For over five decades, I have found it almost impossible to walk past a bookshop without going in. If it’s a second-hand one, even better.
One of my favourites is Skoob Books in Bloomsbury (this is in London for my overseas readers). I pop into Waitrose supermarket, buy some bread, milk and The Guardian and then zip next door and dive down into the basement of Skoob to wile away some time from the chaos of London, engulfed in the smell of old books, leafing through the shelves to look at the covers.
I also visit my local Waterstone’s bookstore most weeks, but the visits are increasingly frustrating. Why? Well, I would say that 95% of the book covers range from bland to diabolical. Every publisher seems to be applying each other’s formula, producing a sea of samey mediocrity.
A typical table at Waterstone's.
Back in 1978, I wrote a piece for the AOI magazine Illustrators. The whole issue was about paperback covers and, in addition to my piece, had articles on Penguin’s David Pelham and Pan Books’ David Larkin. They all concentrated on the use of illustrators for paperback covers. It was a time when typography was beginning to occupy more and more of the cover space – something that seeped across from America. My piece was a sort of swan song, as I had just left publishing, finally unable to stand all the arguments and the increasing control being flexed by the sales department over what they felt covers should look like. My message to illustrators and photographers about cover typography then was “... take more interest in how your work is going to be used on a cover. Question, suggest, care and help cut out this malignant growth before it attacks the less stressful selling areas of non-fiction and minority books.”
40 years on, it is clear that my words disappeared under the carpet.
Today, you could categorise most book covers thus. A: The personality autobiography or biography: use a big recognisable portrait of the pop star, actor, politician, or business or sports person, then slap on their name huge type all over it, just in case you're too dumb to recognise the photo. B: Fiction: commission an illustration, photograph, engraving or whatever. Then cover it with huge type so that there is nothing much left from all those hardworking freelancers. C: The endless non-fiction, purely typographical publications: slap on big and often overly coloured type in a variety of sizes with perhaps a little graphic device. Looking at them all laid out on Waterstone’s tables, they just become visual noise, cancelling each other out. What a waste of talent and creative opportunity.
The 5% that remain, and you really have to look for them, are recovered backlist titles, out-of-copyright works or the output of tiny publishing houses like Persephone Books. These are all opportunities for the designer because they are not printed in large quantities and are often designed in series-style form, so they have their own strong presence if they are lucky enough to be displayed in quantity in store. More often than not, they ape early graphic styles when publishers were tiny independent concerns with small teams, not the big international anonymous conglomerates they are today.
The delightful home of Persephone Books in Bloomsbury, where publisher and founder Nicola Beauman keeps a tight hold on the quality of their covers
It seems to me that most publishers’ sales departments have completely stifled creativity, leaving the art department to deliver exactly what they want and only letting them have a little slack in the backlist. What the sales departments want is utterly formulaic because no one wants to stick their neck out. It is a sorry state of affairs.
While in Waterstone’s today, I scurried round to find something worthy of inclusion in this post. I had real trouble. But I did find examples of two small publishers that at least haven’t attempted to insult the reader’s intelligence.
Above: some of Little Toller Books based in Dorset, are doing their little thing to bring a little dignity to the humble book cover.
Also, Eland Books, based in Clerkenwell, London are trying hard not insulting their readers.
Maybe one day we will get a large publisher that actually wants to produce intelligent, original, inventive covers again. But I have a feeling we'll be waiting a long time.