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Book Covers
July 31, 2008 - 12:03am


Ever wonder how graphic designers think about book covers? This site by design firm Fwis might be illuminating. They post images of new covers, do a short critique of each, and give other designers the chance to weigh in with comments. (They also write a column in Publisher’s Weekly, with extended select critiques.)

No doubt about it, design is a vital element in sales, and to my untrained mind a most difficult thing. Let’s say you wrote a novel based on some historical violence but which really is a love story of four couples, told by a communal voice that may be transmigrating souls. Which way would you go with the cover? Period photograph? Or art from some journal of the time, some of it beautiful and thematic, the rest humorless socialist realism? What about a garish painting depicting the actual event? Or something more abstract or from the natural world, spooky and lovely?

In the past, academic book covers were less than sexy, as our friends in advertising use the term. But as Inside Higher Ed has been reporting for some time, university presses often pin their hopes on crossover success, and that means catching the eyes of the public. (Here’s a forum on covers in academe, with members worrying about design elements for their books.)

But let’s face it: It’s still a sliding scale, with general interest titles getting the most care and attention, such as this good-looking volume of translations that’s very sexy indeed.

Textbooks are lower down the scale—because no one buys by choice?—but publishers seem to have been trying a little harder recently, with four-color covers instead of two, making possible sexy, gauzy nanocrystals.

Still at the bottom, I’m afraid—no doubt due to projected sales—are works of more specialized scholarship. This is an attractive cover, but would it have killed the designers to find a woodcut of its subjects fist-fighting outside a brothel?

I have another manuscript at a big uni press, and I’m hoping that if they take it, I’ll get to offer some input on the cover. I’m thinking…Speedo. On a monkey. Fist-fighting Immanuel Kant.


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