book covers we love

lore's picture

Hello children

Once I bought a book just because it had a fabulous cover (by David Foldvari). I find the design of a book cover a huge responsibility and I wonder how you guys deal with this task. Do you receive a brief from the publisher (or from the author) or do you just need to read the book yourself and try to capture its essence? Is it true that as far as book covers are concerned "anything goes" or are there specific rules that need to be observed (proportions etc.)?

And if you have one, can you tell me about your favourite book cover and why?
Thanks and hope you enjoy the thread.

lore's picture

I'll start with one of my favourites ( I'm a big fan of penguin books):

ChuckGroth's picture

I always have to laugh when I hear the phrase "don't judge a book by its cover," because I almost always do, and its almost always correct!

A couple favorites that come to mind:

and this one:

blank's picture

I’m loving the new Penguin Epics series that’s just hitting the shelves here. But at $8.95 I’m not buying them.

Ehague's picture

And the J.D. Salinger books in all their dirty, white-matte glory.

Edit: Sorry, that image was huge.

ChuckGroth's picture

yes, the salinger books! I have this great edition of "nine stories" from 1956:

and this one, from the 1962 paperback of gunter grass:

Dan Heffernan's picture

Farley Mowat

image won't show up so here's a link. sorry's-cover.jpg

Ehague's picture

That reminds me of this one too

malbright's picture

Check out my friend Kirk's site for some wonderful covers, and a great variety of styles.

His taste is superb, and the type is delicious:

Alessandro Segalini's picture

A new & questionable cover, I still have to read the book, The Myths of Innovation.

One cover I love, Tales From Moominvalley, 1963.

pattyfab's picture

Thanks Chuck!

I love this one - On Beauty (bad jpeg!). Also the type is embossed.

but there are so many.

I do a lot of book covers but not for fiction or trade nonfiction. Mine are for illustrated books so they have to be of a piece with the design of the book's interior. Often the editor will suggest an image, equally often I can choose myself. I usually present anywhere from 3 to 10 sample designs, depending on the choices.

It is the hardest part of the book to nail down because it needs to be vetted by the sales/marketing team who are not usually that visually sophisticated. So it can be frustrating.

For fiction and trade nonfiction the cover is its own entity, separate from the interior.

lore's picture

Thanks Pat, I was waiting for your opinion : ) Zadie Smith's cover is beautiful, I like the grey and orange of Myths of Innovation too, not sure about the choice of fonts though.
Chuck: it's your own book! How cool is that!
What kind of book is the Erewhon one? I can't tell by the cover (or am I missing something?).

pattyfab's picture

Erewhon was actually a small catalog I did for a show at a gallery. The artists (Jane & Louise Wilson) do installations and take large photographs; that was one of them. Sometimes artists are not cool with their images bleeding, being cropped (altho this was not cropped) or having type over them which is why a lot of art books have kind of static covers. But these gals were cool with type over their image.

There are so many covers I love - check out Paul Rand, Elaine Lustig, Chip Kidd, also a book called "By Its Cover"

fontplayer's picture

Here is one I love that I got at a garage sale for $1. It has no dust jacket, but the scrollwork is printed in gold directly on the hard cover. Dated 1927. If anyone would like the full size scan e-mail me and I will send it in a reply (1.7 Mb)

(Because it is published after 1923, it isn't public domain, so I can't add it to my site until about 2022)

Nick Shinn's picture

Lore, I was designing book covers for a while. I had two main clients, a mass-market romance publisher, and a niche publisher, mainly political. The budgets, creative and working relationship couldn't have been more different, but for both I always made many, many comps using low-res stock images or whatever, just to try out different concepts (and type treatments) and see if anything struck a spark with the client. I never read the book as research -- the publisher should give a creative/marketing brief, they're better informed and the designer shouldn't be left to figure out what the book is about, and who it's supposed to appeal to, and where it's going to be sold. For size and proportions, if you're just doing the cover not the guts, I think it's unusual that the cover designer would have any input.

ChuckGroth's picture

I agree with Nick-- Not that I've done a lot of book covers, but I have designed several. But the dimensions are pretty predetermined (in my experience) by a lot of factors: does the book work in a series? should it have a particular 'shelf presence'? are there market norms? All of these are also factored by common signature sheets. If something is going to break the mold, it's goiing to cost a good deal to do it... which is not to say it doesn't happen (Chronicle Books, in SF,CA is a good example).

