Capitalism. Consumerism. Accessibility. Design.
Book covers reveal much more than a sneak peek into the contents of the books they protect. If we were to take the phrase ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ literally, we would essentially be cutting off avenues for people to pinpoint why they view book covers the way that they do. The opinion that they are marketing ploys to draw new readers in and the opinion that they can reveal underlying systemic issues in their regional areas can coexist in the same space.
Our LitSoc execs, who come from varying cultures and perspectives as designers, writers and consumers, gathered on a Zoom call to have a free-flowing discussion. It lasted over an hour.
At the end of the day, aesthetic preferences will always be subjective. Not all opinions in the call were met with unanimous agreement. This debate has been transcripted to encourage people to discover new books through memorable covers as well as provide new lenses to look at what we conventionally believe are ‘good book covers’. This article contains a fraction of the highlights. For the full transcript, which goes into ‘As seen on Tiktok’ and other fun tangents, click here.
Chantelle: No one wants to start, so I’ll start. *laughs* From a design perspective, after learning actually how hard it is to design a book cover, I think it should still reference and symbolise the themes and subject matter of the book but not give too much away. And, um, it should serve its purpose well in terms of the form of the book. If it’s a manga cover, it should look like one, you know . . . if it’s a fanfiction book . . . but that can also be really debatable too because all those books are so different.
Serena: Yup. I absolutely agree with Chantelle, and I won’t lie, guys, I purchase for aesthetics. Sometimes, I will purely buy something I know will look good on my bookshelf, and I’m not proud of that. I’m not proud, but I’m a material girl. Please quote that directly in your article, Mel. *laughs* I’m a bit like Liam – if it’s a nicer cover, I will buy it, but I only buy it if I have . . . if I own the secondhand copy – and I’m not in love with the secondhand copy cover – and I really did enjoy the book or I know I’m going to enjoy the book from what I’ve heard about it. And I will tend to buy a nicer-looking, um – I was going to say firsthand *laughs* – just a nicer-looking new cover rather than the secondhand book, because the majority of the books I have are just Penguin Classic covers that I have purchased secondhand, so I will buy for the aesthetic most of the time.
Liam: I have two hot takes. My first one is that people on covers should not happen. I don’t like faces, I don't like bodies – anything like that, no thank you. Do not put anything on there. One exception, which has been noted by people before, but, Know My Name by Chanel Miller: fine, I take that. Everything else, I don’t want to see a face. I find that destroys half the book because now I already know what you want me to think. And so I hate it. Also, The Vanishing Half cover is awful. I feel like putting something in paint and mixing it around does not count as a cover, so I hate that. My second point is that the new design of covers where they're three-fourths and they have the little tab that isn't the front but is the second page? I’m like, what is this? Like, why do that? Like, *sputters* I want a full cover. I don’t want three-fourths of a front-page because it looks awful. I know you see the spine most of the time, but it just looks awful.
Reg: I’d personally think the worst type of book covers are the film adaptation covers. *Ahh of agreement from Liam* I think that’s the worst; the movie, I know, is going to be shit, like, *group laughs* I don’t need that on the book cover. I think the only cover that is nice that I can think of is Call Me By Your Name. *murmurs of agreement from group* I thought that was nice, like, that was a really nice cover; it had angles, it captured the vibes, you know what the book is about. I thought that was really nice. But anything else, no. No.
Chantelle: It all goes back to the decline of movie poster design – back in the day, or even in some countries now, they put in a lot of effort into designing movie posters. Now it’s like . . . HEADS FLOATING. BIG ACTOR. And then they do the same for the book adaptations. It’s like, what’s the point? Like, a lot of people have a really strong attachment to these characters, and you're seeing them on screen. ‘Oh, that’s not what I envisioned.’ ‘Oh, it’s so ugly, like you really just did the bare minimum, like I could do that on Picsart, bro.’ If I were to choose between the really bad photoshop romance novel covers versus the cartoon-y ones . . . I’ll let it fly. But they feel offensive as a designer too, when we’re all about bringing the mark-making and texture and bringing part of the story to life whilst not giving too much away.
