If the jacket fits

It’s hard not to judge books by their covers, and this year’s Booker longlist provides the perfect opportunity to see how well they can reflect content. Jim Stoddart dons wig and gown to choose his personal shortlist

The longlist for this year’s Man Booker Prize has just been announced and it is, as ever, an eclectic selection of brilliant writing; some from established greats and some debuts, wowing us with brave ideas and progressive literary styles. All 13 of this ‘Booker’s dozen’ should be good reads, but if we were to judge these books by their covers, would we get a promising impression of their content? Do their packages successfully inspire and woo browsing readers to buy these potential classics? The big question is, if these are the best books of the year, are these the best cover designs of the year?

Looking at these 13 covers, it’s apparent that there is no formula to designing a Man Booker-winning cover – as far as quality of design goes, they are a disparate and slightly underwhelming bunch. All the covers have been handled by experienced designers, but it’s possible that the original design briefs may have been a little limited, probably with instructions to ‘look familiar’.

Thousands of books are published every month and all fight for attention in the bookshops, so the theory goes that people look for what they know – ‘if you liked that, you’ll like this’. Many of these covers do appear to fall into this ‘genre publishing’ area, where the aim is often to look a bit like the last book that sold quite well. If the author is already successful, then their new cover should look like their last one. If the author is unknown, the book should try to look like one that is successful.

So, it’s a shame that, on the whole, these covers lack the inspirational spark that the writing champions. As most readers probably spend no more than ten seconds looking at them and it’s not really a design competition, it’s a bit like judging the sash in a beauty competition. However, if the Man Booker panel were judging these books by their covers, this might be the shortlist…

Jim Stoddard is art director of Penguin Press

1st Self Help by Edward Docx (Picador)
Cover design by Joel Holland

Of all the 13 covers here, this is the one you see first. The title is a book designer’s dream – being made up of two very short words – and the designer has grasped the opportunity by using the title as the main element, which calls across the bookshop. It clings to credibility by echoing Constructivist posters, which could be faintly appropriate to the Russian content of the book. The design is softened by adding a cute Russian doll illustration and by rendering the whole design by hand, its illustrative approach becoming lightly reminiscent of last year’s utilitarian bestseller A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian.

2nd Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones (John Murray)
Cover design by Petra Borner

This cover is attractive and eye-catching, well crafted and confident. And its approach to the book’s subject matter of ‘westerner brings Dickens to war-torn South Pacific’ is unexpected and appealing. The colour, characterisation and hand-made ambience help convey the human touch and reduce the distance between reader and content.

3rd The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid (Hamish Hamilton)
Cover by Nathan Burton, illustration by Paul Jackson

Many designs have to start by dealing with the length of words in the title or in the author’s name and although this may seem like a superficial concern, particularly with regard to a sensitive and complex book such as this, this cover appears to have been entirely built around the word ‘fundamentalist’. But from that starting point, the designer has worked magic. It’s essentially a simple typographic design using pattern and texture to add atmosphere.

4th The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies (Sceptre)
Cover design by Alasdair Oliver

The ‘found’ 1940s railway poster art is a gift for this book – it’s attractive and perfectly elegant for a hardback. It’s a lovely cover, and though this image vaguely ruminates on the book’s issues of nationalism and stereotypes (the travel poster being an English view of the Welsh countryside), it avoids most of the war-time content of the book. And so, if slightly underwhelming, I love its lack of a hard-sell.

5th On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan (Jonathan Cape)
Cover design by Suzanne Dean, photos by Chris Fraser

Ian McEwan’s ‘author branding’ is exceptionally understated across all his books. It’s hard to tell whether this is just a stylistic throwback to earlier successes, now so set in stone that the publisher feels unable to break the mould with a fresh idea, or whether the sheer weight of the author’s reputation has led to a dozen publishing executives worrying the spark from the design. This seems like a tediously uninspired cover, yet it somehow manages to remain elegantly sedate and atmospheric. In fact, its utter simplicity is strangely ominous, like we’re missing something obvious, which is entirely appropriate to McEwan’s writing – maybe this is the cover’s million-dollar secret. It’s certainly one of the more dignified hardback covers here and would look appropriate being read in almost every middle-England scenario imaginable. What is quite depressing is that, because this book will sell extremely well, this slightly dull cover will, by default, become the benchmark for other literary bestsellers, and so continue the cycle.

6th Animal’s People by Indra Sinha (Simon & Schuster)
Cover design by Henry Steadman

Though the design for this cover is very well put together, it’s a bit of a genre cover, and as it’s gone straight into paperback it feels like the publisher may have lacked a little confidence in the positioning of this book. It looks like it’s been worked very hard to look accessible and familiar. It’s a great book but slightly leftfield and at the point of publication it may not have been obvious whether the public would latch on to it. Maybe if they’d known it would be Man Booker longlisted (and now probably a bestseller), the publisher may have worried less and considered a more inspired approach to the cover.

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