The Art and Business of Book Covers

When I moved out of my previous home, I donated more than three-fourths of my book collection because I was moving into a tiny space. I had no logical process for deciding which books I kept. Some were sentimental, with handwritten notes written inside; others were souvenirs I bought during my travels. These books seemed obvious to keep. Yet I was also inclined to keep hardcovers I’d never read or even opened, simply because the covers were attractive. All of these books, together, would represent my best self — the one I wanted to display on my shelves.

As I read more online, and since my physical shelf space has dramatically shrunk, I wonder: what makes an eye-catching, effective book cover? Which books will make the final cut?

Here are pieces I’ve enjoyed, new and old, about the art and business of book cover design.

1. “Judge This: The Power of First Impressions.” (Chip Kidd, Medium, June 2015)

In this excerpt from his new book, Judge This, Chip Kidd explains that balancing clarity and mystery is important in design, and shows how both elements informed the covers he designed for books by Oliver Sacks, Harry Kramer, Haruki Murakami, and David Sedaris.

2. “Hack the Cover.” (Craig Mod, @craigmod, May 2012)

“And so we don’t want the cover to disappear. And yet the cover as we have known it is disappearing, rather quickly.” Craig Mod explores the past, present, and future of the cover in digital book design, and ways to reimagine the book in its entirety, instead of in pieces.

3. “The Decline and Fall of the Book Cover.” (Tim Kreider, The New York Times, July 2013)

“Still, I wouldn’t mind being seduced by sensuous appeal again every once in a while. Even if you love your wife for who she is as a person, it’s still nice when she breaks out a sexy new outfit.” Unimpressed by the sea of familiar covers across genres, Tim Kreider yearns for craftsmanship in book design.

4. “How to Judge the Cover of a Book.” (Kyle Boelte, Reform, November 2014)

“A book about fog is by necessity a book concerned with images. How one sees, what one sees. The thousands of shades of whites and grays that play upon the palette of the sky.” Kyle Boelte takes us through the design process for his memoir, The Beautiful Unseen, and how imagery and typography were selected to best represent San Francisco, but also a very personal story.

5. “They Become What They Behold, or, How Pretty Should a Book Be?” (Emily Keeler, Toronto Standard, February 2012)

“Basically, it sucks to produce new books without making them part of the time we actually live in, it sucks to trap these stories in physical nostalgia, even if they were written in the past.” Looking at deluxe gift editions and embroidered covers, Emily Keeler laments the fetishization of physical books as decor and the modern-day repackaging of classics as easily consumable objects.

6. “The Second Shelf: On the Rules of Literary Fiction for Men and Women.” (Meg Wolitzer, The New York Times Book Review, March 2012)

“If ‘The Marriage Plot,’ by Jeffrey Eugenides, had been written by a woman yet still had the same title and wedding ring on its cover, would it have received a great deal of serious literary attention?” Meg Wolitzer examines the “women’s fiction” category and how the top tier of literary fiction tends to feel disproportionately male.

7. “Judging Books By Their Covers.” (Mary Borkowski, The New Inquiry, November 2010)

“To make books more appealing as objects, even as aesthetic objects thanks to thoughtful design, taps into part of what makes reading a pleasure as a tangible sport, not something you download and scroll through on an electronic device.” Mary Borkowski appreciates the Penguin Books Great Ideas series, which not only makes books portable, but the stories within accessible.