Friday, April 29, 2011

Still More about Book Covers

Barry Eisler was sorely aggrieved this week by the cover his French publisher put on one of his books. Most of us have thoughts about our covers. Few of us utter them, for fear of annoying our publishers, who believe they know best. For most of us, no cover can be as attractive as the book inside, any more than a baby bunting can be as attractive as the baby.

Still, there are good covers and bad covers. My own feeling is that a good book cover is like a good poster.

First of all it should be clearly legible, if nothing else. Believe it or not, this is not true of all posters or book covers. The cover of Barry Eisler's book is at least clearly legible. His French fans will pick it up even though the color is yucky and the artwork conveys no sense of excitement, because his name is on it in large print.

Some wildly successful posters, like this one for a Cream concert at the Fillmore East, cannot be read and understood unless you are stoned out of your gourd. But, whaddya want, that was the sixties.

Secondly, after legibility, posters and book covers should convey a sense of what is on offer. Barry Eisler's book cover fails in this respect, although some say that the French like their book covers deadly dull. The French are said to be an excitable race, after all; it may be that the sight of a garage door and a couple of security cameras on the cover of a book can drive a Frenchman half-mad with anticipation.

Drama is good, if the book is meant to be dramatic. Lovers kissing, killers murdering, dead bodies lying there like a lox, noble cowboys preparing to face the challenges of the West; just as a poster should entice you to go see the show, a book cover should entice you to pick up the book.

We like to think that a poster or a cover would also be reasonably truthful in its enticements. This lurid cover was probably not what Elizabeth Barrett Browning had in mind when she penned her Sonnets from the Portuguese, but, hey,  somebody at Random House liked it.

Third, a good poster (and by extension a good book cover) should be visually simple. Or so my high school art teacher, Mrs. Bockius, used to say. Rest her soul, she didn't live to experience posters from the Fillmore East. I can't imagine what she would have made of them.

I could do a whole other post on spines. The spine of a book might be all that most people ever see of it. What do you go for, when you reach for a book's spine?

Kate Gallison


  1. Great post. At the risk of offending struggling new authors, I would love to see you post a few examples of some of the worst offenders when it comes to bad covers. A kind of "What Not to Do" gallery.

  2. Actually, J.C., the writers who are other than self-published know perfectly well when their covers are horrible, but they are helpless to fix them. But that's a good idea. I will plan another "covers" post soon. - Kate