Lost in Books has another fun meme this week, asking bloggers to judge a book by its cover. Book cover design is something in which I’ve always been very interested. Some years ago, it was common to see original art on book covers. But in one of the many bone-headed decisions made over the last couple of decades, the publishing industry largely got rid of its artists.
This in turn impoverished the work of the cover designers, who are now left with only typography and usually stock photography with which to compose a cover. In the old days, you might have seen original art that was beautiful — or spectacularly cheesy. In either case it was elbowing its way in to be considered as entertainment alongside TV or the movies.
But now, with even more competition for readers’ time coming from the Internet explosion, most books present images that are static and generic. Mystery novels appear with the same old stock photos of rain-slicked streets or tail lights receding into the distance. One I read recently had a picture of a highway overpass. That’s going to keep me up at night. I took a look at my to-be-read pile and saw a book about the Arctic with a stock photo of an iceberg. A book about J.P. Morgan had a picture of a bank. A literary novel showed a woman with her back turned, standing on the beach holding an umbrella.
I thought about choosing three covers from the heyday of cover art, but instead I decided to share three more recent covers in which I thought the cover designer did a great job working within the constraints of the current publishing environment.
1. Raising Holy Hell, by Bruce Olds. In general, historical novels fare a little better than most when it comes to covers. At least there is the vast storehouse of historic paintings to provide art. I love the way the covers for our novels turned out. I also love how the cover designer used typography and the famous John Steuart Curray mural of John Brown for this brilliant, innovative historical novel which brings John Brown and his raid on Harpers Ferry to terrifying, achingly human life.
2. By His Own Hand? The Mysterious Death of Meriwether Lewis, edited by John D. W. Guice. The covers for academic press books are usually among the most dismal. It’s as if the presses think the book has to look boring to have any historan “cred.” So the cover of this slim volume of essays about the death of Meriwether Lewis, published by University of Oklahoma Press, was a delightful surprise. The designer did a great job of using the photo of the pistol with the question mark of the title to suggest smoke, and the colors are both classy and mysterious. The book is good too and makes a fine companion to our To the Ends of the Earth.
3. Ask a Mexican! by Gustavo Arellano. Have you ever wondered why Mexicans park their cars on the lawn? What is the deal about low riders? And just why are Mexicans here instead of in Mexico? Well, don’t just wonder, gabachos — ask a Mexican! As you might have already guessed, Arellano’s collection of questions and answers, drawn from his syndicated column, is funny, irreverent, and screamingly politically incorrect. It’s also insightful and a blast to read. The cover of this book makes great use of Mexican icons in a playful, cartoonish format. This is one of those rare covers to which your reaction probably exactly mirrors whether or not you will like the book.
So how about you? Seen any good cover designs lately?