Book covers

Judging books by their covers: why all the books you love are starting to look the same

From colourful, abstract graphics to women looking glum, the covers of 2022’s biggest books seem to slot tidily into a variety of ever-changing trends. Stylist dives into what’s driving them. 

Unwrapping a copy of Abi Daré’s The Girl With The Louding Voice April last year, I felt a palpable sense of déjà vu. There was something about the rainbow hues, abstract shapes and vaguely identifiable silhouette of a woman that felt all too familiar. Hadn’t I seen this cover before?

By mid-2021, the bulk of my recently purchased books fitted neatly into this category: hardback copies of Meng Jin’s Little Gods and The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste sat beneath well-thumbed paperbacks of Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀’s Stay With Me and Akwaeke Emezi’s The Death Of Vivek OjiClearly, colourful daubs had become shorthand for literary fiction by authors of colour.

Many trace this aesthetic back to Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, released in the summer of 2020. As more and more vibrant covers emerged in the windows of bookshops around the world, design publications and news sites began to pick up on the style. A catalogue of monikers were born, from the ‘book blob’ to the ’unicorn frappe cover’, after the psychedelic Starbucks drink that went viral in 2017. Others referred to the trend as “amorphous blobs of suggestive colour” in an attempt to describe these alluring yet ultimately enigmatic jackets.  

It was these designs that first got me thinking about other similar book jackets: covers with ripe and rotting fruit – just place Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women next to Claire Fuller’s Unsettled Ground to see what I mean. Or, more recently, women slumped unhappily against walls, desks, couches, you name it – the approach has been termed ‘women on the edge’.

Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women
The cover art for Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller

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“Some covers are definitely imitations,” says freelance designer Jon Gray. “It’s the reason we get comparable titles on briefs. If a designer presents sales and marketing teams with something they’ve seen before, there’s a sense of relief because they know it’s going to sit in the right market.” It’s why that déjà vu I experienced with Abi Daré’s novel is the jackpot for publishers, who often use covers to tell shoppers “if you liked that, you’ll love this”.

The stats back up the idea that we are judging (OK, choosing) books by their covers. According to a 2017 study by Little Brown, 52% of readers pick up titles based on artwork. This was not always the case, though. Book covers used to be purely functional, intended to protect the pages inside, but as printing techniques developed throughout the 20th century, more artistic designs began to emerge. Hundreds of trends have come and gone since – some more enduring than others. The “Big Book Look” (think a large, artsy title paired with a small conceptual image) pioneered by Paul Bacon in the 1960s, for example, continues to find its way onto bookshelves today.

“Cover design absolutely influences sales, far more than most people would like to admit,” confirms a spokesperson at Common Press, a Shoreditch-based bookshop specialising in intersectional titles. “The increased interest in marginalised voices over the past few years, coupled with the cover design choices publishers make for them, helps people to quickly assess what they’re buying and whether it’s the kind of thing they’re going to like.” Case in point: the Common Press team have seen fans of Torrey Peters’ Detransition, Baby frequently gravitate towards Andrea Lawlor’s Paul Takes The Form Of A Mortal Girl, both of which explore themes of gender and sexual identity, based on “just [cover] colours and vibes”. 

Abi Daré’ The Girl with the Louding Voices

Other trends have emerged more organically. Greg Heinimann, the deputy creative director at Bloomsbury Publishing, flags clear parallels between book cover trends and other art forms, from film posters to food packaging. “Graphic design surrounds us, and so everything feeds in,” he says. “Magazines are a big influence, too. Type and layout are so important in cover design, and some magazines make it a constantly evolving art form that’s hugely influential.” 

Just as high-fashion trickles down onto the high street, this editorial design often manifests on book covers. “Most art directors and editors will be buying those magazines, so typefaces organically start to look the same,” explains Gray, pointing to Deborah Levy’s autobiographical trilogy (What I Don’t Want To Know, Real Estate and The Cost Of Living) as an early example of the clean, highly stylised look, which also serves to signify the content will be of a similar elevated quality.

