Where Have All the Good Book Covers Gone?

Tim Kreider, an essayist and cartoonist, writes at the New Yorker about the decline of the book cover:

The covers of most contemporary books all look disturbingly the same, as if inbred. It seems as if sixty-five per cent of all novels’ jackets feature an item of female apparel and/or part of the female anatomy and the name of some foodstuff in the title — the book-cover equivalent of the generic tough-guy-with-gun movie poster with title like “2 HARD & 2 FAST.” There’s clearly some brutally efficient Darwinian process at work here, because certain images — half-faces, napes, piers stretching into the water — spread like successful evolutionary adaptations and quickly become ubiquitous.

I have a fascination with book covers that will become more apparent on this website as time goes on, and I’ve been thinking about them a lot lately because of a recent late-night drunk purchase of the first six Animorphs books (which, disappointingly, now feature a clunky, freaky morph-card on the front rather than the inimitable perfection of the originals) as well as my supercool glow-in-the-dark copy of Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (it’s a real delight; more books should glow).

In this piece, Kreider talks about the sense of play visible in both sci-fi covers and the covers of children’s books and YA, and laments its absence in today’s formulas for “serious” adult literature: the single-object/serif-text/white-background Malcolm Gladwell-esque nonfiction cover, the epidemic of generic female backs. People have convincingly traced the decline of the contemporary book cover to the fact that these objects now have to look good as thumbnails, but even in thumbnail they continue to disappoint; I was window shopping on Amazon the other day and was saddened by how many buzzy works of literary fiction presented as 30-minute Photoshop hack jobs, just spare font over blurred sub-Tumblr image, and I wondered how the authors must feel.

Two irreversible trends are at fault here, neither of which can be altered by even a really persuasive essay. One is that the illustrated book cover, like painted movie posters or newspaper comics, is pretty much dead. Fonts, stock photos, and Photoshop are cheaper than commissioning illustrations. With the imminence of Kindles and e-readers, this is all moot anyway; soon enough, book covers, like album covers before them — like albums themselves, or sheet music for popular songs, or dance cards — will be a quaint, old-timey thing you have to explain to the uninterested young, and there’ll be one fewer excuse to strike up conversations with pretty strangers on the subway.

In another regrettable development, I am no longer thirteen, and apparently won’t be again… My youthful capacity for wonder at any form of art may have been permanently deadened by age, education, and one too many competent, forgettable literary novels. The truth is, I don’t really need book covers to wow and sucker me in me anymore, because I mostly read books that friends or fellow writers or other books have recommended. I’m going to buy Cormac McCarthy’s next novel even if it has a pair of stilettos or cat with a magnifying glass or a single totemic object on a white field on the cover. Still, I wouldn’t mind being seduced by sensuous appeal again every once in a while.

Let’s all seduce ourselves with this running archive of book cover excellence.