The best book covers of the year 2021

Writer and editor Mark Sinclair returns to give us his verdict on the best book cover designs of 2021. But he opens this year’s review with a serious plea to publishers

An essential part of generating this list of ten favourite book covers of the year is tracking down the designer behind each one. If that sounds rather obvious (it is the point of the post after all), the process can be trickier than you might think. While most covers are fairly easy to credit, particularly if shared by the designer, or added to their personal website, a few usually remain elusive for a time. More than a minor inconvenience for me, this is indicative of a wider problem for book cover designers.

So I’m going to start this list with a plea. Book publishers! Credit your designers when you first share images of a new cover online! You can tag them on Twitter, write their name out in full, whatever – and you don’t even have to do it every time. It’s only fair and everyone wins.

One of the reasons this needs addressing is that while the ‘cover reveal’ has become such a staple of book publishers’ social media campaigns, they frequently neglect to namecheck the designer behind the very thing they’re celebrating. Ebyan Egal, studio manager at Penguin, tweeted a plea for more recognition back in August and expanded on the wider problems of this non-recognition.

“In an industry where we can easily champion designers and illustrators who are most often freelance by tagging/mentioning them on posts, it’s shocking when we don’t,” she wrote. “Particularly when looking at barriers for creatives from marginalised backgrounds a key issue is visibility – so just a mention will make an impact.”

When a popular cover starts to fly, it’s very hard to retroactively attach a design credit to it. Publishing (and the media that supports it) has to be better at this. One of the covers featured below, for example, was ‘revealed’ on Entertainment Weekly, but with no mention of Lauren Peters-Collaer who designed it. On Twitter, book designer Ingrid Paulson called out a magazine whose ‘this year’s trends in cover design’ feature included ten covers – with no credits at all (Paulson later found the names herself and annotated the spread).

When a popular cover starts to fly, it’s very hard to retroactively attach a design credit to it. Publishing (and the media that supports it) has to be better at this

All this comes at a time when there are more book covers floating around online and more coverage of them as a medium than ever before. Trend pieces have become increasingly popular as a result, from Vulture’s 2019 piece on the prominence of what it called “statement wallpaper and fatty text” or The Week’s 2020 focus on “blobs of suggestive colours”. This year Lit Hub looked briefly at a “rainbows” trend, while Eye on Design kicked off a wider thematic appraisal of the rise of a “bright, nebulous style” (colourful blob designs) in an examination of the book cover as “the product of intermingling cultural and economic forces”, generating plenty of discussion in the process. Print then followed this up with another take on the popularity of “colourful, abstract formalism”.

In each case, the covers highlighted were undoubtedly similar, but it remains the case that there are still an awful lot of covers out there that don’t subscribe to any discernible ‘look’. Successful titles can start to dictate a formula or type, but it’s not exactly a crisis. The Casual Optimist did a good summation of some of the observations that came out of all this – “on the whole, book covers (like movie posters) don’t all look the same. Not really.”

But what of the great work this year? Well, before the individual covers line up, I should note a few impressive series designs. Stand-outs include La Boca’s neon extravaganza for The Folio Society’s four-volume set of Philip K Dick’s collected short stories and also the new Faber Editions series of republished (cult) classics, which are beautiful standalone paperbacks.

Faber senior designer Peter Adlington needs crediting here both for his design of Mrs Caliban by Rachel Ingalls, as part of the Faber Editions set, but also for creating one of the most well-known covers of the year for Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun, which came out in March. This bold piece of work inevitably became ubiquitous, yet despite its familiarity it still manages to look great. The redesign of Ishiguro’s entire backlist also came out of Adlington’s distinctive approach to the author’s latest work (Spine did a great write up on its genesis).

So, without further ado, here are ten of my personal favourites from this year:

With Teeth by Kristen Arnett; Publisher: Riverhead; Design: Lauren Peters-Collaer

Strong, graphic lettering by Lauren Peters-Collaer transforms a two-word title into white teeth set within an open mouth. A fantastic, eye-catching visual treatment. The UK edition puts the design into a different colourway – and adds a yellow tooth (!). Art Direction: Helen Yentus.

