A Book by Its Cover

February 3, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

I have absolutely no faith in my own visual sense, and I have great admiration for people who can present ideas in purely visual form. So I was curious to see the results of The Book Design Review poll for favorite book cover of 2008.

My own favorite got runner-up. (You can find all the entries here. )

I haven’t read the book. I’d never even heard of it. (I assume it’s a Kafka version of Alain de Botton’s 1997 How Proust Can Change Your Life). But I like the visual joke.

Long ago, Harper’s agreed to publish my book on compulsive gamblers as part of a series of academic books they hoped might have crossover potential. The editor called one day to tell me that the book had already gone to the art department so it was really too late, but did I have any ideas for the cover. No, I said, as long as it’s not some socialist realist thing with cards and dice and horses floating around on it.

She called back a day or two later to say that the art department had come through with exactly what I had feared. She sent it back, and they tried again. I wasn’t delighted with the results, but
I wasn’t in a position to be picky, and I didn’t have any better ideas.

It seems to me that book covers have gotten better over the decades. In bookstores, I often find myself drawn to books just because of the title and the cover design. I want to buy half the books on the display table.

People in the business are far more critical than I am. The guy at Book Design Review posts nine different covers for recent releases of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (it’s in the public domain, and several publishers are trying to cash in on the success of the movie). Most of them, he concludes, are “pretty horrible,” and the commenters agree.

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