Chantelle: The original Six of Crows cover because it’s just the wings of the bird and the city. Like, Gestalt Principles right there – the technical name: fluctuating figure and ground. And it has the texture and grit of the vibes of the book, of the heist, so it really looks nice. I love it a lot.
Serena: I’ve got one right here. I had it in my bag right next to me. But Piranesi. Frickin’ love it. Like, it's so sexy, it’s embossed, you can feel the textures and the layers. And it just gives that little bit of . . . I don't know what to say. And then, obviously, the metallic tones as well, and it’s just so nice to touch.
Liam: My one is Transcendent Kingdom. I love this one so much. Like, I don’t know what it is, but the design – and this is what I mean by ‘I don't want people on the cover.’ I would rather see a really nice design that actually speaks to, like, the fact that this is heavily rooted in African culture. And you can get that from the cover, and you can understand that. And so, I just really appreciate that. And this is what I want to see from a book because this makes me interested in picking up the book. ‘Cause I actually care about the characters before I start reading.
Zara: Serena, what's wrong with you, saying you’ll take an orange Penguin Classic over the modern box set???
*disapproving sounds from Serena*
Liam: It’s so ugly. They’re very ugly. I think the typography is awful.
Erin: I agree.
Serena: I think they just degrade the books.
Zara: I disagree strongly. There’s nothing uglier than an orange Penguin Classic.
Serena: Like, obviously, I don’t love the orange Penguin Classics, but I would take them any day over the modern sets because I also feel like the modern set only has really, really short books. Every single one of the books is tiny and thin, and it just feels like I'm holding one of the catalogues that you’d get in primary schools . . . they’re just really ugly, that’s my thought.
Chantelle: Yeah, the purpose of the orange Penguin Classics is, like, capitalism and for books to sell more; if you own those it’s like, ‘Wow, I read’ . . . but do you really read??
Erin: Exactly. That’s what Walter Benjamin was hitting up against. I had to read him the other day. I think the term is ‘pseudo-individualisation’ or something; essentially when it’s the same thing just repackaged to make it seem better. That’s why we’re conditioned to buy when the new edition comes out – ‘Ooh, I need to get it ‘cause it's a limited edition, it's a hard cover, it’s gold.’ And when Liam bought Song of Achilles . . . why? Capitalism.
Chantelle: I think you guys will appreciate a Penguin book interrogating this exact topic called The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. The cover is literally a reproduction of each of Penguin’s spines. It’s commentary on capitalism and the reproduction of art, which obviously relates to book covers.
Zara: I love the fact that it gets to have new art and that artists get commissioned for that, and you get to see new interpretations of the work, and often they draw the characters on the inside of the cover, so I love that. But I think I have to lean more towards the overrated side because it makes book lovers feel bad about themselves and it forces people to buy multiple copies of a book when they don’t actually need it. And sometimes people can’t afford to – and especially living in Australia, it’s really hard to afford those books. And it can make people feel really bad about themselves, especially with BookTubers when they have whole shelves of, like, embossed hardcovers. And then you’re like, ‘Why can’t I have an embossed hardcover?’ And then you’re like, ‘Holy fuck, they’re spending so much money on books.’ And they might not even read it or like it. And it’s kind of like, what are we buying these for? But the art aspect of it, I love. I just wish that art could be more incorporated into the first release anyway.
Chantelle: They’re very saturated, and a lot of it is, like, smut boxes. A lot of crates are that specific area of fantasy. Recently, they’ve been trying to diversify the book boxes so that we can have more than just fantasy – to have that fanart. Because a lot of contemporary fiction doesn’t get fanart. It’s usually a het couple in a fantasy series that gets candles and pins and merch that comes in the box.
Liam: I think there was a box that WithCindy got once, and it had dick soap in it. Like, soap in the shape of a dick, and it’s, like, fairy dick. It was so interesting. Like, I could never imagine any other type of book being like . . . yeah. It’s so interesting how that world works. Because I’ve not bought a crate, but I have bought an edition from a crate. I got this edition of Our Violent Ends from Fairyloot. And the reason I got it was because it was signed. I’m a sucker for that. BUT I also got the exclusive edition of this book (Beautiful World Where Are You) because it was yellow instead of blue. Now this one – the Madeline Miller one (Song of Achilles) – this one is my favourite one because it is just amazing.
