Judge a Book by its Cover: Book Cover Design and the Artists Behind the Cover

March 6, 2023 | Tessie R.

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They say don't judge a book by its cover but frankly that's rude to book cover designers. Like authors work hard producing the interiors of their books, cover designers flex their artistic muscles to create exteriors that not only represent the soul of the story, but look good enough to buy.

Like with any commodity – and yes, books are commodities – packaging matters, a fact both publishers and booksellers know well. In a 2019 New York Times article business titan James Daunt described a heated dinner party argument amongst bookstore insiders where the topic of discussion was the best angle for bookstores to tilt their shelves at (for those interested, it's 4% tilt for covers to best catch light and attention, but 3% to stop the spines from bending). Suffice it to say, a lot of behind the scenes work goes into making sure bookstore shelves and tables are carefully curated, full of beautiful objects displayed to stunning effect. 

If a book has been adapted into a film or television series the odds of finding a cover not displaying the faces of two or more visually pleasing Hollywood stars goes down to almost zero. Simply put, a link to film or television is a greater sell than abstract cover art or the story itself. On the flip side, a popular author with a huge list of titles will have their name splashed prominently across the cover with the title, image or ghostwriter squeezed in as an afterthought. As two librarians in Whitby hilariously pointed out on TikTok, finding a book at the library without James Patterson's name on it is no easy task.

Billy Summers and The Little Drummer Girl
Book covers for Stephen King's Billy Summers and John Le Carre's The Little Drummer Girl where the authors' names are displayed prominently. 
The Queen's Gambit and Me Before You
Conversely, the book covers for The Queen's Gambit by Walter Tevis and Me Before You by Jojo Moyes emphasizes the faces of the actors from their movie/television adaptations.

In terms of social media marketing on apps like Instagram and TikTok, the easiest way for publishers to get Bookstagrammers and BookTok-ers to promote their books for free is to create covers that photograph well. Social media users can then pose the books as beautiful objects – in oddly empty fields of sunflowers or as boozy brunch accessories – and entice potential buyers to add the title to their Amazon cart. 

Most large publishing houses employ design teams to produce original art for books across all genres. Some reformat existing works to fit smoothly over a spine. Others hire freelance designers or independent design companies. But, in most cases, finding the person responsible for a book cover is not simple. Like a dirty secret, designers' names are often hidden inside jacket sleeves or buried in the book's copyright information. Though the artists can of course credit their work in any portfolio or job interview, their credentials are not always visible to the consumer. 

And book cover design is no cheap trick. Designers often have to read the book in question before portraying it through photography, visual art, typography, digital art or some combination of all. Not to mention, representing another person's art with one's own is often a compromise to the original artistic vision. Publishers and booksellers also put pressure on a designer to alter their work to what they feel appeals to their consumers. 

So here's a tribute to just a few of the many hidden magicians subtly influencing your book buying habits:

Peter Mendelsund

Creative director of The Atlantic and famous book cover designer. Here's some of his covers:

Same Same, The Trial, The Rings of Saturn and Journey to the End of the Night
Book covers for Same Same by Peter Mendelsund, The Trial by Franz Kafka, The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald and Journey to the End of the Night by Louis-Ferdinand Celine. 

Manjit Thapp and Jessica Albert

An illustrator based in the UK and art director at ECW Press respectively. Thapp's artwork entitled Phonecall was reformatted for the cover of Toronto author Vivek Shraya's novel The Subtweet

The Subtweet and "Phonecall"
Book cover for The Subtweet by Vivek Shraya and "Phonecall" by Manjit Thapp (used with permission from artist).

Saramay Wilkinson and Titus Kaphar

Art director at WW Norton and acclaimed artist respectively. The two collaborated to create the cover for Reginald Dwayne Betts' poetry collection Felon, which features artwork from Kaphar's collection The Jerome Project.

Felon: Poems and "Titus Kaphar - The Jerome Project"
Book cover for Felon: Poems by Reginald Dwayne Betts and "Titus Kaphar - The Jerome Project @ Studio Museum of Harlem" by j-No, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Adalis Martinez

A freelance artist and graphic designer who sadly passed away in 2020. For her first book cover (Imperium by Christian Kracht) Martinez designed her own font to capture the tropical setting of the story.

Imperium, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, Fates and Furies and Moonglow
Book covers for Imperium by Christian Kracht, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things by JT LeRoy, Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff and Moonglow by Michael Chabon.

Jon Gray and Manshen Lo

An award winning book designer and freelance illustrator/director respectively. Gray's designs have appeared on the covers of global bestseller Sally Rooney's novels. Rooney's most recent novel Beautiful World Where Are You was designed by Gray, utilizing the illustrations of Lo for both the front and back covers and endpapers. 

Beautiful World Where Are You
Book covers and endpapers of Beautiful World Where Are You by Sally Rooney (endpaper photo taken by author).

Linda Huang

Associate art director at Alfred A Knopf who designed the cover for Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka's most recent novel Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth

Chronicles from the land of the Happiest People On Earth, Indelicacy, Interior Chinatown, and Someone Who Will Love You in All Your Damaged Glory
Book covers for Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth by Wole Soyinka, Indelicacy by Amina Cain, Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu and Someone Who Will Love You in all Your Damaged Glory by Raphael Bob-Waksberg. 

Rodrigo Corral

Conceptual artist and graphic designer who founded his own design firm (Rodrigo Corral Studio) and is currently the creative director at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 

Snuff, Invisible Monsters, The Fault in Our Stars and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Book covers for Snuff and Invisible Monsters by Chuck Palahniuk, The Fault in Our Stars by John Green and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. 

So the next time you judge a book by its cover, flip past the cover and find out who designed it.

And if you're interested in hearing more about the process of book cover design join us on Monday, March 13th, 2023 at the Toronto Reference Library for Laura Boyle's talk on "The Art and Craft of Book Cover Design."