There's a new fad in book jackets—and it might have something to do with e-readers.
When Little, Brown released the cover art for J.K. Rowling's forthcoming novel The Casual Vacancy earlier this month, with a snow-white, hand-lettered title draped lazily across a red jacket, it was hard to deny that the Mario J. Pulice design looked a little... familiar.
There was something recognizable about those looping, seemingly handmade cursive letters. Was it déjà vu, or had we seen this cover someplace else before?
Maybe not this very cover, but several notably similar ones. Handscript-titled book covers with simple handmade illustrations have been used lately all over the upper echelons of fiction: Last year, Chad Harbach's divisive baseball bildungsroman The Art of Fielding had its title curlicued across the front, like the franchise name on an old-style home-team jersey; meanwhile, Pulitzer Prize winner Jeffrey Eugenides' The Marriage Plot introduced itself to the world in a disarmingly dressed-down fashion, its name hurriedly jotted down over a comic-book graphic of a wedding band. Similarly, John Green's 2011 book The Fault In Our Stars, Mark Haddon's new release The Red House, Maggie Shipstead's June debut Seating Arrangements, and Giorgio Faletti's forthcoming Italian-import sensation A Pimp's Notes all feature hand-scrawled titles that largely dominate their covers, accompanied by only minimal artwork.
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Examine a few more, like the assorted shorter works by Salmon Fishing In The Yemen author Paul Torday, and it would seem that this handicraft, homespun pattern is the hautest couture of the moment in book fashion.
... Or is it? A quick excavation of the bestsellers archive suggests its popularity may just be a retro-chic homage: Pulice's cover harkens back to some instantly recognizable book jackets of yesteryear, like 2003's Everything Is Illuminated (designed by frequent Jonathan Safran Foer collaborator Jon Gray), David Sedaris's 2000 essay collection Me Talk Pretty One Day, and Michael Kennard's iconic 1949 first-edition cover of George Orwell's 1984. A throwback design wouldn't be so surprising, especially from Pulice—the man who converted his apartment into a living replica of the state rooms on the cruise ship Normandie.
Designer Jon Gray (who created the Everything Is Illuminated cover) reviewed and dissected the Rowling cover for the U.K.'s Daily Telegraph and mentioned the resurgence of hand-drawn type and elements among recent notable works of fiction. Homemade-looking elements help set the reader at ease, Gray explained; they "make you feel you are entering tactile, warm, 'book of the week' territory." He also hypothesized that the most urgent objective for The Casual Vacancy's cover art is to boldly mark a departure from the first chapter of Rowling's career—to signal to readers that this latest work will not be taking place at Hogwarts, thank you very much.
"Its purpose is simply to state, 'This is The New Book By J.K. Rowling, and it's not Harry Potter-not at all, not one little bit,'" agrees Paul Buckley, Vice President and Executive Creative Director at Penguin Group USA and editor of Penguin 75: Designers, Authors, Commentary (the Good, the Bad...). "It's that simple, and it's that smart. What else needs to be telecasted?"
And when handed a big name like J.K. Rowling's to work with, Buckley says, Little, Brown was wise to take on a "why-fix-it" approach. There's no need to crowd out a name that's already a globally best-selling brand, he explains. "No, just letter her name bold and glorious with little else, and every single fan-and more-will pick up the book and read the flap."
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And what of that single, coy illustration-the enigmatic checkmark that looks like it was plucked from a voting ballot? Another smart choice, by Buckley's logic. A good fiction book jacket, he says, sets a tone that matches the author's voice. It should evoke a time and place, a certain sort of menace or edge, or perhaps a sense of playfulness or longing, omitting just enough to make the reader curious to pick it up. (Fiction and nonfiction, though, Buckley explains, are "very different animals" when it comes to cover design. Nonfiction covers seek to use imagery that conveys exactly what the book contains. For example: "How To Raise Chickens In Your Studio Apartment [might have] an image of a rooster standing in the middle of a tiny bed loudly waking up a beleaguered, startled couple, each with a hen roosting in their hair.")
Buckley, whose has 23 years of experience in publishing, has witnessed the arrivals and departures of a number of cover-design trends, some with more staying power than others. Some mainstay elements of cover composition seem to be entirely fad-resistant: "One trend that may never go away is women's heads on covers, turned away from [the reader]," he says. "Understandably, publishers put out many books where the protagonist is female, and we don't want to spell out exactly what she looks like for the reader. Some mystery and filling in the blanks is necessary. Over the decades, I'd bet literally hundreds of book covers [were released] with women's heads turned away from the viewer." For evidence, one need only venture so far as the Women's Fiction section of Amazon.com, where eight of the 50 top-selling titles feature female cover models with their backs turned—among them, J. Courtney Sullivan's Maine, Karen White's Sea Change, and Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns.
"Headless characters," in which the head from the cover illustration is cropped out of the picture, are another curious fad in publishing these days, according to Duncan Long, a novelist and illustrator who has designed covers for HarperCollins and other publishing houses. Young adult fiction has embraced this movement with particular enthusiasm: Three of Cassandra Clare's four Mortal Instruments covers rob their cover models of everything north of the chin, while Miranda Kenneally's Catching Jordan, Chelsea Fine's Sophie & Carter, and Angie Stanton's Rock And A Hard Place depict their young protagonists only from the shoulders down. "We also had a period with squiggles and swirls being employed to embellish covers," Long recalls, "and grunge or distressed type was also popular for a time, with letters looking like they'd been left in the sandbox too long."
But Long attributes the oversize-title trend to a different, more tangible source than a routine shift in tastes: This pattern, he says, results directly from the advent of the e-reader. Thanks to the small size and reduced resolution of e-reader screens, book jackets have become less complex in order to preserve the integrity of the cover art onscreen. "I suspect this will be a temporary thing as resolutions and capabilities of e-book viewers mature," he says. "But for now, there's pressure to create a more intimate, less complex cover illustration and layout."
There's no way to know how cover design will evolve as electronic books become more and more sophisticated. But for now, readers should enjoy the fact that the stark, unfeeling plasma and plastic of digital e-books can still convey the warmth of the handwritten word.