Cover story: Commercial creep

How mass market design is influencing literary fiction

I love designing literary fiction. It is the goal of many designers to create that covetable book jacket, that gem which attracts a purveyor of beautiful objects and intelligent prose that will sit pride of place on their shelves or coffee tables. It is the opportunity for a designer to try something new, to dust off the skills learned many years ago and remember what it was like to use ink, paint and metaphor. These are the books that can go on to win design awards, something most designers (if not all) want a part of. 

Then we have mass market fiction – with its silhouetted men, large fonts, cropped heads and bright colours. They are the everyday, bread and butter books that most designers find themselves working on. Yet mass market book covers have come in for a lot of scrutiny over the years. Articles such as 'Top Ten Worst Book Covers' rarely feature literary fiction and those pesky shadow men always come in for a good dig. There are websites and articles dedicated to their cliché and lack of creative diversity; they like to point out that the same photograph has been used on a variety of novels and ask why misery memoirs should rely on such tropes as handwritten type and the obligatory crying child.

However, if beauty was all that was needed to sell a book then literary fiction would fill the Sunday Times Bestsellers chart each week. The charts are filled with commercial fiction and non-fiction, and the reason for that is literary fiction is a tough sell. I’ve worked for a number of literary imprints over the years and I’ve seen firsthand just how difficult it can be to find the right jacket that represents the wonderful writing inside but also convince a wider audience to buy it.

Which is why we’re beginning to see the influence of mass market design permeating literary fiction. Over the last few years many literary novels have been styled for the high street, aiming to attract that lucrative commercial readership – and it’s worked a treat for many of them.

Many of these covers employ one of the most useful techniques in commercial design: familiarity. We have to bear in mind what has worked before and what’s working now. It’s not a case of simply copying a design that has sold well but observing the reasons why – a subtle emulation if you will. Using this technique successfully evokes an emotional response, creating a connection between the reader and genre/author/subject. When it’s unsuccessful, the drive for sales and familiarity can paralyse the process and the cover becomes homogenous – which is where most of the criticism mass market book covers endure gets aimed towards.

Don't get me wrong, I don't believe we should make every book look commercial – there will always be a market for the beautiful, covetable, book jacket. But it’s important to remember that what we consider as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ design are ideals we impose and should go beyond aesthetics and we should always consider what people like, what they buy and why they buy it.

The mass market book cover may often be looked down upon or even overlooked as the younger brother of literary fiction, but it is also the more popular sibling and there is plenty we can learn from it. Which means in the future we may see more of its influence on those beautiful literary novels.

Stuart Bache is art director at Oneworld