However, that isn’t to say our own inner psychology doesn’t play a part in all this – particularly when it comes to what we choose to post about. “Social media reinforces tribalism (our innate need to exist within social groups),” says consumer psychologist and Chief Scientific Officer at Capuchin Behavioural Science, Patrick Fagan. “People typically buy books to reinforce their existing worldview, which they want to share on social media. Hence these books act more like pin badges than anything else – which means they have to fit the ‘language’ and conventions of that tribe, and they have to be very simple and emotional so their identity is very quickly conveyed.” In essence, when you decide to post a new #bookstagram, you’re often conveying more about the people you identify with, and your worldview, than the actual title. 

Of course, social media is changing the way we consume book content at an unprecedented rate in other ways, too. The ‘cover reveal’ culture incubated by Instagram and TikTok has showcased an appetite for covers to tell something about the story they encase. It’s why covers are now teased on social media months before a title hits the shelves, like Akwaeke Emezi’s upcoming romance You Made A Fool Of Death With Your Beauty, which was revealed eight months before its release. 

Indeed, by influencing buyers and increasing awareness, ‘bookfluencers’ can have serious impact, and with publishers keen to drive sales from TikTok and Instagram, eye-catching visuals have never been more important. Cue the influx of bright colours and fatty font designs that were compounded by lockdown, says Gray. “If you go into a bookstore, there are so many fluorescents. That basically came out of us looking at books on monitors all day and being told to ramp up the colour.”

Popular design details have also come about following social media crazes like #shelfies and “backwards bookshelf”, including the sprayed page edges trend, as seen on Leone Ross’s This One Sky Day’s hardback edition. “Sprayed edges add a little bit of exclusivity,” says Chrissy Ryan, owner of Bookbar in north London. “Retailers like it because it boosts pre-orders. People will go into stores specifically for that beautiful edition,” she says. 

Coco Mellors’ Cleopatra and Frankenstein
Coco Mellors’ Cleopatra and Frankenstein

These statement covers have also amplified the status symbol of books. I’ve seen arty Insta coffee table shots of Stephanie Danler’s millennial pink Sweetbitter and, more recently, Coco Mellors’ Cleopatra And Frankenstein. “This may be a way of [people] conveying how well-read and educated they are,” says Bronwen Thomas, an academic and expert on the relationship between literature and social media. “A negative perception of online cultures is that they are all about attention seeking, but with very popular books, there is perhaps a FOMO element.” As Fagan pointed out, we’re often signalling ‘the tribe’ we’re part of or how we want to be perceived in the books we align ourselves with. 

Lockdown punctuated this when all eyes turned to our decor, specifically our bookshelves, and the New York Times labelled “the credibility bookcase” quarantine’s “hottest accessory” as they became the “preferred background for applying a patina of authority to an amateurish video feed”. It’s hardly a modern phenomenon, though. “As Anthony Powell’s [1971 text] Books Do Furnish A Room famously noted, the size and opulence of your library was a way of signalling to the world not just your wealth in economic terms, but culturally and intellectually,” says Thomas. “There’s a long history in the visual arts and in early photography of subjects posing with books for the same reason.” 

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It’s a history that shows just how high stakes a book’s cover is in its success. Usually a designer will present several options to the sales and marketing team before a final cover is approved. Heinimann experimented with roughly 100 covers before settling on the design for Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women, a non-fiction title that explores the complex inner lives of three real women in remarkably intimate detail. “Three Women was a challenge – how do you convey these stories sensitively, without being overly sexual or trivialising the content?” he says. “I was also very conscious of my male gaze.”

Eventually, he settled on a sumptuous-looking garland of fruit inspired by the Dutch master de Heem, overlaid with stark white and yellow text. “With its blue silk ribbon bow and ripe, glistening fruit, the painting on the cover seems very sexual, dressed up even,” he says. “But on closer inspection, parts of the garland are rotting. So, like the stories of these women, the cover is a play on the public and the private faces we all have.”

