by TOBY LICHTIG
Early last year, my colleague David Horspool noticed a tedious trend in contemporary book publishing: the hegemony of identikit cover designs, based around three key themes: legs; the backs of women looking out over water; and tiny men walking into the distance.
This discovery was, Horspool admitted, based on "five minutes of not very systematic searching" through the TLS review copies – which just went to show how pervasive the dreary hegemony was.
One year on, having carried out an equally unsystematic search through the current crop of review copies, I'm pleased to report that jacket designs have come on leaps and bounds in terms of both range and creativity.
There are currently barely any legs at all (Robert Ludlum’s The Janson Command is a notable exception), although arms are having something of a moment, whether appearing singly, to denote yogic calm (before a fall), in the aptly named The Sound of One Hand Killing by Teresa Solana, or multifariously, to denote togetherness (in the face of conflict), in This Is Where I Am by Karen Campbell.
Tiny men now carry out a range of activities – in T. D. Griggs’s Distant Thunder, for example, one rides a horse – while the man walking into the distance in Alan Furst's Mission to Paris is medium-sized at least, and the hardback version features a couple (admittedly tiny).
Water and backs still predominate. The House on the Cliff by Charlotte Williams is a classic of the genre, but I was glad to see this niche broadened by a depiction of a maritime-pondering admiral, in The Poisoned Island by Lloyd Shepherd, a coast-staring child, in Charlotte Link’s The Other Child, and a river-gazing couple, in Scott Hutchins’s A Working Theory of Love.
Women with their backs to us can also now be found staring out of windows (such as in Over the Rainbow by Paul Pickering; or How To Be a Good Wife by Emma Chapman); while the backs of black-jacketed men has become a sub-genre of its own (see Gideon’s Corpse by Preston & Child; The Circus by James Craig; The Jackal’s Share by Chris Morgan Jones).
In response to David's original blog, Marika Cobbold wrote in to suggest that it was book buyers who might be to blame for the tyranny of uniformity; book designer Jim Tierney criticized editors, publishers and sales teams, commenting, alarmingly, that his designs were routinely dismissed by editors for being "too literary"; and Mark Etherton pointed readers in the direction of a pleasingly bilious blog devoted to bad book covers, Caustic Cover Critic.
The internet being the internet, there is, of course, an entire subculture dedicated to the subject of terrible book covers. Regularly updated celebrations of this curiously exercising phenomenon include: Lousy Book Covers (my current favourite is the Mad Men-esque Palm Trees in the Pyrenees by Elly Grant – see February 21; although the girl being syringed in the head in A. Peter Perdian's Reality Reset is also quite something – see March 1st); More Bad Book Covers (many of which appear to have been designed by a child); and Judge a Book (compiled by a proofreader and former librarian with an eye for "the truly hideous"); while So Bad So Good has put together a handy list of the "top ten worst book covers in the history of literature" (with some rather dubious titles to boot) – although it does seem harsh to put the grinning geeks of Lorraine Peterson's admirably entitled Anybody Can Be Cool But Awesome Takes Practice in lowly tenth position.
And these are just the covers that have been dreamed up by professionals. The Huffington Post recently reported on the slew of dreadful book covers from the world of self-publishing.
As the recent Bell Jar controversy revealed, the subject of cover design can become a rather febrile issue. But get it right – as Mary Beard commented in her blog last week – and it can be a rewarding experience.
A few minutes spent perusing Lousy Book Covers and the like may send readers gasping for the anodine security of tiny men and contemplative backs – not to mention the “too literary” faithfulness of an Esther Greenwood avatar applying her lipstick in front of the mirror.
Readers of this blog are warmly encouraged to direct us to their own favourite trends and travesties.