Review: Front Cover

Front Cover: Great Book Jacket and Cover Design by Alan Powers


As we’ve seen over and over again, I am helpless in the face of a beautiful book, to the point of reading some not so fantastic books just because they’re so pretty. I’m endlessly fascinated by the codex itself as a work of art. One of my favorite things to do at the store is to re-shrink wrap beautiful, expensive books customers have torn the shrink wrap off of (and, almost universally, stuffed into the book, which I guess is considerate? Just ask, y’all, I love using the shrink wrap machine), because I can have a moment to appreciate the quality of the paper, the printing, and, of course, the cover art.

Front Cover: Great Book Jacket and Cover Design is one of those books I picked up from reading either Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust or More Book Lust, the books from whence the Spreadsheet spawned. (It’s past seven hundred books, so it gets a capital letter now. If I ever break one thousand, I’ll give it a name.) Accordingly, since Book Lust and More Book Lust came out in 2003 and 2005, respectively, it’s an older book, ending its coverage in 2001, the year it was published. This means that it misses out entirely on the young adult boom (where an already recognized audience focus exploded in the early aughts) and the accompanying cover design tropes and evolutions.

Although a 2014 edition of Front Cover might not touch on that at all—it barely touches on speculative fiction (managing to get the plot of Slaughterhouse-Five wrong in the process) and anything aimed at children. Instead, Front Cover focuses on the history of contemporary and crime fiction cover design. There’s nothing on the basics of cover design, which I was disappointed by. In fact, I was a little surprised that this was a pretty fluffy coffee table book. In the five years (!) it’s been on my reading list, I’d always imagined it to be a piece of more straightforward nonfiction instead of a DK book. (Which there’s nothing wrong with, of course! My absolute favorite book from childhood is DK’s The Illustrated Book of Myths.) While the little captions start off pointing out interesting things about each cover’s design—the influences from contemporary and concurrent artistic movements, for instance, or the power an author rarely wielded over how their book was presented—they start simply summarizing the novel behind the cover. And that’s not the point, unless you’re pointing out how the cover might, say, abstractly represent the story. This might be a side effect of the book’s placement in time; it’s easier to see artistic movements the farther away you are from them.

Front Cover introduces the book cover as a pretty unique piece of marketing. Books, after all, aren’t exactly the same as, say, dry pasta, where the product is the same and it’s only branding and marketing that differentiates them. A book cover can be just marketing, true; I’ve seen some lazy covers in my time. But the best book covers, the one that can influence or even define your reading of a novel, are also works of art. No wonder modern artists, inspired by the commercial world, did book covers to supplement their income in the 1930s. While I definitely think that an overview of the basics of cover design would emphasize this point more, there’s plenty of room for experimentation with the cover of a book. I’m always delighted when I come across an element I haven’t seen before—lately, it’s been those dust jackets that are shorter than their books. (Which are also a customer destruction magnet!)

So it’s not remotely as thorough and graphic design focused as I would have liked, but it’s nice enough to page through. Of particular note to me are the Gollancz covers and the Dell “Mapbacks”. After starting his own publishing firm in 1928, Victor Gollancz hired Stanley Morison (the guy who invented the Times Roman font) to design book covers that did not rely on pictures. (He hated those.) The ensuing yellow, typographically focused covers feel deliriously modern and fresh.

EYE82 Overview 02 Gollancz Russia

The Dell “Mapbacks” were thrillers or murder mysteries whose back covers featured a map of the novel’s main location by Ruth Belew. Unfortunately, the rise of blurbs and meant that Dell stopped this practice in 1951, but the books are gorgeous.

Dell Mapback 299

Bottom line: Front Cover is a pretty fluffy coffee table book, so don’t seek here for anything more in-depth on the history of cover design or graphic design. But I learned one or two things.

I rented this book from the public library.

2 thoughts on “Review: Front Cover

    • You are not Gaston! If you are, we are both Gaston, because I like pictures. I once derailed a book club meeting in high school because the cover of Sabriel featured a costume detail that clashed with the book. I’m just also fond of really interesting typography. You’d think a book cover with just words would be sparse, but it’s so lively! Plus, it draws your eye among other covers dominated by pictures, although, of course, that wasn’t the case when these covers were actually circulating.

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