Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Another little rant about book cover design

How very interesting to read Diane Shipley on 'The great chick lit cover-up' on yesterday's Guardian Book Blog. Particularly given its special mention of Rosy Thornton's wonderful Hearts and Minds, the book which has recently had me spitting about publishers' misguided rush to jump on the 'chick-lit' bandwagon, regardless of whether the books thus branded are actually 'chick lit' at all.

Shipley's piece is so spot-on that I hope she doesn't mind if I quote from it at some length:

'When we look at a book, its cover tells us what to expect. A pink paperback featuring a smiling young woman is most likely a female-centric summer read, whereas a gun on a black background is probably a murder story. A few simple aesthetic rules narrow our options, make life easier and ensure none of us has to wander Waterstone's for hours, wailing in confusion. And yet the rules seem to be changing.

Having cottoned on to the fact that chick lit books sell like cupcakes, publishers are now adding chick lit-style covers to any book written by a woman whether it fits the genre definition or not.

Fay Weldon has spoken out against the use of chick lit branding on her books as she feels it's misleading to readers. And I've talked to several authors of contemporary fiction who hate the way their books have been similarly marketed: one pleaded with her publisher to change her covers, to no avail.

Instead, books aimed at women are becoming increasingly homogenised, girly and bland-looking.

Rosy Thornton's Hearts and Minds has been described as a book which "tackles some very pertinent contemporary issues in education as well as [a] tangle of moral dilemmas" in a large scale, 19th century-style drama. It sounds positively Dickensian, and yet it would be hard to find a book
that looked more like a light romantic comedy. '

To read the full article, click here:

Rosy Thornton herself, in a post on Vulpes Libris, said (slightly tongue in cheek, but, given the awful, misleading cover her publishers have imposed on her own novel, perhaps only very slightly so!):

'Cover design is the enemy of the level playing field: the insidious perpetuator of stereotypical assumptions. Look at that figure-in-a-landscape in oils: Literature. Look at that soft focus photograph of a child’s feet: Fiction. In my brave new world (Aldous Huxley: Literature) all publishers would be obliged to turn out novels in plain brown covers, bearing only the title and the author’s name – rather like those lovely old orange Penguin paperbacks which filled my parents’ bookshelves.'

Ahh, yes, the old Penguin paperbacks - has anything ever touched their perfect, democratising design? I very much doubt it. And how we loved the celebratory re-issues. And how we rushed to buy (or at least rushed to add to our wish lists) all the gorgeous must-have Penguin merchandise.

Why? Because they are timeless and beautiful and they say nothing about the book inside except that it's damned well worth reading. For itself. By readers.

Plain, simple, truthful covers.

The same could be said of Persephone books , which have an army of adoring fans and collectors, who delight in the books' understated, uniform, ultra-cool and tasteful covers.

Book covers matter hugely. We do judge books by their covers. Maybe we shouldn't, but we do. As this recent report pointed out. And here's a blog review I landed on the other day which couldn't have illustrated this more clearly.

Readers of good, thoughtful fiction appreciate good, thoughtful covers on their books. And they don't take kindly to being patronised or manipulated by publishers and their design and marketing departments.

Long-time visitors to Musings will be used to my rants about covers ever since I reviewed this book and mentioned (right at the end of the review) how very much I hated its deeply ghastly cover (for the same kind of reasons I hated the cover of Hearts and Minds - ie it entirely belies the nature of the novel and does a huge disservice both to the author and to potential buyers). The whole issue has become a frequent and long-running topic on the author's blog which is all very amusing but it's also a deadly serious point for a 'mid-list' author for whom every single sale counts.

Ah well, I must climb down from my hobbyhorse and try to relax because I've a very busy day ahead of me tomorrow.

But . . . before I go, I absolutely must add that one of the very best blogs I've discovered in recent months is Caustic Cover Critic (subtitled 'one man's endless ranting about book design'). Though he can be pretty caustic about lazy, sloppy or just plain bad book covers, the Caustic Critic actually offers a constant flow of fascinating posts about the art and design of books. Always full of insight, not just about the covers but the contents of the books as well - because he is fabulously well read and an erudite literary critic as well as a design historian.

