Monday, 10 November 2008

Judging a book by its cover

Book covers can be a delight or a subject of horror to an author - I'd like to explore the good, the bad and the ugly of the book cover business.

An author's involvement in choosing a cover design can range from nothing at all - not even being told that the cover design has been established - to being asked to comment on different designs, or even making a suggestion that ends up on the cover.

There is also the interesting aspect of different editions. Sometimes, when a book is published in a different country they will take the cover wholesale from the original design. Others will be subtly changed... or the cover will bear no relation.

Here's one book that incorporates several of the issues in a single title. It's The Man Who Stopped Time, my biography of motion picture pioneer Eadweard Muybridge. It was originally commissioned by a publisher who will remain nameless. This publisher panicked when another book came out with Muybridge's name in the title (it was only tangentially about him) and didn't publish it.

However they had already produced the cover without telling me - I only realized when I came across it on Amazon. To be honest, I'm glad it was never used.

The book was then picked up and published (in improved form) by Joseph Henry Press in the US. Their cover was modified after some comments by me. It wasn't bad, but to be honest still didn't entirely work for me.

Finally, it came out in the UK.
Here the publisher used an approach that was clearly influenced by the US cover, but made a significant improvement on it.

It's what I consider the best job of the lot, a cover that really does justice to the title and looks elegant and attractive. Of course that's just my opinion... which is always the problem with this business.

I'll come back to this some time in the future to look at some other cover variants and how a title has been interpreted when a covers had to be provided in translation in another language.


  1. For what it's worth Brian, I agree that the final version is head and shoulders above the other two. The first one is ghastly - chaotic, and the second looks too much like a textbook.

  2. The trouble with the second one, I think is that the Joseph Henry Press, as the publishing arm of the US National Academy of Sciences, really isn't used to producing commercial looking covers.