And it was special because of the fact that it wasn't made a year after the release, it was made ten years after the initial release, so it came with an author’s note at the start about the impact of the book for her personally. So I like that edition. I function very well under capitalism because I really do love the exclusive editions. So if they release them, I will buy them under any circumstance, unfortunately.
Lovina: ‘I function well under capitalism.’ I'm quoting that from now on.
Zara: Going off what Chantelle was saying about how it’s usually fantasy. Yes, that is such a big point. Like, why? But I feel like that kind of speaks to general book life as well; fantasy is given such a platform. I did pay, I think, over $120 for this (How the King of Elfhame Learned to Hate Stories).
Zara: I believe this just had a cover redesign, and I just heard someone on BookTok the other day say they hated this cover and they were waiting for the new cover, but I love the cover for My Year of Rest and Relaxation.
Reg: I was going to say that too! I was going to bring that up, I really like it as well. Yes.
Zara: It is just perfect. I love the typography. Like, it’s not straight, it’s a good font. I’m loving the italics in the name, and the swash of pink is so eye-catching. And it’s obviously got the painting, which just makes everything so damn good. And then the back isn’t just plain – it keeps going and . . . it’s such a good cover! And the fact that I saw BookTok slander this and that people were excited for the redesign – I was like, ‘Are you crazy??’ And the redesign is just really bad.
Reg: I wanted to get the book purely because of the cover. I didn’t know anything about the book, but I was like, I really like this cover, and I wanted to read it. But then I heard people say, ‘Oh, it’s not that good,’ but I’m like, the cover is good so I’m still interested! So I think a book cover really does help gain interest, and I heard people not really liking it, but I really like the cover and I’m really interested in it.
Serena: I’d be interested to hear what Liam has to say – like, obviously, it’s a painting, but it’s still a depiction of a person – and Liam’s take was no-go on people on covers. So what is your opinion on that Liam? I’m curious.
Liam: Is it a painting or is it a photo?
Serena: It is a painting of a lady.
Liam: I feel like that’s passable then. But is it a non-fiction?
Liam: Then I hate it.
Chantelle: It’s a legitimate painting though, like a historical painting.
Liam: Oh, if it has history, fine. *laughs* But was it painted for the purpose of this book?
Zara & Chantelle: No.
Liam: Well then, if it has history then, yeah, it’s fine. I do like that cover. I do think it’s one of the better ones.
Reg: I agree with you, Liam [on people on covers]. I think, if it’s their full face . . . like, The Bell Jar has her whole face. And I had it sitting on my desk, it was cropped off, and I went to sleep, so when I opened my eyes it was staring at me. I was like, ‘Ohmygod I gotta put it away.’ SHE WAS STARING AT ME.
Chantelle: There was the era in maybe 2014 where the YA books were just ‘girl looking fiercely, hair blowing in the wind’ and half of the face showing.
Serena: I went and grabbed a few, and I realised that I am really in a red phase at the moment. But Emotional Female, I just love how angular it is. The colour palette, ugh, it’s so beautiful. I love it. It’s not like the font is anything special, but I don't know, I just like the layout. I was a bit sad because I don’t have any special editions but–
Serena: What do you mean no? You don’t like the cover?
Zara: No. Not of Emotional Female.
Liam: No, it’s kind of ugly.
Erin: It’s too, like, I just don’t like the segments. I just don’t like the segments. What’s with the block colours? It doesn’t make sense.
Liam: Chantelle, what do you think as the person who’s studied book cover design?
Chantelle: There’s use of segments in modularity. That type of design is modular design. It’s based on a really set grid, and all the text would be in columns. It’s very typical Swiss design. It’s not ugly, just, other people are looking for something new. And when people think about an Emotional Female, like, where’s the emotion?
Zara: What I was saying before is how I feel like self-published books always have some pretty good covers, and when they get a publishing deal the covers will turn really ugly. And right now, something I’m really angry about is A Dowry of Blood. I really like the self-published cover. It's really pretty and has gothic vibes.