Being a Human: Adventures in 40,000 Years of Consciousness by Charles Foster; Publisher: Profile Books; Design: James Jones

Capturing the essence of ‘being human’, James Jones eschews some of the more familiar ‘evolution’ tropes in favour of a photo of a bone pendant from the Upper Paleolithic period (discovered in the Czech Republic). The expression is everything: crude yet perfectly relatable, almost emoji-like in its dead-pan visual power. Art Director: Steve Panton. Photograph: Getty Images.

Intimacies by Katie Kitamura; Publisher: Riverhead; Design: Jaya Miceli

This striking cover by Jaya Miceli makes good use of two contrasting colours, but it’s the crop of the illustration that works particularly brilliantly. Taking influence from the novel’s title, what at first seem like abstract lines are in fact the outlines of two bodies; a pair of eyes and a single hand helping to delineate the embracing figures. Close-up, intimate and clever. Art director: Helen Yentus.

Let Me Tell You What I Mean by Joan Didion; Publisher: HarperCollins; Design: Jo Thomson

The cover for Joan Didion’s essay collection from earlier this year shows a command of both typeface and type placement (the title is in Canela; the author’s name in Dala Floda). Jo Thomson uses the long title to frame the portrait but also runs the text right across the image without disrupting its power (Didion’s eyes are allowed to look right out at the reader). An elegant arrangement of image, type and layout.

Edge Case by Yz Chin; Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins; Design: Na Kim

Just some tomatoes? Well, yes and no: the state of each of the five fruits depicted in the artwork suggest that the passage of time is also being evoked here. Na Kim will be a familiar name to many ‘best of’ lists over the years – and she doesn’t disappoint with this bold cover, for which she also created the art. The jagged stalk is a nice counterpoint to the round shapes, while differentiating title and author name by colour is also a deft touch. Art director: Elizabeth Yaffe.

Somebody Loves You by Mona Arshi; Publisher: And Other Stories; Design: Holly Ovenden

My notes for this list show I wrote one word next to this book cover: ‘weird’. And so it is for all the right reasons: the garden’s flatness is strange, the boxing (and placement) of the title and author’s name unusual, while beyond the insects and bisecting plants, there’s even a lone eye and vertical mouth. Designed and illustrated by Holly Ovenden, there’s a pink special edition out there as well. Art director: Tom Etherington.

Aftermath by Preti Taneja; Publisher: Transit; Design: Anna Morrison

Aftermath is one of a series of four essay collections from Transit, each designed by Anna Morrison in collaboration with publisher Adam Levy. Each cover makes use of a minimal artwork created from a few simple brushstroke gestures. The result, as here, is a classic, pared-back cover design that you just want to pick up. (I also have a soft spot for adding the publisher’s name on the front cover.)

God of Mercy by Okezie Nwọka; Publisher: Astra House; Design: Sara Wood

This cover by Sara Wood has everything: an arresting, textured portrait made even more dramatic by the inclusion of some fiery illustrative marks. Vibrant and eye-catching, it’s also a little bit unnerving in its own way. The colours work together brilliantly. Art director: Rodrigo Corral. Photograph: ©peeterv/Getty Images.

All of the Marvels by Douglas Wolk; Publisher: Profile Books; Design: Will Staehle

This well-observed cover for Douglas Wolk’s account of reading every single Marvel comic suits its subject perfectly. The layout and type treatment honour the medium, while the scuffed corner is a lovely touch that perhaps hints at the less-than-serious (though no doubt massively labour-intensive) approach to creating this unique publishing history. It looks like a true celebration.

Pure Gold by John Patrick McHugh; Publisher: New Island/4th Estate; Design: Jack Smyth

Another great type-based cover from Jack Smyth, who can seemingly turn his hand to all kinds of wonderful letters (check out his Antkind cover of last year, for example). There’s something of a pint of beer-like feel to this one, but it’s the condensed and shadowed letters themselves – containing whorls of handprints and earthy textures – that suggest stranger things may lie within.