Like any product produced en masse, books’ appearance can very rarely be said to be unique. A number of visual indicators convey to a viewer (subconsciously, mostly, though often with conspicuous stickering or reassuring quotes) a barrage of data about its contents: its topic or genre; its seriousness or frivolity; the age of its target market; the gender of its target market; its truth or fiction. These facets overlap for a vast number of books published each year, and because such indicators become more deeply ingrained with book readers and book makers with each success, their confines are often hard (and some would argue foolhardy) to escape.
We have likely all seen a presentation, or online listicle, mocking the crime fiction genre’s adherence to a shadowed figure, or a certain hue of red. More often than not, the tone is sneering. Ha! Look at this copycat! Pastiche is one thing, yet plagiarism is quite another altogether. So when does pastiche become plain past-it, ideal fodder for mocking Powerpoints?
Having compiled monthly round-ups throughout the course of 2017, it fast became clear that certain aesthetic approaches were abundant. (That’s not to say ineffective.)
I noted a mass of linocut or woodcut-style covers, and similarly, flatly illustrated screenprinted-esque liveries, likely a nod to the success of Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk, illustrated by Chris Wormell. (Who, incidentally, was roped in to help on one of 2017’s biggest livery designs, for Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage.) These styles were often found on nature or natural history titles; often with hand lettering or, in a rather misguided throwback to the halcyon days of long shadows on county cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist, paired with Gill Sans. (Somewhere, people buy “Keep Calm and Carry On” merchandise.) Why?
It’s in the genre: 2017 has been a year of digital-bashing, warnings about the dangerous effects of screen time and social media, zealous advocations of digital detoxes. What better a fit than nature, and natural history; what better way to kit out such a book than through a method that is inherently time-inefficient, anti-digital? Woodcuts, watercolours, hand lettering (in its original guise) are a work of art in an age of mechanical reproduction—there is no “undo” button. They scream time, love, labour; transposed onto a book jacket, it says: look how much care and attention has gone into this book. (So put down your bloody phone, and read the thing.)
The trend for widely tracked, widely leaded centred type continues, and seems to have transferred itself from the psychological thriller genre (which, as I argue here, may be a visual attempt to gear darker criminology titles towards a female audience) to the emergent medical memoir field, a snug fit for its philosophical and often elegiac content.
The Bookseller’s charts editor Kiera O’Brien, who casts a weather eye across the books battering the bestseller lists week in, week out, reckons the “most random hits have probably been Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine and Sapiens”, noting that the latter two have quite spare light covers. It makes sense for Sapiens; much “serious” non-fiction that errs into the self-help or “training” field is direct and text-led, clear and to the point, dealing as it does with facts; not ambiguous, artistic and open to interpretation as fiction can be. (In a quick detour, the success of Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, and the numerous similar titles it has given rise to, looks to be fabulous news for illustrators; most are widely image-led, often in surprising and broad (multi-illustrator) ways).
O’Brien also notes that it was a red summer: The Handmaid’s Tale, The Power and The Underground Railroad were prominent in the fiction sector throughout the year, winning awards and repeatedly charting, especially in e-book format. It’s little wonder that an iresome red proved so popular, as the trio—and many other besides—address topics of fundamental racial and gender inequality. Perhaps we should view it as a continuation of the anger of the “Trump bump” that propelled George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four (also red-jacketed quite widely in its many guises, including in a forthcoming Vintage edition—it's also reissuing Atwood in similar tones) back to bestsellerdom.
Other notable trends include a wealth of sparsely—yet quirkily—illustrated titles tied to a lifestyle genre (hygge, ikigai, etc), with plenty of negative space up front. (I’m yet to see a self-help book advocating wellness through being a cluttered, messy layabout, but I live in hope.) There are also swathes of covers that have used a contorted ribbon device to house the typography; one designer I spoke to reported a trend for “lots of vertical type, which is shorthand for: ‘the title is too long’.” Such malady may well explain the increasingly prevalent ribbon motif, too.
What did other (UK-based) cover designers report about the briefs they had received throughout the year? Were there were any notable recurrences or trends in what they were being asked to produce, any existant covers that repeatedly found their way onto mood-boards?
In short, yes, and congratulations to Katie Tooke and Ami Smithson at Pan Macmillan, because numerous designers spoke of being asked to take cues from Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist and her follow-up, The Muse. (“Groan,” one who was presumably particularly worn down by such direction told me.) Ditto to Peter Dyer at Serpent’s Tail, who created the artwork for Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, another cover many cited as being a point of reference.
One prime bug-bear emerged: an over-reliance on using imagery from stock libraries. Covers that deploy them “stick out like a sore thumb”, one designer said, and while presumably this is the point of jacket design, in this instance it is not an endorsement.
Image libraries, while impressive in scope and growing in breadth and number, are at root designed to solve problems with a broad brush. I often think they are a little like spiritual mediums: exceptional at vaguenesses (“you will enjoy a stroke of luck at some point this week”), and vague regarding exceptions (“you will enjoy a stroke of luck in the 3-10 at Kempton Park should you back a horse named Proust”). So one can hardly straightfacedly claim a book is a one-off, a you’ve-never-read-anything-like-it, if it is fronted by an image sourced from a resource used by swathes of graphic designers the world over—a consequence of budgetary and time constraints. It’s a cover that with new typography could equally fit thousands of books (“you will enjoy a book about a woman who marries above her station”), not a cover wholly distinct and tailored to its contents (“you will enjoy a book about a woman who marries above her station in 17th-century Amsterdam, and receives as a wedding gift a miniature dolls’-house whose inhabitants’ lives strangely correlate to those of the people in her own social circle...”).
The way to create such a cover—an Essex Serpent, Miniaturist, or Muse, a lure-you-across-a-bookshop number—is, more likely, to entrust creatives and enable them to exercise their brains’ right-sides, commissioning illustration, art-directing photography, calling in expert lettering and typography. Yes, there is a cost. But there is also a considerable benefit.