    Mr. Fox Mr. Fox2

  4. I am one of those authors who worked for years on the manuscript, and I completely agree the book cover art is one of the most essential elements in marketing a book. My debut novel will be published in December. While I do not have total control over the cover art, the publisher has given me some creative input.
    Since I am a newbie, if you have any suggestions in selecting covers I would appreciate any advice you can offer.

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