John Mullan writes about the history of book covers, what they communicate, and how they are designed.
A revolution in publishing, especially of fiction, was heralded by the launching of Penguin Books by Allen Lane in 1935. Penguin expanded the market by producing cheap (though usually high-minded) books and relied on a distinctiveness of design to establish its series’ identity. The first 10 titles sold at sixpence at a time when the cheapest hardbacks cost five times more. The products were simply colour coded: orange for fiction, blue for biography, green for crime. By today’s standards, the early covers were positively austere. Only slowly were a few cautious engravings introduced to illustrate the covers, though Penguin’s American subsidiary was much less restrained. In America, even highbrow paperbacks were designed to be sold in drugstores and airport bookstalls.
If you’re a designer, you might like to check out the Guardian’s book cover competition. They’re looking for new book covers for The Sheltering Sky, The Master and Margarita, The Go-Between, and Nineteen Eighty-Four.