Talia: I have never even read these books, but I just really appreciated – I’ve seen this on Instagram a lot – the redesigns of the Cinder books?
Chantelle: Oh, the Lunar Chronicles?
Chantelle: I’d say amongst the saturation of really bad YA covers present during the time I read Lunar Chronicles, the original Lunar Chronicles covers were actually nice. They were very basic symbolic covers. Yes, it’s Cinderella because of the shoe. Yes, it’s Snow White because of the apple. But in terms of the new redesign, there was some stuff about whitewashing the black character in the art style. And one of the characters was portrayed very skinny, but she’s supposed to be curvy.
Talia: That’s another thing about putting characters on covers. I don’t read as much YA now, but when I was actually a teenager reading YA every single day, I noticed – and this has been talked about by people critiquing the publishing industry – but the person they put on the covers would be this random pale white person even though the main character would be a person of colour. And I’m like, what is this? What is this?
Chantelle: Getty Images. That’s the thing. More than that, they need to diversify stock images and the quality of the stock images. Because the designer probably gets an assets folder and it’s like, ‘Work from here; sorry we’re not going to let you work beyond that.’ So it’s a systemic problem related to that too.
Mel: Chantelle brought up an interesting point that these redesigns are pandering to an audience from another time, so the style of book covers does change from when we were in primary to when we were in high school. It’s very different. And now we can see a lot of what Chantelle calls ‘Etsy/typography-based’ contemporary, you know? I think, in a way, the most annoying thing as a designer is when you’re told that you’re supposed to design something that fits within the system. You know, you want people to pick up your book because it looks good, but you don’t want people to notice that your book sticks out from the pack like it doesn’t belong there [in that genre]. So it’s really interesting.
Erin: Well I know with Margaret Atwood, a lot of her earlier editions were from the 70s, 80s, so she has new ones. Her more contemporary editions are quite nice, like, Robber Bride is quite cool. Like you don’t have a person, it’s quite a nice purple colour, good contrast. I like the symbolism they’ve made with the redesign – the ‘O’ is missing like it's been robbed. So smart.
Serena: I just have beef with it all. There are so many book covers I just want to be able to purchase, but the ridiculous price – literally with the American covers, the cost of delivery alone is triple the cost of the book, so it’s completely unattainable. So I know a lot of people overseas have the same issue where they’re trying to find books they want to read, and they just have to settle for downloading them illegally and not even having a physical copy. Like, we’re very lucky that we have a bookshop in any town/city we go to. But, just, I feel bad! Like, obviously, I feel selfish because I want a special looking cover, but people just don’t have those covers at all because of the lack of accessibility of actual hard copy books . . . and banned books as well are a real issue. In Pakistan, it’s a primarily Islamic state, so you wouldn’t be able to access queer authors like we are able to. So there’s really not too much you can get access to. So it’s really sad, but that’s a bit of a different topic. But yeah, there are plenty of covers I’d like to get but I can’t.
Chantelle: And it’s not just accessibility regarding the store, but, like, money-wise, things like capitalism but also space. Like, in the Philippines, you would not have enough space to actually have books there physically. So a lot of people overseas like my cousins would have to resort to downloading illegal copies because you can’t justify it in the wider picture in terms of what you prioritise buying with regards to multiple editions. But even with me, being good with your money and frugality is already really embedded in my culture anyway, so I’d say I’m very good with my money and with books. For the longest time, I didn’t buy any because I couldn’t justify it in the wider picture because I had other things in my life I needed to prioritise. Even though advancing your learning through reading is really important.
Reg: This could just be me, because I’m, like, dumb, but if there’s multiple versions, I kind of find it confusing sometimes? There’s so many. I’m just like, ‘Why? Why are there so many?’ If there’s just one or two, then okay, I understand. It could be an updated version. But if there’s four different covers, I’m just like, ‘Why?’ Like, I love Normal People, but why are there six different versions of the cover?
Chantelle: The illusion of choice!
Reg: Yeah, that’s true.