ChuckGroth's picture

(it IS pretty cool...)

but i don't know if i can say what it is that draws me to a book cover. type? image? format? it's all so subjective at the point of contact/experience. what i can say is that i would rather hold a book in my hand than look at a photo of it, i'd rather turn a page than scroll a screen, and when i'm looking to retrieve a particular book, i can remember its cover (and spine) and pick it out of the (too) many on the shelves visually much more quickly than by reading the title. the design IMPACTS me.

lore's picture

Thanks Nick, it makes a lot of sense. Thanks everyone. Very naive of me to think the designer would have to read the book and come up with something (blush), but sometimes I look at a cover and it actually feels like the designer has read (and enjoyed) the book, which I guess is a good sign.

Check out this one (sorry bad scan)

bojev's picture

The early moderns still look good and had a strong influence on what we still see

Berg's picture

Some books I love

Printed in Switzerland in 1926, an old songbook.

"La frégate du capitaine Unité", a russian book about mathmatics for children, translated in French (1986)

"Exercices de style" by Raymond Queneau with typographic exercices by Massin

lore's picture

Speaking about "typographic covers" with a nice letterpress feel:

bojev's picture

Fontplayer - here is what the dustjacket of you book looks like - in reality it is darker being dark ink on a very dark brown paper.

fontplayer's picture

A book that old with a dustjacket which looks to be in fairly good shape: Nice find.

nicholasgross's picture

Here's a pretty good book cover blog that I visit every other day: fwis

Paul Rand's stuff is fun and this style still seems current Alvin Lustig's stuff just blew me away

But for contemporary stuff you can't go past the Kidd. especially for me the power of the Elmore Leonard books with the gritty newspaper styled type

However I reckon the best book cover is (perhaps banally) this

Ingrid Paulson's picture

I have to disagree about not reading the book. I've been working exclusively as a book designer (covers, interior design and typesetting) for nearly 10 years, and in most cases I do read the manuscript. The reason? I'm a trained designer, and have a vast understanding of visual literacy. I've had publishers send me treatments, suggestions for the cover etc. that are far too literal, and too weak visually. I read the manuscript, pick out what I call "Lit 101" (colour themes, time periods, look of protagonists, any other repetitive or significant visual clues) and use that as the basis for the cover idea. For non-fiction, I will go with the treatment, but with fiction, I find it necessary to read. The few times where I haven't had anything but the word of the editor/publisher, the book cover design has been weaker than when I contributed my expertise, ideas and thoughts into the interpretation.

I don't know of many book designers that work exclusively in this field that don't dip into the manuscript, even to just read the first third. While I know of one designer (who doesn't work exclusively with books) rely on what the editor and publisher dictate with good results, I've picked up far too many books where the cover was a misrepresentation of the goods inside. Its a balance: making a catchy, saleable cover design that also can enhance the enjoyment and understanding of the book itself.

lore's picture

Ingrid, that's very interesting, thanks.

ChuckGroth's picture

I agree. The few covers I've done, I've read the galleys. Same with CD covers/inserts. I listen to the music over and over and over before I jump in with my two cents.

jasper7777's picture

nice simple covers illustrated by christopher neal silas. He also has some great posters on his site.

jasper7777's picture

Japanese covers

This one is really interesting-- it really was published in Japan
and is a manual that discusses methods of suicide- success rates etc..

Interesting czech covers-- 1920s 30s-- they look so modern

any cover designed by John Gall

and can't beat the "relationship of type and image" in on this cover...

This Aubrey Beardsley Salome cover is maybe one of my favorites of all time.

Jackie Frant's picture

I love this topic, since in the 80s and 90s I did typography for quite a few publishing houses in NY.

Once I bought a book just because it had a fabulous cover

This is an old publishing argument. What really sold you the book. The art department would be beaming because of lore's reply. Yet, the editorial department would respond with, the artwork, type -- the front cover in general, made you pick the book up to look at when you were in the bookstore - BUT, you then flipped it over and read what the book was about and that made your final purchase decision.

In the mid-1980s Jove Books (then part of the Putnam/Berkley Pubishing Group, and now part of Penguin USA (along with New American Library and Dutton) put out a "generic cover." It was all white with black type, and looked like the generic foods that were being sold for lower prices in the supermarkets. That book did great. So...they put out a whole line of generic books (saving on artwork, type designers, 3/colors in the process, etc.) and it was a failure.

I think what many of us do look for is originality. When one idea seems to work, it is a flattery that others follow. I remember handletterers preparing fancy types for romance novels -- and all of a sudden, every romance cover had a script.

I have a dislike for "grunge" type covers. I really want to be able to read and pick up a "mood." For grunge, I just have to look at my disheveled office.

