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Can You Judge a Book by Its Cover?

I spent more than 20 years in book publishing, mostly as an editor, and one of the most vexing issues my colleagues and I always faced was the jacket — what image (if any) and what type to put on the outside of a book.

During my career, I had the privilege of meeting and working with dozens of great art directors and designers. These are the people who create book jackets — and theirs is not an easy job at all. Everyone thinks they know best when it comes to book jackets: the editor, the various departments of the publishing house, the author, the author's neighbors. And no one really knows.

But as hard as it's been in decades past, it's even harder now. Now a jacket must "work" in a bookstore but also "work" when it's the size of a postage stamp on a screen.Now a jacket must "work" in a bookstore but also "work" when it's the size of a postage stamp on a screen. We used to look at book jackets from 10 or 20 feet away and then up close, just as you would encounter them as you were wandering a bookstore's aisles. Now, a jacket needs also to look great tiny and backlit, as it will appear online, accompanying blog posts and reviews and on ecommerce sites.

Thank goodness, though, publishers and designers and authors aren't just throwing up their hands in frustration and calling it a day. I'm constantly amazed by the creativity that art directors and designers bring to the task of "packaging" all sorts of different kinds of books. And I'm still drawn like a heat-seeking missile to a great jacket.

What follows is a short, noncomprehensive, highly arbitrary list of a few characteristics that catch my eye in a bookshop — and online. I should add that I think good books, more so now than ever, can survive ill-conceived jackets and that not even a great jacket can make people buy a book they really don't want to buy. But when a jacket and a book work together — it's a truly beautiful thing.

1) Type. I love type. To state the obvious, all readers recognize type (if they didn't, then they couldn't read). A strong type treatment — a great typeface, a handsome arrangement, and strong or interesting colors — these will get my attention every time. I'll never forget Paul Bacon's brilliant hardcover jacket for Michael Chabon's The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. An intriguing cursive script. Every word in a different color. White background. And then there's S. Neil Fujita's iconic jacket for Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. One of the greatest jackets of all time.

2) People. When I see intriguing people on a book jacket, I want to find out more about them. For example, the people on Maggie Payette's hardcover jacket (and now paperback cover) of Rules of Civility by Amor Towles. Who are they? What are they talking about? I want to know. The small type on the back tells you nothing more than that it's a Corbis photograph from the Condé Nast Archive. This novel is next on my list of books to read — because I've heard so many great things about it and because of the jacket/cover.

3) Symbols. Welcome to Jurassic Park. This Chip Kidd jacket is unforgettable. So is the Tad Carpenter illustration and jacket for R.J. Palacio's Wonder, a tremendously moving and wondrous novel written for middle readers.

4) Startling images. I love the jacket that Stephanie Huntwork designed for Uncorked: My Journey through the Crazy World of Wine, by my friend Marco Pasanella. The cover image is of a champagne cork, in place of a man's head, exploding out of his body. It's a totally delightful and surprising jacket for a totally delightful and surprising book.

5) Color. Alex Witchel's All Gone: A Memoir of My Mother's Dementia, with Refreshments, is a lovely and haunting book with a lovely and haunting jacket by Evan Gaffney. Behind the handsome type and intriguing symbol, there's a gorgeous blue — I don't know if it's robin's egg or turquoise or aqua — but whatever it is, it's beautiful.

Another example: the jacket that Carin Golberg did for a Chinese novel in translation I published: Playing for Thrills by Wang Shuo. Neon red, neon green, a pixilated black-and-white photograph in the background. Incredibly cool colors for an incredibly cool writer.

6) Stunning landscapes. My friend Tim Hsu's arresting jacket for the hardcover of Andrea Barrett's novel The Voyage of the Narwhal grabbed me the moment I saw it in a bookstore. One of the first things I told Tim when I later met him was how much I loved that jacket. The photograph is by Sheila Metzner.

7) Kittens, puppies, babies, and food. Need I say more?

I could go on and on listing jackets that I love and designers I admire. But I would feel very remiss if I didn't end where I should have started, by saying I'm head over heels in love with the jacket that Carol Devine Carson did for the U.S. publication of my new book (I love the U.K. one, too, by Sarah Christie, with illustrations by Becca Stadtlander). And the same goes for the jackets that Peter Mendelsund and Carol did for the book I wrote with David Shipley.

I would love to hear about jackets that you love and why, on books new and old.

÷ ÷ ÷

Will Schwalbe is the author of The End of Your Life Book Club and coauthor of Send: Why People Email So Badly and How to Do It Better. He has worked in publishing (most recently as senior vice president and editor in chief of Hyperion Books); in digital media, as the founder and CEO of Cookstr.com; and as a journalist.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Uncorked: My Journey Through the... Used Hardcover $9.95
  2. Wonder
    Used Hardcover $9.00
  3. Rules of Civility
    Used Trade Paper $7.95
  4. In Cold Blood
    Used Hardcover $15.50
  5. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (Harper...
    Sale Trade Paper $8.98
  6. Jurassic Park
    Used Hardcover $12.95
  7. The End of Your Life Book Club 1st...
    Used Hardcover $8.95
  8. All Gone: A Memoir of My Mother's... Used Hardcover $12.95
  9. Playing for Thrills Used Trade Paper $5.95
  10. The Voyage of the Narwhal Used Trade Paper $2.95
  11. Send: Why People Email So Badly and... New Trade Paper $15.95
  12. In Cold Blood
    Used Hardcover $15.50

Will Schwalbe is the author of The End of Your Life Book Club 1st Edition

One Response to "Can You Judge a Book by Its Cover?"

    name withheld October 6th, 2012 at 7:36 pm

    Of course it's a matter of opinion, but I don't find any of these covers compelling. They are all, well, average at best.

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