Chantelle: If we’re talking about Crying in H Mart, going back to what I said about simplicity, but it has texture I liked in it. It’s not soulless. Whilst the one we have here in Australia, the UK one, it’s giving Etsy traced linework. It’s like, way to be very, very literal – it’s a girl that’s obviously been traced over a photo of her holding groceries. *laughs* Like yes, you are crying in H Mart. But the cover that we like [the US one], now that I hold the story close to my heart, you can further analyse just the noodles. It brings it back to the heart of the story and her life and what she's learned from her mum. It all ties back together. You have to be able to appreciate the cover before going into it, and then after having a more enriched understanding it’s like, ‘I can also interpret it this way as well.’ It’s a more holistic way of enjoying the book.
Serena: I think we think that, but it’s also appealing to different tastes and different markets as well. Like in the lead up to this discussion, I was asking Erin if I needed to prepare anything for this, and at the same time I was frantically looking up articles that caught my eye and which I thought might be interesting about book covers. And in one I was reading, I found this excerpt from it: ‘One noticeable difference is that American covers don't shy away from portraying characters. Many British covers avoid this, giving the audience a chance to imagine their own versions.’ I feel like that’s very true. I don’t know if it’s mean to say, but with American covers, a lot of it is really simplified or tends to look really flashy to appeal to, I don’t know, the capitalist mindset, I guess?
Zara: I think what you’re saying is really true. Because I share Liam’s opinion that I like US covers more. But Jack Edwards came out with that video recently where him and Steph were doing UK vs US covers, and I was like, ‘Oh my god, US covers are going to smash the competition.’ And then the UK/Australian covers won, and I was like, ‘What the fuck?’ The covers they were saying ‘yes’ to, I was finding so ugly. They were like, ‘This UK/Australian cover is so niceeee! The American cover is so ugly.’ I was like, ‘No, the American covers are beautiful!’
Serena: I think we just want what we can’t have.
Chantelle: I was reading a reference today in my social media class, though I’d already read it before, called The Distinction of Taste by Pierre Bourdieu. It relates to that subjectiveness of taste worldwide. Beyond just the US and UK. Editions in Asia, covers in Asia, are really cool! That’s a major generalisation because Asia is the largest continent. But books from Korea and Japan – their typography system and design system is different, so the affordances in the cover are really interesting. But I wanted to show this book, The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea – both of the covers are nice! This is the UK one, and I love illustration and it’s really nice and it wraps around the spine and the back. And it’s just full of life.
Talia: I like what you said about the Asian covers being cool. I was trying to find a copy of The Poppy War, because I just do not like the white covers. I just can’t stand white space. And I came across – I’m not sure if it was Malaysian, but it might have been Malaysian [it was Indonesian!] – the Malaysian edition, and it was just really, really nice. It was taking that orange that you have on our white background covers, and it was an illustration style that I liked more. I just wish we had access to those markets. I was literally like, ‘I’m going to buy this,’ then I realised the actual text itself was not in English. *laughs*
Chantelle: I know what you’re talking about because it is really, really nice. I get The Poppy War’s thing on white, because symbolically it has lots of meaning regarding where it’s set. In design, like in school, they always emphasise white space because it’s still very embedded in Swiss/Western/Euro-centric design. So they always don’t like crowded things, and they kind of delegate traditional – or anything with ethnic flavour – they’re like, ‘No. It’s just too much.’ You can respect the way you need white space to breathe visually, but sometimes it’s a very overwhelming thing to look at on a sensory level as well.
Zara: I have genuinely considered buying books that are just fully in Korean because I love the details of the illustrations they put on them. I want to feel fully immersed in the book when I look at the book cover. Like, I wish we lived in a country where detailed illustrations were the norm, because I love that.
Liam: That’s so true. I hate Convenience Store Woman, but that cover is so nice. There’s something about that cover that’s so nice, but I hate the book. But I like putting it on display because it has really nice covers.
*Everyone chooses imagery-based*
*Liam chooses spine, everyone else chooses cover*
*Group opinion is divided in half*
Serena: It was a pufferfish. *laughs*
Mel: Okay *laughs* Thanks guys, and goodnight!