Welcome to Cover Design in a Digital World! If you are a first-time reader, please start with the Introduction and continue with each post in chronological order (see the calendar, to the right of this page). This blog has been an interesting journey across time and genres, while attempting to navigate the process and development of cover design through the years, until the present and the relatively new, digital challenges these last few years have brought.

Of course these posts are only a small example of the wide range of cover designs across the publishing industry throughout the years but I nevertheless believe that they give some idea of the factors and concerns facing publishers and designers, then and today, who need to make decisions on cover design in order to get each book the recognition it deserves (or simply to get make sure it is received by the right audience).

Every year there are hundreds of thousands of books published worldwide, new or updated, while publishers continue to try to sell books that they already have in stock. This means that there are other factors to consider than simple aesthetics; a designer can (perhaps sadly) not be creative and play with a book cover any which way he or she likes. After taking a look at different genres with each new post it is clear that there are established rules for each genre that must be followed; it may have taken time but eventually each genre has developed a certain look that must be duplicated in order for the audience of said genre to spot it quickly and easily through certain images, colours and fonts.

There are of course exceptions from this, literary fiction for example deviates from this formula exactly because it isn’t formulaic, the stories are complex, more serious, and usually critically acclaimed, if they belong to literary fiction. As such those covers would be more artistic, they could look completely different from other books of the same genre (which may have nothing in common with each other) as the idea is to distinguish them from other literary fiction. Graphic designers, when choosing great cover designs, would certainly choose the covers that are distinct from those that they would have seen before. On the other hand, those books are more difficult to sell because they do not belong to a recognized genre such as science fiction or chick lit, whose covers are not as overtly artistic – yet they speak volumes to customers as they are based on models that have been proven to sell.

In the end that is what cover design is about; it is a tool which helps to sell the product. We may live in a new world, we may have e-books that do not need covers, and yet people still choose to buy e-books that have covers instead of the ones who don’t. The digital market means that customers no longer view books the way they would in a bookstore, the images are much smaller and that must be accounted for, which explains the development to bigger fonts, bolder colours and a simplicity which makes the most important elements stand out, such as the title of the book and the author’s name. Despite those changes the landscape is still the same; book covers are advertising, and for the foreseeable future, they will continue to be used, both digitally as well as physically, to entice customers to buy the product. The cover is not dead, far from it.


Classics: Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen

The cover is “still something that we will always visualize in our heads as what that book looked like. It definitely becomes part of the experience.” – Carin Goldberg

In a digital world the cover may not be necessary any longer but people do still value images and covers are therefore used to get their attention (note that it seems to be working, according to Nielsen, sales go up 268% by including a cover image). In this new world that is e-books many are experimenting with this new form, however this blog will focus on the more “traditional” cover art that has simply been updated to be more at home in a world where chances are people will see the cover on Amazon, instead of in a physical bookstore.

Starting this project with perhaps my ultimate favorite book, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (first published in 1813) is interesting because there is so much history behind it. As part of the literary cannon, and an out of copyright manuscript, means that the story is now represented by a multitude of different publishers and lists, and consequently an array of covers. I will not go over the history of these covers from the beginning but instead take a look at what has been happening in recent years, now that the novel may perhaps represented in a slightly different way than it was, both for a new technology and a new audience.

Those readers who like read the classics should be familiar with the most famous lists representing them, most notably the Penguin Classics, but also Oxford World’s Classics, Vintage, Collin’s Classics, Everyman’s Library, and the Collector’s Library, to name a few (all of which can be found in either Waterstones’ or Heffers). These lists all have a certain look which should let readers know instantly that they have classic literature in their hands. A typical example of how a book like Pride & Prejudice would look on a classics’ list is this cover by Penguin Classics from 2003:


This is the classical look that most readers will recognize; the photo is from another time and place, intending to set the tone and bring you into the world Austen writes about. Every classic, whether by Austen, or Dickens, or anyone else for that matter, will have a cover set up in the same way with only the image for each book setting them apart. That is indeed the point, you should be able to recognize the list immediately, the image is not as important as the cover as a whole (though I have read many books by the same list I am not able to conjure a specific image to my mind from a single one of those books. I do however remember the overall look, so the list has served its purpose). Here we have another example:


This is a similar version, this time from Oxford World’s Classics, published 2008. The same classical look, a similar design, this time from a different publisher, but all the same a look which will be imitated for other books on the list. How would a reader choose between these similar paperbacks which sell at the same price? I for one tend to buy the Wordsworth Classics version simply because blue is my favorite colour:


If we go further back in time, however, we get this version from Puffin Classics from 1995:


This image also sets the tone for the time the book takes place in, focusing on a drawing similar to the ones you would see in a such a book. The image here is very much the focus, so much so that it is barely possible to read the font, at least in this size. It is clear that this cover would not be suited for Amazon. Let us however compare it to a more recent cover from 2008:


Here the effects of digital age are starting to show. The colour is bright and stands out easily, the font is big and legible, and there is nothing to distract from the main information: the title (known by all), the author (likewise) and the imprint, along with the penguin which is a recognized trademark. The reader gets all the information without any distractions from other images and text, there is nothing bogging this cover down. The same can be said about this cover from 2012:


Again, a bright colour and legible font, classy and simple. However, it is possible to create a simple, yet elegant design, which is capable of standing out digitally as physically, as a 2010 cover from Vintage shows:


This cover manages to have a modern feel to it while still being reminiscent of an older time. I would certainly love to have a copy with this cover on my bookshelf. I like the vintage feel and I like how different it is in tone from the other ones.

Of course publishers do have other concerns than how covers will look online, for marketing purposes it might be preferable to stray away from a simple design like the ones above in order to attract a different audience. Readers of classics may be happy with a simple look but a cover can also be designed in order to reach out to readers of different genres, such as this one from 2006:

Pride and Prejudice_Penguin

Here the purpose is to focus on the love story aspect, making the cover as romantic as possible with a soft colour and a flowery font. Pride & Prejudice is now the “funniest book ever written” and could very well be just another chick lit paperback. The author’s name is prominent, maybe in the hope that the readers of this book will have seen one of the many film adaptations that have been made … or at least that is the hope for this cover from 2005:


In all fairness though it is quite simplistic, and the title is prominent which should work for a thumbnail. There are certainly customers who do read books because they have seen they movie and they would buy the book with this cover. This is a good way to attract young readers who maybe haven’t heard of Austen, with a classic like this it is necessary to advertise the book to a new generation every time a new one comes along.

Lastly, just for fun, Pulp! Classics prove that it is possible to twist a story which ever way you want (or can you?), as you can see on cover from 2013:


“Lock up your daughters… Darcy’s in town!” I wonder if they think they can get Raymond Chandler fans to read this book? Wouldn’t they be disappointed when they opened it? I believe that this may be going too far from the genre (classics, satire, romance) for this to truly work. This makes me think of murder and mayhem, which is not exactly what Austen is about.

It is no wonder that there are many, quite different covers of Pride and Prejudice circulating, after all we just celebrated 200 years of Jane Austen (for a look of older covers check this out). However I do believe that we can see a change that is a direct result of digital technology. Those covers, as has been discussed above, have a much simpler, cleaner look, with bright colours, big fonts and no image (except for the imprint’s logo) which means that it is easier to upload in different sizes without causing damage to the cover as a whole. Nevertheless it is also clear that marketers are still trying to reach different audiences, perhaps sometimes at the cost of the cover working perfectly digitally.