If you haven't already discovered this blog (and for all I know, I may be so out of touch that I'm the last person on earth to have done so), for a sample of what this guy is about, I'd recommend this one and this one.


Anonymous said...

Well, J, never mind what C S Lewis said about reading to know we're not alone. These days we blog to know we're not alone and the response you've had to previous posts on this topic is a fine example of that.

Oh, and yes, agreed with every word of this post too. (Sorry not to be more incisive but have just written longish post and word and thought supplies are running low . . . .)

Juliet said...

Just been reading your 'longish post', D, and the Times article to which it refers. How tragic and what a reminder that we should never take any of our senses for granted.

(To read the post in question go to )

Anonymous said...

Great post. I read Hearts and Minds a couple of months ago, and had a rant about exactly the same thing. It's a great book, very well written, very entertaining, and very intelligent. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to anyone. But really... a DOVE with a HEART in it's MOUTH? That doesn't even tie in with anything in the book!!

Unknown said...

Couldn't agree more. I think the nadir of this kind of thinking came when some bright spark decided that Jane Austen needed the chick lit treatment. It's really noticeable now in big bookshops - this sea of pink and sky blue covers, which, paradoxically, make it more difficult to distinguish individual books. I'm reminded of schoolchildren who wail about uniform, but insist on dressing exactly like all their friends when out of school.

Juliet said...

Kirsty - just popped over to read your review. Agree with all you say.

And the mortar-board, for heavens' sake . . .! Can't you just imagine the design/marketing meeting where they thought that one up? 'OK, so it's set in a university, so I'm thinking mortar-boards here, to flag that up, but only a small one, so it doesn't detract from the dove, heart and flowers . . .'

Love your blog, btw, and have added it to my blogroll.

Rob - oh yes, the prettied-up portrait Jane Austen, with ribbons in her hair and a clown smile, so she looks more 'user friendly' to girly readers. Ugh!

And you are so right about the non-uniform uniform!

monix said...

My two penn'orth is the same as everyone's, J, but I'll put it in anyway.

diane s said...


Shipley doesn't mind at all -- thanks for the compliment/agreement, this has been such an interesting topic to (ha ha) cover... thanks also for providing such an interesting and quotable post in the first place!

Best wishes,

Diane Shipley x

Susie Vereker said...

Yes, but read the comment by Emma of Snowbooks on the Guardian link you give. She redesigned a cover to give it a chicklit look and sold more books. Oh dear.

Juliet said...

M - thanks - I know you feel the same as I do on this!

Diane - Hi - thanks for not minding, and thanks for airing this thorny subject so well on the Guardian blog. It's a topic that's not going to go away, I fear.

Susie - yes . . . I know . . . 'oh dear' indeed! What can one say? I'm a little scared about seeing the cover of your forthcoming book now. Please tell me it doesn't feature doves or hearts?!?!

Cat said...

It is an interesting point, however, I tend to buy/read by word of mouth. At the moment it's Reading Lolita and Heart-Shaped Box neither of which are thrilling me for a variety of different reasons (the cover being the least of my worries).
But that my just be me.

Susie Vereker said...

J, I have no idea what the cover of my new book will be like! As a buyer, I tend to avoid chick lit covers in a bookshop and usually I read according to word of mouth/blog recommemdations or known authors. More about recent reading on my blog when I catch up after hols.

Peter Ashley said...

I couldn't agree more with your comments about Penguin covers. How good must it have been not to have to worry about what design to stick on the front, only "Oh it's a Margery Allingham. Green then".

But all those mugs,deckchairs and coloured pencils. What fun. As I sit here typing with one finger, looking over a particularly pastoral stretch of Leicestershire countryside, I'm holding in my other hand a yellow-banded mug of coffee with 'Country Life by H.E.Bates' on it.

Anonymous said...

The really good book covers catch a whiff of what the book inside is about. Then, in whatever the designer’s style is, sprays a mist of it out at the reader and leads him or her into the pages inside. Once inside, the reader is guided along by the interior design to just taking in what’s on those pages.

Or that’s how I try to make it all work.