Monday, 10 November 2008

Can you judge a book by its cover?

Ever since I was a child I have been enchanted by book jacket and cover design. When I worked in ‘Cat and Class’ (that division of the library system which purchased, catalogued and classified new books (in the days before computers did most of the work) we used to get dust jackets from the publishers as a way of advertising their goods. For some time Judy (a fellow library school student and a librarian in Leicestershire County) and I exchanged correspondence that was written on the backs of these dust jackets.

One of my favourite sets of covers was the Fontana Agatha Christie paperbacks of the 1960s. Initially I collected these and then I collected the Pan set. Strangely the covers of the Fontana set were far more gruesome than anything that appeared in Miss Christie’s novels where all the gore and nastiness were left to the imagination.

Nowadays my favourites are undoubtedly the paperback Terry Pratchetts, the artwork of Josh Kirby. Ronald William Kirby (27 November 1928–23 October 2001), was a commercial artist born in Waterloo, Sefton, Lancashire and educated at the Liverpool City School of Art, where he acquired the nickname Josh. Kirby painted film-posters, magazine and Book covers. Creating a total of over 400 cover paintings, his personal preference was for science fiction jackets and his work on the covers of Terry Pratchett's Discworld series of novels is well known. He worked almost exclusively in oils.

Of late I have also become fascinated by books with no writing on the cover. ‘Evolution’ by Stephen Baxter was one good example but any attempt to illustrate it on the web fails because the book has textured covers which don’t show up properly.

I suspect that some of the books without words on the jacket attract a fair number of buyers in the bookshops simply because they have to be picked up to see what they are about. A classic example of this is “One Red Paperclip: Or How an Ordinary Man Achieved His Dream with the Help of a Simple Office Supply” by Kyle Macdonald . The jacket design by Kyle Kolker is so simple and yet so clever.

Among my other favourites are atmospheric ones like that of Jane Harris “The Observations”, Paul Auster’s “Travels in the Scriptorium” and Chris Paling’s “Town by the Sea” of which the cover is by far the best bit!

The designs for M C Beaton’s Agatha Raisin and Hamish MacBeth books are also attractive and the whimsical nature of the cover is largely what enticed me to read my first one.

There can be no more classic covers than the Penguin ones. There was green for crime, orange for the usual ones, blue for biography, black for classics, and grey for the modern classics.

To quote from the Penguin website:- "In 1935, if you wanted to read a good book, you needed either a lot of money or a library card. Cheap paperbacks were available, but their poor production generally tended to mirror the quality between the covers. Penguin paperbacks were the brainchild of Allen Lane, then a director of The Bodley Head. After a weekend visiting Agatha Christie in Devon, he found himself on a platform at Exeter station searching its bookstall for something to read on his journey back to London, but discovered only popular magazines and reprints of Victorian novels. Appalled by the selection on offer, Lane decided that good quality contemporary fiction should be made available at an attractive price and sold not just in traditional bookshops, but also in railway stations, tobacconists and chain stores. He also wanted a 'dignified but flippant' symbol for his new business. His secretary suggested a Penguin and another employee was sent to London Zoo to make some sketches. Seventy years later Penguin is still one of the most recognizable brands in the world.

The first Penguin paperbacks appeared in the summer of 1935 and included works by Ernest Hemingway, André Maurois and Agatha Christie. They were colour coded (orange for fiction, blue for biography, green for crime) and cost just sixpence, the same price as a packet of cigarettes. The way the public thought about books changed forever - the paperback revolution had begun."

Not only were the standard format covers wonderfully collectable but there were occasional superb departures like ‘Billy Liar’ by Keith Waterhouse - a brilliant, and accurate, pastiche (designed by Tony Meeuwissen) of a Wills Woodbine cigarette packet.

Not only are there a number of books on the subject of book jackets (Jo once had one about the Agatha Christie covers) but there are, of course, blogs and websites on the subject like great-book-covers.

I haven’t read Alan Powers’ “Front Cover” but it is alleged to include the most influential book jacket designs from throughout the 20th century, and the fascinating images track their evolution from throwaway utilitarian “dust jackets” into a powerful modern art form. Three hundred hardcover and paperback book jackets appear in full colour, including many from rare first editions seldom seen outside a serious collector’s library. Accompanying analysis commemorates the contributions of top European and American artists like Victor Gollancz, Paul Rand, and Barnett Freedman; explains how cover art styles helped launch such publishing brands as Penguin and Bloomsbury; and explores the impact of today’s digitally designed covers.


  1. A very interesting post. I share your liking for the 60s Christie covers, both Pan and Fontana. Some covers of crime novels (including some excellent stories) tend to be quite sterotypical, even if well done, but there are still some gems to be found.


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