The phrase “never judge a book by its cover” doesn’t really mean a whole lot in the literary world. Books live and die by how eye-catching and unique their covers are, how well they stick out to consumers browsing bookshelves. Imagine the last time you were in a bookstore, library, or otherwise browsing books. Was it a particular color, a particular style, a particular layout that made you pull that copy off the shelf? I’d like to say that I’m immune to all the gimmicks publishers use to get someone to buy their books, but I’m just as guilty as the next person of being suckered into pulling a book off a shelf solely based on the cover.
I never really stopped to consider what goes into the making of a book cover, and maybe assumed (naively?) that it was like any other art form — each was its own unique snowflake in a blizzard called a bookstore. But then my friends started reading Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry (which I also read back in 2017) and one of them pointed out that the cover looked familiar to another book they knew of. Suddenly, the magic of book covers was ruined for me. And now I’m here to ruin it for anyone else who was like me, with literary blinders on.
What I learned from probing a bit deeper into this strange new factoid I had stumbled on is that, much like anything else in the modern world, book covers rely heavily on templates and stock photography. The same small cohort of photographers crop up time and time again in the credits of book cover images, and their photographs are added to stock image packages that many designers pull from. These stock images are then applied again and again, because if it isn’t broke, why fix it?
Like most things in life now, the essence of a book cover has been distilled and watered down by marketing professionals everywhere to include only the basic items necessary to appeal to the most adults possible (curiously, children’s and YA books seem immune to this formulaic approach). Book covers go through trends, where some years the fad is handscript titles with simple handmade illustrations (think John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars), other years the single-object-on-white-background is appealing (Malcom Gladwell says hi). When marketers and book designers tap into these trends, they tend to run with them, and run them into the ground. What we’re left with in today’s world of same-ism are a lot of covers that start to become indistinguishable from each other.
My dad had a wall of books when I was growing up, mostly pulp sci-fi from the 60s, 70s, and 80s. I remember looking through a lot of those book covers and wondering at how different they all were from each other. I don’t know why I hadn’t noticed this trend of book cover cloning before, but now that it’s been pointed out to me, I can’t unsee it. Certainly there’s exceptions to the rule, but the bestsellers all have similar covers. Probably for a reason.
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