Book Cover Clones: Why Do So Many Recent Novels Look Alike?

There's a new fad in book jackets—and it might have something to do with e-readers.

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Little, Brown; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Harper Perennial; Doubleday; Dutton Juvenile

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."

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.")

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Ashley Fetters is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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