Other covers, he says, are more instinctual. “[Reni Eddo-Lodge’s] Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race only took a few minutes because I just knew exactly what to do,” he says. The now iconic, award-winning design prompted a major trend for punchy monotone covers within the anti-racism genre. In fact, Ben Lindsay’s We Need To Talk About Race was so similar that the heavy criticism it received forced its publisher to go back to the drawing board.

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge
Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge

As for the influence of the author? It varies. Most only give a final sign off once marketing has approved a design, but some are more involved – Zadie Smith, for example, is incredibly visual according to Gray. For her 2019 short story collection, Grand Union, she expressed an interest the “Big Book Look”, most popularly seen in Phillip Roth’s 1970s aesthetic, and so Gray created a vibrant colour and modern spin on a retro sans serif font. But is she allowed this level of influence because, well, she’s Zadie Smith? “In the past, publishers would say to authors: ‘This is the way we are going; we hope you like it,’” he says. “Now, a lot of the work I’m doing offers approval, whether they’re first-time or established authors. Publishers these days are very keen to keep authors happy.”

Gray is also responsible for one of the most talked-about designs of the last 12 months: Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You, which features a sky-blue jacket and cut-away segments revealing drawings of the four main protagonists by illustrator Manshen Lo. The cover went viral when it was released last April, amassing hundreds of retweets, thousands of Instagram likes and media coverage to boot – a full five months before the book’s publication.

Sally Rooney beautiful world

The hype this kind of reveal creates is key, says Donna Payne, creative director at publishing house Faber & Faber. “A successful marketing and publicity campaign will contribute to the general buzz around a title, and this will often lead to healthy presales.” Chrissy Ryan of Bookbar agrees: “For Beautiful World, Where Are You, we did our presale drop online around the time of [Faber’s] cover reveal and we sold out within a couple of hours. When the book was eventually released, there were queues out the door from as early as 7am.” No wonder both Ryan and Payne are predicting more illustrations like Lo’s over the next year.

But while book covers have become increasingly important in the Insta age – a fact shown by the introduction of the designer of the year category at the British Book Awards – content is still key for sales. “Ultimately, the book itself has to be good,” Ryan concedes. In short, if the title currently populating your Instagram feed or looks eerily like a book you loved last summer or even your favourite magazine, fails to actually deliver on a good story, it won’t sell, regardless of all that design energy. Turns out, it really is what’s inside that counts…

Images: publishers

The top trends dominating your #shelfies

Women on the edge

Think well-dressed millennials in various states of laxity: inert on the floor, crumpled in the corner, face-planting the couch. These covers reflect a boom in fiction about women whose lives are unravelling, and resonate with the post-pandemic fatigue. Paving the way was Meg Mason’s Sorrow And Bliss, in which protagonist Martha is recently divorced and struggling under the weight of lifelong depression. This year, Kimberley Allsopp’s Love And Other Puzzles and Julia May Jonas’ Vladimir are flying the flag for this style.

Gen Z green

Tapping into our craving for outdoor space during lockdown, titles such as The Testaments by Margaret Atwood and Fake Accounts by Lauren Oyler firmly established the trend for all things green. Today, shades of emerald, forest, olive and moss continue to crop up, offering a powerful antidote to the insipid pinks that came to dominate our bookshelves in the late 2010s.

Forbidden fruit

On the cover of Daisy Buchanan’s Insatiable, a pair of well-manicured hands rip into an unsuspecting orange. On Clare Chambers’ Small Pleasures, a tangerine peel curls seductively. Even Stephanie Meyer was in on it, choosing a dripping red pomegranate to front her 2020 Twilight prequel, Midnight Sun. According to Heinimann: “Fruit seems to portray sex and desire so well within an everyday innocent object.” 

Like a polaroid picture

Industry insiders point to The Gentlewoman magazine for launching the trend for clean lines and square, editorial-style photography, as seen in Deborah Levy’s autobiographies, as well as the re-release of Tove Ditlevsen’s Copenhagen trilogy and recent editions of Joan Didion’s work. While eye-searing shades are all the rage, these more modest covers suggest gravitas to the reader (it’s no coincidence that all three authors mentioned here are literary giants). Much like the prose inside, the covers are elevated, refined and incredibly stylish. 

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