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Book covers

Everything you need to know about book covers.

Published This article is more than 2 years old.
  • Beautiful on the outside

    So many covers, so little time.

    We all judge books by their covers. Not exclusively, perhaps, but substantially—so substantially that there are entire departments in publishing houses filled with talented designers dedicated to turning stacks of paper into works of art.

    Voracious readers often roll their eyes at the sight of millennial-cool, color-coded bookshelves à la The Wing, not to mention the GOOP-endorsed philosophy that it is totally fine to keep books in your bookshelf that you have not and likely will not read, based on what they look like.

    But if words and images within the pages give books their value, covers transform them into something more. That something is the reason we like to display books in our homes, why furniture stores make sure their shelves have books (or bookalikes), or why selling books by the foot is a sustainable—in fact, lucrative—proposition.

    Let’s start a new chapter.

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  • Origin story

    The world is full of books, and it keeps making more of them. A lot more. For each of these books there’s a cover, from carefully designed to hastily thrown together, all to catch the reader’s, and hopefully buyer’s, eye.

    Books have been around for almost 2,000 years. For most of that time, they were hand-bound and covered in wood or leather, with fabric or paper book covers becoming common only towards the end of the 19th century. These new covers used design as decoration, instead of various types of embossed leather, metal, and stones. 

    At the turn of the century, some of the world’s prominent artists designed covers that define styles still seen today. Consider Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, designed by Joseph Hirsch in 1949. Or Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, designed by S. Neil Fujita in 1966.

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  • For your judging pleasure

    The Book Cover Archive collects some of the most remarkable book cover designs throughout the years.

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  • Quotable

    “For Christ’s sake don’t give anyone that jacket you’re saving for me. I’ve written it into the book.”

    —F. Scott Fitzgerald in a letter to his publisher, upon seeing Francis Cougat’s cover for The Great Gatsby, which he had yet to finish

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  • Brief history

    2nd century CE: The code begins replacing the papyrus roll. Covers are introduced to protect the codex’s pages.

    ~700 CE: Date of the oldest preserved Western book cover, of the St Cuthbert Gospel, which is made of wood covered in goatskin.

    1800s: Dust jackets, made of fabric or thin leather and often printed in gold, begin appearing as disposable covers of so-called gift books, often made of precious fabrics.

    1820s: The advent of mechanical bookbinding makes it cheaper to make and print book covers.

    1920s: At the beginning of the 20th century, publishers begin to realize dust jackets—which eventually morphed into paperback covers, too—have a lot of potential to help a book stand out. From the 1920s on, covers become small works of design art, reflecting art trends, from Art Deco, to Bauhaus, to Constructivism.

    1935: Penguin’s paperbacks, and their minimalist cover designs, bring “serious books” to the masses.

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  • Fun fact!

    The original covers of Virginia Woolf’s books were designed by her sister, artist and fellow Bloomsbury Group member Vanessa Bell. The two had decided on the arrangement as children.

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  • Take me down this 🐰 hole

    Image copyright: Reuters/Ed Harris
    The tree that launched a thousand books.

    Sometimes, book cover trends can uncover some ugly biases, such as the prevalence of that one tree that adorns so many dust jackets of books about Africa. Or the covers of books by South Asian women, which “typically and generically depict saris, pan-Indian women’s faces, jewellery, henna-ed hands and feet, bodies and segments of bodies,” writes Keele University lecturer Lisa Lau. “These covers clearly signal particular types of books, or genres, rather than reflecting the content of each individual book. The covers also play to the gallery and tap into stereotypes of Indians and Indian cultures. They present a flattened, generic, pan-Indian womanhood, which supposedly stands for Indianness.”

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    Book covers are fodder for creative business ideas. One such idea is selling books to quickly fill naked bookshelves—Books by the Foot, for instance, sells books for decorative purposes, ranging from modern hardbacks for $19.99 a foot to precious binding, such as the 21-volume leather-bound Young Folks’ Library, retailing for $1,279.95. They have competition, too. The Book Blunder will let you pick a foot of books in the color of your choice starting at $30.

    Companies such as Booth and Williams curate books to enhance your home and workspaces, with hand-picked selections of cotton candy-colored books for girls (for $255), turquoise kids books (for $139), a khaki and crimson mix of mid-century books, and even 10 to 12 Havana paper-wrapped books for $99.

    And if you want your e-reader to look more like a book, there are companies like KleverCase who can help you make sure your tech passes for the real thing.

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  • Free business ideas!

    For the self-conscious: Fake intellectual covers to mask the potentially embarrassing self-help book you’re hoping will change your life on the subway.

    For the introverted: Fake covers that turn your gripping mystery into what looks like a philosophy tome, so no one sitting next to you on a plane feels the urge to strike up a conversation.

    For the frustrated: A cover that turns bright red and flashes your address when the person you’ve lent the book to has borrowed it for way too long.

    For the practical: Thin covers for slices of very long books that make them portable but you can also recombine to form the original spine when you put the slices together on a shelf.

    Image copyright: Kira Bindrim
    Intimated by one of the most iconic tomes in nonfiction, Quartz executive editor Kira Bindrim decided to make it more manageable.
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