Inside Book Covers

This semester, professor still permitting after this post, I would like to blog about book covers and their visual rhetoric. Much as the class analyzed magazine covers at our first meeting, I would like to look deeper into the design choices used in various book covers and the possible reasons behind such choices.

For this first post, I looked to the Publishers Weekly list of 2011’s top ten book covers. At #10, it has Someday This Will Be Funny by Lynne Tillman (Red Lemonade).


First, let me say that I have not read this book and have no idea as to its story.

That done, I want to look at some of the individual components of this book cover beginning with the background image, likely edited from a photo. It’s blurred, obviously, and a grid pattern runs atop; however, the left half of the picture, of the face, seems to be more blurred than the right. Overall, this creates a sense of distortion and, I think, discomfort. Looking at the (also upside down) face, I get the feeling that something serious and not at all light and balmy lies within the binding. (On a side note, while upside down, I did not determine any particular gender for the face in the image, but flipped around, it looks more feminine.)

The title sits on top of the image in all capital white letters with varying degrees of opacity and ghostly images in another font or size stand behind each letter. Here, I think, is where the underlying grid work really comes into play. Though it is evenly proportioned and sets a line in the center of the face image so that exactly one half is blurrier than the other, with the title text, the grid highlights its lack of alignment. There is no readily apparent pattern to the placement of the title text, and having a straight grid line fall at different places on and around the letters of different lines makes the disorder to it jump out. Like the half-blurred, upside down face in the background, it evokes a feeling of discomfort, more surreal than anything. (The author’s name at the bottom, also in all caps, mimmicks the title’s off-balance, eye-exam look.)

The color palette for the cover is also interesting. The author’s name and the quote praising the novel at the bottom of the cover are in a light indigo shade atop a white background. (Indigo is a blue-ish purple, right?) Once above the quote, however, a photograph, with a dark circle around the head I’m only now realizing might be hair, fills the rest of the cover with no white space but the blurred, semi-gray triangles of a shirt at the very top of the cover. The eyes, eyebrows, and hair(?) are all very dark, almost black, and the skin is many shades darker than pure white. Only the grid lines and the blurred title text carry on the white from the background of the cover’s bottom third and thus stand out against the picture background.

Still, the blurred picture draws you in, so you’re first disconcerted by the blurred title, then by the blurred picture. Everything about the cover feels just a little off. The grid lines also show that, though close, the face in the background seems to be a smidge off from identical on the two sides of the line running down the middle. Most human faces are, but it still feels odd.

What I wonder now is, with a cover designed to, in my opinion, convey discomfort, why Publishers Weekly put this cover among its top 10 for 2011. Did it sell really well because consumers expected a story full of good conflict thanks to a cover that tells you there will be something majorly wrong? Did the staff at PW just like the story and how the cover fit with it after reading?

I’d love to know if anyone’s read the book and how that changes, or confirms, the initial interpretation of the book cover design.


This entry was written by Kel and published on January 26, 2012 at 5:39 pm. It’s filed under Book Covers, Kelly's Posts, Photography and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

2 thoughts on “Inside Book Covers

  1. I think this is a great topic to explore! How many times do we hear the cliche, “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” yet we’re inevitably drawn to real books because of their covers. I haven’t read this book either, but I do know that, unless it’s been recommended to me, I do, in fact, decide whether I’ll read a book based on its cover.

    All that aside, I think you will have a lot to discuss and explore concerning this topic. It would be really interesting to see if you come across books with fantastic covers that haven’t met readers’ expectations. Or vise versa.

    Wonder if the cliche is true?

  2. kelpeterson on said:

    Yep, I’m more than a little guilty of judging books by their covers, too, but it’ll be interesting to use that in looking at reprints of old classics as well as old cover art and how today’s audiences see it.

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