Chip Kidd of Random House gave new design ideas with his split covers and choice of type. Mike Stromberg gave us a strong male type with a "mistral" script with it. Tony Greco was the master of the small space. Jimmy Harris taught us that clean lines worked. I could go on and on -- but I cannot pick a "favorite." Maybe because I knew so many of the designers, and so many of the different styles -- that there was an appreciation of the work they did.

Now if I were a little girl and letting you know which I loved - it was Madeleine - hands down!!! Both interior and exterior. :-)

pattyfab's picture

I bought this book because of the cover. The type wraps around the spine too

The Penguin Great Ideas series is fabulous for all-type covers

and yes, love that Jonathan Safran Foer cover - and also that of his first book Everything is Illuminated (f**kin' hated the book tho)

William Berkson's picture

I have been a writer and reader of books, and only recently a type designer. So I am reacting mainly as a consumer. The main books that I retain an affection for their covers in a lifetime of reading are the Penguin covers in England in the 60s that I read then. These were done by Hans Schmoller, influenced by the examples set by Jan Tschichold.

A lot of covers today of mass market books seem to me to lack a literary feeling, and lack charm. The reading a good book is a quiet but deep pleasure. And the covers of most fiction and non-fiction should give an alluring glance at the reader, not dance the hoochie-coochie.

Of course books with a lot of visual content should reflect that on the cover, and they can be just wonderful if the visuals in the book are great.

The thing about a book is that you live with it, spend days or weeks reading it, leave it on the shelf, and keep it in your library to refer to it. So it needs to wear well. The need to draw attention in the book store is in tension with this, and a great cover will resolve that tension by being sufficiently eye-catching, but wear well.

The Penguin Classic series seem to take up the old Tschichold and Schmoller styles. I don't see them close up in Patty's link, but I have to say that the 'Marcus Aurelius' one posted by Lore to me is an eyesore. It mixes in the taller caps and ligatures without rhyme or reason, like a parody of classic inscriptions, or as if you just barfed up a lot of caps and ligatures--the spacing is lousy and the color uneven. It uses the classic material of caps, but completely lacks that combination of calmness and elation that is the classical taste, and goes well with many books.

ChuckGroth's picture

I don't wanna dis Chip Kidd, but I often feel like he's trying too hard in his book covers (and interior designs). Almost as if he really wants everyone to know all the time that he's a writer and a designer.

The "Illuminated" cover wowed me, too, at the time. But I'm now not sure I made it through the book.

I really like the stuff Barbara Hodgson does. The Tatooed Map comes to mind:

Don McCahill's picture

This is going to be heresy in this place, but when I get a hardcover book, the first thing I do is discard the dustjacket. To me a book is meant to look like a book on my shelves (over 1000 hardcovers), not a poster. I consider the dustcover the advertising that got me to read the book, and it is the quality of the writing that gets it onto my shelves.

William Berkson's picture

Don, you don't have the option of throwing the dust jacket when it is a paperback.

Also dust jackets can be eye catching and still sit happily on the shelf. Here are a couple of examples.

The Chicago Manual of Style uses great typography with a great typeface--Scala--and bright colors. The brightness not only attracts in the book store, but also gives a lightness to what could be an incredibly stodgy looking book. The inside is set in Scala also. It says the design is by Jill Shimabukuro, who I assume did both the inside and cover. The glory of it is a lot in the sharp beauty of Scala, so the fuzz of the screen doesn't do it justice:

Here is another very different cover, for the Book of Legends. Here the frame is taken from an illuminated manuscript (a marriage contract, Ketubbah), and the inside designed to complement it. The cover is by Megan Wilson. I also know that the editor found the beautiful illuminated manuscript in a library.

pattyfab's picture

Chip Kidd veers between total brilliance and ripping himself off. When I first started designing books the stars were Louise Fili, Fred Marcellino, and Carin Goldberg. Chip and I are of the same generation and I have to acknowledge he's glamourized the business quite a bit. However his own monograph is horrible. I don't know if he designed it or not.

Another book I bought for the cover (Paul Rand) - and will likely never read.

Speaking of books, Rudolph Arnheim's obit appeared today. He was 102. Who even knew he was still alive?

ChuckGroth's picture

You're right, Patty -- some of his covers are beautiful. His cover late last month for Haruki Murakami's "After Dark" is terrific. Carol Devine Carson -- also at Knopf, does some incredible work, too.

pattyfab's picture

Yes, how could I forget Carol Devine Carson.

lore's picture

Rudolph Arnheim’s obit appeared today. He was 102. Who even knew he was still alive?
How weird, I mentioned him in a seminar last Tuesday and assumed he was dead.
William, thanks for the observation on the Marcus Aurelius's book cover, I look at it in a different way now. Umph!

