The Look of the Book celebrates cover design “at the edges of literature”

The often subversive story of book cover design is retold in a new title from Ten Speed Press, which celebrates and explores the many methods publishers have used to grab readers’ attention

The book, authored by Peter Mendelsund and David J Alworth, explores some of the recurrent motifs of cover design, delving into trends that have shaped the way books have been marketed over the decades.

It charts some of the influential changes along the way – from the first dust jackets in the 1800s, through the rise of graphic design as a profession and into some of the stories behind more controversial titles such as Lolita. There’s also commentary from cover designers, for example David Pelham discussing some of his initial notes for his now iconic JG Ballard novels.

Penguin Science Fiction covers of The Terminal Beach, The Wind from Nowhere, and The Drowned World by J. G. Ballard, design by David Pelham, who was the art director at Penguin Books between 1968 and 1979
The Big Book Look
The Case of the One-Eyed Witness by Erle Stanley Gardner, 1955, design uncredited

As well as standout examples from the history of cover design, Mendelsund has filled the book with his own takes on prominent novels, such as Ulysses – exploring the kinds of covers that might be possible outside of the restrictions of publishers’ demands.

Kidnap by George Waller, 1962, design uncredited. The Velvet Underground by Michael Leigh, 1963, design by Paul Bacon Studio. Hang-Up by Sam Ross, 1969, design by James Bama. The Raft by Robert Trumbull, 1944, design by George A. Frederiksen

The book is a welcome reminder of what a rich canvas book covers offer to designers, and how influential a role they can play in establishing a relationship between title and reader.

The Look of the Book is published by Ten Speed Press, priced $50;