Art History Resources For Writers: A Look At Book Cover Design

I recently made the decision to expand this blog from simply talking about writing to talking about stories. Stories told in film, in images, and – most often – in words. Though many of you know that my academic field of study was art history, what you may not know is that I specifically study book history, which (for me) includes techniques of book creation, and the book as art. I love Early American books the best: hand-printed manuscripts on hand-made paper, pressed into a hand-built machine and gifted with words by hand-carved type bearing hand-made ink. How is that not an art?

While the evolution of book history means that the construction of most books has been industrialized (for large print runs, though there are still amazing artists making hand-crafted books, and I’ll talk more about them later) and even removed as we move into digital reading, the two places that you can still find art in a book are in the font choices, and in the cover. Some books go farther and incorporated art and design into the layout, but even the most minimal of interiors uses a font, and probably has a cover.

Book cover design is its own kind of art. It can be, when done well, its own kind of beautiful. Here are a couple of resources to get you introduced to the possibilities:

Some recent examples at The Book Cover Archive

The Book Cover Archive, “for the appreciation and categorization of excellence in book cover design”. Not only do they post their favorite new book covers, but they also offer up a blog about book design news (it doesn’t update often but I love the very visual aspect of their posts). The whole site is built around the visual so you won’t get too much design discussion but they 1300+ pages of material to scroll through give you an immersion into cover design that can’t be beat.

A sample of the Old Timey wonderful

If you’re looking for old covers, the Flickr pool for “Old Timey Paperback Book Covers” has 13,300+ images and is still growing.

Pick a decade and start browsing

Things Magazine has two cover galleries worth checking out: first is the smaller “Cover Project“, and the bigger/better “Pelican Project”, which shows off Pelican Publishing paperback covers from the 1930s through the 1980s, sorted by decade.

Tal Goretsky talks about his favorite designs at Tal Designz.

Book Covers Anonymous also shows off covers, a few at a time, and usually has a blurb to go with. Doesn’t update often.

Jacket Mechanicalis a much better blog in that the author (Peter Mendelsund, an associate art director at Knopf, as well as an art director at Pantheon and Vertical Press) actually talks about the design of his work and other people’s. His discussion of how to jacket works of fiction (start here for part 1) is quite brilliant and you should read it if you care about cover design at all.

The Casual Optimist is one of my favorite book design blogs, and the author makes many links happen. We love this. It’s frustrating when someone mentions something awesome they loved but doesn’t link to it so you can share the joy. I’ll leave you with something I discovered only by reading TCO: a short (9 minute) film about a small paper company and the letterpress printer next door.

ink&paper from Ben Proudfoot on Vimeo.

2 thoughts on “Art History Resources For Writers: A Look At Book Cover Design

  1. I love vintage paperback and pulp cover art. There’s a yearly convention called Pulpfest here in Columbus which is a real treat for getting to see that art, both in reproductions, in original (published) form and sometimes even in original artwork form.

  2. I love the covers of old, cheap science-fiction novels. Something about them just feels like the pure, channeled imagination of a child

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