Caroline Baum on book covers

by |April 3, 2013

Booktopia’s Editorial Director Caroline Baum shares her thoughts on book design today.

Have you noticed how many book covers these days are not so much designed as cut and pasted?

They all seem to be afflicted with a common disease: Getty-itis. Everybody is sourcing images from the same ginormous photo library and it’s producing a kind of sameness, a lack of aesthetic diversity that is making books hard to tell apart.

Please don’t get me wrong: I love the power of photography, its ability to arrest us with an image that can shock or seduce. But let’s be honest, this is the cheap option, driven by budgetary concerns. Of course it saves time if you don’t have to hire a designer to come up with a concept from scratch. Just choosing an image and adding a title and author’s name in a groovy font does not make you stand out from the crowd. It’s not the way to demonstrate a distinctive style.

Zadie Smith's eye-catching cover for NW received critical praise

Zadie Smith’s eye-catching cover for NW received critical praise

An anecdotal survey of the books on my desk reveals that Getty Images have supplied the photographs for ninety per cent of contemporary fiction titles published here. It’s an easy to use source, and the selection on offer is bewilderingly large but somehow that range does not translate into making the books as appealing as they used to be. Remember when covers really caught your eye thanks to talents like Gayna Murphy and Mary Callahan? Publishers like McPhee Gribble really championed books that looked good and forged a distinctive identity in the market place. Today it’s really only the exxy coffee table books and cookbooks that get the same amount of care and thought lavished on their design, because their higher price can justify it.

The cover expresses all that perfectly, suggesting the story’s mystery and complexity.

Maybe that’s why I noticed a really deliberately designed cover: Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs could so easily have been illustrated with a photograph but it would never have had the same magnetic attraction or echoed the book’s artistic theme so eloquently. I love the way the very European looking spiral staircase becomes an eye because observing and seeing are so central to this marvellously punchy, knowing and yes, clear-eyed book. The cover expresses all that perfectly, suggesting the story’s mystery and complexity. It amplifies the writer’s intentions and really stands out from the crowd, honouring the quality of the writing.

Book design is another area where the internet is clearly having an impact. Some colours looks less appealing on screen (hmm, brown…). Textured embellishments are obviously redundant until the book reaches the customer’s actual hands when a bit of embossing can add immeasurably to the pleasure of handling. I want books to be beautiful as well as good to read. I think we all do. What do you think? And what’s your favourite book cover?


Caroline Baum is Booktopia’s Editorial Director.

She has worked as founding editor of Good Reading magazine, features editor for Vogue, presenter of ABC TV’s popular bookshow, Between the Lines, and Foxtel’s Talking Books, and as an executive producer with ABC Radio National.

You can follow her on twitter at @mscarobaum


Here are some great covers, which are your favourites?

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About the Contributor

Andrew Cattanach is a regular contributor to The Booktopia Blog. He has been shortlisted for The Age Short Story Prize and was named a finalist for the 2015 Young Bookseller of the Year Award. He enjoys reading, writing and sleeping, though finds it difficult to do them all at once.

Follow Andrew: Twitter


  • Kerry

    April 4, 2013 at 8:17 am

    I always judge a book by it’s cover and I have never been let down……the book thief…..!we need to talk about Kevin…just a couple.

  • April 4, 2013 at 9:11 am

    I love covers, but yes, get disappointed when they are boring or plain. Publishers must remember that some people still buy books for their covers! I don’t like covers if they have absolutely no relation to what’s in the book, but could be a generic photo which fits 500 books. I like colours that make covers pop, and yet I also love beautiful covers which are rich and sometimes embossed. A lot of romances still do the embossing, which is nice, and they have lush step-back covers as well. The last cover which has really caught my eye is ‘The Rosie Project’ by Graeme Simsion. It’s a simple three-colour cover combination, but the picture is relevant to the story and the bright colours really make the book stand out. It’s a fabulous, eve-catching cover which was also possibly – ahem – cheapish (?!), and yet it works brilliantly… Now why can’t they all be like that instead of that dreadful N-W…?

  • April 10, 2013 at 9:53 pm

    Zadie Smith’s NW cover is a masterpiece of design. Indicative of the novel content and title, says England, London, suburbs, maps, compass points, gritty inner city lives and if you have seen it in a book shop, it leaps off the shelves because the design is so striking. I don’t actually like this cover, but I’m impressed by its effectiveness. I bought the book in haste at an airport because I noticed it immediately among other blander covers. Congratulations to the designer.

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