In society, a book is a sign of belonging. Its cover is a symbol of bonding and belonging. Letting the cover casually slip out of your handbag or holding it proudly in your hands, is almost a socio-cultural action. A book cover is a strong visual message that says a lot about the book itself, and its reader. We identify ourselves so readily by our reading patterns, that we fantasize about recognize others by theirs. How many times have you strained on the subway to catch a glimpse of someone’s book, thinking “show me what you read, and I will imagine who you are.” Even if we’re not familiar with the book, we will interpret its title and its aesthetic. As if preparing to pass judgement on the reader, through judgement of his reading choice.
The power a cover has is unique. But before a cover can exist, there is a process. A publishing house has to come up with a concept for it. A book does not exist if it has no cover, without wanting to offend any writers out there.
Whether taking an anglo-saxon approach, which treats each book as an individual marketing exercise, or the French approach which sublimates any sense of individuality, the book cover is a manifestation of a certain cultural direction.
It’s actually interesting to compare the two approaches: consumer product as opposed to literary work.
In France, the publisher is center stage on a cover, since it represents a certain seal of quality and an editorial choice. Covers are very minimalistic, and are easily identifiable by the choice of paper and a unified colour scheme. Sometimes there’s a light border to define the outline. The typography is sober, detailing the name of the book and its author matter-of-factly. The cover, essentially, says nothing. In a bookstore, if we’ve never heard of the book, if no one has ever recommended it to you, it’ll be hard to rely on the objectivity of the publisher.
The anglo-saxon approach is very different. The publisher is rarely present in any meaningful manner on the cover. Depending on how popular the author is, his or her name features more or less prominently. As for the graphic work, it could be compared to that of a film poster or album cover. Or even product packaging. The cover is meant to seduce and attract the reader, and already plays a large role in the escapism of the book itself. It indicates theme, style and genre. It visually represents the promise and universe of the work inside.
I think the ideal cover would be a mix of both approaches. Something beautiful crafted for a consumer of literature. Something somber, but efficient in identifying the publishing house, something that identifies it as a quality product, associated with engaging and impactful graphics, that are memorable and well-thought out. The cover has to bring together editorial norms, marketing and artistic impulses. It has to start by stating who the book is for, who its audience is. Then, it has to channel the author’s imagination and help it correspond to that of his reader. Its visual aesthetic must represent the intensity of the book, its spirit, without distracting from the authors talent. It has to reflect the essence of the book, its central idea. This can be done through a subtle colour code, a well-thought out typographic choice and a strong visual. Or it could just be a type-based. Or involve a conceptual illustration. It all depends on the feeling we want to put forward.
Whether it’s in a bookshop, or on the web, a cover is the first encounter we have with a book. It has an initiating role, that of inviting one to flick through, to read the synopsis, to go the extra step and purchase. And that’s not a negligible action, in such a competitive environment. It’s like it’s shouting “pick me, pick me”. Despite proverbs and sayings, we will judge a book by its cover, and after that we’ll judge its reader.