I tend to dislike special effects on book covers, embossed letters etc., glossy paper, especially those that scream: that's why this book is so bloody expensive! I prefer the discrete but carefullty designed covers, it doesn't matter if they age faster. Yellowed and smelly pages have their charm too.

William Berkson's picture

Thanks, Lore, for your open-minded response. I think what you were reacting to positively in the cover is Matthew Carter's great titling face, Mantinia.

Here, from 'Typographically Speaking: The Art of Matthew Carter' is an example of its usage by Carter himself. A bit better :)

timd's picture

>BUT, you then flipped it over and read what the book was about and that made your final purchase decision.

Having been disappointed in the past by blurb I don’t do that any more. I have been seduced into buying solely by a cover though.

Great covers in waiting


kris's picture

I find the design of a book cover a huge responsibility and I wonder how you guys deal with this task. Do you receive a brief from the publisher (or from the author) or do you just need to read the book yourself and try to capture its essence?

I have designed a few covers. I always receive a brief, and they usually have a feeling or mood they'd like to convey. I try to read as much of the book as possible, but sometimes time is very prohibitive! I've only bought one book for the cover: the Penguin edition of Ulysses with the modified Spectrum. Only read a few pages, too hard going for me. One day I'll be intelligent enough to read it.

Here are a few I've done, for those who are interested.

These are the first two of a planned series. 2 colour covers to save a them a bit of dough, spot colours are easier to control & more vibrant than cmyk mixes. Type: Maple & Mercury, they play really well together.

this is the full cover, magenta lines indicate the spine. Printed black for budget, put the contents/artists on the cover to avoid arguments. I was also a bit drunk when doing the contents & thought it was too nice to but on the inside, and has the bonus of saving a few inner pages. Type: Farao & Exotique (unreleased)

Left is dual language, Arabic & English. Both run the correct way for the language and meet in the middle. Type: Poppl Pontifex, publisher really wanted big body copy, and Pontifex has a large x-height. Sexuality is a bit of a mishmash, I was told to make it "less gay & less Maori" and this this is how it ended up!

Alice writes really dark short stories, they are truly excellent! The one on the left is one of the first concepts, the one on the right is how it developed. I really wanted the left one to be gold foiled, but the cost was apparently prohibitive. Type in final: Karbon, in progress.

Virtually all my initial concepts are rejected, which takes some getting used to.


Jackie Frant's picture

Okay - I finally remembered which was my all-time favorite book cover. However, I must admit, it was never a book at all. Many times I refer to my dear departed friend James R. Harris. When he was the art director of trade books at Ballantine (when it was all under the Random House umbrella) he directed many photo shoots. At one of them he asked the photographer (it might have been Don Banks) if he wouldn't mind afterward taking a few shots of him. So he dressed up for the occasion. Please remember, this was done before computers. It is a photograph with rub on (transfer) type - and a great sense of humor. So please enjoy - I have it poster size placed in my office (another friend saw it lying around and surprised me by having it framed recently so it wouldn't deteriorate.

Please enjoy

gabrielhl's picture

Here's a series of books from brazilian publisher cosac naify that I really like. They also have an interesting "tactile" side to them, with UV varnish that follows each "wallpaper". (sorry if varnish is not the correct term. english is not my first language)

Is there a way to post the images in a row so it doesn't take so much vertical space?

Miss Tiffany's picture

Gabriel: These are lovely. The simplicity works.

lore's picture

Love Cosac Naify work, I've been in touch with Elaine once (I think she's the art director there) and she's not only talented but nice too. It's a very small equipe but they do a very good job.
And what can I say about the Gay Goy's guide? Gorgeous. Unless William proves me wrong, of course. Kidding William, you are what I consider a reliable source. ;)
I don't believe blurbs either but I believe reviews especially when the source is reliable. Or I check the prizes. And prices. And weight.

gabrielhl's picture

I love Cosac Naify too. IMO, it's by far the brazilian editing house with the best looking books. Almost everything they do is elegant. By elegant I mean being able to attract attention and interest trough simplicity and a sort of quietness. It's sofistication: no need for myriads of flashy colors and superimposed elements.

Elaine is my brazilian book design idol. I hope to meet her someday.

Here is another Cosac Cover which I love:

The wonderful thing about this cover is that the paper has thin horizontal lines in relief that complement the horizontal design. Again, tactile. (is there anything duller than touching glossy, coated paper?) Also, the white dots you can see are numbers from one to fifty - the title is "fifty poems selected by the author". The sky and stars reference one of the author's most famous poems, translated "Morning Star".

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