(Don’t) Judge a book by its cover.

Don’t judge a book by the cover. Wishful thinking, but nearly impossible. Covers are particularly important for new authors, those working their way onto the “Must have” list of readers. What will capture the eye of the beholder? What transmits the story in a snapshot? 

Left: Illuminated manuscript; Right: Jane Austin, collection, early 19th century

Before the early 19th century, books were hard bound and often expensive. They evolved from the tradition of book covers as protection for medieval manuscripts, luxury items with hand made pages often lavishly embellished. 

In the 1820’s the process of binding a book underwent a technical change with innovations in mechanical book-binding (think of steam-powered presses and mechanically manufactured paper). Cloth, and later paper, became the staple material for book covers. The book cover needed to keep up, as it were, with the increasingly lower cost of producing the pages in between. 

Agatha Christie, Death on the Nile, book covers over time.

The turn of the twentieth century marked an increased interest in book cover design. The entire book industry commercialized, with mass market books gaining in popularity. More than ever covers needed to demonstrate content: style, genre and subject. Design needed to attract readers. Today, we certainly haven’t lost that feature of the cover. 

Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca, book covers over time.

Authors hope that the cover of their book literally illustrates the content they have written. Publishers need the cover to appeal to readers. Most of the time those hopes and needs intersect. A study of covers over time reminds us – writer and reader alike – that even when the content doesn’t change, the nature of its appeal might. Graphics have their own life, and smart book designers push the envelope, making even the classics look fresh to modern eyes, and, hopefully, bringing them to the attention of a new generation of readers.

Elizabeth George book covers over time.

I’ve taken a stroll through some of my favorite books, particularly those classics of the mystery genre, and have a few winners and losers (my opinion only) among their changing covers. Anyone else have particular favorites they would love to see resurrected, or some they wish had never been printed?

John Grisham, The Firm, book covers over the years.


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