Book Covers Through the Century

“The advent of television brought new expectations from readers. […] It was clear that a text-based cover would not sustain them in a new age.” (Crow 46)

David Crow discusses the shift – this central, cultural shift – from text to image in context of book publishers and covers. It interests me how much of an effect changing the appearance of a book had on the consumers and audience because the content of the book remains unchanged. Magically conforming the cover to the some trendy font and racy picture does not change the story. So, why does the appearance have such sway?

Until the 1950’s, all books had the same cover: same font, same picture, some colors in the same places. They were all identical, except the actual text varied from title to title. This worked to the publishers’ advantages because they needed to focus only on editing the book and preparing it for print, not the appearance of the cover. There was a template and it was good enough. As magazines made the shift from text to image (which Crow also highlights), the audience naturally expected the other aspects of their life to shift as well.

The introduction of the television paired with the availability of photographic news paved the way for book covers. This visual transparency forced publishers to follow suit. “An increasingly visually aware society was clearly able to decode a much more subtle interplay of elements and publishers’ identities could be ‘read’ through the relationship between word and image on the cover” (Crow 46).

Nowadays the visual result of the cover as a whole is “’text as image’ where the atmosphere of the content is carried by the perceived ‘voice’ of the lettering” (Crow 50). But doesn’t this cheat the story? Isn’t ye olde saying “Don’t judge a book by its cover?” The publishers are asking us to do just that! Let’s not forget the fact that there can be an endless variety of covers for the same book published at different times. The paperback novel across editions and publishers is a perfect example. It’s quite possible one could turn a classic novel into a pictoral storybook by gathering all the cover art used to represent it and placing it in chronological order! It would, of course, not be the same story across audience members/viewers due to the chasm of interpretations (probably more than in the original written form), but it is possible nonetheless.

While some people – in fact, most people – like the idea of ‘text as image’ precisely because it clues them into the content of the book, I disagree. I do not look at the pictures on the cover or read the flaps on the inside cover because I like the element of surprise and much too often the cover art and flap excerpts reveal details the reader won’t encounter until halfway through the book. The publishers entice you by revealing these details, but provide no resolution, and it clearly works. Written text isn’t going anywhere, meaning this generation still acknowledges and uses text. We are not a society functioning solely on images yet.

Now, let’s look at books through the years to further cement this shift and put in context. First, we have a picture of what I call “old” books.

Here we have Jane Eyre (by Charlotte Brontë, publication date unknown), The Best of Ralph Waldo Emerson (published for the Classics Club ® in 1969) and Winnie the Pooh (by A.A. Milne, published 1950).

Pooh is the only book with images on the cover and without a publisher’s trademark. This is where the shift Crow refers to began occurring in the early 1950’s, when the image was in such high demand. Both Jane Eyre and the Emerson collection have only the publishers’ emblem on the cover (you must look closely at Eyre). No text. No art. Nothing. I cannot provide explanation for this happening after the purported shift, but I can guess this was one of many attempts the publishers made to find what worked best for both themselves and the consumer.

Next we have a photo of some contemporary novels.

 From left to right (get it?): Paradise (by Toni Morrison, published 1998), Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (by J.K. Rowling, published 1998), and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (by Stieg Larsson, published 2010).

Harry Potter is a perfect example of what I was referring to when I mentioned the cover art revealing so much of the story before the book is ever opened. Here we see Harry flying a broom, wearing a cape (which we later learn is a Quidditch uniform), catching a flying ball (the Snitch), AND there are two mystical creatures lurking in the background (a three-headed dog and unicorn). This is where the publishers want to hook you, but you can easily infer several things just from looking at the cover.

Paradise and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest are much more discreet, but now we must deal with the selling points. Morrison’s novel is stamped with Oprah’s seal of approval, while Larsson’s cover reminds us he’s the author of another bestseller. The font also indicates certain tones about the book, which I can only guess considering I have only read Harry Potter in its entirety thus far.

This next picture is of the same books, but without their flashy covers.

Here lie naked books. We are left with a blank slate of which to determine the book’s interest to us. Paradise is the only novel with anything on the front cover and it only shows the author’s initials, not the title or publisher. It’s as if the publishers are putting the joke on us, the consumer. They agree to these bright, attention-catching cover flaps, but underneath they have reverted to the same books published pre-image phenomena, pre-shift. See? The content is the same. The flaps are easily removed and disposed of.

Lastly, here is a picture of the spines of all previously mentioned books.

 The fonts are the same as their flap covers and the publisher is clearly stated along with their symbols.

I think the transformation of how books are presented is incredible. In some ways the differences are unbelievable, but underneath it all (literally) the evolution is minimal. But let’s not mention that mess of paperbacks again.

 Just a few examples of three novels printed with many different cover art choices.This choice for The Great Gatsby (by F. Scott Fitzgerald), however, seems to be pretty universal. Published 1986, 2009, and 1992, respectively.


 Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Philadelphia: The Blakiston Company, n.d.

Crow, David. Left to Right. First. New York: AVA Publishing SA, 2006.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Best of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Roslyn: Walter J. Black, Inc., 1969.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1986.

Larsson, Stieg. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. First. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.

Lewis, Matthew G. The Monk. New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 2009.

Milne, A.A. Winnie the Pooh. First. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1950.

Morrison, Toni. Paradise. First. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.

Ondaatje, Michael. The English Patient. New York: Vintage Books, 1992.

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: Scholastic Press, 1998.


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