People have strong views on book covers. You can’t please everyone, but surely a cover has one main function - to sell a book?

There are endless ‘top 10s’ of ‘great’ covers online: iconic covers, beautiful covers, striking covers, and scary covers. But modern titles need to be more than pretty artwork: they need to be discernible in online thumbnails, arresting on a bookshelf while conveying the tone, content, and genre to a prospective reader. A cover must attract a second glance and intrigue enough to merit a read of the back cover, hopefully enticing you to take it home. I feel in itself it should tell a story. Margaret Atwood agrees - if you pick up a book with spaceships or dragons on the cover it should be about spaceships or dragons. She calls it ‘proper, ethical labelling.’ However, I also think it’s great to be unique. There are more subtle ways of indicating genre than repetitive photos of kissing couples on romance novels or distant lone figures in dark landscapes for thrillers.

Colour is important and has fads. For 2020, Millennial Pink (a dusky rose) is said to be the thing. And colour has meaning. Blue for calm/trust. White for purity. Black for mystery. Red for passion. Green (the rarest colour) is for nature. Should a cover be monochrome or sport analogous or triadic colour wheel combinations? Colours be warm or cool, intense of hue or highly ‘luminant’? The choice is fraught.

I envy ancient writers. Clay tablets and papyrus had no need of covers. By the 3rd-century parchment, texts were sacred, precious, handwritten, and swathed in silk or leather-bound, embellished with gems and precious metals. By 1450, printing shot European books from around an estimated 15 million to 200 million+ in 100 years, though texts (codex) were still bound in leather with clasps and strings. By the 16th century, books became more profane, smaller, still with hardcover, now perhaps bearing a title on the edge. The norm was an end ‘colophon’ with the printer’s name, place, and date. But by 1520 when these migrated to the front page. From the 15th to 18th-century you might just buy your codex and have it bound to your wish. In 1820 the invention of the machine press reduced the cost so finished books were commonplace. Yet you could add illustrated gift covers painted in watercolour on silk or  tissue paper

What you could put on a cover depended on your prevailing technology. Hand-tooling needed expensive labour, but in the mid-1800s books often had gold illustrations on fabric overboard. Title migrated to the front. Chromolithography permitted more colour. Permanent covers often now had a medieval slant, though some still had marquetry and precious metals. Then came a revelation. Cheap books!

A Writers Guide To Book Covers  

Penny Dreadfuls and Yellowbacks sporting yellow cheap wood paper appeared around 1840. Smaller books having thin card covers were sold in WH Smith shops in railway stations: mostly daring tales of pirates, ghosts, highwaymen, or knights. Back cover ads subsidised their cost. Wood engraving techniques arriving from Japan and photogravure methods meant hand-engraving was passé. By 1894 an Art Nouveau influence crept in after Aubrey Beardsley’s iconic The Yellow Book for artists poets and writers, a magazine daring visually and conceptually, involving a bit of decadence, dandyism, symbolism, naturalism, and feminism. And if earlier book covers were often symmetrical front and back over the spine, by 1900 they were asymmetric, like that of Peter Rabbit having front cover visuals of paper on fabric covered board.

By the First World War, literature art tended towards propaganda with cheaper comics, magazines, and more advertising. The motifs more Cubist, Soviet-influenced (eg Alexander Rodchenko), or decorative. Post WW1 came the avalanche of paper-jacket, genre-specific illustrations e.g. detective novels. Like everything else, there are fashions for book covers. Most of us could guess the decade of a book enprint by its cover. Some iconic designs today fetch huge sums. 

After WW2, handcrafted illustrations predominated in the 50s, text in the 60s, and vibrant graphics in the 70s with advancing printing techniques. By the 80s, text and special effects came into play. The web offers many lists of the iconic e.g. The Godfather  (Gothic script/puppet), Clockwork orange (the Cog-eyed Droog, Favey, 2008), Psycho (Black and white), Jaws (definitely what it says on the tin!)

Late 20th century came recognisable design ‘branding’ for publishers like Penguin, then for individual authors, but trends continue to evolve.  The 21st century has seen contrasting fonts, odd-angled text placement, minimalism, text containing texture or placed inside illustrations, small elements (a tiny boat/figure), big skies, moonlight, interwoven elements, photoshopping substitution and superimposition (e.g. Cruel Beauty), centred artwork or collage elements.

For my part, in my last bookshop browse, I was struck by how many covers had tiny boats/red-jacketed people, mist, skylines, silhouettes, central medallions, crowns or swords, bridges with trains, female heads, nostalgic photos, flowers and torn paper edges (though I love The Goldfinch)

A cruise through graphic design websites suggests the next decade trends are: bold text (retro 70/80s), cartoon graphic, single object, rainbow colours or minimalist monochrome, overlapping image/text, hand-written font, delicate artwork or ‘collage of found materials.’  Stateside they favour embossing/foil, messy covers  and pink.

Think I’m not for pink. It’s not woke. I opted for drama in my latest. A straw poll had 80% picking black and red for my new crime book. Attwood should approve.

A Writers Guide to Book Covers. What do you think? Leave your comments and suggestions on our chatroom

Author bio

Glasgow born Anne Pettigrew was a Greenock GP for 31 years and a light-hearted medical columnist in The Herald and medical press. A Glasgow graduate of 1974, she also has an Anthropology Masters from Oxford.